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Welcome to the Twitchbowl: Hyper RPG

You can see Cheryl LIVE every week on Hyper RPG’s “Shadowrun: Corporate SINs”. Broadcasts are free at http://twitch.tv/hyperrpg from 6PM – 9PM Wednesdays (Pacific Time). Rebroadcasts are available on-demand at HRPG’s YouTube channel.

I joined the Twitch universe recently in a big way.

In January, several of my friends from NERDprov and I were approached by a producer who had just moved up here from Los Angeles to start a gaming-oriented Twitch channel. Would we be interested in a gig where we played a pen-and-paper RPG on live on camera with each other for three hours a week?

Short answer: YES. Yes we would.

The Business of Role-Playing

I have a lot of thoughts about luck vs. opportunity and preparation that I’ll save for a future post. Suffice it to say: once we determined the offer was not, in fact, a trap, we were all in. Of course, as soon as we got committed, the reality was absolutely intimidating.

  1. Live improvised broadcast. LIVE.
  2. We’re playing Shadowrun – one of the most complicated RPGs out there. None of us (save Lauren, who joined us after a few weeks) had any prior experience with it. The rest of us cut our teeth on D&D.
  3. We were tasked with creating our own characters, which is a hell of a lot of pressure when you know it’s a character you may need to live with for months – or even longer.
  4. We all have full-time day jobs and existing obligations to multiple theater companies.

#1 is only really dealt with through experience. We all perform regularly on live stages, but the scale is limited to several hundred people who you can see all at once. And as a bonus, we did do ONE live television broadcast as NERDprov – but the local morning news isn’t quite the hyper-interactive Twitch audience dynamic.

But we’re nerds, and we took #2 in stride quickly – setting up play sessions and diving DEEP fast. Brunch and Shadowrunning. Several of us ordered beat-up copies of “Into the Shadows” from Amazon, myself included, to try and immerse ourselves more. We watched Critical Role as an example of the genre we’re working within. All fun, but it took a nuclear bomb to our schedules, and the prep work was unpaid as it often is with acting gigs.

As for #3, I claimed the Decker character archetype in our first playsession. It made sense to me – while three of us are computer scientists, I’m the one who has literally been working on the design of consumer devices, the Internet of Things and servers for years. Besides, having the hacker character in our party be a woman fits in with my passion about STEM outreach. (It’s not like my character even gives a fig about STEM outreach – it’s about the simple fact that the technical character is a woman and it’s no big deal.) It’s win-win.

And yet, the Decker archetype is completely antithetical to the wizards and monks I tend to play in D&D. I’m still just barely competent at the basics. The rest of the character details took time, and about 4 or 5 character rerolls. She started out as half rigger half decker, but that meant that she was just a little shitty at a bunch of stuff. As the only Matrix-competent character in the group, she had to at least be respectable. That also led to the mild chip-on-her-shoulder demeanor. I also chose a backstory (which is secret) that will lead to moments of emotional vulnerability down the line, which is one of my strengths as a performer.

My character’s name – Ma1nfram3 – came to me literally at 4 in the morning driving to the airport for a business trip to Silicon Valley. I wanted something technical, old school, and gender neutral. I was pretty psyched when it didn’t turn out to overlap with anything else in pop culture too heavily.

If you want to meet her, here’s a short diary video Ma1nfram3 did to help explain the basic concepts for the Decker archetype:

And as for #4 – we’re all a wee bit masochistic when it comes to our schedules. And when the right opportunity comes around, you make room. Even if it seems impossible. All of us agreed “professionally playing RPGs on camera with each other” was absolutely The Right Opportunity.

Diving Into The Deep End

Perhaps the most nervewracking – retroactively – was our dry run on set. We did a 3-hour campaign on set, with the 5 darkened cameras staring at us. As we played, there were two folks behind us that were quietly painting mechs, listening to our gameplay. The session was ridiculous – we ended up infiltrating a school, which is NOT what Lauren had planned. Eventually we got to the meat of the mission and our mage almost died, but we survived. Then one of the mech painters got up and gave us a lot of detailed notes and asked questions about the session.

No one bothered to tell me until afterwards that the mech painter with the notes was Jordan Weismann, AKA the creator of Shadowrun. THANKS GUYS.

Luckily, HyperRPG was doing a 48-hour charity livestream to kick off the channel from Feb 26 – 28, which gave us all a chance to meet the audience and get comfortable with the logistics of live broadcasting en masse. I’m no stranger to chat rooms, having grown up as a BBS nerd in the early days of the Internet. But in those days, an entire BBS could sustain 12 people, maybe 50 if you had a REALLY badass BBS. Then ICQ and AIM, but those were more small group chats. I never got much into IRC chatrooms because of the scale. But right off the bat here – the screens on-set are showing hundreds of folks chatting, interacting, donating to influence our actions on screen.

It’s a fishbowl. A fishbowl with foggy glass. You know someone’s out there, but you can’t see them very well and sometimes all you get is movement. But you know you’re on display.

Still, as an improviser, it’s INCREDIBLY ENGERGIZING to know people are engaged enough to chat back and even moreso when they follow, sub, or donate. I loved that dynamic. It was instantly addicting – so much so that I’m a little bummed that Shadowrun, necessarily, will not have the chat room pointed at us during play. I hope to do more in the hosting realm at some point where I can get that direct connection to the audience.

I came home that night and – while I was energized – I was also a bit angsty. I wondered why that was, and when I dissected my feelings a bit I discovered that I was frustrated that I didn’t get to be “myself” more, and was concerned about the audience reaction to my presence. Unique to this sort of media, I think – I’m long past angst about audience acceptance in improv. I took a few moments to reset my expectations and draw parallels to that improv experience. I cannot control the reaction to my work – I can only make sure I’m being as present, vulnerable, and committed as possible.

On Day 2 of the drive, looking for a way to be more “me”, I decided to amp up the silly and bring out one of my puppets, which turned out to be amazing fun. I’m super rusty on puppetry – my life hasn’t allowed much for it the past year or two. But I was literally a teenage Muppet, and puppets run deep in my blood. Besides, my Twitter/Twitch handle has been MuppetAphrodite since the dawn of time – no sense not bringing the community in on that side of me.

It resulted in a very silly stretch of hours on-camera – and a great test for me of keeping the puppet in character for extended periods of time. (I’ve been looking for an excuse to double down on my puppetry for a while.) And it was a fun way to get to know my fellow hosts – when my puppet looked at a host and their face melted or they petted it kindly, I knew I was working with a fellow Muppet fanatic. Always a good sign.

We ended up raising about $62,000 for the HALO Foundation, which I’m proud of. Really quite a lot. I know the channel had loftier goals, but no one knew we’d be up against the Pokemon anniversary livestream. That hurt us and our organic visibility big time. Painfully ironic, since I’m a maaaaassive Pokemon fan. The level of generosity our fledgling community exhibited during those 48 hours was really inspiring. And I’ll never think of Sandstorm, Rick Astley, Just Dance, marshmallows, or MULE the same way again.

On Monday that week, I guested on the debut of Trivia Hops, the channel’s wacky inebriated game show. Had a great time, but that was a much more focused experience than the insanity of the charity drive. And saying Trivia Hops is focused is saying a lot. I didn’t realize that half of the questions would be Shadowrun related, which was horrifying when it turned out my competition included Mitch from Harebrained Schemes – but luckily, Mitch is a consummate drinker of whiskey. 😉 Good times were had by all.

Corporate SINners

And then came the debut of “Shadowrun: Corporate SINs”. The result of our weeks of preparation and anxiety. A completely different experience, since we’re not connected to our audience during the broadcast (the chat room runs in parallel, with no screen in the studio). As improv performers, it’s an adjustment to realize you’re not going to get any immediate feedback on what you’ve done; sometimes even not from your fellow actors, since what is funny to the audience may be horrifying in character.

On top of all that, our broadcasts are 3 hours long. It’s somewhat by necessity – if you’ve ever played a D&D campaign, you know why. But for folks who grew up with 30-minute comedy broadcasts, 3 hours live is a seriously new sort of time commitment. And yet, there are folks in the Twitch community who wouldn’t have it any other way. Storytelling is evolving, constantly. Thankfully, for those who require on-demand viewing, we can post our completed broadcasts to YouTube.

If I were to sum up the Twitch broadcasting situation thus far, I would classify it as a trust fall. My Twitter follower count has already gone up a bunch or so, and rather than making things intimidating, Twitter is now way more fun than it’s ever been. Our fans are so positive, supportive, and energetic. It’s like a happy little pocket of the Internet, which is increasingly hard to find these days.

I feel extremely blessed to have this opportunity to grow as a performer and to get to know a new community of gamers and geeks. We (the cast and I) basically won’t shut up in real life about this crazy journey. We’ll be at rehearsals for other shows talking about this show. We’ll be on chocolate tasting outings with friends and talk about this show. We can’t wait for Wednesdays, and we can’t wait to see you in the chat room.

Want a taste? You can watch Episode 2 right here – actually a very solid introduction to our characters, in addition to goofy / gory fun.

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