Dungeons & Dragons, pt. 2


by Randall S. Frederick

Matt Mercer began his career as a voice artist. From Pokemon to Sailor Moon to Attack on Titan or Spider-man, DC Superfriends, DC Villains, Avengers Assemble, Batman, World of Warcraft, and a hundred other popular properties, Mercer has an impeccable reputation navigating fandoms and working or intersecting with talented teams of individuals. He is the proverbial “King of Nerds”. So it was no surprise that his weekly game nights began attracting attention as he hosted a Who’s Who of the Industry’s voice talent.

For years, Hollywood had been running secret game nights among writers, actors, and standup comics. Mike Drucker, a 32-year-old writer on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, plays D&D almost exclusively with other comedy writers and says comedians and improv actor tend to be attracted to the game “because you have to think on your feet and commit.”

“There’s a huge resurgence of nerd culture, especially with the tech boom,” actor Martin Starr told Seth Abramovitch. “If nerds were still poor and living at their mothers’, nobody would be paying any attention to Dungeons & Dragons. But nerds rule the world, and D&D is making a big comeback — and I’m excited about it.”

Netflix’s buzzy new supernatural drama Stranger Things, for instance, opened with a game of D&D. In 2011, writer Dan Harmon devoted an episode of Community to the game, much to the chagrin of studio executives. “After the table read, the Sony suits wanted to meet me in my office about the script,” he says. “They actually said to me: ‘We wish you had turned this in earlier so we could have thrown it in the garbage. You just can’t say the word “goblin” this many times per page.’ ” Harmon got the last laugh, though: “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” became one of the most popular Community episodes.

As noted previously, D&D was on a roll (pardon the pun) with 5th Edition as new players took interest and old players were brought back to the fold. Wizards of the Coast leaned into the success. Two years ago, a Stranger Things one-shot was released as a box set to introduce new players to the game, as it appears regularly in the hit Netflix show. Buyers were not impressed, as one-shots tend not to do well with a game designed for long-form storytelling, but that wasn’t the point. Wizards of the Coast was testing out a new delivery system, the crossover.

Last year, Adult Swim favorite Rick & Morty branched out to include a comicbook series into another kind of crossover with D&D. This one, unlike the Stranger Things box set, was so popular that it produced a sequel, published from the latter end of 2019 into 2020. It also produced a spinoff boxed set, Rick & Morty: Dungeons & Dragons. Around this time, Wizards of the Coast are licensed some of their signature characters for Funko Pop! figures and released a second introductory set that included rules for smaller groups. Intead of the 5 or more game standard, players could not play one on one or even alone, based on new rules that accommodated more limited play.

The runaway hit driving this success wasn’t the Hollywood revival, however. It was Matt Mercer. And for older players, those raised on a game that was at times outlandish, countercultural, mysterious, and unapologetically fantastic, Mercer’s commercial success posed a threat.

Actress Felicia Day had found success on the sets of cult television shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Supernatural, and Mystery Science Theater 3000. She began producing her own content on YouTube with The Guild, a web series that followed a group of gamers based on Day’s experience playing the addictive online game World of Warcraft. The game had proven addictive, even distracting for her as a creator and when she unplugged from the game, she still worked on it by writing The Guild.

For perspective, Superman Returns star Brandon Routh recently said on the Inside of You podcast that after the failure of the film, he “really had to come to terms” with the fact that the Superman role wasn’t going anywhere. “There was no sequel, the movie was widely well-reviewed, people liked the movie, but it, you know, made almost $400 million worldwide but that wasn’t enough,” he said. “And it was a very slow fizzle out of the possibility of a sequel over the next two, three years and I did everything that I could do, that I thought, in my world to help make it happen.” World of Warcraft was his personal form of therapy.

“I played World of Warcraft endlessly. That was my addiction, and then a few other games along the way, but that was where I lost myself and spent way too much time. It was a coping mechanism, but it wasn’t teaching me things, until I finally had several experiences where I had to come to terms with that.”

Day knew there was an audience for naming the addictiveness of games, the way that a shared online experience in a fantasy setting could prove therapeutic, offering an escape from the pressures of life. She had a hunch that satirizing her own experiences would find an audience, and her hunch was right. The Guild‘s first season was watched by millions and won numerous awards, including the Greenlight Award for Best Original Digital Series Production at the South by Southwest Festival, several IAWTV Awards, including Best Comedy Series, the YouTube Video Award for Best Series, the Yahoo! Video Award for Best Series, and Best Comedy Web Series from the Streamy Awards in addition to Best Female Actor in a Comedy Web Series, and Best Ensemble Cast in a Web Series. The second season premiered on Microsoft’s three major video channels, Xbox Live, MSN Video and The Zune Marketplace after Microsoft made a deal with The Guild, allowing Day, her cast, and her crew to be paid for their work. Day continued to expand on the brand and in March of 2012, she was one of the first content creators to develop her own premium channel on the site, Geek & Sundry. Geek & Sundry took over production of the final season of the show, but Day kept hustling and continues to host several shows on Geek & Sundry, including Tabletop with Wil Wheaton, where she is an executive producer and appears regularly as a guest, playing games with the host and chatting with other guests.

Meanwhile, Mercer’s game nights had a revolving door of those in the Industry, including Wheaton and actor Will Friedel, but Mercer primarily played with other voice actors. His creativity, gift for storytelling, and patience attracted attention within the Industry as a hangout spot. Friends began to encourage him to do something with his creativity. Including Felicia Day.

In 2015, Day approached Mercer and suggested that he and his friends allow her to begin streaming their home game of D&D as a show. The show started streaming in March 2015, partway through the first campaign and, following Day’s advice, quickly attracted a following online. The first campaign (stories in Dungeons and Dragons are called campaigns) ran for 115 episodes, and ended in October 2017. The cast worked through one-shots and short-form storytelling by sampling other games, but fans continued to demand another campaign from Critical Role.

The break offered an opportunity for imitators to step forward, like Acquisitions Incorporated, but it wasn’t the same. Daniel Mayfair writes,

What makes ‘Critical Role’ stand out from other Dungeons & Dragons shows is that its cast is filled with professional voice actors, each one with an expansive and respectful portfolio. Such professional voice actors include… Laura Bailey (‘Catherine’, ‘Dragon Ball Z’, ‘Final Fantasy XIII’ etc.), Travis Willingham (‘Tales of Vesperia’, ‘Sonic The Hedgehog’, ‘Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor’, etc.) and Ashely Johnson (‘The Last of Us, ‘Teen Titans’, ‘The Avengers’ etc.)… In addition to the good mics, studio set up and cameras, the show contains high-profile actors and actresses… [who] are incredibly nerdy and love playing D&D, which is part of the reason why it is so entertaining to watch.

A huge chunk of the show’s entertainment comes from Matt Mercer, the Game Master (GM)/Dungeon Master (DM)/Storyteller… Integrating the Pathfinder ruleset (an extension and modification of D&D 3rd edition) with D&D V5 (5th edition), thus creating his own hybrid ruleset (known as ‘homebrew’ rules), he seems to be incredibly knowledgable to the rules, the player’s abilities and how most things work. In short, he takes all of this rather seriously.

The second story began airing in January 2018 and is still ongoing as of April 2020, following an entirely different group of adventurers. It was not a solo project by this point, as the players who met regularly also controlled, marketed, and contributed to the content. After all, they – like Mercer – were Industry favorites. Cast member Ashley Johnson, for example, appeared in Joss Whedon’s The Avengers. “Critical Role” is not just the show itself, it is also the name of the studio owned by the cast which produces the show Critical Role as well as Talks Machina along with developing and producing programming for the studio’s Twitch and YouTube channels.

Despite the success, Mercer and the rest of the cast offered a very different experience than the one traditionally offered around the game table. In one popular Reddit thread, a Dungeon Master (or storyteller) names the experience of older, more traditional players.

There’s a new situation I’m dealing with. A third of my group first got interested in D&D because of Critical Role. I like Matt Mercer as much as the next guy, but these guys watched 30+ hours of the show before they ever picked up a D20. The Dwarf thinks that all Dwarves have Irish accents, and the Dragonborn sounds exactly like the one from the show (which is fine, until they meet NPCs that are played differently from how it’s done on the show). I’ve been approached by half the group and asked how I planned to handle resurrection. When I told them I’d decide when we got there, they told me how Matt does it. Our WhatsApp is filled with Geek and Sundry videos about how to play RPG’s better. There’s nothing wrong with how they do it on the show, but I’m not Matt Mercer and they’re not Vox Machina. At some point, the unrealistic expectations are going to clash with reality.

With this thread, the “Matt Mercer Effect” was finally named, and he even stepped in to offer a response to the thread.

Seeing stuff like this kinda breaks my heart. Regardless, the fact of the matter is our style of play is just that…our style of play. Every table is different, and should be! If they just want to “copy” what we do, that’s not very creative nor what makes the game magic at the table… Plus, our style isn’t for everyone! Hell, just scan the comments below to see how many folks don’t like us, haha. I’ve played with many different players, ran games of many different styles and focuses, and I can tell you… there is so much fun variety to how a TTRPG can be played, they’re limiting their chances to enjoy it by trying to “play it just like us”.

At the heart of the debate over the “Matt Mercer Effect” is the way that game is played. Many players, especially returning to the game from an older version, are more familiar with a “Munchkin” approach, where players seek to knock down a door or other obstacle, fight a monster, and split whatever loot the monster was protecting. If none at all, players are often happy to dismember the monster and piece out the hide, bone, or recover the weapons with which they slayed the monster. It’s a straightforward smash-and-grab style interrupted with explanations and exposition by the Dungeon Master, rather than an expansive narrative that players are expected to co-create. Mercer’s primary contribution to the “revival” of D&D has been the shared storytelling experience. That Mercer and his fellow players are able to do this at a professional level makes the lower-quality version played with friends at home comparatively disappointing, if not frustrating, especially for older and returning players of the game. Daniel Mayfair continues,

From my own experience, most games of D&D are not like this. The rules are plentiful and rather complex (for me at least), with more emphasis on battle encounters than an evolving narrative. In simpler terms; you and your adventurers go to a dungeon, slay a dragon. Rinse and repeat…

The main problem with a series like Critical Role is that it has presented unrealistic expectations to new players (or those who are wanting to start playing D&D) as to how the most typical D&D sessions play out. It has become such a huge marvel that it has it’s own Urban Dictionary entry. As Matt states in his response, the cast of Critical Role are professional actors and actresses, most of [whom] have won and/or been nominated for their roles. Ashley Johnson won 2 BAFTAs for her role as Ellie from The Last of Us, for example.

On top of this, they have been playing D&D for many years. Matt states that he has been DMing for 20 years, for example. It would be fair to assume that the way they have played D&D has probably affected the way they have gone about in their respective acting careers, which in turn affects the way they portray their characters on the Critical Role campaigns. It is very natural for them to embrace entertaining and entertaining characters, they earn a living doing it.

What goes unspoken with the Mercer Effect is the way that the cast of Critical Role also embraces play and acceptance. The cast were friends before the show began and have a familiarity and shorthand that can be offputting to the antisocial and especially opinionated. It is clear that some of the cast are outside of the restrictive white heteronormative social norm of previous generations. Side discussions on inherent racism and sexism in the game are welcomed at the table as the cast uses those opportunities to challenge expectations, talk through nuance, and defy, if not outright mock “trolls” who insist on holding to an eclipsed social standard. At the end of the day, they are friends first and players second, ready to defend one another as quickly as praise one another.

Online forums and comment sections are riddled with grizzled “neckbeards” who proudly inform no one in particular that they’ve never seen or listened to an episode of Critical Role and this, in my experience working with faith communities and languages, speaks to a proud purism. Such purists become increasingly isolated, quick to correct anyone who does not see the world the same way. I’ve seen them damage churches, infect breakrooms, and create unnecessary friction in pursuit of what they think, feel, and believe. They are almost always well-intentioned and, individually, kind and warm. But something about socialization causes them to compete for primacy, to insist that they are right, to speak louder and farther, ultimately unintentionally distancing and dividing. So it is with Critical Role. These individuals speak of the halcyon days when Dungeons & Dragons had “real” gamers, not fan service. Even though they watch Rick & Morty, they feel Wizards of the Coast should not have “sold out” or “gone corporate” by creating a cross-promotional game box. Gone are the days, they lament, when the game was a complex system of rules and erratum that divided nerds from the mainstream. Counter-culture was their badge and now they are surrounded by fans who love the same game, but not in the same way or for the same reasons.

The tension between old and new fandoms became clear with the release of two books that expanded the canon of the game. The first, Guildmasters Guide to Ravnica, was an effort to bridge the two most lucrative properties under the umbrella of Wizards of the Coast, Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering. By all assumptions, the campaign should have done well and it certainly did. But its success drove a great deal of chatter in the gaming community. Was this the future, a shared world? Wizards of the Coast had already released smaller guides to 5 of the 26 planes of Magic. In Magic: the Gathering, “planes are universes in the multiverse, otherwise known as Dominia. Divided by the Æther, both natural and artificial planes exist in parallel. The space between planes is referred to as the Blind Eternities, and all planes intersect at one point called the Song of Dominia. The Song of Dominia is somewhat of a nickname for Dominaria.” Ravnica was the first major expansion to a new property and was originally created for the Magic: The Gathering collectible card game, appearing in the card set Ravnica: City of Guilds, which was released in 2005. It is a high-magic world with a loose Slavic flavor, and features a single city which spans the entire planet controlled by ten competing guilds of different ideologies. It was adapted as a campaign setting for the 5th edition of D&D in Guildmasters’ Guide to Ravnica, which was published in 2018. Until then, the majority of 5th Edition had been on the continent of Faerûn, a world similar to Earth. Economically and technologically, Faerûn is comparable to Western Europe during the late Middle Ages, giving most new players using this campaign setting an intuitive grasp of the way the society functions. In terms of technology, 5th Edition shies away from gunpowder, known here as the magical substance smoke powder and different in its composition from historical gunpowder. As 5th Edition has progressed and grown, gunpowder has started to make an appearance but much of the armament is still dominated by pre-gunpowder weaponry such as swords, spears, and bows. Most of the population of Faerûn consists of farmers, who are organized somewhat loosely in a semi-feudal system. There are also a number of notable cities in the game like Baldur’s Gate and Waterdeep, trade between nations is common, as in the Renaissance era, but suspicions of culture and the ever-present threat of magic and subsequent superstition prevails. Likewise, there are regions where more barbaric tribes and customs persist.

It is no coincidence that the more conservative end of gaming also has a significant intersection with the Alt-Right. Since videogames began moving toward online multiplayer games like Halo to the great leap into MMORPGS (massive multiplayer online games) like Warcraft, the growth of these games and that of raucous players quick to use racialized, gendered, and sexual epithets have run parallel. “Gamer culture” is a more advanced form of “locker room talk” – insults and profanity-laced tirades are part of the culture. But while this growth was originally attributed to young gamers, what newer studies and researchers have discovered is that those same teenage gamers a decade ago have not “grown out of it” as was originally anticipated, but have simply grown older. In many cases, the Alt-Right and White Supremacists have targeted “friends” online for radicalization and have used a mythologized past and shared rhetoric to obscure their intentions. This growth has been well documented and a sample can be found below.

Reporting for Brandeis Magazine, Lawrence Goodman writes that radicals have often used Medieval imagery for racial violence.

Scholars say the Middle Ages, which spanned the fifth century to the 15th century, is fodder for the far right, which has hijacked its symbols and mythologized its narratives to promote hate and white nationalism. The myth of chivalry inspires fanatical adherents to imagine themselves as heroes embarking on heroic quests. Vikings conjure up images of an idealized masculinity. The alt-right falsely believes the prohibitions and societal norms that govern us today didn’t yet exist in the Middle Ages. They see the medieval era as a time when out-of-bounds opinions and violence were permissible.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Ku Klux Klan insisted its members were knights battling the twin demons of Reconstruction and racial equality. Its leader was called the Imperial Wizard; his deputies were Grand Dragons. The Nazis used medieval runes as symbols of their might and noble lineage. The SS officers who ran death camps used Nordic mythology for their initiation rites.

Goodman references Dorothy Kim, an assistant professor of Medieval Literature and English at Brandeis, who wrote an article Time Magazine in 2019 where she discussed the mass shootings that have become a regular part of the American news cycle.

The shootings followed the release of materials some have called a manifesto but that has more accurately been called a “media plan.” In it are multiple medieval references, several involving medieval Vikings, which these days function as a signal to white supremacists. Along with much else from the European medieval world, the Viking past is part of the far right’s standard visual and textual imaginary. That vision of a Viking world depends on contemporary digital and filmic popular culture — such as the TV show Vikings and Viking-adjacent video games — as well as on academic and historical sources.

But far-right Viking medievalism is not about historical accuracy. Rather, it’s used to create narratives. So, to resist the medieval narratives that activate violent hate, we must create counternarratives — and to do that, we must understand the real Viking past and how it has been weaponized…

In the 19th century, Romantic German nationalism metastasized into the Völkish movement, which was interested in historical narratives that bolstered a white German nation-state. The movement rewrote history, drawing on folklore such as that of Brothers Grimm, medieval epics and a dedication to racial white supremacy. Late 19th and early 20th-century scholars simultaneously drew from and reinforced this racialized imagination of the medieval past. Crucially, Vilhelm Grønbach’s multi-volume work Vor Folkeæt i Oldtiden (The Cultures of the Teutons) imagined an ancient Germanic genealogy that ran from Tacitus through the Middle Ages.

German scholarly work during the eve of the Third Reich then added to this idea, with authors like Gustav Neckel and Bernhard Kummer blaming socialism, Jews and class revolutions for the “decline” of a Germanic race they saw descending from this Viking past. Another German scholar, Otto Höfler, who based his work on Grønbach, wrote of the Männerbunde, which the scholar Stefanie von Schnurbein has described as “all-male warrior associations in so-called primitive societies.” His take on Männerbund would become used as an explanation of the past and current Germanic race, and fueled the idea behind Nazi groups such as the SS and SA.

After World War II, despite the defeat of the Axis powers, these ideas didn’t go away. Rather, they saw a resurgence in specific circles, including various far-right neo-pagan groups, like the Scandinavian Nordic Resistance Movement, known for their neo-Nazi violence. Grønbach’s multivolume work, translated and available online, and the works of his contemporaries have also influenced current far-right extremists in Europe and North America…

Communities of color have in the past fought white supremacist medieval narratives at the grassroots by spreading their own counternarratives, from W.E.B. Du Bois creating an African-American vision of the medieval past in Dark Princess to the Asian Americans who pushed back against racist medievalism during the period of Chinese Exclusion. Scholars and historians — not just medievalists — must also interrogate their disciplines from the inside, setting the record straight about medieval race and the Global Middle Ages.

So far, however, the most widespread, concerted and effective way to fight back against this historical white supremacist Viking genealogy has come not from academics or journalists. Rather, it has come from Taika Waititi, the indigenous Maori director and writer. His movie Thor: Ragnarok — in which Thor’s hammer, a medieval item regularly brandished by extremists, is destroyed — was a multiracial and postcolonial counternarrative to the white Viking narrative circulating through the alt-right digital ecosystem. After decades of building up the violent Viking vision, more such stories will be needed to disrupt this medieval machine.

Goodman continues to point out that, in the days that followed a 2017 blog post and again with her 2019 article, Kim exhorted her fellow instructors, whatever their subject, “to warn their students about the perversion of the history and iconography of the Middle Ages for political ends. Classroom lessons on the Hundred Years’ War, the rise of feudalism and Catholic theology needed to include discussions about the growing power of the global far-right movement, she said.” But, he adds, “Within days, Reddit forums and Breitbart News were calling Kim a ‘notorious nut job,’ a ‘committed communist’ and someone who ‘hates the truth, which is that Europeans created the greatest culture.’ These were some of the nicer things said.

Critical Role fits into this disruption and the pushback from the gaming community, especially by older games, has been significant. But it’s not as simple as imbedded racism or sexism. As 5th Edition expands, many gamers lament the lack of diversity not in terms of race, but geography and the nature of challenges within the game. There are only so many bugbears one can slaughter before it gets repetitive. Wizards of the Coast has encouraged gamers to develop their own “home brews” or self-contained games. They have released articles and blog posts, their content developers and game designers have been guests on podcasts and toured conventions repeatedly welcoming gamers to expand on the game as they see fit. But many gamers insist that these games are non-canonical and they want an official sanction of their views.

It’s not exclusively an issue with Dungeons & Dragons. Matthew Gault, writing about Fate of Cthulu, a tabletop roleplaying game based on the work of H.P. Lovecraft, says that

Tabletop RPGs are intimate experiences. Players and game masters collaborate to tell a story. Some of those stories can include themes of violence, sex, and any number of horrors both supernatural and banal. Increasingly, game designers are including guides and content warnings to help players navigate these themes responsibility. When they do, a vocal contingent online pushes against it. But players and designers say the content warnings and mature playing guides are working as intended—gatekeeping bad elements of the community and providing a framework for sensitive players to deal with mature narratives in a safe environment.

Gault points to the creative notes inside of Fate of Cthulu, where the editors and artists thanked scholars and experts on H.P Lovecraft’s work on the Cthulu mythos and the creative team’s dismissal of Lovecraft’s racism as well as hateful elements within the gaming community.

The responses were predictable. Thousands of people replied to the tweet. Some praised Evil Hat’s decision, while others logged on to defend Lovecraft from criticism and heap scorn on Evil Hat for daring to point out that a racist was racist. “Since the predictable edgelords and apologists have now shown up,” Evil Hat said in response, “a quick reminder: If you don’t like the politics included in our games, don’t buy them. We literally do not want your money. We are committed to diverse and inclusive gaming. We’re not perfect, but we’re trying.”

Companies like Evil Hat are increasingly faced with discussions within the gaming community that want “edgy” material that also respects racial and gender diversity. Many have taken to include trigger warnings, disclaimers, and extensive rounds of product testing with success.

It’s possible to play in uncomfortable places safely. Vampire: The Masquerade’s 5th edition release made headlines when publisher White Wolf was accused of Antisemitism, promoting pedophilia, and marketing to neo-Nazis. White Wolf’s response was clear and fast—it modified language in its game, apologized profusely, and included an appendix titled “Advice for Considerate Play,” which detailed how to handle violence, fascism, and sexual trauma sensitively in a tabletop RPG.

This might seem excessive, but when the creators of a game open up their system to the inventiveness of players, it creates loopholes for excess. Dungeon Magazine, from the creative team behind Dungeons & Dragons, once published rules for orgies. The developers aren’t always innocent. And while society may be more sensitive towards gender, sexuality, and race than it once was, that doesn’t mean all people in all places are progressive on the issues and conversations that these areas naturally bring up. Where Kim and Goodman discuss race, there are also long-standing issues with acceptance of women at the gaming table, the allowance of rape and pedophilia in campaigns, and the importance of expressed consent and advance notice of sensitive themes within a game because as Gault points out, campaigns can be very “intimate.” After all, roleplaying games by their nature welcome personal investment in performing, safety and understanding among friends and players, and the obvious investment of significant time and energy in the game within a communal space.

Which is why the second work to expand on the game proved so upsetting. It was, of course, created by Matt Mercer and the Critical Role team, The Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount.

Concluded in pt. III

Further Reading

Further Reading on the Alt-Right

2 thoughts on “Dungeons & Dragons, pt. 2

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