D&D’s Lead Rule Designer Explains Why Actual Play Has Influenced the Game

D&D’s Lead Rule Designer Explains Why Actual Play Has Influenced the Game
D&D's new adventures like The Wild Beyond the Witchlight all know how players are approaching them has changed in recent years. (Image: Katerina Ladon/Wizards of the Coast)

Dungeons & Dragons is undergoing a popularity boom unlike anything in its existence lately. More and more people are picking up the game — and even more have turned it into its own kind of show, as the “Actual Play” genre of streamed campaigns has shot to its own kind of transmedia boom. So it’s natural that the team behind the game has moved to accommodate this new kind of D&D storytelling more and more within the rules.

“The short answer is yes, it does influence us the way every type of D&D play influences us,” Jeremy Crawford, D&D’s principal rules designer, told press in a recent event for the reveals of the latest sourcebooks for Dungeons & Dragons’ fifth edition.

“So we know that D&D is a big tent. We’ve talked about this again, going back to the D&D Next process [the playtesting experience that helped create Fifth Edition] that not only do people of many sorts play in the D&D, but also people of many tastes play D&D. We know some people really love heavy improvisational role-playing and other D&D players, for them, that’s all about the tactical nuances of D&D combat, and everything in between. We’re concerned about supporting traditional tabletop play well, but also the types of D&D experiences people have in streams.”

Streamed TTRPG content — whether it’s with the D&D ruleset or others, whether it’s broadcast on platforms like YouTube and Twitch or is released in audio formats — has become one of the most popular ways for people to explore roleplaying games as a genre for storytelling and entertainment media. But it’s also accustomed both players and watchers alike to be able to tell big, sweeping stories across smaller, modular chunks, something Crawford says the D&D team has started to consider in designing its own official adventures.

“One of the things that has been on our minds for several years now, as a result of the popularity of streamed games combined actually with the tidal wave of new people coming to D&D, is the need to have bite-size adventure content,” Crawford continued.

“So you’ll notice that around the time we came out with the Essentials Kit and then continued on with a lot of our adventure content — even when it’s a large, epic campaign, like last year’s Rime of the Frostmaiden they’re much easier to divide up into digestible segments that where … if the DM wants to just read a part of this big book, or just run one of these little quests, we’re making that easier to do. Not only to make things less arduous for a brand new Dungeon Master, and with new groups of players coming to D&D for the first time, but also because of that format of play, also suits streamed games better.

“We know streamed games, with the exception of maybe Critical Role, tend to be shorter than a lot of [traditional] tabletop games. You know, in the old days and even today, a lot of people’s tabletop games [sessions] might range between three and four hours, although we’re seeing the average length go down — most streamed games are often sometimes as short as two hours, or even 90 minutes.”

But that shorter game session length isn’t just to cater to people who broadcast their games for an audience. It’s also part of an ongoing acknowledgment by the D&D team that a lot of its players have either grown up with TTRPGs, or are coming to the genre as adults — adults who can’t necessarily commit regular, massive blocks of hours to an ongoing game campaign. “We know that people with busy lives often want D&D in their life, but don’t have time maybe to have … I remember as a kid, every week my friends and I have like our four plus hour session. A lot of people don’t have that much time to commit, but they still want that taste of D&D with their friends and family each week or several times a month,” Crawford concluded.

“And so the more bite-sized we can make things, the easier we can make it so that you can take even an epic adventure like Rime of the Frostmaiden, or now The Wild Beyond the Witchlight, the more likely people are going to feel like ‘OK, even though I’ve had a busy week, I can still get a little bit of D&D in there with my friends and family.’ That, again, has been a very conscious choice on our part, not only because of what we observe in streams, but again to make it much easier for the brand new DM to get their feet wet in the wonderful pool of D&D.”