A new type of show on Twitch and YouTube has been gaining popularity at record speeds over the last few years; originating on gaming channels, and then spawning their own platforms outright. Critical Role – one of the largest such channels – gains over 700,000 views every week, with more on supporting platforms, and is only growing in popularity. These shows feature people playing tabletop roleplaying games (TTRPGs) such as Dungeons and Dragons, and Goat has found that such channels find purchase with core, casual and non-gamers equally, making them a perfect platform for gaming brands to reach new audiences. So let’s dive into what it is, why it works, and how.
How do TTRPGs work on Twitch?
Firstly, let me very quickly introduce what a TTRPG is. One player is a ‘Game/Dungeon Master’ who runs the game, and the rest of the players create characters to partake in it. The Game Master (GM) tells the players what is happening in the world, offers them quests, rewards and tells them how the world reacts to their actions. The players play their characters together, and roll dice to see if they can do certain actions or abilities, which will be modified by stats which are tracked on their character sheet. It is essentially a video game where a human is the game engine, and the interface is dice and paper instead of a controller or keyboard. What it lacks in technical marvel it makes up for with unrivalled agency, narrative opportunities fuelled by imagination.
Thanks to a burgeoning interest in all things gaming, self-publication becoming simpler and cheaper through the internet and the rise of watching others play games online, TTRPGs have seen a huge jump in popularity, with many people taking up the hobby for the first time or returning to a much more streamlined and story-focused experience to capitalise on what the medium can do differently to the more dominant video game market. Therefore, channels that feature TTRPGs on Twitch and YouTube have discovered that they can hook an expanded audience by creating dramatic moments as well as skilful play, engaging settings and championing a much more diverse cast.
A new gaming entry point
TTRPGs appeal to gamers in many ways. Most notably during a time of lockdowns, they are social games where you sit around a table and talk to each other, looking at faces rather than down at a board game or into a screen, for instance. This break from a near constant monitor use is most welcome, and there are still many gaming mechanics to engage with to scratch that gaming itch. It is also vastly more creative and open-ended, flexing muscles that may not get used often in day-to-day life. Finally, it is cooperative in nature, meaning that even if you shy away from competitive experiences online, you can still have fun (or indeed put on a good show).
All this adds up to a lower barrier to entry for those who do not play video games. TTRPGs can range from exceedingly complicated 700-page rulebook monsters, to rules systems that can fit on a single A4 page. What’s more is that the GM can meet players halfway, so if they’re unfamiliar or overwhelmed with the rules or stats, the GM can just ask them “What do you want to do?” and work to make it happen. Those who are interested in telling a story, acting a great part, or indeed watching such narratives play out with their favourite creators playing the characters, will find this much more alluring than tuning into a League of Legends match on Twitch if they don’t play many games.
Similar but still vastly different
The importance of TTRPGs in the gaming and influencer space comes from the similar but different experience it creates for the audience. As mentioned before, the better channels have perfected the games they play as a viewing experience – building up narratives and stories that create great payoffs and memorable moments. Many will play the same characters for years, and so seeing them achieve their ultimate goal or even fall short carries a big resonance with the audience and the players. Some channels invite more audience participation where they can see behind the curtain, as it were, and input into what happens in the setting. Others encourage fan fiction, artworks, memes and in-jokes that extend to social media and conventions, which then lead onto fan accounts and reaction videos from other channels.
This all snowballs into vast amounts of engagement, and if it sounds like too much work, it doesn’t have to be the most popular part of an influencer’s content. If they can grab some friends or like-minded creators, they can embark on a long-form piece of content that has the potential to grab a much wider audience than normal. This also helps smaller creators gain screen time on other channels, boosting their own following in a competitive gaming space where their personalities can shine through over their technical skills as a gamer.
Channels dedicated to TTRPGs, however, will have an audience with a good mix of gamers and non-gamers, making them ideal to bring more people into gaming related spaces. If your brand is focused on board games, or mobile games, or esports – these channels will contain a large number of people who are familiar with gaming concepts through TTRPGs, but may yet have not taken the plunge into gaming or adjacent hobbies. These are fertile lands for such brands, especially if your product is offering a similar mix of creativity, social connection and immersion into a fantastical setting.
Who is this new audience?
So what are these ‘gaming-lite’ areas or verticals that brands can target to reach new audiences? The ones already mentioned include board games that have a mix of gaming and social; casual games such as mobile titles that require little technical skill but an understanding of mechanics; and esports where again, an understanding of games is necessary to be able to enjoy them as a viewer. As TTRPG players are big fans of narratives and fantasy, they are a great audience for fantasy TV or films such as The Witcher, Game of Thrones, or other fantastical settings. Therefore, more traditional gaming brands could find purchase in these audiences as their games may be the one that makes individuals give video games a go. A perfect example is Bethesda working with Critical Role to play their new expansion of Elder Scrolls: Online, as it is a fantasy RPG where the cast and audience would find many parallels to their own content.
These audiences can be reached not only on Twitch and YouTube, but through audio-only mediums such as podcasts, and exclusive paywall content on platforms such as Patreon, where integrated advertising is commonplace. There is a good chance they will use platforms like Reddit, Facebook and Twitter to discuss their favourite shows and share content, as well as closed platforms like Discord to create discussions and also play their own games. Fan content will circulate on fan pages on Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr. They will also be very keen convention attendees, most notably any big roleplaying convention like PAX in the US, RPGcon in Germany or Comic-con in London or the US. Gaming brands are already noticing the hidden opportunities in attending such events.
Ultimately, the umbrella of ‘gaming’ is growing to encapsulate all who take part in any form of game, including TTRPGs, card games etc., and so each audience segment is connected by at least one shared similarity that brands can leverage. Gaming can be somewhat of a walled garden with daunting barriers to entry, but fortunately there are millions of people who have already done the hard bit by getting into TTRPGs and now understand gaming idioms such as ‘health points’, ‘NPCs’, and ‘levelling up’. If you’re looking to expand your audience and reach fresh eyes that would be more susceptible to other gaming and gaming-adjacent brands, perhaps latch yourself to the meteoric popularity of TTRPGs.