After peaking in the 80s, tabletop gaming is booming again around the world. Sam Brooks meets some of the New Zealanders at the forefront of a thriving – but still under-the-radar – gaming community.
Tabletop gaming is not Dungeons & Dragons. Wait, let’s try that again: tabletop gaming is not just Dungeons & Dragons; it’s so much more. While D&D popularised this kind of gaming in the 1970s and 80s, in the decades since a titanic industry has developed around the simple concept of players gathered around a table, creating characters and playing in worlds ranging from the medieval to the post-apocalyptic. It has inspired films, series, books, and most importantly, millions of fans across the world.
That includes New Zealand. Now KiwiRPG Week, which runs from May 1-8, has been launched to showcase a scene as rich as any other cultural community. The goal is to bring together a wide range of RPG podcasters, livestreamers, game designers and fans under the #KiwiRPG hashtag to reach out to a local – and, it’s hoped, global – audience.
“Kiwi creatives have produced amazing and innovative work in recent years,” says Morgan Davie, a game designer and podcaster based in Te Whanganui-a-Tara (Wellington). “This week is about acknowledging that and sharing our work with the world, and right here.”
The genre is experiencing a resurgence both in New Zealand and abroad, and there are a number of reasons why. One is the massive explosion in people playing D&D and tabletop games in general. Another is the huge success of Critical Role, a web series launched in 2015 in which professional voice actors such as Matthew Mercer and Laura Bailey play D&D. The series currently has 1.68m subscribers and over 450 million views on YouTube. It’s clear: people don’t just want to play these games, they want to watch other people play as well.
Brendon Bennetts, a writer based in Ōtautahi (Christchurch), has been running the sell-out comedy show Dungeons & Comedians since 2017. In it, performers play the tabletop game in front of an audience, which then goes out as a podcast (similar to Waterdeep Mountain High, which aired on The Spinoff Podcast Network in 2018-19).
The success of Dungeons & Comedians shocked Bennetts, he admits. “It seemed like it would be really fun to do,” he says. “I thought I’d just put on one show and see what people’s appetite was for it.” He made a Facebook event and within a few hours, without him even sharing it, the first show had sold out.
He attributes the success of the show, which has been going strong for five years now, to people wanting to feel some kind of communion – whether that’s in the form of a musical, a sports event or chatting on a Twitch stream. “A lot of hobbies tend to be a little bit isolated or happen within a small group, so there’s not many experiences for people to get together in a big group and have that shared experience.” Inspired by the success of events like Dungeons & Comedians, other New Zealand D&D shows have launched since, including Dungeoning and Dragoning at Wellington’s Circa Theatre, and DiceLegenz, a crew of local actors and performers who stream on Twitch each Sunday.
Bennett believes that watching and participating in these games, whether live or on stream, feeds a hunger in people for community. “There’s a connection that comes from creating something together,” he says. “When people are sitting around a table playing a game, they’re getting to have these fantasy experiences, fighting dragons and that sort of thing.
“But there’s also a creative experience that the people at the table are having – of collaboration, of surprising each other – and that’s the appeal of improvisation or writing. Those experiences are now more accessible to people, and people are discovering that yeah, they like being creative.”
While his show is based on D&D, he admits the main reason they choose that game is the name recognition factor. “When I play a game at home, I generally don’t play D&D because there’s this whole other world of games to play. If people could learn that there’s so much out there, that’d be great!”
It’s not just the fans in New Zealand who are helping the scene to thrive, it’s the creators. As in many areas, New Zealand punches well above its weight when it comes to the success of our tabletop games. Cam Banks, who recently returned home from the States, worked on the highly successful tabletop adaptation of Margaret Weis’ Dragonlance series, and was the designer of the award-winning Cortex Plus System, a RPG toolkit that has been adapted to work for multiple settings and universes, including Marvel, Smallville and Firefly.
Meanwhile the tabletop game Monster of the Week, developed by Michael Sands at Generic Games in Wellington, has been a cult hit across the globe. It plays on the “monster of the week” trope, as seen in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Supernatural, allowing players to get together to hunt various monsters together. It has received rave reviews and been translated into Italian and Portuguese.
Liam Stevens (Ngāti Kahungunu ki te Wairoa), a Māori TTRPG creator and cultural consultant based in Ōtautahi, is one of the organisers of KiwiRPG Week. He estimates he’s been involved in tabletop gaming for nearly 30 years. But “in the last few years there’s been a shift”, he says of the surge in interest in the genre. “So I started to put together a bunch of communities for various games on Discord and Facebook, and through that, started getting connected with a lot of people.”
Through his company, Toa Tabletop, he designs games, and also does development coaching around games as a cultural consultant and sensitivity reader. Wearing many hats is a necessity in the tabletop community – even though it’s a global industry, it’s still a comparatively small one. Unless they’re writing for a big publisher like Wizards of the Coast, a designer is likely going to end up being their own editor, proofreader and tester.
The internet has been an obvious boon for tabletop gaming. Not only does it allow both designers and their fans greater access to each other, the rise of platforms like Kickstarter and Patreon has enabled smaller publishers to make a go of it. Crowdfunding campaigns for new tabletop games made up over a third of the former’s revenue in 2021. Stevens estimates that more than 80% of his work comes from overseas clients, something that wouldn’t be possible 20 years ago.
For Stevens, the success of the form here comes from a “Kiwi can-do” mentality. Back when he started playing tabletop games, the only way to participate was to march down to the hobby shop and purchase expensive, bulky rulebooks, if they were even available at all. Now, he says, “I think we really embraced the idea of, well you have to make it yourself, otherwise you’re not going to get anything done.
“We’ve proved that during this wave of DIY games in the last 10 years that anyone can make a game. You don’t need to be Wizards of the Coast or TSR.” (TSR, for the uninitiated, is the original creator of Dungeons & Dragons, which Wizards of the Coast now publishes.)
Stevens compares the intermingling of creators and fans in the tabletop community to the music scene in New Zealand; a musician goes to a gig and realises everyone else in the audience is also making music. “The scene has everyone making games together and playing with each other in a way that in bigger economies and bigger parts of the world isn’t necessarily true. There’s definitely a greater tilt towards creator rather than consumer.
“It’s really good to have a community where everyone is like, ‘Hey, how do we make this better?’ Especially in the end times that we’re living in, it’s really nice to have people be like, yeah, let’s try and get more people in here.”
The goal of KiwiRPG Week is twofold. One, to raise the awareness of the genre in New Zealand: this is something you can get involved with, whether it’s as a casual player or a creator in your own right. Two, to publicise local tabletop gaming on a global stage.
“We’re telling the world: ‘yo, Aotearoa New Zealand is here, we exist and we make games‘,” says Stevens. “We’ve made a lot of the games you’re already playing, now check out these other people.”
KiwiRPG Week runs from May 1-8.