I had watched actual play videos, and listened to actual play podcasts in the past. Heck, eventually, I ran an actual play for Marvel Heroic through hangouts on YouTube. I understood the concept, and, especially when it came to games I hadn't seen played before, I liked to see what people were doing with the game system.
I had even watched a few of the "celebrity D&D" episodes with Vin Diesel and later Joe Manganeillo. They were amusing, but the impression I got was that the show was super overproduced, mainly to showcase Matthew Mercer's voice acting as he ran a game. Also, I have a really bad habit of growing more skeptical of content when the "awesome" to "constructive criticism" ratio gets too high. I mean, it helped me avoid Avatar for years, what could be wrong with listening to my skeptical guts? I'm also going to admit that the Force Grey episodes that Mercer ran at the launch of Storm King's Thunder didn't win me over, in large part because several cast members were very invested in over the top mugging for the camera, and it didn't feel like a game was being played, it felt like an improv act with dice. In retrospect, none of that really seemed to be Mercer's fault.
Upon listening to other actual plays, I learned what I liked and what I didn't like. I like comedic one shot games, or story arcs, especially if that's the theme of the game being played. I don't tend to like more "serious" games being played for all out comedy, or relatively structured games that are played in an actual play with almost no reference to the rules. It's not that there is anything wrong with actual plays of that nature, it's just that my brain has developed a preference for "hearing the game" when a game is being played. No matter how good or entertaining, when I can't make out mechanics or a recognizable flow of a game, I start to get frustrated. That's totally a preference thing on my part.
I'll also admit that when I watch an actual play on YouTube, "watch" is a very loose term for what I do. I often have YouTube minimized while I'm doing other things, like prepping for a game or taking notes for a review. The exception to this is usually when I'm watching Tabletop (or Titansgrave) when they feature a roleplaying game, because the graphical presentation is set up to actually highlight the rules being used.
I was pleasantly surprised by some of the bits of the Stream of Annihilation that I watched. It seemed like there was less over the top comedic mugging, and more people playing different styles of D&D. Some may have been more comedic than others, but they seemed like they were gaming, and enjoying the game. In addition, this brought my attention to the anniversary of Critical Role.
In conjunction with the anniversary of Critical Role, the earlier episodes started to get converted to audio podcasts. I decided to check them out.
My earlier impressions had been way off. This wasn't an overproduced group of people that were just there so Matthew Mercer could do voice work. This was a group of friends that was having fun playing D&D. There was comedy, but not really all that much more than most games I have been involved with. They were using the rules to guide them to tell a collective story. That's actually what I'm looking for in an actual play, boiled down to base elements.
Now, I do think that some people may end up over-hyping the show. Matthew Mercer is an excellent voice actor, and it shows, and he is a good DM, but I don't think he's the platonic ideal of all game mastering.
- Friends playing a recognizable game enthusiastically
- Awesome vocal range from a crew of people that are trained for that kind of thing
- A dedicated and talented GM
- Wow, these are long episodes
- With minimal editing comes stuff that almost of gamers do that isn't all that entertaining to others
- From time to time, Mercer takes a bit more narrative control of the players when resolving things than I like
In fact, I was interested enough in the show that I ended up getting the PDF of the Tal'dorei Campaign Setting from Green Ronin. I'll get around to reviewing it eventually, but I was curious to see what they included, and how they framed some elements of the setting, given that it's cobbled together from bits of Pathfinder and previous editions of D&D.
As a gaming artifact to see how a home game transfers over to a professionally produced campaign setting, I'm interested to see how this product turned out.
If by some insane bit of random luck Matthew Mercer ever sees this--I am really sorry. You and your friends have a really good thing going on.