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If you'd asked me five years ago whether streaming the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop game online would one day become "a thing," my response would have been a firm . . . "Maybe?"
D&D can be a game of inside jokes, twisting continuity, and periodic lulls in action—not to mention that a single game session might run for hours. Would people want to sit and watch someone else’s D&D game when they could be playing their own game or watching Netflix? As it turns out, the answer is a resounding “Yes.” Livestreaming D&D has become increasingly popular, as the game goes from an activity played in living rooms, game stores, and basements to an activity shared across the Internet. (As a warning, some of the livestream channels and archives linked to in this article contain strong language.)
It was the Acquisitions Inc. live game at PAX Prime in 2010 that first suggested the potential for livestreaming D&D. The popularity of that game and its followup games in 2011 and 2012 made it an easy decision for the Dungeons & Dragons team to start streaming D&D games online back in July of 2013, debuting Against the Slave Lords as part of the D&D Next playtest process. The Acquisitions Inc. live games had been an audio podcast for several years, but the subsequent rise of Twitch.tv, Google Hangouts on Air, and Ustream.tv made it suddenly practical for any D&D game to go fully online.
The D&D games we livestreamed in summer 2013 were a testing ground for what would become our twenty-five-hour Extra Life livestream in November 2013. After that, we kept the livestreaming going, eventually revisiting Extra Life in 2014 and setting up a regular schedule of games for 2015. The full archive of Wizards livestream games includes the following:
- Against the Slave Lords—a low-level game run by DM Mike Mearls, using the classic AD&D scenario and the D&D Next playtest rules.
- The Lich-Queen’s Beloved—a high-level game run by Rodney Thompson, who converted the popular Dungeon adventure to the D&D Next playtest rules.
- D&D Extra Life 2013—a twenty-five-hour D&D game featuring the Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle adventure. The game was run by me, and the team raised over $21,000 for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals.
- Scourge of the Sword Coast—a low-level game with me as DM, using the D&D Encounters adventure.
- Lost Mine of Phandelver—a low-level game run by me, using the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set adventure.
- The Rise of Tiamat—a mid-level game using the second Tyranny of Dragons adventure, run by Rodney Thompson.
- D&D Extra Life 2014—our second twenty-five-hour D&D game, featuring the first Tyranny of Dragons adventure, Hoard of the Dragon Queen. The game was run by me, and the team raised $85,000 for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals.
- Princes of the Apocalypse—a game using the hardcover adventure from the Elemental Evil storyline, featuring D&D brand manager Chris Lindsay as DM.
- The Temple of Elemental Evil—the classic AD&D adventure converted to fifth edition D&D by DM Mike Mearls.
HOW TO LIVESTREAM D&D
I’m not an expert on streaming compared to many of the excellent folks out there running popular video games such as League of Legends, Dota 2, and Minecraft. However, a lot of the rules for video game streaming hold true for tabletop. If you’re interested in getting your own D&D stream going, here are some things to keep in mind.
Audio is Everything
You don’t need a mixer or a set of lavalier lapel microphones to have great audio. Any low- to mid-range microphone with a good surround setting can do the job. For my home game, I’m fond of Yeti microphones for their simplicity. Make sure you test the audio on your streaming program before you start, and shut down any other microphone inputs (such as your computer’s built-in mic or the built-in mics on your web cams), unless you have a mixing board or an equivalent app.
Video is a Close Second
Viewers are typically more willing to tolerate substandard video compared to audio. Still, it’s worth investing in an affordable mid-range webcam. I like the Logitech HD Pro Webcam C920, which runs for under $70 on Amazon. In my home game, I use the Logitech for the players because it has a wide angle, and then use the built-in camera on my Mac for the DM camera. One thing to note: if you’re on a Mac like me, you’ll have limited USB inputs. A lot of USB splitters won’t accept more than one video signal, so if you’re using more than a couple of cameras, you’ll probably need a Mac docking station. Of course, if you’re livestreaming a game in which everyone is participating remotely, this is less of an issue.
In my opinion, the best options for livestreaming software are Xplit for Windows users and OBS for Mac and Linux users. Both these programs are pretty straightforward. You’ll need your stream key, which you can get on Twitch by going to your dashboard and selecting the Stream Key tab. This key is what allows your software to talk to the streaming service. One major advantage of these services is the ability to use graphic overlays, which can include cool graphic frames, name plaques, maps, and other images you want to share with viewers.
My experience is primarily with Twitch, so I can speak to that better than Ustream or Google Hangouts on Air. Twitch allows users to follow your channel and engage with the players through a chat. In my home livestream, we keep the Twitch chat posted up on a TV screen, so that players can respond to suggestions from the audience. The chat room helps foster a sense of community, which has been a huge part of the development of popular livestream games. If players aren’t in a shared space, you can use a third-party virtual tabletop service such as Fantasy Grounds or Roll20.net to facilitate play. To broadcast your D&D game from these services, use Xplit or OBS to transmit the window where play is taking place online. Alternatively, you can use these virtual tabletops to supplement your in-person games. For example, I use Chromecast to transmit my Roll20 virtual tabletop from my computer to my TV. Players and stream viewers can see the screen, and I can use a stylus to modify the maps and draw illustrations.
Creating a Group and Community
Living in Seattle and being part of Wizards of the Coast, I’ve never had a problem finding players interested in Dungeons & Dragons. As a result, whenever I set out to create a group for D&D livestreaming—whether it’s my home game, the D&D Extra Life team, or a Wizards livestream—I can try to create a group that’s entertaining. If you’re just interested in broadcasting your home group for fun, you needn’t worry about group composition. But if you’re going for viewership and entertainment value, you might consider player motivations (from the introduction of the Dungeon Master’s Guide) and having a mix of new and experienced players. In addition, having a space online where people can find your play schedule (such as a blog) or talk about your game (including Reddit or Obsidian Portal) can really help to foster community. If you’re part of the D&D Extra Life team, having a list of donation rewards can also give viewers a sense of participation in the game.
Spread the Word, Keep a Schedule
Keeping a regular schedule will help promote viewership, but you’ll also need to spread the word. Use TweetDeck to schedule tweets announcing your event in the time leading up to it, and try to avoid canceling games. Five players is a good number to shoot for, so that even if one or two people cancel, you can still play. Watch other tabletop game streams and interact with fellow D&D streamers to get them involved.
The Wizards of the Coast D&D Twitch channel broadcasts D&D games featuring members of WotC and D&D R&D, typically every other week. But you can also catch a number of other games online.
- JP and our friends over at RollPlay have a variety of tabletop game streams, including a fifth edition D&D stream called the West Marches run by Steve Lumpkin, and one called Solum run by Neal Erickson.
- Critical Role is a new D&D livestream on Geek & Sundry’s channel. Many of the players, including Dungeon Master Matthew Mercer, are voice actors. The game is typically on Thursday evenings.
- ItsDatto is a Destiny streamer who also runs a semi-regular D&D game currently set in Baldur’s Gate. The games are typically on Saturday nights.
- Neal also runs a D&D livestream game on Saturdays on his own channel called Age of Strife.
- The Misscliks Twitch channel runs a D&D variant called Demigods regularly on Tuesdays.
- Dragons of Miryndir is my home game, which I run semimonthly on Sundays on my personal Twitch channel. You can catch up on the archive here.
- Dave over at Table_Topping runs a couple fifth edition D&D games, as well as Dungeon Master workshops. His channel has an interesting system for accruing “XP” for viewers.
You can find more games currently streaming on Twitch in the Dungeons & Dragons category using the directory.
The D&D Extra Life team will also be returning this year. Tthis year’s game will be even longer, and will feature more participants. Whether you’re streaming the game or not, you can join now or catch the archive of the 2013 game and 2014 game.
About the Author
Greg Bilsland is digital marketing manager and senior owlbear wrangler for the Dungeons & Dragons R&D team. When he’s not wrangling, he spends his time gallivanting around the world, making costumes, and, of course, playing games. Follow him on Twitter at @gregbilsland.