Tuesday, March 27, 2018

State of Fantasy RPGs, Part II--In Praise of 13th Age

Image result for picture, 13th ageI was half-way through writing a post about 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons before I realized that so much I want to say about that game requires me to first talk about 13th Age as a point of comparison.  If I had to pick one game to play that is in the broad family tree of Dungeons & Dragons, I would pick 13th Age.  But, why?

13th Age was designed by Jonathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo and released in 2013 (a year before 5e, which is a relevant point that I will get to in a bit).  Tweet and Heinsoo have described 13th Age as a "love letter" to D&D, and you can clearly see the influences of their previous projects in 13th Age (Tweet was a co-lead on D&D 3rd Editon, Heinsoo on 4th).  It is a d20-based game, published under the Open Gaming License, using all of the standard D&D tropes and concepts.  Indeed, the core rulebook is written in a manner that pre-supposes that you have played and are already familiar with other D&D derived d20 games.  There are several places in the core rulebook where it says "hey, if you want to import this traditional D&D concept [alignment is an example], more power to you," without at all explaining what the concept is or how it works.  In their defense, the intro to the corebook describes 13th Age as being a game for experienced GMs (read: experienced d20 GMs), so they are transparent about what they are doing.  Still, my primary complaint about 13th Age is that the core rulebook is not well organized and is a bit impenetrable, even for folks who know what they are looking at, as 13th Age changes enough stuff that you have to read carefully to figure out what is going on.  The later offerings in the 13th Age line are much, much better organized, perhaps showing the influence of the good folks at Pelgrane Press who publish 13th Age.

In any event, while 13th Age is clearly in the broader d20 family, it is distinct in several ways.  Tweet and Heinsoo are writing a love letter to D&D, but more specifically they are writing a love letter to the kind of D&D that they like to play.  After all, there have been many different, and even somewhat mutually exclusive, ways to play and approach D&D in its 40+ year history, and 13th Age unambiguously picks a lane.  Specifically, 13th Age is designed to play a high-powered, cinematic version of D&D13th Age characters start out powerful and grow to become almost demigods, and are deeply enmeshed in the great deeds and goings on of the most powerful figures in the campaign world.  In a broader sense, 13th Age is an opinionated game, in the sense that the designers are very clear about what they are trying to do and what they think is cool about D&D, and it oozes from every page.  There are frequent side bars where the designers talk directly to the reader/GM and discuss the thinking behind a certain rule or monster.  It's direct, but it is not preachy or confining; instead, it comes across more as having a casual conversation with the designers about the game.  There is also a clear sense of humor than runs through the text--the entry for the "Demon Toad" in the pre-release copy of the Book of Demons that I have in front of me begins with the following bit of flavor text:

“Cover your mouth when you burp,” say parents near the Hell Marsh, “or the demon toads will hear you and eat us.” Yeah, it’s pretty dark over there.

This is certainly not the only way to approach D&D, and I don't sense that you would get any disagreement on that point from Tweet and Heinsoo.  It is completely valid to play D&D as a grim survival game where your characters are poor, starving retches with only the barest hope of survival, but if you want that then 13th Age is clearly not what you are looking for.  And I suppose you might find the sidebars and the jokes off-putting or or lacking gravitas, and if so then 13th Age would have little value for you.  I recognize that the biggest part of the reason I like 13th Age is that my sensibilities happen to line up pretty closely with Tweet and Heinsoo.  As I said regarding Midgard, 13th Age is not what everyone is looking for, but it is definitely what some people are looking for, and in this case "some people" includes "me."

But it is more than tone that 13th Age brings to the table.  Mechanically, 13th Age was being designed around the same time that 5e was being worked on, and I think you can detect a very similar set of design goals.  First, both 13th Age and 5e start from the proposition that the two (at the time) primarily competitors in the d20 space--Pathfinder and 4e--are too complicated and play too slowly, especially in combat.  As a result, both games significantly pare down the volume of rules and strip away much of the tactical dimension that was front and center in Pathfinder and 4e.  The overall complexity level of the two games is more or less the same (with the possible exception of the magic and spellcasting rules, which are simpler in 13th Age than in 5e).  In many ways, 13th Age is a kind of "mirror universe" version of 5e, in the sense that it shows off a different set of solutions to some of the same fundamental problems that 5e was grappling with.

Having said that, I think 5e is in many ways a more conservative design than 13th Age.  By virtue of not having to be all things to all sorts of D&D players (which is the defining feature of 5e, and which I will get to in the next post), 13th Age is more free to innovate and experiment.  Notably, in part because 13th Age doesn't have to directly react to the backlash to 4e, it keeps more of the good ideas that came out of 4e and improves on them.  Monster design in 13th Age is even more 4e-like than 4e, in the sense that they have few stats to keep track of and are very easy for the GM to run on the fly, making it much simpler for the GM than 5e13th Age also innovates in terms of class design, in that there are a host of classes that have unique and interesting mechanics that are fun to play (the Fighter and the Rogue are particularly good from the core book, as are most of the classes in the expansion 13 True Ways).  13th Age also basically removes the non-magical shopping mini-game of previous editions, where you figure out how many coils of rope you can buy or whether it is advantageous to use a falchion or a glaive-guisarme.  Instead, armor and weapon damage are basically derived from your class and can be flavored however you want, while mundane equipment is hand-waived away.

But the biggest point of departure is the way that 13th Age merges concepts from narrative and story-oriented games into the d20 framework.  Before working on 3rd Edition D&D, Jonathan Tweet was a designer for Ars Magica and Over the Edge, two games that in many ways are ancestors of the "indie" narratively-focused games that began to come out in the early 00s.  This background positions 13th Age to take parts of that strand of game design and splice it back into the basic D&D framework.  This splicing happens in a couple of ways.  First, 13th Age works on the notion that players will have significant agency in story creation, rather than putting all of that on the GM.  At character creation, players select backgrounds (descriptions of pre-adventuring backstory that take the place of d20-style skill systems), Icon relationships (positive, negative, or conflicted connections to the major NPC forces of the world), and a "One Unique Thing" (some detail that is true only for that character).  These elements work to build out the world--if a player decides that their One Unique Thing is that they are the only survivor of the Knights of Nee, then the Knights of Nee are an thing that existed in the campaign world.

Image result for dragon empire 13th age, mapFacilitating this sort of world building is the default campaign setting of the Dragon Empire, which is very deliberately only half built-out.  You have a map with some city names and some geographic locations, but there is no more than a paragraph of description in the Core book for each place.  I was initially somewhat perplexed by this (expecting a hyper-detailed campaign setting of the type you see in something like Midgard Campaign Setting), but it dawned on me that the ambiguity was designed so that the players and GM would fill in the details as they went along.  It's similar to the way games like Dungeon World tell you to "draw maps, leave blanks"--while 13th Age draws the map for you, there are plenty of blanks to fill in.  Even better, later supplements routinely present a series of sometimes mutually exclusive options for the GM to pick from--the Bestiary gives five different backstories for dark elves, 13 True Ways has city descriptions with multiple options, etc.  By approaching world building in this way, you never have to worry about awkwardly shoe-horning your campaign into a pre-designed world, but you also have a platform to build the campaign around, as opposed to building out of whole cloth.

What this sets up is a two-phase play experience.  When the game is out of combat and the players are exploring or talking to NPCs, 13th Age plays like a narrative game--something not all that different from Dungeon World.  But, when combat comes, 13th Age snaps back to being a D&D style game, albeit one that is simpler and more abstract than Pathfinder or 3e/4e.  For me, this is the sweet spot between the two styles of game.  One of the things I have found for more rules-light or narratively focused games is that combat is often the least interesting thing you can do in those systems (that's definitely my experience with Dungeon World, and it is also my experience with Cypher System games like Numenera).  That's fine for certain sorts of games where combat is not a big part of the story, but if you are going to do a D&D adjacent thing, you need combat to be engaging in a way that I don't personally find true in most narrative systems.  On the flip side, if you watch carefully streams of D&D like Critical Role, there are long stretches of play where there is very little rules engagement, because there is little mechanical support in traditional D&D for interacting with NPCs or exploring backstory.  13th Age doesn't go as far as some narrative games, but it provides a number of mechanical hooks and pieces to interface with those portions of the play experience.

So, I love 13th Age because I think it sits perfectly in the middle of D&D style games and more story-oriented games.  But there are a couple of things to point out that might make it a poor fit for groups and GMs.  First, it basically requires an experienced GM, and more specifically an experienced GM that is good at improvising.  Again, to be fair the text says that right up front, but juggling the different Icon relationship die on the fly would be challenging if you are a prep-oriented GM.  That fits well into my style, but it's not everyone's style.  Also, having run a number of one shots for 13th Age at conventions and other situations, I think that those settings don't do a good job of showing off what makes 13th Age special.  It is really hard to work the Icon relationships and One Unique Things into a one-off session, and without those things 13th Age is basically an alternative version of 5e without much that sets it apart.  Longer campaigns, or at least multi-session stories, are really the preferred home for 13th Age.

But I think the biggest thing about 13th Age, to return to what I started with, is that it is an opinionated game.  Among the various ways that D&D can be expressed and played, 13th Age picks one and runs with it.  If you are on the same wavelength as the designers and play a game with that sort of tone and sensibilities, then you are good to go.  But 13th Age doesn't work as well if you want to do something radically different, like gritty dungeon crawling.  13th Age gives you enormous flexibility within the context of big epic fantasy, but it really only does big epic fantasy.  Don't fight the game's design goals and perspectives--if it's not what you want, go find a different game, of which there are many options.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Review: Midgard Campaign Setting

There is a sense in which published campaign settings for Dungeons & Dragons need to justify their own existence.  D&D was originally designed to be a tool-kit for DMs to put together their own settings and fantasy worlds.  And, if you don't want to do that, there are probably two dozen campaign settings around that you can pick from, many of them very good and with as much detail as you could possibly want.  Off the top of my head, even if you just look at very standard Western medieval fantasy settings, you have the Forgotten Realms (the more or less default campaign setting for D&D 5th Edition), Greyhawk, Krynn/Dragonlance, Golarion (for Pathfinder), and Tal'Dorei (i.e. Matt Mercer's campaign world for Critical Role).  Any one of those will give you plenty of hooks to generate a campaign--do you need a new one?

Kobold Press's Midgard setting is not new--it first came out in a comprehensive book form in 2011, and was used in bits and pieces in their adventures and other stuff prior to that--but it is new to me.  I picked up their Tome of Beasts as part of a package deal via "Bundle of Holding," and was impressed with their stuff enough to dig in to Midgard.  They just completed a Kickstarter for a new round of Midgard materials, and I received the pre-orders last week.  While the Kickstarter campaign had more elements than just two, the core components are a Heroes Handbook for 5e (and a series of similar books for other game systems like Pathfinder) and the system-agnostic Midgard Worldbook.

I'll talk briefly about the Heroes Handbook--it is 200+ pages of high quality "crunch."  One of the complaints in some quarters about 5e is the lack of additional options beyond what was found in the Players Handbook--more races, more class choices, more spells, more magic items, etc.  Well, here you go--11 new races (plus variations on existing choices), over 40 additional subclass choices, new feats and backgrounds, some very cool magic options, lots of new spells.  Much of the new stuff is tied thematically to the Midgard setting, but not so closely that you couldn't shave off the serial numbers and repurpose it.  I haven't gone through with a fine-tooth comb to look for balance problems, but nothing jumps out at me as crazy (though, the feasibility of a centaur PC strikes me as very dependent on how the DM/group interprets the logistical problems of a horse-sized, four legged character moving in spaces designed for smaller, two legged folks).  Crunch is hard to review, but it is interesting and flavorful and there is a ton of it, which is basically all you can ask for.

Image result for midgard world book, imageThe real meat of the thing, though, is the Worldbook.  One of the key ways that Midgard sets itself apart from other settings is a strong underlying theme.  Many of the settings I referenced above are "blender" settings--you take a bunch of fantasy and D&D tropes, throw them together in a blender, and get an end product.  That's not a criticism, and that can really work well and provide an easy on-ramp to the setting because the component elements are familiar.  But Midgard leans heavily into a core theme, and that theme is Central and Eastern European folklore.  Many of the different kingdoms and other political  divisions have pretty explicit real-world parallels--the Ironcrag Cantons are Switzerland, the Magdar Kingdom is Hungary, Morgau and Doresh is Romania/Transylvania, Vidim is the Grand Duchy of Vladimir (a key component of what later becomes Russia), the Septime city-states are Italy, etc.  Not everything is Central and Eastern European, as there is also a fantasy Scandinavia and fantasy Egypt.  And not all of the political entities have a one-to-one parallel--the Mharoti Empire is kind of its own thing with hints of the Seljuk and Ottoman Turks.  But, by and large, the setting is really grounded in its source material.

Using real world Expys is a love-it-or-hate-it thing, but personally I really like it, because it allows you to tap into historical material for color, without being chained to it (after all, it still is a fantasy world).  Tying it to a reference point lets you flesh out the smaller details of a place by drawing on the historical parallels.  Little things that bring a world to life, like food, can just be ported over--saying that the Magdar Kingdom loves goulash is a cool detail, and one that is much easier than having to invent a fictional cuisine.  Midgard is not the first or only D&D campaign world to do this (Golarion has many real-world parallels), but it does it effectively.

Using Central and Eastern Europe as a source gives the world a different feel.  Most fantasy settings (at least the ones in English) lean heavily on British and French sources for inspiration, such as all of the different versions of Arthurian material.  All of that is basically absent in Midgard--there is no British isles expy at all, and where France and Spain would be on the map is a wasteland left over from a magic war that unleashed Cthulhu-like entities.  Freed of some of that crutch of the familiar, Midgard feels exotic and different from other D&D settings.  But it is not so different that the bulk of the existing D&D material doesn't fit or has to be reworked.  Midgard fits comfortably within the broader world of D&D and can be "picked up and played," but is different enough that people looking for something a little newer will be satisfied.

The other place where the source material comes through is how dark the Midgard setting is.  Most people know that the original Brothers Grimm fairytales are pretty dark, and the Eastern European and Russian material is at least that dark if not moreso.  Midgard keeps all of that, playing out how those ideas and tropes would translate into a world defined by D&D high fantasy conventions.  I was particularly struck by how the section on Morgau and Doresh portrayed a land openly ruled by vampires as genuinely scary and unsettling.  Vampires are so common in fiction that I think they have lost some of their, if I may, bite.  But Midgard really leans all the way in to the implications of vampires as overlords, especially the implicit theme of sexual violence that runs through vampire mythos.  It also does a nice job of pairing that up with the implications of medieval serfdom, a topic that many fantasy worlds minimize or excise completely.  Being a serf under a lord, with only the most nominal restrictions on the lord's discretion, would be a deeply anxiety-producing and fearful existence; making the lord into a vampire just compounds and emphasizes that anxiety and fear.

Honestly, I suspect some folks will find Midgard too dark for their tastes.  Beyond the vampire kingdom, slavery is extremely common (and they don't shy away from talking about how terrible it would be to be a slave) and blood sacrifices and other dark rituals are ubiquitous and not limited to the obvious "black hat" factions.  Midgard is a place where the usually cheerful gnomes worship demonic powers as way to avoid being eaten by the Baba Yaga.  This is not Middle Earth, and there are no obvious white-knight factions and no clean good-versus evil fights.  But it is also not performatively "grimdark," and I think the fact that they are drawing on dark fairytale source material makes all of the dark stuff feel like it is a reasonable extension of the basic premises of the setting as opposed to a cheap exercise in Edge Lord-ism (though, Beldestan and the Despotate of the Ruby Sea walk close to the line).  The tone is not for everyone, but if you are looking for a high-fantasy, D&D style world with a Game of Thrones sensibility, Midgard might be exactly what you are looking for.

Beyond tone, the quality of the material in the Worldbook is very high. The book is almost 500 pages long, so there is a ton of material (though the last 80 pages or so are rules material for both 5e and Pathfinder, which is a little weird given that there are separate crunch books [Edit: based on a podcast with Wolfgang Bauer, the head of Kobold Press, the material in the Worldbook is supposed to be for NPCs only, which makes sense]).  Each major political division and city is described, but given the size of the world there is plenty of room for DMs to add their own stuff.  There are maps of each major region and of key cities, and they are gorgeous (I love RPG maps).  There really aren't any boring regions, but a couple of them really stand out.  Beside the vampire kingdoms I mentioned above, I thought the Italy-inspired Septime cities were interesting both individually and as a group, as well as the post-apocalyptic Western Wastes (along with the paranoid surviving wizard kingdom of Allain) and the weird mirror world of the Shadow Realm (especially the nature loving, heroic talking bears of the Moonlight Glades).  It's all just very well done.

I'd like to talk about one thing that Midgard does especially well, and that is its treatment of religion.  As folks who read my other stuff know, religion is something that I have a pretty serious interest in, and that bleeds over into RPGs--I almost always read the religion section of any campaign book first.  D&D religions are generally perfectly good at providing a vehicle for the cleric to have cool abilities and pretty bad at providing a religious universe that makes any sense, especially from the point of view of a regular lay believer.  Part of the problem is that the medieval world was a monotheistic one, while D&D religions are almost always polytheistic, but without a good understanding of how polytheism operates.  As a result, you end up with settings where each god or goddess functions like a completely self-contained religion in a monotheistic style, which doesn't work--why would any non-cleric, farmer types sign up exclusively for the church of the "God of Lies" or other very narrow divine portfolios?  There are of course settings that are exceptions to this general rule--Glorantha is the best example (not surprising, since it was invented by a mythology scholar), but I think the Eberron campaign setting also does a good job recognizing and avoiding this problem.

Midgard is another setting that does a good job on the religion front.  First, they make the unusual but effective choice to use gods and goddesses from real world mythology.  Thus, instead of coming up with a deity that is basically a re-skinned version of Thor, you just have Thor.  In keeping with the influences, there are Slavic deities, Roman/Greek deities, Egyptian deities, even a couple of Middle Eastern deities for the dragons (anyone up for being a follower of Baal?)  To keep the number of gods and goddesses to a reasonable number, each region, country, and city has between four and six deities that are revered in that area, with one or maybe two as the "patron" of the place.  It means that each area has a polytheistic religious system that is broad enough to make sense for ordinary believers, while still allowing for religious conflict and competing traditions.  Moreover, deities have "masks," which means that two different deities in different regions are probably different masks or versions of the same deity.  In addition to adding a real-world anthropological note (most anthropologists believe that similarities of mythology between cultures are caused by an original Indo-European root for all of them), it drastically simplifies things from a game perspective, since all of the masks provide their clerics with the same or similar abilities.  And the obvious "bad guy" deities, which are good fodder for game purposes but often hard to make sense of in in-world terms, are both very nasty but also have their own internal logic--with Marena, the Red Goddess of blood, child bearing, lust, and undeath worshiped by the vampire lords being a particular stand-out. Some people will not care about this level of detail, but I loved it and thought it added a great deal of verisimilitude and brought the setting to life for me.   A+ from me on that front.

To return to where I started, the Midgard campaign setting is one that absolutely justifies its own existence.  It is not what everyone is looking for, but it is exactly what someone is looking for--a unique, dark fantasy world in a huge, well-defined and evocative setting.  The writing is excellent, and some of the regions are simply brilliant (Morgau and Doresh, the Septimes, the Western Wastes).  It goes to near the top of my list for D&D campaign settings, and with a group that is OK with some edgy material, I think it would make for a really memorable campaign location.  Highly recommended. 

Friday, March 16, 2018

State of Fantasy RPGs, Part 1--I For One Welcome Our Voice Actor Overlords

It is, perhaps, unsurprising and inevitable that something as successful as Critical Role would provoke some measure of backlash eventually.  I mean, a show on the internet of people playing D&D has billboards in Los Angeles advertising it.
As the kids might say, "they major."  And things that are major tend to attract criticism, both fair and unfair.  So, along those lines, I've been giving a little bit of thought about those criticisms, because I think they provide some insight into the state of things in the hobby and where it might be going.

First, a couple of preliminary matters.  I think I could be characterized as a "moderate Critter"--I have watched and enjoyed many episodes of Critical Role, but I have not seen every one, nor do I participate in the broader Critical Role fan community.  Part of it, and I can't for the life of me understand why this is, is that I have to be in a very specific frame of mind to really engage with either streamed or podcasted tabletop RPG content.  I would think that I would eat up streamed RPGs given how much I like playing RPGs and reading RPG books, but I have a tendency to zone out.  And it's not specific to Critical Role--I have an enormous backlog of Friends at the Table episodes that make me sad every time I look at my Podbean feed.  It is what it is, I guess.

Second, many of the critiques that I have seen have come from Kasimir Urbanski, a/k/a "the Rpgpundit."  I don't want to make this personal to him (because I think it is broader than just one person), but I think I am being pretty even-handed when I say the Rpgpundit is a controversial figure in the online RPG world, one that has very specific ideas about the correct way to play tabletop RPGs (some of which I think are at least to some degree motivating some of the criticisms) and who is not hesitant to express those positions.  I think that's worth getting on the table as well.

So, what are the criticisms?  Like many things, I think there are a couple of distinct if related issues in play, making it worthwhile to tease them apart.  The first one is the claim that Critical Role is not presenting an authentic picture of what D&D is really like.  To be honest, when I first saw this criticism I was baffled.  One of the things that struck me immediately when I first saw Critical Role was how little artifice the show had--it basically was pointing a camera at a bunch of people playing D&D and pressing record.  None of the rules were simplified, and the kind of additional material is exactly the kind of homebrew stuff you would see in any D&D campaign.  What's not authentic?

Digging a little deeper, there are a couple of references to/complaints about the "scripted" nature of Critical Role.  Here, I think we need to situate this in the context of a broader debate about what the "right way to play D&D."  Critical Role, and most but not all of the streamed games, has a strong narrative focus, emphasizing character development and ongoing complex storylines.  Critical Role is scripted in the sense that Matt Mercer develops large scale plotlines ahead of time and has them play out during the course of play.  Critical Role certainly didn't invent this style of play, but the visibility of Critical Role likely pushes this style of game to the forefront.  By contrast, there is a school of thought that views this as a departure from the way that tabletop RPGs, and D&D in particular, were designed to be played.  These folks have been very vocal about the trend toward more narrative focused play, and so to the extent that Critical Role makes this style more popular this would be seen by this group as a bad thing.

It is ironic that Gary Gygax was famously dismissive of people "using funny voices" while playing D&D, while now the most famous players of D&D are people who make funny voices for a living.  But, for me, I am totally uninterested in any sort of "original intent" arguments marshaled to tell people what the "right way" to play D&D is.  For one, I prefer a more narrative style in my games--one of the reasons 13th Age is my favorite d20 fantasy game is the elements in the game that facilitate narrative play.  For another, I think the narrative play style accentuates the things about tabletop RPGs that are superior to other forms of media, especially video games.  But even putting those things aside, once you buy the books, you can play the game any way you want, and if people see something they like, they are allowed to model what they see.  Insisting that you play D&D according to the ethos and preferences of Gary Gygax and other folks from the 70s is a weird form of RPG fundamentalism.

A second dimension to the criticism is that Critical Role creates unrealistic expectations for people about the experience of playing D&D, leading to disappointment when Critical Role viewers sit down to play themselves.  One thing along those lines that I have heard that I think is just wrong is that Matt Mercer is such a transcendent DM that no mere mortal will ever be able to match his work, leading to inevitable let down.  Don't get me wrong, Mercer is a fantastic DM, but at the end of the day he is not doing anything that is different in kind from what thousands of other DMs do in games every day.  Even the visuals used on Critical Role, while perfectly great, are not anything out of the ordinary or beyond the realm of reasonable possibility.  Early episodes of Critical Role used hand-drawn maps and other low-tech solutions.  That's not a criticism, but it points out that home DMs can do the stuff that Mercer does, with the probable exception of the voice work (check out videos of the insane stuff people make with Dwarven Forge to see the scope of what is possible).  It's not like he has holograms of monsters or other blow-out-the-budget bells and whistles.  It's not giving Critical Role viewers much credit to think that they can't internalize the idea that their first home game experience is not going be an exact copy of what they see on Twitch.  But how different is what goes on at the table, anyway?

Another issue is the concern that people will see a group of actors and conclude that only actors can do what the Critical Role cast does.  To be honest, I wondered about that myself.  But that doesn't seem to be the case.  Last weekend, I stumbled upon a half-dozen Youtube channels of people (all women, FWIW) who were offering "how to start playing D&D" advice, and all of them said that they started playing because of Critical Role.  That's anec-data, to be sure, but it suggests that people are inspired by what they are seeing, as opposed to being scared off.  Plus, if ten people start watching Critical Role with no prior D&D experience, but half are scared off of playing because of the acting talents of the crew, that's still five new D&D players that wouldn't have existed otherwise.

Along those lines, some have pointed to the large fan community for Critical Role that is producing fan-art or other spin-off content and claiming that they are not "part of the D&D community" because they are not actually playing D&D.  I guess that is true in some narrow definitional sense, but who cares?  People can spend their free time however they choose.  I love watching ice hockey but can't skate--does that make me not a "real" hockey fan, such that I should get banished from the island of fans?  In addition, playing tabletop RPGs require a fairly significant group of people to play with, which is an ever-present challenge.  Lots of folks who want to play can't play for some period of time.  If you can't play, then it is not surprising to see folks trying to get their RPG fix in other ways.  And if you don't want to play, that's OK, too.

The final line of thought, and the one that bothers me the most, is that Critical Role and other shows with professional actors and other "famous" people represents some sort of invasion of the "cool kids" that will crowd out the core nerdy base of D&D and/or represents an invasion of "fake" gamers that are just pretending to be into D&D.  First off, it is literally impossible to be crowded out of the RPG space.  I am confident that Wizards of the Coast will print as many Players Handbooks as people want to buy.  You don't need a ticket or a license to play D&D.  Even if it became socially necessary for every actor and model and famous person to play D&D weekly, you still get to play if you want.

Second, unless you really want to put on the tinfoil hat and decide that the interviews that Mercer and folks like Joe Manganiello give are fake news, these folks are hardcore, long-time D&D players.  Mercer started with 2nd Edition, over 20 years ago (as did I, incidentally).  The Critical Role crew played Pathfinder for almost a year before there was even the notion of streaming it.  Even the newer players show clear and difficult to fake signs of being bitten hard by the bug--is there anything that says "I am a serious D&D player" more than Laura Bailey's excessive dice collection and borderline-OCD pre-game dice rituals?  Plus, notwithstanding the rising popularity of D&D, it's not like streaming some D&D is a direct line to Oscar roles or whatever, making it highly unlikely that anyone would go through the trouble of faking interest in the game.  I suppose it is conceivable that some day ambitious young actors will need to get into the right streaming games in order to advance in Hollywood, but how about we cross that authenticity bridge when we come to it?

Here's another thing about the idea that Critical Role represents the "cool kids."  I don't know the backgrounds of all of the folks on the show, but I assume many of them were, to one degree or another, "theater kids" when they were in high school, as that tends to be the population that becomes professional actors.  I don't know about your high school, but the "theater kids" were not the same group as the "cool kids" at my high school--acting in a couple of plays didn't exactly enhance my Q rating.  I have a strong suspicion that many of the Critical Role crew are thinking "since when did we become the cool kids?"

But that gets to the broader issue, one that transcends Critical Role and tabletop RPGs entirely.  Here I want to get a little serious, and put on my "Uncle Mike" hat for a moment to dispense some advice, and maybe even wisdom.  Here it is:  Holding grudges and carrying water from when you were 15 years old is no way to live.  If you look at the Critical Role folks, see the faces of people who rejected you many years before, and that causes you to get mad and want to exclude them, then that's something you need to work on with yourself, because that will be a massive detriment to leading a happy life.  I don't mean to be dismissive or condescending, but the biggest pathology I see in "geek culture" is the notion that we were or are uniquely and singularly ostracized, and that this justifies bad or questionable behavior in the present.

That's simply not true.  Everyone, even the "cool kids," felt awkward and isolated and confused when they were teenagers.  The culture of victimhood in geek culture consists primarily in lashing out at people who are not responsible for the perceived source of victimization, and often at people who were more or less in the same boat as those lashing out.  It's counter-productive, it's wrong, and you don't have to react that way.

New people want to come play the game you love.  Some of them may be people who you (or they) would never have thought would be interested.  And others who were always here have become more visible.  There is no reason to treat this as a negative unless you insist on being unhappy about it.  You don't have to play with them, or the way they play, if you don't want; they don't have to impact what you do in any way.  It can be entirely neutral if you want.  But, for me, I like seeing people doing something that makes them happy, and it certainly seems like Critical Role makes the crew and a large group of fans very happy.  It doesn't really matter who they are, where they come from, or what they do.  At a minimum, let them enjoy it, and let it go.

Anyway, the bottom line is, from where I am sitting, everything about the Critical Role phenomenon is a positive thing for folks who are tabletop RPG gamers and want to see the hobby flourish and grow.  It is bringing in new blood, and new blood is basically always good.  People are playing the games and having fun, and that's also basically always good.  It sure looks like we are entering a new golden age of tabletop RPGs, brought about in large measure by a group of self-proclaimed nerdy voice actors.  I can't see a reason not to celebrate that.