The Streaming Half of Strongholds & Streaming

I may have mentioned… repeatedly, that I am a tremendous fan of Matthew Colville, and that I gave to the Kickstarter that was ostensibly to get a streaming series up onto Twitch and YouTube, but for the purposes of putting a product into the hands of backers, it was also for the Strongholds & Followers supplement that he had hinted at repeatedly in his “Running the Game” videos that a few fans had been asking about.

Well the MCDM stream began last Wednesday, and aired on YouTube (where I will be watching) over the weekend, and I squeezed in watching between games I was running, and as I already reviewed the book, it’s only fair I have a look at what else our generously given donations have yielded. Side note Strongholds & Followers has had an update with extra artwork and some fault-fixes! Version 1.1 is available for download now, and free if you’ve already got 1.0.

Here’s a quick look at episode 1 of The Chain.

Story and Gameplay

Matt pitched a few games to his group, presenting options with brief synopses of the narrative, and a rough idea of what kind of playstyle to expect, be it high on the tactics and strategy on the table, or how much intrigue and social cunning they will require, and what they will need to commit to to get the most enjoyment from the campaign. The game that was selected will tell the story of a defeated mercenary company, The Chain of Minauros, regrouping and rebuilding in a far away city, Capital. And we’ve watched the creation and evolution of Capital on Twitch, we know what is coming, but this game, this opening game is all about the hard times upon which the Chain have fallen.

Spoilers: The pitch for the campaign spells it out plainly! The beginning will be terrible, the beginning will be a defeat, the beginning will be potentially fatal. It was, and it was hard to watch Lars, playing the ill-fated commander, as he realised that his death was inevitable, and that his allies were taking a suicidal actions in their efforts to save him. I’m watching the campaign diary as I type, and apparently Lars’ heartbreak was not so much the loss of his character, he half-expected it having played with Matt for a while and being quite aware of the situation. He was more concerned about the other players, and by the sound of things went open-eyed into the jaws of death. And he has a new character ready-made! More on that in just a second. Spoilers Over!

The MCDM group are The Chain, amongst whom we have ranks and roles outside of mere race/class combinations. They got extra rules based on their role within the faction, retainers and underlings who serve them as squires with ambitions to rise within the ranks. An event in the episode has already forced a shift in the command structure, and as the Chain must grow in the future, it’s a dynamic I look forward to seeing develop.

A couple of other points of interest, two classes being used that are new to those of us with just the core books in hand:

The Illrigger is available to download for free! Effectively this is a dark paladin, pledged, or at least beholden to, a dark and terrible force from hell, and it is very different to a paladin while adhering to a similar role. There’s less damage output, more manipulation and vengeful strategy, alongside heavy weaponry and armour. I already like the Illrigger, but will not be implementing until it’s a bit more thoroughly tested, tweaked, and refined. Anna is currently the only Illrigger being played in the entire world.

The Pugilist is available on the DMs Guild for quite cheap, it’s a monk for people who don’t like playing monks or for DMs who struggle to get monks into their setting. Squeeze in a bit of barbarian and/or fighter for durability.

And for good measure, here’s Matt’s variation of the Ranger. Looks good! Still a lot of playtesting underway.

The Impossible

Just a quick thought:

We begin with an impossible situation, which I love as a campaign opening! It’s big, it’s dramatic, and as Matt says repeatedly in the episode and in the campaign diary video that followed, it’s cinematic. I’ve discussed the concept of The Impossible situation in a previous article, and reasons why an impossible situation can be a great campaign moment and even better as an opening scene.

Here we see a perfect example, a simple job that rapidly gets wildly out of hand. The Chain’s first target turns out to be someone else, and this heavily infamous villain, Ajax the Invincible whose reputation spans campaigns, appears on the field bringing a colossal demon with him, besting a powerful ally, and destroying a legendary artifact, all in very short order. Every moment tells you that this is a Kobayashi Maru, even without having miniatures on camera that make buildings seem insignificant.

It’s nice to see that my advice is not an idea exclusive to me, so I highly recommend watching episode 1 to see a prime example of a game I love to run.

Setup and Entertainment Value

What did a record breaking amount of money give us?

Certainly a beautiful table, space enough to sit everyone, populate a table with scenery and miniatures without cramping the screen. Cunning use of mobile phones as portable cameras has made it easy for MCDM to get up close and into the “action” so we can see the miniatures and set pieces up close, and gives the team some quick and easy cameras to just pick up and use when situation demands.

I love that the frames around the screen match the style of Strongholds and Followers, same as the artwork used for the characters which was produced by one of the artists who contributed to the book.

Cover art for Strongholds & Followers

This is episode 1, and as a group they have never put together a livestream before, production was high quality for a first time out the gate, and even though they’ll need to make adjustments and refine the process more than they already have (they’ve been working with other games ahead of time to get as close to “right” as possible) the setup is already really good quality. In my experience, the most necessary component to make a stream watchable is decent sound, and they have that at the very least.

Alright, so episode 1 appears to have caused some backlash, although not enough to deter regular viewership. I recommend watching the campaign diary after watching the first episode because it makes a lot of the “questionable parts” make a lot more sense. This isn’t a new DM, these aren’t all fresh faces to the table, expectations were set, and met.

Was it entertaining?

As a fan of Matt Colville, yes! It’s nice to see someone who I respect as a DM actually helming a table, putting to use some of the same techniques I use, and employing a few I have dismissed in the past but to better effect. The group are of mixed experience, so it’s also a pleasure to see a voyage of discovery alongside the thought processes of veterans, and gelling together rather gracefully.

As a fan of Critical Role, which is entertainment pure and simple… this is a gear shift to say the least. Do not enter this expecting the same experience, you won’t be getting it, this team are more to-the-point with numbers at the moment, less roleplay, less performance, just a good game. I will most certainly be watching for a while, giving the series fair chance to iron out wrinkles, settle into a stride, and develop characters I can care about, rather than having any investment erased in moments.

Episode 1 is not the campaign. It is an opening scene, a prologue, an important part of the journey to reach its beginning. I was looking forward to the start of the campaign, and I still am, because episode 1 was not it. Pilot episodes are rarely immortal gems, and with such an unpredictable and free-form medium it’s always uncertain territory, but Matt Colville is a good DM, handling good players, and while it may be less of a drama experience than Critical Role – whose fame is borne on the performing talents of its players – it will be a better example of tabletop RP.

They are not the only tabletop roleplaying series out there, far from it, dozens, hundreds have sprung up in the form of podcasts and streams, and this is only the third I’ve got on my watchlist. I’ll be adding more if I ever have free time ever again.

I’ll give MCDM’s The Chain a few more episodes before I dig any further, for now I’ve missed an episode of Critical Role to write this… I have some catching up to do.