clock menu more-arrow no yes
Illustration: Ariel Davis for Polygon

Filed under:

How to host your own Dungeons & Dragons stream (or any other role-playing game)

How pros like Critical Role and Dimension 20 make it look so easy

If you buy something from a Polygon link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

From Critical Role’s upcoming animated series to Jeff Goldblum’s foray into the scene, one thing is certain: Tabletop actual play content is having its day in the sun. The pandemic’s creation of a content void fueled the rapid growth of the once basement-bound hobby, as Dungeons & Dragons and other popular tabletop role-playing games like Call of Cthulhu and Shadowrun have become the centerpieces of a broadly accepted, dare I say cool, underground scene. Think early 2000s alt rock, but with more dice and just as much flannel.

If you’re here, you probably know this already. You want to start streaming TTRPGs, right? I’ve put together some tips below. (Alternatively, If you’re a total newbie, I recommend this article about where to start with D&D specifically.)

Be original

Pretend you have to pitch your show to Mr. Twitchy, network president of Twitch.tv. Ask yourself: “What original spin on actual play streaming can I offer?” Start from a place of your unique skills and perspective. What makes you engaging as a GM, player, or channel host? Are you funny? Are your character voices awe-inspiring? Can you create soundscapes in real-time with your synth? Your originality will be the main appeal of your channel. This is freeing, but it can also make failure feel personal, which reminds me ...

It’s okay to fail

The vast majority of success stories are really stories of repeated failure, followed by a single success. Persistence, more than any of your other skills, will be the largest factor in your success. Failure won’t hurt your shot at channel growth, but fear of failure most definitely will. Even if an individual campaign falls apart, there’s a good chance folks who like your content will stick around for whatever you try next.

Treat it like a job

Not in the “get up and grind” become your own boss way, but in the standards that you hold yourself to about running late or skipping entirely. Take your schedule seriously and offer your collaborators and your audience explanations when a stream’s time changes or when you have to cancel. Set a similar expectation of communication and punctuality with the people you stream with. No one should show up 20 minutes late with a frappe.

Comedy and tragedy aren’t enemies

One of the most popular misconceptions about tone in storytelling is that everything works in service of that tone. I think most of the time, with something like streamed TTRPGs, the tendency is towards comedy, but if you look at popular tabletop comedies like The Adventure Zone or Dimension 20, they share an interesting commonality: narrative depth. The more grounded the story and the more dire the stakes, the funnier jokes appear by comparison. While genre can benefit your branding, it also puts more pressure on you and your players to succeed at meeting certain expectations.

Choose a game wisely

When it comes to what game to stream, there’s no right answer, but there are several key factors to consider, the main one being interest. I like to support smaller creators whenever I can, but if you’re just getting started, Dungeons & Dragons (specifically 5th edition) has the largest built-in fanbase, and more importantly, the largest swathe of people who know the rules. Just like with sports, you’re less likely to engage people when they don’t know what’s happening.

If you’re not playing Dungeons & Dragons, another key factor to consider is how entertaining the game is to watch. In the end, that largely comes down to personality, but some games are inherently more exciting or entertaining than others. For instance, a 10-hour game of Sid Meier’s Civilizations 6 might be fun for the players, but it doesn’t seem like the most broadly entertaining programming.

If you’re dead set against D&D, I strongly recommend picking a game that mechanically encourages collaborative problem solving, like Call of Cthulhu or Blades in the Dark.

Choose your cast carefully

If you, like me, avoid confrontation like it’s hot magma, you might have a hard time finding the right table of people for your game, because for every “yes” you offer, you’ll likely have to hand out four or five “no”s. No one likes to reject others, but to be entertaining on stream goes further than being funny or adept at navigating the challenges of the game.

Team players make for the best stream players. People who don’t hog the spotlight, who work to tie their characters to others’, these are the people to say “yes” to. Improvisational skills are also high on my “nice-to-have” list, but nothing outweighs attitude. At the end of the day, if you’re trying to create a community, the people you choose to feature are your most valuable resource.

It’s also important to set boundaries for where the story and the action goes. Making everyone feel comfortable at the table is paramount, and that means using good safety tools. The X-Card, pioneered by John Stravropoulos, is an excellent resource. So too is the concept of “lines and veils,” which should factor into your early pre-production meetings with your cast.

Part of building a community is also being mindful of the voices you’re inviting to the table. Representation matters, especially in traditionally gatekept spaces like TTRPGs. Having a table of intersectional players helps make it clear that everyone is welcome in your community, and that community spaces are safe spaces for otherwise marginalized groups.

Community > audience

Streaming as a medium is designed around engagement. When you’re a less popular creator, there’s an expectation to engage with chat, to acknowledge people. Discord helps extend this community engagement to times when you’re not streaming.

It’s better for channel growth to have a community of five than an audience of 25, because those five will do a lot of outreach on your behalf. This isn’t some multilevel marketing sorcery; it’s just natural human behavior to want to share the things you enjoy with the people you care about. This extends to other social media platforms, as well, mainly Twitter for the TTRPG community. Self-promo Saturday, in particular, is a great opportunity to engage with other creators and potentially find opportunities for cross-promotion.

Streaming platform & method

Twitch is home to the lion’s share of D&D TTRPG streamers. The two main tools folks use for streaming to Twitch are Streamlabs and OBS+StreamElements. Unfortunately, most features of Streamlabs (notably overlays, which can be very useful for TTRPG streaming) are stuck behind a $150/month pay wall. For that reason, I recommend using the equally flexible, albeit a bit more involved duo of OBS and StreamElements.

Player arrangement

The three main factors to consider for layout are how many people need to be on-screen at once, how heavily you plan to integrate secondary visuals, and whether the players are sharing a table IRL.

Players sit in two horizontal rows of three

Critical Role highlights its players, because they tend to be the focus. Because it’s an IRL game, they also put the players horizontally on-screen. Matt Mercer is separated from everyone else, making it clear to a new viewer that he’s the DM.

A DM sits in the middle of the screen with others all around him

Check Ds Out, by comparison, informs the audience of the campaign and both player and character names. For this particular campaign, the DM is more central, and gameplay information is communicated in the bottom right corner. As someone in the audience, I interpret this setup as more suitable for a role-play heavy game, since there’s a lack of real estate to portray combat visually, and because class and race aren’t indicated along with character name.

Players all sit around a central game screen

For Carnisideshow, the stream that I’m a part of, our real names and character names are included in our overlay, which cycles between that and our character’s class and race. The GM is always in the top left corner, and the central panel is a visual representation of the setting, or sometimes where combat plays out visually in Roll20. Chris also uses it to show character likenesses and world maps. To me this communicates an even split in value placement between the characters, the players, and the world development.

Music

There’s a clear best choice for adding music to your streams and it’s Syrinscape. The platform is flexible, effective, and all you need to do to ensure you’re using music legally is to provide credit for the music that’s played. How and where you choose to do that is up to you as long as it complies with Creative Commons guidelines.

Visuals

I tend to consider a visual representation of play to be a meaningful, if ultimately optional, value add. I’m admittedly most familiar with Roll20, which is a versatile, game-agnostic platform for visual representation of your characters in 2D space, and includes built-in dice rollers, distance measurers, and other combat-centric features. Alternatively, Fantasy Grounds has some excellent integrated exploration mechanics, and Tabletop Simulator is an open source option that’s probably the most flexible of the three. I recommend watching a tutorial for each, and going with whatever gels best with your needs.

Video

In comparison to streaming video games, TTRPG streams often include a lot more … you. As a result, camera type and quality is more important from the start. The two important performance benchmarks for cameras are resolution, which is the level of clarity in each frame of video, and frame rate, which is the number frames of video being captured per second. A higher frame rate means a greater fluidity of movement.

The free versions of Zoom and Discord limit resolution at 720p and frame rate at 30 frames per second (the default for most laptops), so, for your players, camera resolution and frame rate aren’t all that important. Both platforms offer premium subscription plans that change the maximum video quality, but I don’t recommend them, at least at first. That being said, if you care greatly about your own video quality, I recommend investing in a portable digital camera with 4K video, as it’s a more versatile tool than a 4K webcam. The same is true if you’re streaming from an IRL meetup location.

One other lesson I learned the hard way: Avoid wide lenses for personal use. Most comfortable places to mount the camera are at least 18-24 inches away from your face, and with a wide lens, you may as well be giving a home tour from that distance.

Audio & microphone

This is likely going to ruffle some feathers, but as one of those pretentious people who calls themselves an audiofile, I find the nicest USB mics all have the same problem: A lack of phantom power. Because they all draw power from your computer, they get much less juice than a wall outlet might provide. Most nice microphones rely on a fairly delicate balance between gain, output volume, and compression if you’re fancy. When you have to boost them too greatly in any one place, the result often doesn’t sound great. Also, having to menu dive to adjust your audio on the fly is more work than a couple of dials. What’s the solution? Behold: That one audio interface all TikTok musicians and Bo Burnham have.

Audio interfaces allow you to boost gain and overall output volume separately. They also let you hear yourself as you sound through the mic, which is incredibly helpful for character voices and general volume adjustment. The secondary benefits of something like this include having your headphones connected somewhere more mobile than your computer’s port, and the ability to use a secondary device to control music and sound effects, or even play instruments on the stream. I personally prefer this so I can use a tablet or phone as a dedicated soundboard, but as I said before, I’m also pretty pretentious. My microphone is a combined mic and interface, which is nice, but comes at a premium.

Microphone recommendations

The best sounding microphones for stereo audio from a single source are cardioid condenser microphones like the budget-friendly MXL 770 and NEAT Worker Bee. Whether you go with these or something higher-end, they’ll have you sounding as close and crisp as an NPR reporter, without that flat voice sound. Most condensers have some serious power draw, so this is another big win for the audio interface approach.

In conclusion

Streaming TTRPGs means trying to build a community that likes you, or at least the way that you portray yourself on stream, enough to return week after week. In my experience, streams are social clubs that form because they bring a group of people joy, and the players are just the entertainment.