An interesting RPG related convergence happened this week. The incident brought into alignment the burgeoning spotlight of Actual Play entertainment, the continuing specter of character death, and the rising levels of toxic fan behavior. Yeah, I’m going to talk about some spoilers for a recent episode of Critical Role and the reaction it received, so spoiler warnings for any Critical Role fans that aren’t up-to-date.
In full disclosure, I do not regularly watch or listen to Critical Role. I’ve taken in some of their one-off episodes, but I haven’t had the time to take in the full series, either of the original Vox Machina campaign or the new Mighty Nein campaign. I do, though, have several friends who follow the show at varying levels of devotion, so I am peripherally aware of the show’s current events. I do know that I admire Matthew Mercer’s abilities as a GM and how he brings the game world around the players to life.
So, those that aren’t in the know are probably wondering what I’m going on about. Critical Role’s episode that dropped on July 12th included the death of one of the player characters. Most fans took to Twitter in shock and grief at the loss of a beloved character, but a large enough segment of the fan base decided this character death was justification to declare war on Mercer and the guest player, Ashly Burch. Thankfully, most of those attacks seem to have been drowned out by the support of fans, but it was enough of a problem that several cast members asked people to chill out and Mercer himself even commented on it from his own Twitter account.
Actual Play podcasts and streams are an interesting development in the hobby and Critical Role is probably the farthest-reaching example of the medium. For those unfamiliar, Actual Play refers to live or recorded game sessions that are then served up as entertainment. I’m sure that game sessions have been recorded as long as gamers have had access to video recording equipment, but it’s only in the last few years that this particular type of entertainment has started rising in popularity. The level of editing on Actual Play shows can vary from show to show, with some going for the authenticity of the game play to others editing down to just the narrative. Our very own Senda and Chris are both involved in Actual Play podcasts, with Chris being part of the Wednesday Evening Podcast All-Stars, while Senda is one half of She’s a Super Geek (where you can listen to the session of Masks I ran for the show last year).
Critical Role has been running since 2015 and the GM and the players are all professional actors, so the quality of roleplay and improvisation takes the entertainment to a different level. Their episodes are aired live, so get no editing, but with the level of acting talent the cast has, that almost doesn’t matter. As of their 100th episode last summer, the show had hit 68 million views. Whatever you think of the show, it’s done a great deal to spread awareness and interest in 5th edition D&D and RPGs in general. It’s brought the hobby to a far wider audience than I could have possibly imagined ten years ago.
Of course, the growing popularity of Critical Role and Actual Play podcasts brings up an interesting dilemma as strangers are invited to ‘watch’ a game being played as if it were a scripted show or movie. As much as I love being true to the narrative and leaning into the cinematic qualities of roleplaying games, we all know that games don’t always work out as neatly as a scripted show can. But if you’re recording your game as entertainment, your audience has expectations and that’s where things took a turn for the ugly for some of the fans of the show.
Character death, especially when it’s dramatic and tense, can be tough to deal with. Back in the day, I saw immature players have total meltdowns when a character unexpectedly died, and I’m sure others have similar stories. Even if you are mature enough to deal with it, it can still knock the wind out of you as you say goodbye to a beloved character you’d carried through so many other adventures.
Now take those emotions and give them to thousands upon thousands of fans watching/listening as the scene is being played out. They’ve become just as invested in that character as the player. If you want to see how deeply this affected fans, just take a Twitter stroll through #mollymauk and you’ll see the mourning of fans through both words and amazing artwork.
But add in a dash of toxic fandom. Take that sense of ownership fans develop for their favorite properties and combine that with the anonymity of the internet, creating the freedom to be a troll. You end up with a small, but not insignificant, portion of the fans attacking the very GM that has guided something they’ve loved for hundreds of episodes. Or attacking the guest player of the character they felt screwed up and didn’t do enough. Welcome to the internet age and the way toxic fans destroy that which they love.
Fandom devotion to the things they love is nothing new and doesn’t have to be destructive. At the dawn of the last century, letters from devoted fans helped convince Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to write Sherlock Holmes out of his previously established death and into more stories. In the late 1960’s to the early to mid 1970’s, Star Trek was saved by fans creating a thriving community around a canceled TV show, eventually convincing Hollywood the property might still have life left in it. In May of 2007, concerned fans sent 20 tons of various nuts to CBS in an attempt to save Jericho from cancellation. The studio begged fans to stop sending them nuts and renewed the show. I don’t think it had anything to do with peanut allergies, but who knows.
Entitled and obnoxious fans have always existed among the hordes, but the digital age of social media that we live in now has given these jerks an opportunity to have their vitriol heard in ways they never had before. Now we end up with things like Ghostbuster ‘fans’ forcing Leslie Jones to leave Twitter after a barrage of attacks. Or Kelly Marie Tran and Daisy Ridley from Star Wars both deleting their Instagram accounts because dealing with the trolls was getting to be too much. Or the whole Szechuan sauce debacle from Rick and Morty fans. It’s as if a whole wave of people saw or read Stephen King’s Misery and decided Annie Wilkes should be their role model on how fans treat the creators of their favorite thing.
While we definitely have some problematic corners of the RPG hobby, it’s weird seeing this particular type of problem of toxic entitlement happening here. Thankfully, this particular incident has been drowned out by waves of support from fans. You have to really dig to find some of the nastier tweets or posts about the topic, so most of what you’ll find are the cast or fan reactions to the hate.
It’s a weird place to be in, where a roleplaying game’s character death created a backlash from people who weren’t even playing the game. My final takeaway from this is to just remind people to not let your friends be this toxic type of fan. Remind them that ‘We don’t do that here’. And even if you’re upset at the direction something you love is going, don’t be that jerk. Don’t be an Annie Wilkes.