DM's Deep Dive: Grant Ellis on Understanding Streaming D&D

by Mike Shea on 4 June 2018

D&D is exploding. 2017 was D&D's best year for sales since Wizards of the Coast bought the brand from TSR back in 1997. The core books had all become best selling books for weeks on end. The book Xanathar's Guide to Everything was the fastest selling D&D book of all time. Let me say that again: fastest selling book of all time—including the 80s when D&D had a network cartoon show and sold D&D-themed big-wheels.

Wizards of the Coast stated that somewhere between 8 million and 15 million people played D&D in 2016 and that sales grew 44% from 2016 to 2017.

When Wizards of the Coast talks about why we're seeing this growth, they focus on one topic: the rise of streaming D&D shows. According to Greg Tito the amount of D&D broadcast and watched on the internet is tremendous. 7,500 unique broadcasters broadcast over 475 million minutes of D&D to 9 million viewers. This is another important point. According to these numbers (and they change from article to article), it is possible that more people watch D&D than play it.

If this bothers you, take a deep breath. It will be ok. Not everyone needs to play D&D to enjoy it. This is a huge idea to get our heads around. Mike Mearls touches on this in a noteworthy tweet:

I think we saw such a hard push toward mechanical intensity and character optimization post-3e because that was the one thing you could share without playing. Streaming has flipped that script, and helped pull D&D out of a 20+ year trough.

Watching D&D online has become the new lonely fun of D&D.

It's also become the number one way people learn about D&D. In a Geek and Sundry article with Greg Tito from Wizards of the Coast, Greg makes the following statement:

"Streaming is the number one reported answer for how people find out about and want to get into Dungeons & Dragons. It surpassed friends and family for the first time ever that we've known in our surveys."

The idea that more people learn about D&D from streaming is a huge change for D&D overall, one that has never been seen in its 40 year history.

The popular D&D show Critical Role had nearly 81,000 live viewers for the first episode of season 2. That's eighty thousand people who watched a four-hour live D&D game being played by other people.

The New Life of D&D

For those of us who have been playing D&D a long time, we remember dark days when the biggest conversation about D&D was how soon video games and computer games would critically hit our beloved hobby for good. Our worry was that younger players wouldn't pick up the game and it would die with us gen-xers.

That conversation isn't happening anymore. That worry is gone. Instead we have all new conversations happening about whether these streams are good for D&D or not and what it means for our home games. "I am not Matt Mercer" gets stated probably daily over on the Facebook D&D Group and the Facebook Adventurer's League group.

Instead of leaping to a conclusion and making ourselves look like asses, I propose we spend some time really understanding what is going on here. The world of D&D is changing. The sands are shifting under our feet. It can feel like we're standing on a train platform and something huge and bright just rocketed past us. "What the hell was that?"

I've been trying to better understand this change myself in a few ways. I started by meeting and talking with Will Jones of Encounter Roleplay who plays and streams roughly 40 hours of D&D a week and does it as his full time job. I spoke to him on the DM's Deep Dive talking about running D&D 40 hours a week.

Grant Ellis on Streaming's Effect on D&D

In April 2018 I spoke with Grant Ellis, a prominent D&D streamer and fellow streamer on the Encounter RP Twitch channel along with Will Jones. The topic for our conversation was "how is streaming affecting D&D?" This conversation was broadcast on Twitch and archived on Youtube and on the DM's Deep Dive podcast. You can watch the video below.

The rest of this article contains my notes from the show.

Grant's Three Tips for All Dungeon Masters

Always be yourself, find your own voice and unique take on D&D. We see a lot of streamers but we don't have to become them. We are our own DMs.

Heighten your personal sensitivity to the expectations of your players and the community. Keep an eye on how you are being perceived. Embrace the cultural diversity going on with D&D. Ask the players you meet how they came into contact with RPGs and D&D.

Steal from the best. We have incredible access to live-play D&D games and can watch the best dungeon masters in the world perform their craft. Use this vast access we have to improve ourselves. Try stuff out. Change your style up once in a while. You don't have to change everything but you can experiment. Grant was a heavy gridded combat DM and now has learned how to use more theater of the mind.

Customer Acquisition

Wizards of the Coast is capitalizing heavily on "influencer marketing". Influencer marketing takes fans of D&D (like Matt Mercer and Joe Manganiello) and using them as ambassadors to bring new fans to the game. This has worked very well for Wizards with D&D.

Grant says, as big as it is, we're still not at the potential peak. As much of an explosion as we're seeing, Grant sees it as the tip of the iceberg.

Tiny Bubbles

D&D exists in thousands of tiny bubbles. We each run our own game with five or six other players and what we do there has no effect on anything else outside of our bubble. But we also have this huge view into the experiences and opinions of hundreds of thousands of other players and DMs. This gives us a really unique and interesting relationship with the game, other players, and our own groups.

What Streaming Means for Old-Timer D&D DMs

We haven't heard the argument that D&D is going to die when all the Generation-Xers die. There is clearly no risk to the game as its fans age. Many new young fans have joined in the hobby, potentially accounting for more players than it ever originally had.

It's easy to feel like we're missing this explosion in the popularity of streaming D&D.

Some of us that kept the lanterns lit during the dark times are the best ambassadors as long as we let go of any animosity towards potential students and new players. We don't need to feel left out. We can use the lessons of the past to shape the future because we've seen what happens over 40+ years in this hobby. It's ok if streaming isn't out of our thing. This one demographic doesn't represent all of D&D. It doesn't affect the fun of our games. We can, however, learn from it.

The "fear of missing out" is strong, however, but we must see it for what it is, a human bias.

Can We All Be Matt Merer?

Grant ran a survey looking at new DMs, other streamers, or Matt Mercer. He counted the number of smiles, the number of "ums" and "uhs", and it wasn't very different between new DMs and "professional streamers". This helps disprove the idea that Matt Mercer's skills as a DM are beyond us. Matt is wonderful and we love his games but his general level of skill as a DM is achievable for us. We likely won't be the voice actor that he is but we can still run a great game. A few solid tips can take us far.

When it comes to the expectations of players, we don't have to worry that we're not Matt Mercer. Being a good DM is definitely achievable.

The stories of our games don't even happen at the table but afterwards. The stories occur when we re-tell what happened at the game. The game itself is a session but the story happens when we describe it.

How Will the Game Change?

The designers have access to thousands of hours of DMs running games. The game can evolve based on real experiences watching people play. Grant talks about his skirmish rules that he developed based on watching and running games online.

Questions From the Audience

What are some tips for people making the transition from home to streaming game?

Grant suggests understanding what the goal is. Grant doesn't do it for any sort of marketing or commercial purpose. Grant does it to meet new folks and learn from people. Grant suggests learning the technical basics by asking people from it. Do a tech rehearsal. Check people's bandwidth. The community is willing to put up with tech problems. It makes the whole thing feel real.

"You can be either on time or on brand."

Should suggestions from viewers be critical to the plot?

If you are playing online and something happens in chat that's better, go with fun. Grant uses the lazy dungeon masters process to help him prepare. When people whisper something in chat he steals the ideas to put in his game. Lightweight prep helps DMs insert such things into their game.

Will modules be created and marketed differently based on changes due to streaming?

Marketed, certainly. We saw this with the Stream of Annihilation and the Stream of Many Eyes are both huge streaming events to promote new products. Many high-profile streams end up running published modules like Tomb of Annihilation.

The DM's Guild Adept program promotes products written by streamers such as Satine Phoenix, who now works for Wizards of the Coast, and Ruty Rutenberg.

Matt Colville's huge success with his Kickstarter is an example of how online video is vehicle for great marketing.

The spell green flame blade came from liveplay D&D sessions.

Grant says there isn't that much different between streaming games and home games when it comes to the design of the products themselves.

What does it take to get the old-timers to engage with the streaming community?

Invitation and education of the generational technology gaps. Help people understand the technology and see the benefits it can bring. Just keep doing it and you'll get better.

You don't need Roll 20 if it feels too complicated, just roll your own dice.

At the streamer panel at PAX Unplugged, Adam Koebel mentioned that people would be happy to watch you stream your income taxes if you wanted. He suggests just trying it out. Get the software and try a stream. This led me to start streaming my game preparation videos each week.

What was a moment in this current age of D&D that you experienced that was just awesome.

Grant: PAX Unplugged. "The best part of PAX Unplugged was PAX Unplugged."

Mike: Big impacts are seeing the doubling of D&D mentions on Twitter every year. Huge visible impact. Hearing that more people are learning about D&D on streaming than any other way. That's a huge impact to the game and very interesting.

Grant doesn't think we've saturated the streaming side of D&D at all. There are billions of people on the planet that potentially want to watch and play some D&D. The rise of D&D cannot be ignored or overstated.

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