Bein’ Critical of Twitch-streamed D&D Games!

OK, then, more talk about tabletop RPGs on Twitch. This is where I get critical.

Most games on Twitch are Dungeons and Dragons. This is expected. I don’t play D&D anymore, and I haven’t for several years – and even when I did play it, well, I have been told I don’t play it in a very D&D way. I now have a much better idea of what that means.

Because, here’s the thing, when you start a game – and many of them do start in this exact way – saying a tiefling, a dragonkin, and a drow walk into a bar… that’s not the lead-in to an adventure. That’s an introduction to a fantasy-themed joke.

Even the best Twitch D&D game is brutally stupid. Now, yes, any game you’re enjoying is a good one, but just because it’s a good game doesn’t mean it’s not really dumb. The group make-up alone is so wildly improbable to be suspect. Why are these highly multispecies groups existing? Of course, the answer is transparent – when one player makes a drow, another makes a dragonborn, and a third makes a tiefling, the players and GM must accept the group for the game to continue.

And that’s the key concept to this post: that people must accept what is in the game for the game to continue.

In another narrative, one would have to explain why all these highly dissimilar and often antagonistic people are in the same group. In Twitch D&D games, it’s accepted because otherwise, there’s no game at all.

(When playing D&D, I struggled with this myself. Players usually take the existence of something in the rules as tacit permission to use that in any game. So, while planning a game, I want to look like the Knights of the Round Table. The players are making drow kung-fu masters and dragonborn paladins. Talking the players out of this, of saying that you want to play a game with a strong theme that doesn’t include dark elves or dragonborn – that, indeed, in the game, I’m running, such characters would be presumed to be evil and often attacked on sight – can cause them to walk out of the game rather than change their character. Even if I was highly specific about what I wanted them to play beforehand and believed I had their assent to run the game in that fashion.)

The idea of having to accept nonsense from the players propagates through the whole game. So, in one game I watched – Critical Role, at that, which is probably the “best” Twitch-streamed D&D game – the players were talking to high-born aristocratic diplomats. And several of the characters were just flat-out insulting to these diplomats, repeatedly needling them, insulting their appearance (flat-out saying that the female ambassador had fake breasts, for instance, in a fairly serious bit of body-shaming) and grooming (again directed at the female ambassador, with dreary predictability, about how her hair was styled), and otherwise being complete jerks.

I assure you, with actual diplomats, this would have been held as highly unacceptable. Contrary to what military sci-fi insists, diplomats do not believe in peace at all costs. They very much understand that projecting strength is necessary and that personal attacks on diplomats is not only unacceptable but could potentially start a war, or sink a lucrative trade deal, or so on.

But, in the game, the NPC diplomats ignored the body shaming and insults and focused on the player characters who weren’t doing that because… otherwise, there would be no game.

(FWIW, if you’re in one of my games and try that… expect for there to be war. Part of my style of GMing is that 1) actions have consequences, and 2) whatever the players do in-game indicates what they want the game to be about. So, if players go around acting like total nitwits, insulting foreign diplomats, and generally acting like bullies, people in the game will absolutely, positively treat them that way. I admit I’m a bit of an acquired taste as a GM, though. My games have about a fifty-percent retention rate. New players leave after a few sessions about half the time, though the ones that stay have told me that they find it hard to play in other people’s games afterward. So, is that good or bad? I dunno!)

The whole thing where GMs ignore the players’ actions so there can be a game is all over the place. Which is why, I think, most of these games appear quite stupid to me, specifically D&D. Over the years, D&D has internalized this mindset. The only theme D&D has is… D&D. While one could, in theory, play something set in Middle Earth or Westeros or Melnibone, no one actually does because it means fighting back against generations of “what D&D is.” This has infected almost all medieval-style fantasy games, to the point where I no longer run such games because I’m unwilling to do the work to unteach D&D expectations.

(And, from a GM-ly perspective, the D&D stuff can be seductive, too. There’s so much of it. There’s always a new monster to spring or an old favorite to slip in – and a bunch of them are characters, too, with personalities and histories that the GMs can use in their games. So, even if you want to run a game set in Westeros or whatever, it’s very easy for it ends up looking like a reg’lar D&D game because the material is present, polished, and seductive.)

When a game starts from that premise – that it’s the GM’s job to find a way to accommodate whatever the players want starting at character generation – it’s hard to get away from in-game.

So, after the players create a group with a gnome, tortle, tiefling, dragonborn, and half-elf, and they go into a human town, the GM is faced with a dilemma. What happens when a group of weird, foreign, non-human, heavily-armed mercenaries shows up in town? Do the townsfolks run away from the freakshow talking down the main street, board up their shops, while everyone else clears the streets in terror – for crying out loud, one of them looks like a demon! – at which point the whole game grinds to a halt as the players have to sit down and assess the choices that they’ve made in chargen, or does the GM act like it’s no big deal? Almost all GMs act like it’s no big deal that these human villagers are indifferent to the presence of these weird, non-human, heavily-armed foreign mercenaries (some of whom look like demons and dragons and other highly notoriously dangerous monsters) so the game can go on.

At this point, the GM is now used to warping the game world to fit the characters. In a few more sessions, when they’re talking to foreign dignitaries, the GM isn’t even thinking about how the characters’ rudeness is inappropriate. That ship has sailed. When given a chance early in the game to show how the game world might resent or fear your group of weird, non-human, foreign, heavily-armed mercenaries, the GM decided, “Nah, people are good with it.”

This is even more true because D&D has alignment, and almost all PC groups are brutal mercenary thugs. When told that killing someone does not give one a legal or moral right to loot the bodies, the game grinds to a fuckin’ halt. Looting corpses is considered morally vile even in those places where it is notionally legal (such as looting the bodies of enemies after a battle.) Telling a group of PCs that the good alignment morally requires them to attempt non-violent solutions, and even in combat that truly good people will not kill whenever possible, causes the game to grind to a halt (in part because it’s harder to loot living enemies.) They go, “But all orcs are evil!” And I’m, like, “Well, no, and two wrongs don’t make a right.”

And. The. Game. Stops.

Even if they say, sure, okay, and get their bearings back, there’s often a struggle between players who accept that, hey, yeah, maybe a lawful good monk doesn’t go around murdering everyone they meet so they can loot the corpses and those who very much want to see all their enemies dead. So, you’ll have some player characters slitting throats of beaten enemies… and when I say, “Killing prisoners is both illegal and immoral and makes your character chaotic evil,” well, do you know what happens, then?

Yeah, the game stops.

Mind you, I have no problem whatsoever with rotten SOBs as characters. But D&D has alignment, and that’s supposed to mean something. But if you try to enforce actual moral and legal codes on characters, the game will often break down. Which is another way in which GMs ignore player conduct so “the game can happen.”

It isn’t surprising, then, that a person might look at this stuff and go, “Huh, that doesn’t make any sense at all.” Because it doesn’t. It happens because the GMs are used to letting the players get away with things – starting with character generation and going all the way up to the disposition of the characters’ souls. There is a “way things are done,” and they aren’t done that way to create sense, but to allow the game to continue.

That’s not a bad reason! Most groups absolutely, positively do not want their characters to be judged in any way whatsoever. They don’t want to have their fantasy turtle-person face discrimination. They don’t want to watch their tone with high-status NPCs that could really, truly make the lives of the characters miserable. They certainly don’t want to get into discussions about what’s morally and legally permitted with their band of murderous mercenaries – or even that their characters are, in fact, clearly a traveling lance of murderous mercenaries, prattling on about “justice” when they’re just taking money to deal with someone’s enemies with violence or the threat of violence. Many – maybe most – players absolutely, positively do not want to do these things. They want to have their characters go around, mouth off to people, and get into adventures.

But it’s not smart.

In the end, what makes a good Twitch TTRPG stream good appears to be 1) a focused player and GM, 2) funny voices, 3) good sound and video, and 4) attractive players.

It’s just that, to me, on a personal level, I’d like to see this stuff make more sense. Which is why, I suppose, I run my own games!

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