In 2012, actor and internet personality Wil Wheaton created the web series TableTop for the Geek & Sundry YouTube network. Each week, Mr. Wheaton gathers a group of actors, YouTubers, game designers and other folks to play one or several board games. Using time-lapse to move past slower bits and colorful graphics to help explain and clarify rules, the show sets out to present sometimes complicated board games in an accessible and exciting manner.
The show has been a resounding success, getting hundreds of thousands of viewers for each episode. To cover production costs for the third season, they sought crowdfunding from Indiegogo and were able to raise nearly 1.5 million dollars. Retailers of board games have reported that they see a Wil Wheaton effect: When a game is featured on TableTop, retailers see a huge spike in sales for that game.
This year, Wil Wheaton has turned his attention to another passion that is tangentially related to tabletop board games. Role-playing games (RPGs), like the seminal Dungeons & Dragons, are the geekier, more abstract cousins of board games. Rather than moving pieces on a board to represent progress, players have to imagine and describe the actions their avatars take in the game world to the other players. Their health and abilities are tracked on sheets of paper, and random complications are introduced using dice.
This collaborative, improvisatory story-telling exercise flavored with sometimes heavy-duty number crunching is what makes these games so appealing to the people who play them. It creates a safe space to socially interact and create with other people, but with enough chance for things to go wrong that it still feels like there is a challenge. It’s a similar idea to the low-risk social interaction that comes from online games, but with eye contact and more personal interaction.
Wil Wheaton has long talked about how much he loves RPGs, and even featured a few of them on episodes of TableTop over the years. Titansgrave: The Ashes of Valkana aims to do for RPGs what TableTop did for board games. He brought together a group of young, beautiful actors and worked tightly with game designers, writers and authors to create a compelling world for them to adventure in. So far, there have been four weekly episodes, and they actually make for very entertaining viewing.
There have been many attempts to present RPG play for people to watch. Two of the most remarkable examples are the Acquisitions, Inc. games, and the marketing YouTube videos created by Wizards of the Coast, the publisher behind Dungeons & Dragons. The Acquisitions, Inc. games are played by the folks behind the Penny Arcade web comic at their Penny Arcade Expo conferences every year. They play live on stage in front of a huge audience, so there is a strong performative aspect to these games, and they tend to be relatively short and sweet. The games with Wizards of the Coast vary in production value, and are more of a platform to showcase their product.
However, the official publisher videos get nowhere near the same kind of traffic as Titansgrave, with viewer numbers in the tens of thousands compared to Titansgrave’s hundred thousand plus.
There are several things that Titansgrave gets right in presenting RPGs to an audience who may not know a lot about them or are even curious but intimidated by their complex and abstract nature. Getting a group of young, attractive Hollywood actors to play in the game helps immensely. Not only do they make the show easier to watch, but they all (presumably) have some training in improv acting which is a crucial skill to call on when playing RPGs. They do a great job of presenting the characters they’re playing, which is part of the fun of playing an RPG.
The production value of the show is outstanding as well. This isn’t just an incidentally captured video of some people sitting around and playing a game: They are playing on a carefully lit set and their sessions are heavily edited and interspersed with professional art and sound effects. The play is edited to feel snappy and move along quickly, which people who have played RPGs before know is not always the case.
The result is a unique presentation of a role-playing game session; the emphasis moves away from the players themselves and onto the story being told, which is again one of the great pleasures of actually participating in this kind of game. There can be moments where players feel simultaneously like they’re participating in shaping the story and watching it unfold at the same time. These occasions are rare, and there can be a lot of awkward and clumsy missteps to reach them. But with time and trust, RPG groups can find these moments with more frequency.
So far, Titansgrave has done a great job of showing the work it takes to reach those moments, and, especially near the end of the fourth episode, manages to capture some of the experience of that feeling as well.
There are some problems with this kind of slickly-produced presentation of role-playing games, however. Anyone who has actually gone to a game store and picked up an RPG rulebook knows one thing immediately: These games have a lot of rules. The size of the books themselves can be a daunting barrier for new players who are interested in getting into these games. The Player’s Handbook for the latest version of Dungeons & Dragons clocks in at 320 pages! And that’s only one of three core rulebooks!
Titansgrave does a good job of leaving the rules tucked away under the hood, with pithy graphics presenting dice rolls in a videogame-like fashion. However, it’s not hard to imagine someone watching the show, deciding to give the game a try, then getting their hands on the 144-page rulebook for Fantasy AGE (the system Titansgrave is using) and feeling a little misled. These games require serious time and money investments to get deeply into, and it’s not always easy to find five friends willing to look past huge books who want to just start playing.
That being said, it’s fantastic to see Wil Wheaton lend his brand of passionate evangelism to the role-playing game scene. It’s also remarkable that he chose a system other than Dungeons & Dragons as the basis for the show. Not only is he raising awareness of how RPGs are played generally, he also opens the doors to one of the several non-D&D RPG systems that have sprung up over the years. Anything that brings new players into the hobby is great, and Titansgrave looks good and manages to be really entertaining while doing it.