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Actual Play, Character Death, and Fan Toxicity

The two parties from Critical Role’s two campaigns, as drawn by @GalacticJonah [1]. Used with permission.

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.

Mollymauk and Yasha by @rachebones [2]. Used with permission.

In full disclosure, I do not regularly watch or listen to Critical Role [3]. 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 [4] and Chris [5] are both involved in Actual Play podcasts, with Chris being part of the Wednesday Evening Podcast All-Stars [6], while Senda is one half of She’s a Super Geek [7] (where you can listen to the session of Masks [8] 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.

Another image of Mollymauk by @rachebones [9]. Used with permission.

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 [10] 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 [11] 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 [12] 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 [13] 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.

 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. [social_warfare]

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 [14] to leave Twitter after a barrage of attacks. Or Kelly Marie Tran [15] and Daisy Ridley [16] from Star Wars both deleting their Instagram accounts because dealing with the trolls was getting to be too much. Or the whole Szechuan sauce [17] 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 [18] 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.

21 Comments (Open | Close)

21 Comments To "Actual Play, Character Death, and Fan Toxicity"

#1 Comment By Rob On July 20, 2018 @ 9:05 am

Excellent, excellent article. As a player of the MMORPG Star Wars: The Old Republic, I can attest to this kind of toxicity (mix Star Wars fans and gamers playing a game produced by EA and you have a very volatile concoction indeed).

#2 Comment By Pedro On July 20, 2018 @ 10:27 am

Jerk people exists in all kind of fandom, and in all kind of places there is no news here. And more this kind of people will always exist. My question here is if they are bad people and to find their worst tweets we have to dig deeper, why you are giving them the center stage? Why are you propagating their message let their toxicity be buried by the people that should matter the fans that love and understand the show that they’re whatching. In my point of view you are doing a disservice giving those people exactly what they want a spotlight to have a moment where they were part of something Eve if this something is talk bad things about something.
Don’t feed the troll’s, because if you do they will only grow.

#3 Comment By Angela Murray On July 20, 2018 @ 2:12 pm

Sure, jerks have always existed, but the modern age we’re living in has given them an opportunity to be heard we’ve never seen before. Why discuss the issue? Because we need to be aware of the toxicity that exists out there and be prepared to stop it. There’s a reason I didn’t highlight any of the attacks or give any sort of publicity to those folks.

There is a difference between feeding the trolls (responding directly to them, calling them out by name, etc.) and educating a community on the types of problems it faces. This article, in no way feeds the trolls.

#4 Comment By Pedro On July 20, 2018 @ 2:43 pm

“and educating a community on the types of problems it faces. ”

Sorry but how this article educate someone? Why a troll would look at this and say “Oh so what I did is bad? I guess I will now donate to Charity” no one will be educated the ones that agree with will say “Yeah congrats for saying that what they did is bad” and the ones that did the attacks will ignore or bitch about your article. I don’t want to enter in false dichotomy territory, but serves no one highlight the fact that exists toxicity and so and so, as you said toxicity existed way before internet and now the troll’s have a away to group attack some issue, and so people are and should be aware of this. I Don’t see why talking about the bad behavior is better than talk about the good behavior, you are only serving the people that talked shit the ones with good thing to say we’re almost forgotten even their comments being in greater numbers than those that were toxic.
You don’t need to highlight the ones that do this kind of thing knows you are talking about them.
And sorry I don’t think people are prone To be educated by an article on the internet, sure there is probably one or 2, but I would assume that the majority wants to be informed and self educate with the information received and analised.

And one more thing they only have opportunity to heard if there is people to hear from them if they are ignored there is no more opportunity, if we talk about them it’s because we are hearing from them.

#5 Comment By griffon8 On July 20, 2018 @ 2:20 pm

Sometimes trolls have to be confronted. Otherwise silence can be taken as permission.

There are no links here to the discussed bad behavior. No names of the trolls are given. Discussion of toxicity is a reasonable subject.

#6 Comment By Pedro On July 20, 2018 @ 2:58 pm

No they don’t they are troll’s, most o the time they don’t even use their Real name or picture.
You are just feeding and giving them relevance.
If you know a kid that like to receive atation try ignoring them and see as they will go on rage mode for a moment and them they will simple move to the next thing on his mind because they are not getting the attation why would a guy or girl in a computer rage on the Twitter if they would be ignored they would simple go to another place and tries to go to troll town where they are perceive.
Ok the link thing sorry but you do not need to link nothing the ones that did knows they did, and the curious ones will try to find the toxicity. So how is this confronting toxicity, this is giving the toxic people relevance and spotlight they know they were heard. See not only there is this whole article but Mercer him self acknowledge their existence.
I think that giving relevance to the majority of good posts about the dead character and the amount of fan art and the love that a lot of people has for the show would be better.
Oh but in the article this is noted, well yeah but again the article is about the troll’s and say something about good people and their love for the show.

#7 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On July 20, 2018 @ 3:01 pm

“Don’t feed trolls” is one of those common proverbs that hasn’t actually stood the test of time and is one of the factors that has led to a lot of the issues of the modern internet where people believe that lashing out is acceptable and consequence free and that the hurt it creates is the fault of the victim for not understanding that that’s just the way the net is.

#8 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On July 20, 2018 @ 3:04 pm

Here, they say it better than I can:

#9 Comment By Pedro On July 20, 2018 @ 5:07 pm

Why feel hurt about a fake account say something? If you ignore nothing happens, if is a death treat call the police and move on these people only continue to be troll’s because people feel hurt about words, if you don’t believe what that fake account is saying why bother?
Fight against a imaginary enemy don’t solve a thing because one the next day that troll’s will only continue his quest of making people feeling “hurt” because is working, or you really think that saying “Being mean on the internet is bad and people cry and is a bad behavior” will convert a fake a account to the bright side and he/she now will fight against you on the endless barrel of feeding troll’s.
So don’t feed the troll’s didn’t stood the rest of time because people continue to feeding and more writing whole article’s about them why would they stop if now they are more than never being acknowledge?

#10 Comment By Angela Murray On July 21, 2018 @ 12:02 am

There are reasons to discuss problems that plague communities. This is a problem that affects nerd and fan communities, so it is worth discussing. You disagree and that’s fine, but restating your point over and over again isn’t really going to change any minds here.

#11 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On July 21, 2018 @ 7:21 am

Did you read that article I posted? It’s very good and it addresses most of the points you’re making here.

#12 Comment By Chris On July 20, 2018 @ 4:59 pm

See, this isn’t the first response to outrage surrounding Mollymauk’s death I’ve seen. The entire Critter community is up in arms in defense of Matt and the cast against hateful fans.

Except that I haven’t actually seen any hateful fans. I’m part of several Critter groups online and haven’t seen any negativity directed towards the cast…only defense against this negativity. Maybe the groups I’m part of are just really really nice.

However, it just seems to me that Critters all over are leaping to defend the cast from hate that’s not coming from anyone. All critters are being heroes, defending Matt and the cast from the evil minority of haters that aren’t there. But I could be wrong. If anyone has any screenshots of forums or chats or groups, feel free to provide them. Otherwise I feel like we’re relying on vague anecdotal evidence.

#13 Comment By Pedro On July 20, 2018 @ 5:20 pm

They are probably there but they are such a minority that for you to see them must search for them, so again why bother acknowledging them ?

But hey I’m just commenting I don’t want to educate no one, just want to talk about the feeding and all.
The issue at hands really don’t exists Mercer and his crew a all popular people, this kind of comments can’t even start to touch them.

#14 Comment By Angela Murray On July 21, 2018 @ 12:04 am

In researching this, I did find obnoxious and hateful tweets directed at Mercer and Burch, but I didn’t want to give those voices any more of a platform so did not include them here. Yes, they were buried beneath the positive comments, but since this is a new thing touching on the RPG sphere, I thought it was worth discussing.

#15 Comment By Scott On July 20, 2018 @ 6:02 pm

Ridley was not run off of social media, that’s a common misinformation. She grew tired of the banality of the whole experience:


#16 Comment By Jared Rascher On July 21, 2018 @ 9:20 am

This was a great article, thanks for writing this, Ang!

The reality of our current world is that we do, indeed, have to start addressing “trolls.” There will, indeed, always be some percentage of people that will say inappropriate things or react in the worst possible way, very publicly. Resisting those inappropriate comments is important for multiple reasons.

1. Most people that have been confronted online aren’t going to change immediately, but we are starting to reach a point where there are commenters that have said when they first began using the internet, they were much less careful about how they interacted than they are now. Sometimes change is a long-term thing.

2. Addressing inappropriate comments is important for the “second tier” of poster that hasn’t posted yet, and is still learning what is acceptable to post in a given community, or on a given topic. And before anyone starts bringing up free speech–it is also free speech for lots and lots of people saying “no, that’s not cool.”

Addressing unacceptable comments does not mean continuing engagement when someone is acting in bad faith. It is perfectly acceptable to say “your comment is unacceptable, and this is why,” and leave it at that when people use tactics like asking you to prove we don’t live in a simulated reality before they accept your comments. It actually does more good for a wide range of people to state how unacceptable behavior is than for one person to attempt to argue, in a protracted manner, with someone arguing in bad faith.

I think its also really important to use a measured response. Someone being abusive to a gamemaster running a game on a stream, or to a guest on that show needs a harsher rebuke than someone that is honestly concerned that the random dice rolls may have inadvertently created a situation that mirrors the “bury your gays” trope in narratives.

The tricky thing is, “don’t feed the trolls” came from early Internet culture, when there weren’t as many people online, so denying a person interaction was denying them access to the entire purpose of being on the internet. Ignoring a troll now doesn’t deny them communities that will engage with them, and in fact, may help to reinforce that their abusive sub-culture is valid.

The internet has become a much more complex place, and because such a wide cross-section of people now use the internet, we now have to use the same rules we use when we engage with people in the real world. That means we have to do more analysis of contextual situations for our responses, and less application of broad “truisms” that no longer serve the best interest of wider communities.

#17 Comment By Tiorn On July 24, 2018 @ 4:35 am

I’ve been a member of the Critical Role Fan Club group on Facebook for quite a while now. Just to be fair about it, some of the ‘positive’ fans are worse than any ‘negative’ troll. They are rabid with their fandom and will not accept even the slightest bit of differing opinions. Not all are like that, or I would have left that group a long time ago. Thankfully, there are plenty of good, well balanced individuals in that group who can actually handle a debate.

With the rabid fan, though, ugh… they are a headache. First off, in their eyes, Mercer is a flawless DMing god. He does no wrong. To imply that he handled something wrong or could have handled something in a better way… well, you might as well call yourself a negative, hating troll… because those fan-types WILL do it in short order. Mercer also has a catchphrase that he uses whenever a player asks about doing something in game that would involve a skill check… “you can certainly try!” I don’t think the rabid fans understand what’s going on here. Mercer is covering the difficulty for the task, by leaving it vague… but sometimes it’s quite obvious that he’s saying it’s a longshot. In the current campaign, that doesn’t matter as much because he seems to be allowing them success on a nat 20 roll for skill checks. But in the Vox Machina campaign, even when they rolled a nat 20, he often asked them what their adjusted roll was.

These rabid fans want it to be that way… nat 1 fails and nat 20 succeeds… always. And even worse, they seem to want to use skill checks for everything. A rabid fan blocked me on there because I balked at the idea of two high STR characters being able to move a table, but a scrawny character with below average STR being able to do it. The difference was that the two high STR characters had rolled horribly on STR checks, while the scrawny character rolled a nat 20. I called BS on it and said a DM needs to just handwave mundane tasks like that and it’s silly not to. ***BLOCK*** WTF?! haha I’m not sure if he got the last word in to call me a negative troll or not… but that’s how those conversations go on there.

I guess my bottom line is that there are trolls on both ends of this spectrum. Both ends of trolls tend to ruin the fun for those of us closer to the middle. But honestly, it’s the rabid fan trolls that tend to turn me off more often.

#18 Comment By Tiorn On July 24, 2018 @ 5:02 am

Hell, some of the most rabid CR fans end up being the worst trolls. And there are trolls on both sides of the argument. I’m a member of the facebook CR Fan Club group and I’ve noticed both ends of the spectrum. You can’t even hardly debate CR-related topics in a civil way without the ‘purely devoted’ fans levelling their hate at you because you dared to question the choices of Mercer, the players, or guests. They are above any and all criticism. Mercer is a god with flawless decision making ability.

I really enjoy the show. Yes, I see problems with it from time to time. Mercer screws up the Rules As Written at times (and almost always owns up to it on twitter later). I don’t have a problem with that. It happens. I see things that I would do different. There shouldn’t be a problem with that either. But voice any of that among some of the fandom… and you’re going to get trolled by them. But YOU are the troll for speaking against the holy word of the Mighty Mercer. Opinions be damned.

There are a lot of good people in that group. I’d love to sit in on games with quite a few of them. But a lot of them… no thanks.

#19 Comment By Tiorn On July 24, 2018 @ 5:35 am

As I’ve seen in the critter community on the CR Fan Club facebook group, the behavior of some of the fans against so-called trolls leaves a lot to be desired as well. To the point where they are over-eager to jump on anyone with a differing opinion to their own. In these cases, not giving the trolls attention absolutely would be the best choice. Some of the fans are worse!

Their mindset = “Mercer is god. He’s flawless. He does no wrong. His games are perfect. The same is true for the regular players. Guests get the same treatment. IF YOU SAY ANYTHING AGAINST THIS, YOU’RE NOTHING BUT A WORTHLESS TROLL!”

Can’t even have a civil debate on some topics on there, without the ‘elite’ fans calling you out as haters.

#20 Comment By Tiorn On July 24, 2018 @ 5:40 am

I keep getting 404 errors when trying to post. On my last attempt, I copied the text so I could retry if necessary. When I retried, it told me I had made a duplicate post?? Anyhow, if this makes 4 straight posts from me at some point, that’s why. It’s not telling me that my post is being delayed before publicized. It looks like it’s lost entirely.

#21 Comment By Tiorn On July 26, 2018 @ 4:27 am

I tried to leave several comments on this post, but kept getting 404 errors whenever I clicked to submit them.