Role’s co-founder isn’t worried about D&D’s plans for the online RPG space
CEO and co-founder Elle Dwight talks to Dicebreaker about actual play, intimacy in streaming and the dragon-branded elephant in the room.
Elle Dwight offered two polite reminders that Role, the streaming roleplay platform she co-founded and runs, is not a virtual tabletop but a toolset for “conversation gaming”. After crowdfunding $106,982 on Kickstarter in 2020, Role has been successfully simmering among the actual play and online RPG space.
That scene is quickly expanding, though. Wizards of the Coast announced its own plans for a dedicated, in-house virtual tabletop for Dungeons & Dragons earlier this year, and smaller companies such as One More Multiverse, Foundry and even Roll20 are renegotiating what exactly they can offer players who suddenly find themselves with a wealth of options when it comes to playing games digitally with friends.
Role’s niche, as Dwight explains in an interview with Dicebreaker, relies on and reinforces the seemingly boundless creativity of the actual play community. She believes an intuitive and modular user experience, along with a body of DRM-free tabletop games offered through their new marketplace will set them apart from any would-be competition.
How are you feeling about this year for the company?
We have been on a really steady upward trajectory of basically every month being our best month ever, which has been great for us. We've gone through quite a few evolutions of both our play experience and our content creation tools. And we just recently launched our marketplace and have been onboarding publishers and studios into that experience.
Tell me about those conversations with publishers and studios.
It's been relatively low friction for us. One of the things that's really unique about Role, which I think has us in a slightly different position than other other platforms in the space, is that we really don't consider ourselves a virtual tabletop. While we have some intentionally simple and abstract tools for map-centred play, we have always seen ourselves as a platform for something we call ‘conversation gaming’, which is kind of our umbrella term for any aspect of tabletop gaming and roleplaying that is about people first and play materials second.
We don't actually have a model where we go out and licence these titles. The publishers submit the titles to us, we stand up native digital support with them, and then not only are their games playable on our platform but also the content is also available for sale.
Role’s user interface closely imitates tabletop actual play series on YouTube and Twitch. Is that intentional?
When we actually first set out to design Role, we were looking at a very exciting trend in the tabletop space - the meteoric rise of actual play. And we're not just talking about the big one, which is Critical Role, but there's also Dimension 20, Transplanar, Rivals of Waterdeep, all these amazing shows, and there's new ones coming out every day.
We asked ourselves, ‘What is compelling about this format of gaming versus playing Overwatch or Divinity: Original Sin or Diablo?’ It's watching people perform. It's watching people interact. It's having that face-to-face interaction. So, we very much architected the entire play experience around facilitating that first because we felt like no matter what game you're playing, no matter what other materials a game might require - whether it does use maps and minis or whether it uses other types of reference materials - the common denominator is always that face-to-face experience.
How do you bring these folks in that doesn’t immediately funnel them into the Dungeons & Dragons category? That system dominates the actual play format.
Our honest assessment of a lot of the play tools that exist out there in the industry today is that even the tools that may support other titles feel very first architected around D&D, which makes sense - D&D is the big one. It's the big 800-pound gorilla. I always like to remind people that less than a decade ago, D&D was not the biggest RPG - Pathfinder was - and it was able to get to the size that it is once again because of two things: the phenomena of actual play and fan content creation.
Right now there are over 5,000 supported titles on Role because of our players creating their own templates and their own things. We have a very deep set of roots in the indie scene. That was also intentional. We're finding game designers are now using our tools to prototype their next game. They are creating private game rooms where they have their community help them playtest their game, and our tools enable a lot of rapid iteration.
We really like the fact that Modiphius has a bunch of really recognizable licences, but we also try to path people towards indie, which are featured right alongside Dune and Star Trek. Some of the most innovative game mechanics and systems are being designed in the indie space. So, we really try to facilitate that type of conversation.
What plans does Role have for future independent game support beyond just equitable market placement?
We would like to have our marketplace be a lot more self-service, meaning anybody could come to the platform, not only set up sheets and templates but full game rooms, essentially creating the digital equivalent of a box product, and then get it up on the store. Then, enable the ability for people to create either remixed or add-on content for their favourite titles, especially if that publisher has an open licence.
We feel very strongly that the ability to own your content and files is very important. The type of thing you're not gonna see us do is platform-locked databases where if you buy this game, now all the content associated with it is only on Role, and you can only access it through your login here. Our whole belief is that the thing that will keep you coming back to the platform is a great experience, not being locked to the platform.
Are you concerned that Wizards of the Coast’s plans for its own virtual tabletop will cut into Role’s potential users?
To be honest, no, I'm not overly concerned. When I look at the other platforms and players in the space, no-one's really like us. I'm not trying to make that statement as if we're better - we've chosen to do a very specific thing. For example, like what One More Multiverse is doing: they've created this really interesting hybrid experience similar to a video game level creator and then using the roleplaying medium as a vessel for that.
Wizards has very specific needs and opinions around how they'd like their game to be played, and I think that it makes the most sense for them to do that all in-house. But there will always be people who homebrew and change the way it's played. There are people who play D&D without any miniatures, maps or virtual tabletop components, at all. They play theatre of the mind, they play D&D with no combat.
For us, it's less about trying to get out of the shadow of D&D - we don't really see it as a shadow, and we have a good relationship with Wizards - and more about recognising that there is so much excitement and opportunity in other facets of this hobby that not enough people are paying attention to and not enough companies are doing a good job servicing.
What would you say to folks who hypothetically believe something essential is lost in the move to streaming video-focused roleplay?
I would say they’re right, and I would say that's not a bad thing. Role is not meant to replace that. This is a new field and opportunity space. I'm not trying to replace what people love about tabletop gaming. This is a new and evolved format that is taking some of the things from the tabletop experience that facilitate great conversation gaming. And I think we have an opportunity to do something potentially brand new.
Where does Role fit into the next five years in the tabletop industry? What does that look like?
I think that all publishing will go digital. A lot of people are now pivoting their products to digital first and only doing print runs for the things that they are sure will sell really well. As a physical collector, there's a part of me that pains a little over that. But also, as somebody who's deeply passionate about seeing the space grow, I feel like it's a good thing because people can get their products in people's hands faster, and they can iterate on them, and they can experience them online, too.
We are huge believers in the idea that no-one has accurately predicted how big online roleplaying is going to get. It has the greatest potential to be the most inclusive gaming category. I'm a trans person, our team is majority LGBT and POC, and we have a very diverse set of experts on our team that come from a passion for this specific medium because it offers us something that we couldn't get from other forms of gaming.
Role started right before the COVID-19 pandemic, which I’m sure seemed auspicious. More than two years in, how has it affected the company and its users?
The pandemic put the entire tabletop space into focus for people. It's not too different from the way this has changed work forever, right? A lot of people spent the pandemic stuck at home and realised they actually had a shot to be a game designer or be a creator. But then the reality of producing print and physical materials set in - really difficult, expensive and slow. So, you have a game that you're excited to get into people's hands, and your community is excited, but you then have to give them a six-month timeline before they can actually touch it. That is awful, especially if you're growing your business.
The most positive side effect of this period is that a lot of people awoke to the realisation that they are not alone in this hobby. They don't have to be alone in their love for this hobby and their love for storytelling, for creating together. Once you've had a taste of that belonging, you're never gonna give that back. I don't think that's going to change for a lot of people. I think that's going to accelerate.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.