Streaming Is Introducing a New Generation to Dungeons & Dragons

It’s not just video games that dominate the digital airwaves on platforms like Twitch — there’s a huge contingent of viewers who yearn for the old days of pen and paper, with tabletop RPGs making a huge splash virtually in the last few years. In fact, once-niche games like Dungeons & Dragons (which turns 50 this year) have taken on new life in the age of livestreaming, and more popular than ever.

Leading the charge are “actual plays,” podcasts or web shows that feature groups of players creating narratives from their imaginations, without the aid of flashy video game visuals, and their popularity has led to a tabletop resurgence whose audience is now more inclusive and diverse. Spanning the genre mainstays, officially licensed extensions of existing franchises, and even homebrew titles people are making themselves, it’s one of the most unexpectedly engrossing ways to lose yourself online.

But how can watching folks roll dice and making up a story out of thin air be so engaging? Like anything online, it begins with the personalities. With known super geeks Vin Diesel, Joe Manganiello, and Wil Wheaton pushing their favorite hobbies in interviews and YouTube appearances for years, alongside the rise of content creators whose fans hang captive for hours on end, it was only a matter of time before tabletop games took hold of mainstream attention. Most groups in the space, like some of the ones featured below, are comprised of beloved figures of nerdom, from voice actors who dominate the anime and video spaces, to comedians who kill on socials, but what makes actual plays so addictive to watch boils down to what has always made them work. It’s about community.

For those who play, the appeal of games like Dungeons & Dragons has long been sitting down with a group of friends week after week just shooting the shit. It’s a shared experience, limited only by imagination, where people can work together (or against each other) to create worlds and stories that reflect their own desires. It’s a ritual. And nothing describes the rise of livestreaming itself than ritualistic viewing. Think of it as an ongoing audio book that’s written in real time, narrated by a handful of professional friends just having a good time. It’s all the joys of TTRPG without having to manage the rules.

Here are some of the best shows to watch to dip your toe into the world of tabletop gaming.

Critical Role

From left: Talisan Jaffe, Liam O’Brien, Marisha Ray, Travis Willingham, Sam Riegel, Laura Bailey, Matt Mercer; Center: Ashley Johnson

Robyn Von Swank

The reigning kings of actual play, Critical Role began as a group of friends comprised of veteran voice actors just picking up their weekend sessions for a live audience on Geek & Sundry’s Twitch channel. Since launching in 2015, they’re now multimedia empire with thousands of hours aired across three campaigns, an animated adaptation airing on Amazon Prime Video with another in the works, and even their own TTRPG games hitting the shelves courtesy of Darrington Press.

Led by Dungeon Master Matt Mercer (a.k.a. Sexy Ganondorf), the core cast includes voice actors Ashley Johnson, Laura Bailey, Liam O’Brien, Marisha Ray, Travis Willingham, Sam Riegel, and Talisan Jaffe — all of whom are staples in gaming and anime.

By far the most famous troupe in the scene, Critical Role helped popularize actual play for mainstream viewers through a mix of accessibility and their genuine affection for one another, with every stream feeling like you’ve just been dropped into a group of your new best friends. It’s a vibe that they’ve maintained even as they’ve grown over the years, and makes them the perfect entry point to viewers who may know little or nothing about D&D. It also helps that the cast tend to pop up in other people’s series, so starting with Critical Role ensures that you’ve got some familiar faces upon branching out.

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Their campaigns are long, with the first two (Vox Machina and The Mighty Nein) running over 100 episodes each and their third campaign, Bells Hells, currently over 80 episodes in, but don’t let that deter you; part of the joy is investing in stories that run for years on end. Critical Role’s success has meant that there’s not just the gameplay to watch, but a massive world of rich lore expanded on through books, graphic novels, and of course the fervent community around it.

Critical Role airs Thursdays at 7 p.m. PST on Twitch. Jump right in or start from the beginning with older episodes on their YouTube channel.

Dimension 20

From left: Lou Wilson, Ally Beardsley, Brian Murphy, Zac Oyama, Siobhan Thompson, Emily Axford; Center: Brennan Lee Mulligan

Kate Elliott

Another prominent D&D-centric actual play show, produced by Dropout, Dimension 20 stands alongside Critical Role as a highly accessible — and inclusive — take on tabletop gaming. Led by creator and primary game master, Brennan Lee Mulligan, the cast is built primarily of actors and comedians including Lou Wilson, Ally Beardsley, Zac Oyama, Emily Axford, Siobhan Thompson, and Brian Murphy, known collectively as the “Intrepid Heroes.” The comedy aspect is a key draw for the series, as complex storytelling is uplifted by persistent hilarity without things going too far off the rails.

Despite using D&D 5th Edition as the foundation, one of the most unique aspects of Dimension 20 is the creative way in which they frame their campaigns. “Main campaigns” are longer primary seasons — although their general length of about 20 episodes make them much more digestible than, say, Critical Role’s yearslong epics. “Side quests” run shorter, generally 10 episodes or less. But it’s the unique pop cultural spins on each story that push the diversity of storytelling, with many campaigns functioning as parodies of famous fantasy classics, including copyright-safe takes on Lord of the Rings, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, Dracula, and even a brilliant take on Candyland-meets-Game of Thrones in their sixth campaign, “A Crown of Candy.” Their first breakthrough season, Fantasy High, functions as a John Hughes-esque take on a fantasy school setting and has garnered multiple continuations and spin-offs, recently kicking off its latest with the currently airing Fantasy High: Junior Year.

It’s not just the familiar narrative hooks that makes D20 so accessible, but its strong focus on diverse voices and socially relevant themes woven into the framework. Cast members and characters feature representation across the BIPOC and LGTBQ communities and stories told are often deeply personal and affecting. Last year’s side quest Dungeons and Drag Queens was even a full four-part campaign starring faces from RuPaul’s Drag Race.

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Mostly pre-recorded with some occasional live series peppered in, there’s plenty of places to get started, but the best introduction is right from the start with Fantasy High.

New episodes and back catalogue can be seen exclusively on Dropout.

World of Darkness

Cover art of ‘Vampire: The Masquerade 5th Edition’

Paradox Interactive

One of the first major actual-play organizations to find success outside of Dungeons & Dragons is the World of Darkness, a sultry modern vampire series utilizing the ruleset of 2018’s Vampire: The Masquerade 5th Edition. Hosted by game designer and lead storyteller for the entire World of Darkness universe, Jason Carl, the rotating cast includes mainstays Alexander Ward, Cynthia Marie, Xander Jeanneret, and voice actor-Dimension 20 regular Erika Ishii.

By deviating from D&D mold, World of Darkness series show a different aspect of the TTRPG experience, with modern stories revolving clandestine factions or “Coteries” of conflicting machinations within the dark underbelly of real-world cities. Spread across multiple independent series, beginning with 2018’s L.A. By Night, which ran for five seasons, and now including off-shoots NY By Night and Seattle By Night, the scope of the world is diverse and ever growing.

The biggest hook that sets the series apart from other actual plays is that it’s one of the few actually supported by the game’s publisher, Paradox Interactive. The impact is that each campaign, although ultimately unscripted by nature, falls within the larger story of the Vampire: The Masquerade universe, being canonically set alongside the various multimedia extensions of the franchise, including video games, books, graphic novels, and more. Tuning into Seattle By Night live play means you’re actually watching the canon being written in real time.


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Keeping track of the various properties can be more difficult than with other shows, as each of the brand’s individual series have aired on different platforms. L.A. By Night originally aired on Geek & Sundry’s YouTube channel, where past episodes can be found. NY By Night’s last two seasons can be seen on the official World of Darkness YouTube channel. Lastly, Seattle By Night aired in partnership with Penny Arcade – originally live on Twitch, now catalogue on the Penny Arcade YouTube channel.

Keep an eye out for news on future installments of the World of Darkness, or check out the time Jason Carl himself produced an exclusive one-shot live on Rolling Stone.