I originally wasn’t going to weigh in on the whole Critical Role thing in a blog post, because it was easier to just make fun of it on Twitter, but some conversations yesterday have me thinking this is worth a post.
First of all, if you’re not familiar with Critical Role, it is essentially people LARPing as tabletop gamers.
Don’t watch too long, it’ll make you want to tear your hair out.
What they’re doing is basically Soap Opera with D&D trappings, and they have a following of both gamers and people who are just tuning in for their stories. The questions of whether or not people who don’t actually play D&D but listen to shows like Critical Role are “part of the community” ruffled a lot of feathers recently.
The current debacle stems from a “beloved” Critical Role PC dying in the game. The DM/Showrunner claimed he had been getting tons of hate from fans about how awful it was that this character died. While I didn’t see any of these threats on twitter, where there was mostly an outpouring of “we lurve u”, someone did link me to a now deleted Tumblr post [gone before I could even archive it], so I suspect that a lot of it coming from the D&D Tumblr crowd.
D&D is a game. It is a game where characters CAN and DO die. People who are unable to accept that fact, or worse, blurf about “muh favorite LGBT fictional character was murdered by a cis het DM!” are garbage.
But there’s more at play than just Critical Role having a character die.
There are two major reasons why character death has become taboo in D&D.
The first is something that’s always an issue for new DMs and people that are new to the game: people are scared of letting characters die because they worry how it will reflect on them as a person and as a friend because they can’t gauge the seriousness of the emotional reaction it may elicit.
The second stems from mechanics that make character creation a tedious and laborious process; if it takes over an hour to create a new character, any PC death means that the game either stops for the group or for the player for an extended period of time while they create a new character. It becomes easier to go along to get along, fudging to keep characters alive, especially since D&D has shifted away from “game” and towards “story”. Characters dying derails or delays the “story”, and many people have a hard time accepting that (and expectations set by D&D-grotesque online soap operas don’t help).
These are both things that can be fixed, however.
The first PC death for a DM and a group is the hardest, but once it’s out of the way, everyone can breathe a sigh of relief after realizing that life, and the game, goes on. It’s cathartic. While I don’t advocate going out of your way to kill a PC as soon as possible, I do advocate letting the dice do their job. The sooner a new DM and their players realize “we’re playing a game, we’re not making a soap opera, and Marcie isn’t really going to hang herself because Black Leaf died”, and the sooner the new DM is no longer worrying about what their friends will think when the inevitable happens, the sooner the group can actually start enjoying D&D for what it is—a game of daring adventure.
Unfortunately, this is apparently a VERY controversial piece of advice.
It even got me attacked on grounds of “inclusivity”.
Popularity and Inclusivity are two things, and I’ll address both. Popularity quickly, because I think it’s less important.
In the 80s, D&D:
- Was selling over 750k copies a year [cached link]
- Was publishing multiple NYT Best Selling books
- Had a cartoon show
- Had two official magazines and countless fanzines creating community content around the globe
- Was culturally relevant enough to scare reactionaries absolutely shitless
- Was sold in toy stores
D&D today is still popular, and the internet allows for fan content to be created and shared more easily, but it’s hardly the culturally significant phenomenon that it was. Cameos in TV shows written by and for Gen-Xers may inflate the significance a bit, but the number of people playing D&D is harder to figure. Sales for the 5e PHB only reached 800K in total in 2017, according to what sources I could find. And that’s not a complete game the way that TSR’s Basic line (which sold better than AD&D because it was in the toy sections at retailers) was, so it’s kind of an apples to oranges comparison.
Inclusivity is the more serious issue that I think needs to be addressed. (The notion that B/X is racist, however, is so ludicrous that it merits no response.)
I believe that inclusivity is more than just “muh representation”. It’s about accessibility. A game that is inclusive is a game that almost anyone can pick up and learn to play and can teach to others.
Is 5e accessible? To run a game of 5e, you need to buy about $90 worth of books. If you want to just be a player, you could get away with the Player handbook, which costs $30ish (apparently you can “rent” a copy for $20?!?), though everyone who knows the game knows that the best way to play and find people to play with is to be able to run the game yourself. But three thick-ass books that you’ve sunk nearly $100 into is a lot to digest. The size and cost alone may be daunting enough to discourage new players from entering the hobby.
Compare that to Holmes or Moldvay or Mentzer. You went to a toy store and for ~$5 you could get a box that had a short booklet with an easy to learn and well-presented set of rules for both players and DMs, an adventure that was written to teach players how to run a game and ultimately create their own campaign, and even the dice you needed to play.
So, which is more “inclusive”? The game that any kid could pick up with his allowance, that only cost a bit more than a couple of comic books, that he could read cover to cover in an hour and teach to his friends, or the game that costs as much as your utility bill with books so thick you could kill a man with them?