Many challenges face the creator of an actual play podcast. As an experienced Games Master and player, I’ve navigated my fair share of difficult terrain. I’ve occasionally chosen the wrong path during our journey, and I’ve become a much wiser producer on the other side.
One might say I’ve levelled up.
By Volonda of The Lucky Die
Hem Brewster is a Brit living in Iceland, Hem GM’s actual play podcasts, and is also the lead producer at Blighthouse Studios. They’ve also been known to voice act in the odd podcast.
So let me unravel my ancient map and guide you through the dark and treacherous tunnels of the podcasting dungeon.
Here, we seek one thing, and that’s the ability to create a long-form actual play podcast that sounds great and grows a loyal following!
There are three acts to this play. We’re going to take a look at pre-production, production, and post-production. By the end of it, you’re going to be equipped with a map to take you to the very deepest treasure-filled chambers of this dungeon.
1. Choosing the Right TTRPG (Tabletop Roleplaying Game) System for Your Story
When someone says roleplaying game, most people think Dungeons and Dragons, but there are a whole host of systems and rulesets out there. Each one has its strengths and weaknesses for play, but should also be considered with respect to your audience.
For example, some systems are heavily tailored to the fictional worlds in which they are set (Dark Heresy), some are really linked to the tone (Call of Cthulhu) while others require a spreadsheet (Rolemaster).
When preparing an actual play, you should assess the rulesets you might use and ask yourself the following:
- Are the rules clear and concise?
- Do the rules help to create a good story?
- Does the system’s license allow you to create a podcast? (Looking at you Games Workshop and Wizards of the Coast).
Treasure Token Tip – choose a system that helps the story and isn’t overly reliant on looking things up in a book, which can interrupt the flow and immersion. Well-known systems will have a bigger audience, but lesser-known systems may suit your story better.
2. Casting and Characters
A great player will be one who can create a compelling character, help others express their own, and doesn’t actively seek to be a nuisance. Having characters not getting on is one thing, but players at the table shouldn’t be bickering – they should be a team, and a team of improvisers nonetheless.
The Game Master (GM) will also need to be good at bringing character stories to a conclusion, know how to control the pace and energy of an episode, and be able to respond to complete curveballs. They should also know the difference between running a game, telling a story with friends and allowing players their agency.
It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway – the cast needs to be reliable. Recording across multiple timezones can kill a podcast if folks don’t turn up regularly for sessions – because everyone needs to be there. This also extends to having character backstories prepared, character notes from session to session, and uploading files in a timely manner!
3. The World, The Story, The NPCs
Depending on if you’re making up an entirely new world, or if you are running a prewritten module, the GM should know the world well enough to confidently respond to the players for the session they are recording.
Remember: People, Places, Pests, Plot – the four P’s of preparation. Gnome Stew is a source for how to prep for a session. Big brushstrokes for the overall story, small brushstrokes for the sessions. This allows the narrative to have cohesion but also to be able to adapt to changes easily.
When players have their characters weave their stories into the world you’re using, it helps to give motivation to the characters to follow the story. This makes the journey important to them.
Another vital piece of advice here, too – HAVE AN ENDING! For an audience, the story needs to feel like it is going somewhere and having an ending will create a guideline towards a point, even if it doesn’t end the way the GM first envisioned.
4. Audio Quality
The difference between good and bad audio doesn’t require a lot of money, but it does mean being aware that you are recording and making efforts to reduce crosstalk. There is no substitute for good raw recordings, so a good mic in a treated room is a good start. Check out The Podcast Host’s full podcast equipment guide where you’ll find options for every need, setup, and budget.
Recording for an audience also means remembering that they cannot see your character sheets, maps, or expressions. Avoiding phrases like “Yeah, I’m going to move my token over there” does not help your audience to connect to what is happening, be descriptive!
Treasure Token Tip – Please, PLEASE, do your audience the respect of recording everyone individually on microphones that are not headsets or mobile phones. If you want someone to listen, give them audio worth listening to. Also, I’ve made great use of Pre-Recording checklists in the past. I’d highly recommend making your own.
5. Music, Soundscapes, & Voice Overs
A great actual play will use non-obtrusive ambient music when it enhances the story. Songs with lyrics can be distracting under your voice, so using ambient pieces only is the best practice. The Lucky Die scores all their own original music. Taking Initiative, on the other hand, uses copyright-free music. Here’s where to find music for your podcast that’s safe, legal, and sometimes free to use.
Many actual plays create soundscapes, adding whooshing sounds for spells, grunting, and even closing bear traps (Dark Dice). Adding echoes to character voices when in specific locations, as well as pitch shifts when under spell effects can all add to the feel of a world and help to build the experience for the listener. Here’s where you can find some quality sound effects to throw into the mix.
Then there’s voice-over considerations, too. A GM can have anywhere between a dozen and a hundred characters they must portray. A good way of helping to distinguish important characters is to have them voiced by another actor. This signals to the audience that this character is so important, they got someone to voice them.
Treasure Token Tip – You will also need a piece of reliable and intuitive audio editing software to pull it all together and create your finished episode. Then, you’ll need a podcast hosting account to upload your content and make it available on the many listening apps and platforms out there in the realm.
As I roll up my ancient map and tuck it back into my satchel, I want to add the caveat that navigating the dungeons of podcasting will vary from group to group: from ruleset used to the number of voiceovers. That’s the joy of roleplaying… Ahem, I mean podcasting. Your table, your rules, your podcast – there will be an audience for it.
In case you missed it, check out my piece on What Is an Actual Play Podcast? (including three roll models), and be sure to meet me back in the tavern next week, where I’ll offer six tips to make great actual play players.