For many fans of Dungeons & Dragons, the idea of sitting and watching other nerds play the game sounds absurd on its face. Then Critical Role happened, and for the last 10 years the genre of “actual play” has evolved from watching actors play D&D to watching actors play D&D in front of 12,000 people at Wembley Arena.
The genre has continued to evolve with a new show, Encounter Party, suggesting another step forward with a format that’s closer to what one might expect on a streamer: hour-long chunks focused on telling stories rather than worrying about spell slots or magic item attunement.
Encounter Party has a local connection beyond being made using Lake Geneva’s nerdiest legacy. One of the cast members, Sarah Babe, lives here in Milwaukee. A city employee by day, at night she works on several podcasts including Plot Points, Romancing The Game, Theatre Of The Mind Players, and, of course, Encounter Party.
“It all started with the Gen Con where I met [series co-creator] Ned [Donovan],” Babe says. “He said he worked in Wisconsin and I asked him where. Years later, he asked for people who wanted to do a D&D podcast. They interviewed me and they said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ Ned and Brian [David Judkins, co-creator of Encounter Party and the show’s Dungeon Master] pitched the show to a bunch of people and we got Wizards Of The Coast to back us.”
There are three shows that are part of the upcoming D&D Adventures FAST (Free Ad-Supported TV) channel launch: Encounter Party; a comedy improv gaming series led by Matthew Lillard called Faster, Purple Worm! Kill! Kill!; and a cooking show entitled Heroes’ Feast. Encounter Party comes the closest to what audiences expect from an actual play show, though there were still obstacles to get the show on the air.
“There are several challenges getting produced as a TV show,” Babe says. “You have to prove to several people that you are worth the money they’re spending. That there is an audience for it. That they will make money. All of the hats I wear on one head go off to Ned and Brian for navigating all of that.”
Actual plays have demystified Dungeons & Dragons for thousands of fans. By making it as easy as clicking on a video or podcast, more people have tried the game in the past decade than any other time in history. But watching professional actors play the game can also be intimidating and distort expectations of the experience.
“Encounter Party being pitched as a TV show is us saying we’re both an actual play and a TV show,” says Babe, who possesses a theater degree from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. “Don’t let this be your benchmark if you want to make an actual play or your gaming experience. D&D is for everybody, no matter your level of skill or interest.”
Like most streaming shows, it’s vital for an audience to watch early and often for an easy renewal. The D&D channel is an experiment to see just how much D&D fans want. (The feature film released earlier this year is already gaining a reputation as a cult classic.) Encounter Party‘s success would also go a long way to dispel the damage done to the game’s reputation by the Satanic Panic in the 1980s. The show reveals just how social of an activity the game can be.
All three shows premiere the week of November 13 on the Dungeons & Dragons: Adventures FAST channel on Plex and FreeVee. Heroes’ Feast offers new episodes Mondays and Wednesdays at 8 p.m. CST. Encounter Party offers new episodes Tuesdays and Fridays at 8 p.m. CST. Faster, Purple Worm! Kill! Kill! offers new episodes Thursdays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. CST.