Something fascinating has been happening every year for the last few years at the PAX Prime convention in Seattle. A huge auditorium of fans has gathered to watch a quartet of funny folks play D&D. It started with an audio podcast where Jerry Holkins & Mike Krahulik of Penny Arcade and Scott Kurtz of PVP got together to play some 4th Edition D&D under two different DMs. They were soon joined by Wil Wheaton as their fourth player and Chris Perkins as their regular DM.
From the podcast came the live sessions on stage, which continue to build in amazingness. In 2012, a huge set, costumes, and live music became part of the show. In 2013, Wil bowed out due to health, his spot going to author Patrick Rothfuss (The Kingkiller Chronicles), and Chris Perkins was in full make-up as Bhaal, God of Murder. The game has switched from the generic setting of 4E to the Forgotten Realms, and the D&D Next rules are now being showcased.
The whole experiment has shown just how enjoyable D&D can be as a spectator sport. There had been “real play” podcasts beforehand, but they sprang into profusion. Wizards of the Coast hosted a few play sessions showing off various rules modules, including a 4E game with some of the authors of Robot Chicken. There’s now enough media out there to listen to other folks’ D&D games for a good long time.
So why would you think about watching someone else’s game? Well, let me tell you why I think watching other games can be a good thing.
One of the best reasons to listen to or watch someone’s game is to learn from it. When I listen to a game podcast, I often jot down notes about things I liked that the DM did, or ways they run the game. I’m a good DM, for sure, but I would never be so arrogant as to think I have nothing left to learn. Even people brand new to gaming come up with great new ideas, so hearing other DM’s styles can give you ideas to borrow for your own games.
A lot of how I run skill challenges came from a podcast called Thursday Knights, and I’ve borrowed a few story ideas from them as well. I’ve grabbed some techniques from Chris Perkins, and even borrowed a name or monster concept from the folks I listen to.
Occasionally, I instead educate myself on how not to run a game from these podcasts. Not every one of them is gold, of course, and sometimes, when I dislike something a DM does, that reminds me to avoid a behavior, or to correct something I’ve done in my game, or just to handle something differently.
While we can’t all be as funny as the folks of Acquisitions Incorporated, a lot of D&D players are pretty intelligent, funny people, and some are very good actors. While listening in on a game can be painful, it can also be pretty awesome. I’ve found myself laughing, crying, and cheering when listening to real play podcasts.
It doesn’t hurt that the first major real play podcast produces by WotC had three extremely funny guys on it, or that Chris Perkins is an enormously entertaining DM to listen to, or the other folks who’ve joined it have also been extremely funny guys. It turns out that, if you get entertaining, funny, talented people playing D&D together, you get an entertaining and funny game of D&D to listen to.
No, I’m not saying that you can learn etiquette from listening to a D&D game (though you could with the right game). I’m saying that, if you end up at a live game, perhaps at a local store, you should show a little etiquette before setting up to enjoy it as a spectator sport.
First, you should ask permission. While listening in to a table while you look at games you might want to buy is fine, if you’re going to actively pause and watch or listen, it’s worth asking if the players and DM are okay with that. Some people might be shy or just not feel comfortable having an audience. Personally, I ham it up when I have people listening in, but that’s me.
Assuming that everyone’s okay with you listening in, you should be as little of a distraction as possible. You should refrain from asking questions or making comments or conversation. Save that for when the game has a break or when it’s over.
If it’s an organized game event, such as the D&D Encounters program, obviously you shouldn’t listen in if you plan on playing. What’s the fun of that, anyhow?
And finally, though this really shouldn’t need saying, under no circumstance should you dispute the DM’s decisions. Even if you know in your secret heart of hearts that a Wobbegong is immune to lightning damage, if the DM says that the wizard’s lightning bolt spell kills it, then you should be no means protest. The DM may have information you don’t have, like the fact that the Wobbegong is a Doppleganger, or something. You should just listen, and, if you disagree, make sure your Wobbegongs are immune to lightning when you run your own adventures.
D&D and other RPGs can be really enjoyable to watch, but take it with a grain of salt. If you’re not enjoying a podcast, stop watching or listening. If you watch a live game, be super courteous. And above all, keep an open mind.
Do you have an experience being an audience for a live game, or even being part of a live game that had an audience? Do you think I’m crazy for enjoying listening to and watching other games, or do you see my wisdom? Let us all know.