After releasing the fourth episode of its sixth Side Quest entitled Pirates of Leviathan, Dimension 20 has made clear that playing Dungeons and Dragons remotely is not the confused and disorganised mess some tabletop fans had perhaps feared it would be.
With the advent of the coronavirus pandemic, many in-person tabletop roleplaying enthusiasts, professionals, and hobbyist home gamers found themselves obliged to go on an initial hiatus before implementing social distancing measures. Others decided to play remotely for the first time ever.
When the trailer for Dimension 20’s remote D&D series Pirates of Leviathan was released, many ttrpg community members expressed their worry about whether the virtually played game would be able to run as smoothly as it usually does on set. The overarching concern seemed to be that such a series wouldn’t live up to an in-person, professionally produced actual play Dungeons and Dragons game.
The Geekiary had first admitted they were “a little leery of how our new Side Quest cast was going to handle the virtual game table”. In fact, some Dimension 20 fans revealed that not only had the pirate setting not (initially) appealed to them, but the lack of production, sets, and miniatures would make the series unwatchable.
Strong opinions and disheartened regular viewers expressed their doubts on Dimension 20’s SubReddit; “I think this is the first season D20 has done that I will skip entirely.”
But the apprehension some Dimension 20 fans had expressed towards a remote game, and the fear that disorganisation, cuts in internet connection, and lack of engagement would prevail, has been overthrown entirely. Instead, viewers have been met with a vivacious, incredibly professional, and extremely engaged cast who are committed to showing that virtual D&D is not only watchable, but also very entertaining.
Why is Pirates of Leviathan a D&Digital success?
Of course, that is not to say that all remote play is watchable and deserving of being a D&D series, with many people experiencing or having initially experienced technical issues or lack of enthusiasm from players and DM alike. That said, in-person games can also fail to meet the criteria for becoming a professional D&D series. If you’re on the fence about whether or not to watch a remote D&D game, or whether to watch a game at all, here are some great examples of why Pirates of Leviathan might subvert any negative expectations you might have of virtually payed Dungeons and Dragons.
Theatre of the mind is not synonymous with visually uninspiring
What many viewers enjoy when watching an in-person tabletop roleplaying game are the interactions and banter between the cast. Players react to each other’s physical cues and emotions, either reciprocating or not. Not only does this interaction strengthen in-game bonding, but in the case of Dimension 20, it can be wildly comedic. Alongside these visuals are the incredible sets and miniatures often used for the purpose of combat; however, arranging for this remotely can be challenging when also filming a show, and all combat so far in Pirates of Leviathan has relied heavily on theatre of the mind. No sets, no minis.
That said, the cast has made an incredible effort – seamlessly, might I add – to be visually inspiring to its viewers. Filming several episodes in one day has awarded some continuity to the character’s outfits, which includes Myrtle the Bitch’s stunning makeup and Barbarella ‘Bob’ Sasparilla Gainglynn’s breathtaking dress.
The cast’s commitment to being present audio-visually is unequivocally there, and is mirrored by body language; have a look at how Aabria Iyengar has Myrtle’s death stares pierce through others even as she remains silent, how Matt Mercer has Jack Brakkow tilt his head and hunch his back to make apparent his self-perceived inferiority, or how Krystina Arielle expresses emotion through Bob, by laughing, pouting, crying, and singing. Carlos Luna’s Cheese has eyes that sparkle when he speaks, and a voice that quivers at the sight of danger. Marisha Ray’s Sunny Biscotto flaps about her aarakocra wings in panic and excitement, and shows reverence to her goddess by way of voice acting. Marcid the Typhoon’s threats will send a lawful neutral kind of shiver down your spine, contrasting with his deeply just and almost selfless acts.
It’s also worth saying that maps are not entirely absent from the show, and that Dungeon Master Brennan Lee Mulligan does an incredible job at describing scenery and sets so that the usual distances and ranges of D&D combat don’t matter as much to gameplay. But do expect a roleplay heavy series.
Top notch production
Some of the initial concern in regards to this series revolved around a potential lack of production, or conversely, an ‘overly produced’ feel. Luckily, Dropout’s crew has really hit the nail on the head in terms of performing delicate editorial work, and we have David Kerns (Producer), Orion Black (Creative/Sensitivity Consultant), Tyler Schuelke (Editor), and Victor Rosas II (Illustrator) to thank for a huge part of the end product. Ultimately, the crew are in large part responsible for setting the much loved editorial tone of D20.
Other than all the unseen work that goes into Dimension 20, Pirates of Leviathan includes the show’s usual sound effects; always appreciated in on-set games, and now a crucial part of production to add to the immersive experience of watching a remote game. All of Dimension 20’s character art and stats also appear on screen. As an added bonus, initiative rolls figure below the players as extra visual aid, facilitating theatre of the mind combat scenes.
The cast has also mentioned the use of a Skype chat private to them which made it easier to produce and come up with certain ideas and tonal suggestions on the fly without disrupting gameplay. The availability of such a chat naturally also made it easier for players to interact with each other regardless of their ability to communicate ideas in person.
A unique audio-visual D&D experience
Overall, the editing of the series is something to commend, as it manages to capture the tone of each cut scene and tidbit of emotion; dramatic pauses cue and follow intense back and forths, and music will at times cut out briefly as a comedic highlight. Krystina Arielle’s Bob regularly goes into song, which perfectly befits her singer-songwriter status as the Goddess of the Gold Gardens of Leviathan, and Brennan Lee Mulligan also graced the audience with a brief DM sea shanty, a rare sight to behold in D&D shows, but much appreciated (a nod to Dashilla’s song in Critical Role). Fingers crossed this turns into a musical by the end of the show with Marcid in the lead.
***SPOILER ALERT EPISODE 1 and 4***:
Roleplay heavy with bold choices and high stakes contains one spoiler in regards to Marcid in Episode 1.
All right, I’m in. But what about the famed Rick Perry minis and sets? contains one spoiler for a non-player character in Episode 4 of Pirates of Leviathan.
Roleplay heavy with bold choices and high stakes
To make up for the lack of in-person interactions, and simply because, Player Characters in Pirates of Leviathan are making some very bold choices, (*spoiler alert*), such as when Marcid picks up future ally Cheese to literally use his child body as a shield. If that is not the raddest and baddest thing you have ever seen within a ttrpg party, then I don’t know what is. Though at times very humorous and lighthearted, the series grants the D20 community with the tone of rivalry and tension that Escape From The Bloodkeep never gave to TPK fantasy-hungry viewers.
Roleplay is also heavy in Pirates of Leviathan, with many instances of characters being expressedly overjoyed, anxious, nostalgic, sad, and even drunk!
All right, I’m in. But what about the famed Rick Perry sets and minis?
It’s true, let the record show that Rick Perry’s mind has not equipped this series with his cool miniatures and out-of-this-world sets. It’s no doubt that any D&D series would be vastly improved with the insight and creativity of Dimension 20’s Art Director, a sentiment very much expressed on Dropout’s Discord; however, a remote show might not have done justice to this kind of gameplay. (*spoiler alert*) Of course, we all hope that our plea for a mini of a T-Rex in a tricorn hat will someday be heard. Rick Perry, we’re counting on you. Until then, sit back and enjoy.
Episode 5 of Pirates of Leviathan airs this Wednesday at 7PM EST, 4PM PST, 1AM CET.