Problems with RPG Streams & How to Fix Them

July 7, 2022 Dungeon Master 759 No Comments

I’ve been producing liveplay RPGs for over 8 years now. Been in TV/Film & Home Entertainment production for nearly 20. I’ve run sold out panels on “How to Stream RPGs” since 2015. Even managed to have streaming RPGs be my primary day-job for a number of years. So when I tell you I’ve worked and tried almost everything in the genre, I have. But last week I tweeted something I’ve never really asked before:

Over 130 replies later, I’ve got a decent response list of common annoyances from RPG fans. Are these guaranteed solutions to RPG stardom? Absolutely not. I think CR commits nearly all of these annoyances and yet is several orders of magnitude larger than the next largest stream with no hints of slowing down. The response is also far from exhaustive, of course, and I would take the results with a hefty grain of salt. In fact, before I get into the results I want to talk more about the reaction to this tweet from streamers themselves.

There were…mixed reactions. Let’s ignore the fact that while it wasn’t tracked, I’d wager the majority of these responses were from viewers who watch 1-2 APs/week TOTAL. And one of those is probably CR. Still, some streamers were anxious to see the results in order to identify areas they could improve. But several larger streamer accounts derided the question altogether – either framing it as an exercise in futility or branding it as a downer of a question. Some took a semi-positive outlook, encouraging folks, and I’m paraphrasing here, “to not listen to the haters.” But…why?

Why should we fear critique? Why should we avoid acknowledging the work it takes to advance and excel this form of media? Why are larger streamers so adverse to collaborating on solving these issues? Everyone seems to have an idea of what will work, and depending on circumstance and privilege, they all can have an opportunity to try that. But many seldom ask the questions “Will this work?” followed up by “And have you done this before?” This outlook took me by surprise, honestly, and it prompted me to endeavor to write another post about streaming…but that’ll come later.

For now, let’s analyze the results!

I found several commonalities between responses, and so I broke everything down into a related category. I tracked about 160 responses before I stopped, but the extra few that came in days after the original post only served to back up the initial breakdown. So let’s look at the categories! I’ll go into detail on all of these further down, but some category explanations here:

  • Player Etiquette – 32.5%
    • I further broke this category up into Subjective and Objective issues.
      • Subjective issues are hard to fix items of questionable veracity that included over-acting, bad accents, stupid player decisions, and even how a stream appears to the average viewer (meaning, professional players make it look like something it’s not).
      • Objective issues are things I personally feel could or should be fixed (and so there’s some subjectivity here, too) like eating on mic, talking over other players, not announcing rolls or casual sexism/ableism, etc.
      • Interestingly enough there was an equal number of Subjective and Objective issues.  
  • Content/Presentation – 16.9%
    • These are issues resulting in all aspects of the production, except audio which has its own category. From bad lighting to overly complicated overlays, to even how the show is presented (remote vs. in-studio for instance).
  • Editing – 16.3%
    • Many folks said APs were just far too long. They wanted some kind of editing done, cutting out filler speech (“ums” and “ahs”), eliminating scenes that go nowhere, cutting down combat length, etc. Many seemed to have a preference for the podcast-ability of APs, only listening to shows that could be condensed into 90 minutes or less at a time.
  • Audio – 12.5%
    • This covers everything from bad mics, too loud background music, the over-use of meme effects, and more.
  • Missing Explanations/Recaps – 8.1%
    • A healthy portion of responders noted that it was difficult to jump into a show or even follow along. They felt there was a suspicious lack of recaps, character descriptions, rules explanations and more.
  • Would Rather Play Than Watch – 8.1%
    • Perhaps surprisingly there were very few trolls in the bunch responding to the original question. But for every three “I’d rather play than watch,” there was at least one “APs are STUPID!” So they all got lumped in here. This is a category no one can do anything about, really. But I do have some constructive thoughts below.
  • Fandom – 1.9%
    • A few mentioned so-called “toxic” fandoms. And while there was heavy implications about a certain mega-show’s fandom, I can argue that RPG fans in general have historically been “toxic” to varying degrees. Indeed if you look at the responses for the “Would Rather Play Than Watch” category you’d see many people who gatekeep to this day and don’t even watch APs!
  • Donations/Income – 1.9%
    • Some indicated that they were turned off any time the streamers wanted to make a buck. While some said it only bothered them when it was transparent or took over the stream in some way, others just didn’t like the idea at all. 
  • Captions – 1.9%
    • And finally, enough people mentioned a lack of captions that I thought it prudent to mention on its own.

So what’s it all mean? 

  • Player Etiquette
    • Subjective – When it comes to the subjective issues, there’s not much one can do to fix the problem. One person’s “over-acting” is another person’s “excellent role-play.” There were a lot of people taking issue with performances, many commenting on perceived “fakey” performances and a lack of chemistry between players. All I can say is, from a producer’s standpoint, make sure every decision elevates a show and works with the overall vibe. Don’t ever go with Famous Person A simply because they’re famous. Odds are they’re not only a bad fit but they also rarely bring in an audience of their own.
    • Objective – There are a number of things we can fix, however, and fix easily. As producers we can set expectations of performers. We can give feedback on the how GMs handle rolls, combat, and rules explanations in addition to how players interact with each other and with the chat. We dictate who gets cast and why – and we have the right to change that cast if it’s not working. We can and should set up safety tools for the channel as a whole, and for each individual show on that channel. There are ways to ensure the cast knows the system they’re playing and that they contribute to the success of the show by learning that system actively. One thing that came up a lot is a general lack of descriptive ability. 
  • Content/Presentation
    • Disregarding audio for now, the vast collection of production related issues came up as the second largest reason people are annoyed with APs. As above there are some subjective issues like folks who don’t care for “remote” play citing poor audio, player overspeak, and a lack of cohesiveness of the group. There were some, shall we say “interesting” suggestions as well. One individual had a rather David Mamet-ian outlook on APs stating players should just play rather than “perform.” Again, some of these are just subjective issues that will vary from one person to the next.
    • But there were some good, common sense suggestions to be found amidst the heap:
      • Be Goldilocks with your overlays – not too much, not too little. Don’t pack every inch with info and complicated designs, but use the space wisely. This is an excellent opportunity to add info that you don’t want or need to repeat over and over again, and can help new viewers connect with the characters and world.
      • Design overlays with legibility in mind, and focus on your assets – your performers. Especially if you’re not a designer yourself!
      • Agree on a theme and goal for the show – even if you don’t strictly adhere to it from session to session. This will help give you elements you can market and design towards.
      • If you’re using a visual element like a VTT or tabletop for the players, give the audience a view into this as well. Remember the players are your #1 visual priority, but if you’re referencing something that can be shown SHOW IT.
      • Consider what’s on the overlay and whether it’s necessary or just a distraction. Character stats – maybe necessary? GIFs of torches and knights swinging swords – maybe too much? Again suit to taste here, but too much will ultimately cause visual fatigue for your viewers and they’ll tune out or just wait for the podcast version which then renders all that work moot.
      • Find creative solutions to things like ability-lock (when a player continuously rolls too low to have any effect in a combat or similar situation), combat length (many folks say more than 4 rounds is too much, but this really depended on the stakes and the buy-in from the audience), and dealing with audience engagement (assuming you’re on an engagement centric platform like Twitch).
      • Diversity! Casting is a weak point for producers, and I’ll have a separate article about how Saving Throw handles casting and strives for diversity in its casts. But viewers not only wanted to see more BIPOC & LGBTQ+ performers, they wanted to see NEW faces. A lot of responders commented on the burn out of seeing the same 25 or so people on EVERY. STREAM. Which, makes sense if you’re only hearing about the streams that have those people in them (because the channels that can hire those people tend to have already large social followings). Naturally there are hundreds of streams that don’t have those folx in them. So this is a little bit of a marketing issue in addition to a casting one. And I’ll say from experience, having a “D&D famous” person on your stream often doesn’t mean much for numbers. So don’t get hung up if you can’t get your favorite performer on board.
      • Scripting – this came up a number of times and some people felt that scripted APs were not really APs but more like theatrical plays. I’m pretty against scripted APs, and only one show on Saving Throw has ever had a “writer” attached (that is, someone other than the GM who is writing plot points). All I can say is yes, some big streams write and pre-choose outcomes and allow the players to essentially roll into or get railroaded into those circumstances. Some of your favorite GMs on other channels rely heavily on writers to provide them with story. It exists. But I think it’s more the clarity – people claiming it’s a straight up RPG session when in actuality it’s more like a scripted play with pre-determined outcomes masquerading as an RPG is where people take issue. So decide how you want to present, and make it clear to your audience.
  • Editing
    • Not to be outdone, the third most popular response was that APs were too long. Of course this makes perfect sense – the majority of AP watchers are watching one (extremely long) show a week (CR) and so they’re not really in the mood or have the time to watch another 3+ hour show. It doesn’t matter that CR does it, that doesn’t mean it can work for you! 
      • Edit your episodes before you post to YouTube. Hell, I haven’t done this since 2016 so I’m not one to talk. I’m of the mind you can pause and return to a video any ol’ time. But I recognize people want an ease of access and they want to be given a clear start/stop time. This makes it very easy for a listener or viewer to pop in and out. But that also means you should take these moments into account when planning sessions.
      • Editing takes time. Budget this into your weekly show planning. It’s hard for a one-person operation to produce a live show every week, with everything that goes into that – let alone the post-production work. It’s OK to limit what you do.
  • Audio
    • I say it every time I run a how-to session for streamers, but audio is the #1 technical responsibility. If you can’t get clean, workable audio few will tune in, and those that do will tune out after a short time. Even if you have very pretty pictures and the most dazzling of personalities. Bad audio will torpedo your production. Get to know your audio setup OR find someone who knows audio and can offer solutions. Don’t just throw money at the problem – recognize what the issues are and research solutions yourself. You may not know how to implement the solution but you’ll be in a much better place when you ask for help.
    • When we were in studio it was relatively easy to fix audio issues – we had everyone mic’d the same, and most of the issue was a volume/gain problem. But remote games have it infinitely more difficult as you’re dealing with different mics, different computers, different processors, different bandwidths, and more. 
    • Run tests before you ever go live. Record these tests. Listen to them, both with headphones and over speakers. 
  • Missing Explanations/Recaps
    • This is one I’ve gone back and forth with. Indeed there were nearly as many comments asking AP creators to just hurry up and get to the show, recaps and callouts be damned! But this raised an interesting point – APs so often focus on the RP and the theatricality of performance, but avoid discussing/referencing the actual game they’re playing. This can alienate viewers who are looking to join a community around the game.
      • Offer recaps either on social media and/or during a countdown screen before the show. Or via a wiki or blog. Give folks a number of ways to catch up and figure out what happened quickly, without eating up your game time.
      • Have common rules in the overlay so the audience knows how you’re doing what you’re doing with the system. Or, if you’re diving into some obscure homebrew or optional ruleset, take 5 minutes to describe for the audience.
      • Either have art or photos done to showcase the characters, and/or take the time to describe them before each show.
  • Would Rather Play Than Watch
    • Instead of poo-pooing this response, let’s dive in a bit to the root cause. Why are these people so turned off by watching other people play? What can we do to improve their experience. Should we even try? Questions for another time.
  • Fandom
    • Let’s be clear: No one is really responsible for another party’s actions – but they can influence those actions. Take a stance with your fanbase – make it clear the behavior you’d like to see and condone. Reward positive moments from your fan base. And use the tools of the platforms to serve punishments and remove toxic people from your community.
    • Again, this is an issue that takes a HUGE component of time and this is why many spaces that can afford them have community managers. But if you can be up front about what you need and desire from the get-go, it will help keep things manageable. The bigger you are, however, the more unwieldy it can become!
  • Donations/Income
    • Twitch is an engagement platform. That’s by design. You don’t get big on Twitch by ignoring that (unless you have a huge built-in fanbase and a large budget from the beginning). But many responders took issue with the nature of the beast. So how can you make a buck while staying true to your vision? Either you do it behind the scenes or you integrate with it.
      • If engagement is unimportant to you, consider a different platform. Yes, Twitch has a large component of AP watchers – but again the vast majority of them are already watching one AP a week and most of them aren’t down for watching another. YouTube and podcast platforms don’t feature engagement opportunities like Twitch does, and are much easier to bring content to.  
      • Integrate donations and sponsorships with your content. WAAAYY easier said than done, but the Saving Throw way is this: Make sure the engagements propel the story, and don’t impede it. In other words the game can continue with or without user interaction, but said interaction can have an effect on the story. More on this in another post.
      • Be up front and clear about sponsorships and donations. What are you using them for? Why are they important? What’s needed? There’s a fine balance between spamming the like button and gently prodding viewers/listeners into supporting the channel. If I knew the secret code for that I’d be rich.
  • Captions
    • It’s easy to add captions to your stream. It really is. There are a ton of videos out there on how to do it, too. Heck, I’ll make one too on how I do it. But there’s really no reason not to. Web Captioner, VDO.Ninja, Google Meet, etc. all offer caption options. 

I get it. This can feel like a lot. My main point in bringing it up is that it’s important to take a good look into the time it takes to build a successful show. Many people find these solutions themselves over time, I know I did, but that’s time wasted. When I started there were only two other APs on the market and neither of them were Critical Role. I didn’t have many people to turn to for advice. So, here, take some advice form me. Take a second to go over these issues. Map out how you plan to resolve these with your own production. It’s going to save you a LOT of time. 

You may not implement fixes – heck, you may not even see some of these as issues! And like I said resolving them all doesn’t mean your show will automatically be successful. But it will mean you listen to your audience and you are working towards creating a better product for them.

What problems have you seen with actual plays? What are some of your solutions? I’d love to hear from you!

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