Expanding the Definition of "Audience" in Tabletop Roleplaying

Curator's Note

The audio in the clip above is drawn from the podcast The Adventure Zone, in which a family plays a long-running Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) game, while the animation has been added by a fan of the show. Tabletop roleplaying games (TRPGs) like D&D, in which players adopt a character of their choice guided by the game's rules and (often) a referee, are sometimes understood as insular experiences shared by a small group. It's common for TRPG scholarship, especially but not exclusively work that's more than a few years old now, to use the term "audience" in a way that more or less equates it with "player" (Fine 230, MacKay 58, Zagal and Deterding 29). According to this understanding of these games, TRPG participants shift between being actors and audience members throughout a game in nuanced ways, but people who aren't playing do not watch. As fan work done to remember a moment in a game by and for spectators not present at the table, this expansion on The Adventure Zone provides an excellent example of the changes that "actual plays," TRPG sessions streamed or uploaded to platforms like Twitch and Youtube, have brought to the TRPG's relationship with the term "audience."

 Actual play shows have contributed substantially to the current upswing of interest in TRPGs, especially D&D. However, beyond simply expanding interest in playing these games, livestreamed and uploaded games have also broadened TRPGs' cultural footprint by detaching the roles of player and audience member, as many of these shows are enjoyed by people who have not played, and may or may not ever play, the games they're based on ("Diana Jones Award"). In this context, the term "audience member" will (presumably) rarely apply to players in the game in question, as it has often been assumed to do in TRPG discourse; instead, "audience member" may encompass everyone from other TRPG players, to people who'd like to try TRPGs, to fans of the show who do not play.

This broadening of the TRPG audience opens interesting paths of investigation for both players and researchers, paths ranging from the commodification of individual players' game experiences, something Daniel MacKay claims is impossible, to the differing ways in which actual play audiences and players derive enjoyment from the game (MacKay 83-4, Colville 33:58-35:54). 


Works Cited

Colville, Matthew. "Roleplaying, Running the Game #83." Performance, 31 Aug. 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7YCVHnItKuY, Accessed on 10 Oct. 2019.

"Diana Jones Award Goes to 'Actual Play'!" ENWorld forums, 02 Aug. 2018, https://www.enworld.org/threads/diana-jones-award-goes-to-actual-play.66..., Accessed on 11 Oct. 2019.

Fine, Gary. Shared Fantasy: Role-Playing Games as Social Worlds. U of Chicago P, 1983.

MacKay, Daniel. The Fantasy Role-Playing Game: A New Performing Art. Foreword by Brooks McNamara, Afterword by Marshall Blonsky, McFarland & Co., 2001.

Zagal, Jose P. and Sebastian Deterding. "Definitions of Role-Playing Games." Role-Playing Game Studies: Transmedial Foundations, Edited by Jose P. Zagal and Sebastian Deterding, Routledge, 2018, pp. 19-52.


I think this is a significant observation and important phenomenon, especially with regards to commodification (Wendy's "Feast of Legends" RPG, the "Stranger Things" D&D starter set/tie-in, the proliferation of Alignment memes, RPG-based art for sale at pop culture cons...) which is bringing people into gaming circles even if they don't play. 

TAZ fans will be aware of this already, but many will not.  One mechanic of the podcast is that Twitter followers and commentators using #thezonecast might end up as characters on the show.

Audience members become characters...and no doubt imagine themselves in each episode in which their names appear. How does this add an additional layer to the character/audience co-identity?

P.S. Boyland was one such audience-member/character

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