#62: Actual Play
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2023 issue.
I’m not a great one for what I believe are called ‘actual play’ broadcasts of role-playing games on the internet. I never imagined when I was young that one day watching others role play would become a thing. I can scarcely believe it’s become a thing now. Wouldn’t you rather just be playing yourself than watching others? But I’ve said from the earliest days of teaching students about the world wide web (my lectures don’t quite predate the internet itself) that there’s something for everyone and it allows even those interested in the most obscure things to connect with each other around the world. I think Mongolian throat singing of the 17th century was my go to example when I first spoke to classes. So there seems to be an audience for AP and at a guess, it’s growing.
I find Actual Play glacially slow – I could get through a similar amount of content by reading in a tenth of the time. They’re often rather cliquey and full of in-jokes which can leave the viewer feeling rather left out. Hearing what’s going on can be an issue – especially with advancing age – as the sound quality and/or the tendency to talk over people can leave a lot to be desired, not to mention playing background music on a loop. Following an ongoing campaign can demand vast sinks of time depending on how frequent the broadcasts are. And, as I’ve suggested above, much like say football or even porn, I’d far rather be playing than watching. Some Actual Play sessions allow those watching live to chat and interact with the players which can ameliorate the ‘distance’ somewhat. For the most part, if you’re watching a stream with a large audience or you’re watching asynchronously on demand, it can only be a passive experience.
When Critical Role started its latest season with an all new ‘set’ and the promise of higher production quality, enough of a fuss was made about it that even I – who don’t really follow such things – became aware of it. I’d heard of Critical Role and I’d heard of Matthew Mercer the referee and I’d heard enough to feel a little bit left out that I’d never seen it, even though Dungeons & Dragons is something that’s rather passed me by for various reasons. It’s not that I don’t think I’d like it, but I just missed it being A Thing at school, didn’t encounter it at college, had no chance of stumbling across it during three years abroad in very out of the way places, and by the time I was at university was thoroughly ensconced in my Traveller fandom. Thereafter there just wasn’t time to add it to everything else what with raising a family and other commitments.
So I really came to Critical Role with quite serious intentions to give it a go and to ‘get into it’ and to see what all the fuss was about. I really tried. But I hadn’t even got to the end of the first episode of the new season before I was running screaming from the PC. It was slow, it was dull, I felt left out of all that was going on in terms of story and humour, and I wanted to participate. I’ve thought about going back to see if persevering helped, but have never made the time.
However, I may have to revise my opinion at least to some extent. I’ve encountered the Boys from the Baltic Star and while much of what I say above is true, there’s something about them. See my review elsewhere.
Editor’s note: due to an error on my part, the review of Boys from the Baltic Star did not appear in the May/June 2023 issue, but will appear in the July/August 2023 issue, and will be linked from this article when that issue’s articles are inserted into the website.