Monday, April 16, 2012

Not a spectator sport

Watching other Dungeon Masters of Dungeons & Dragons in action, let's say via YouTube, to learn something from them turns out to be not so easy. First of all there are very few videos of real play sessions on offer. And then those who are of a reasonable production quality turn out to be not quite the real thing: In order to get the film to a reasonable length, combat is often shortened by using just one real monster and filling the rest up with minions that die quickly. And while you can watch some bantering between players, there is never the endless discussion on what to do next which characterizes many real games.

I will be playing D&D tonight, and we are still on the first "adventure". Maybe the group will finish it tonight, maybe they'll need another session. Which means that going through one adventure with one story and a few fights will have taken up to 20 hours of play time. Even if I had the best camera equipment in the world and had filmed that adventure, nobody would want to watch 20 hours of people sitting around a table, talking a lot, and sometimes moving some figurines around and rolling dice. But *I* was immensely entertained during these hours, and as far as I can tell, so were my players. It is just that this entertainment can't be caught on film.

In a way that is a bit like reading a book. Those of us who read the Lord of the Rings years before the movies came out probably all had some vivid images of the fellowship and their adventures in their heads, even if they read editions of the book without graphics. Our imagination is often the best graphics card. Watching a video of a guy reading a book can't possibly display the fun and entertainment happening in his head.

It is also important to point out that most people who play in a regular D&D group don't meet up *only* to play D&D. Hanging out with friends is an important part of the activity, and a lot of the exchange between the players either has nothing at all to do with the game, or is in the form of in-jokes nobody outside their circle would understand.

If I look at computer RPGs and MMORPGs, there are a lot more videos available and it is easier to get an idea what the game is about by watching. Nevertheless there is still a gap between for example the graphics and activities presented in a World of Warcraft trailer and those happening if you play WoW. Probably the trailers are meant to represent what people imagine while they play, not what they actually do while playing. I've seen some hilarious films of people playing a WoW raid where the camera showed only the player, not the screen; between the facial expressions, hammering on the keyboard, and swearing into a headset that gave an interesting image of World of Warcraft, but not one which corresponds to the mental experience of the players themselves.

Dungeons & Dragons not being a spectator sport makes it more difficult for Wizards of the Coast to promote the game. Basically you need to play D&D to understand it. I think they had a good idea of running the "D&D Encounters" every Wednesday in gaming stores, but coverage for that appears to be good only in the USA. There is no store running D&D Encounters in a 200 km radius of where I live shown on WotC's website for finding those. WotC claims that 5 million people play D&D, but I have no idea how they could possibly come up with a reasonably exact number for that. D&D can be "Free2Play" in a way, as X players playing the game together don't need X copies of the rulebooks. But then somebody might have the rulebooks but not be playing. So if the only data you have is product sales, it would be difficult to estimate number of active players from that.

I am happy that I have the opportunity to still play D&D. Computer games are nice, and often a lot more convenient than getting a regular pen & paper group together. But computer games by necessity have very strong limitations to what you can do in the game, limitations that don't exist in a pen & paper game. If you want to play a game which is only limited by the imagination of you and your friends, there is nothing better than pen & paper roleplaying games. Even if it's not much to watch.

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