Critical Role is easily the most popular Dungeons & Dragons stream. The cohort have developed a stunning rapport with each other creating moving characters pushing each other towards delirious fun and high drama. Having grown up at Geek & Sundry, Critical Role now has its own channel, stream, & site where it is crafting excellent content for gamers of all kinds. Critical Role weds dynamic performance with serious gameplay making it the top D&D stream.
But there has to be more out there, right? Critical Role can’t be the only stream able to do this? Well, the answer is ‘yes’ and ‘pretty much.’ Two assents that oddly raise and dowse hopes. There are a lot of gaming streams, but most don’t seem able to engage an audience outside of the most devoted gamers and even then the streams are usually just a bastion of inside jokes no one not at the table are privy to. In fact, many and most streaming games feel like they’ve spent all their effort on creating very catchy and cool intros to the detriment of everything else.
There are plenty of gaming streams collecting and connecting players through platforms like Roll20. They are routinely less fluid to watch than in-person playing suffering from the kind of cognitive delays inherent playing as talking heads with only mic and headphones to connect each other. It brings into stark contrast how necessary it is be be physically present with your fellow players to pick up on tone and body language. Otherwise, a stream often just feels like a bunch of people waiting patiently (and sometimes not so patiently) for their turn to talk. I don’t doubt the pleasure those players get but as far as a pleasing watching experience, it’s often not.
However, being present doesn’t necessarily make for good show to watch either. Some other streams tend to have players in the same room with each other, but they clearly aren’t comfortable being streamed or fail to find that sweet spot of being entertaining while being entertained. When you watch players obviously trying too hard it’s just as cringe inducing as the dead-air coming from no one realizing others are watching what’s going on and need input.
Recently, two new D&D streams have popped-up helmed by skilled DMs committed to two very different but equally entertaining styles of play. These streams not only provide solid entertainment akin to Critical Role but also afford viewers the opportunity to grow as players themselves.
Relics and Rarities
Relics and Rarities has become my new favorite stream. With Critical Role departing Geek & Sundry, the platform has created a new D&D stream staring Deborah Ann Woll of Daredevil and Tru Blood fame. Woll hosts/DMs in the character of Professor Roundland assigning weekly quests to the four regular players–Veros played by Tommy Walker (@TommyWalker24), Beryl played by Jasmine Bhullar (@ThatBronzeGirl), Annabella played by Julia Dennis (@juliamdennis), and Rikki Huckster played by Xander Jeanneret (@Xanderrific)–and one guest star.
What makes R&R stand out from other streams? It’s sets, theatrical props, and Woll’s love of puzzles. Each episode begins in the Relics and Rarities shop run by Prof. Roundland who then gives the party it’s adventure for the evening while introducing the guest star to aid them on their way. Also, everyone is allowed to wander the shop set and pick one item to take with them on the quest. Woll then explains what the magical item does. It’s a clever way to make sure the party always has five members (perhaps the optimal party size) and buffs as they go adventuring. The cast then proceed to the gaming room, a second set where the action of the game takes place.
Woll has a gift for voices and nuanced description. She also manages the game quite well making sure players get to do what they want action and roleplay-wise. The effect is one of compelling game orchestration. Perhaps her greatest strength and the most unique thing about R&R are the puzzles Woll has constructed. She has literally made several puzzle boards (and other props) she presents to the players at key moments. There are few things as delightful as seeing the entire cast standing around a cork board moving pieces, suggesting to each other how they ought to fit, and cheering when they’ve collectively succeeded.
The props aren’t just gimmicks either, rather every one appropriately fits the story episode while contributing to the greater arc by increasing the players knowledge. The cast are still working out their roleplaying but are strong. My favorite being Xander Jeanneret’s druid Rikki, who doesn’t cast spells in the conventional manner. Rather, Rikki has on his person a variety of vials each filled with the spell he can cast. Thus, Rikki pulls out a flask resembling the moon to cast Moonbeam or a bottle filled with spinning silvery liquid to drink and cast Gust of Wind. It is a unique roleplay choice making the experience watching (as well as playing, certainly) infinitely more fun.
Relics and Rarities runs shorter than most other streams usually coming in around two hours or less. Essentially, each adventure is a sort of ongoing collection of one-shots. There definitely is a story arc happening but unlike Critical Role it feels like less of a concern. The cast is also at varying levels of familiarity and adeptness with D&D making the roleplay aspects more the thrust of each adventure than the action or fighting elements. That is not to say there aren’t some brilliant battles–Beryl does saw off a shark’s head, wear it as a boxing glove, and beat a different shark with it at one point in an episode.
Also, Woll’s house rules are very interesting and useful:
Only five episodes in and already the cast has faced some moving drama promising as the adventure continues to be quiet rollicking. I can’t give enough praise to this program. It is inclusive and welcoming, which makes it not just inspirational but aspirational gameplay.
In a direct although complimentary direction, Matt Colville’s (@mattcolville) The Chain is geared more towards combat gamers and relies less on roleplay. Colville’s ‘How to Run the Game’ YouTube series is a must-watch for any would-be D&D gamer; it is simply the best resource to learn how to run the game.
The Chain, however, may not be as engaging as much of Colville’s other content. With very little engaging roleplay (however, the stream is still quite new so the players could grown into something more), this campaign seems primarily to be a means for players to bask in tactics-based grinding. That’s a long way to say, ultra-murder hobo. This is definitely a style of play that is prevalent and not nearly as explored in streams as it could be. Thus, Colville’s campaign fills not just a style niche, but allows us to see how we can envision combat on a grander scale. I say this after watching the first episode where Colville threw at his assembled party (including a goblin ranger that riding a displacer beast companion) some astounding foes from which the party suffered great losses. But they bounced back and are literally soldiering on, making for a fascinating streaming campaign.
This is also a means to reveal elements from Colville’s gaming supplement Strongholds & Followers, which has many power gamers, Pathfinder, and 3.5 players excited. There are also Colville’s custom designed characters we get to see played out to gauge if or just how much they are overpowered/underpowered and how they can be managed by players in this, our shared fantasy realms. A great strength of MCDM Productions is the content it is putting out. Viewers of the stream are giving video campaign summaries, extended interviews with the players, and a seemingly inexhaustible nest of links and reading material. For the immersive battle gamer, it is heaven.
However, I’m not sold on Colville as a fluid and adept 5e DM. He is absolutely a brilliant war gamer and Pathfinder/3.5 DM, but 5e requires a certain temperament that many battle gamers either feel the need to abuse or abuse. But this reminds us that DMs as well as Players need room to practice and to grow–a lesson we all need to remember at our tables. No matter how you approach it, The Chain is the kind of steam you learn from watching. Colville and his players are strategic, thoughtful as well as wild, and ultimately in it to push the numbers to optimize their fun. This is definitely the kind of stream for certain kind of player many of whom of a certain age. As it goes on, I can’t imagine it not getting smoother, better, and even more fascinating.
The point is, there are at least two new streams to add to your compulsive need for more Dungeons & Dragons content. Each catering to a different, but complimentary style of play and flavor of gaming giving us alongside Critical Role a more full and fun experience.