In recent years, actual play podcasts have been exploding. Everyone and their Dad have an actual play (The Adventure Zone, quite literally). Many folks reading this have probably recorded lines for an actual play. Thanks to mainstream adoption of the hobby, we nerds who have played Dungeon & Dragons for years no longer play in our Mum’s basement in shame. Now we’re playing our roleplaying games live on Twitch or releasing podcasts. And thank heavens for that. We have more folks willing to play with us, and frankly, the stench was getting ripe down there.
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.
“But Hem,” I hear you type, “nuts and bolts me here, what are you talking about?”
“Actual Play Podcasts utilize the drama inherent in the ruleset of a roleplaying game to tell a dark and dramatic improvised tale.” – Volonda
An actual play is based on roleplaying games, where a group of people improvise a story together, with one person called a Game Master (or Dungeon Master) usually taking over the role of being the world the other characters encounter. The gaming aspect arises when a challenge arrives within the story that has the potential of failing or succeeding. The character rolls a die, flips a coin, pulls a card (whatever the game rules dictate), and the result determines if the character succeeds or fails. An actual play podcast records and releases the whole process to the world. And this can be short (a couple of hours recorded in a single day) or as long as the story takes to tell (several years… yes, years).
You can have different rule sets (Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, Call of Cthulhu, Blades in the Dark as examples), you can have different settings (fantasy, steampunk, sci-fi, modern day etc.) and different genres from horror to comedy.
Ah, so the types of actual play depend on the system, the setting and the genre?
Well, now, this is where I push my stylish glasses up my nerd nose and get my Game Master book out. So, technically… hold on there, my level one paladin friend, let me break down some more nuances. Here are three common types of actual play podcasts, along with their advantages (and, potential downsides).
1. Actual Play into An Audio Drama
When you take the raw recording and turn it into a scripted audio drama, with all the bells and whistles of a scripted audio drama.
Recording a roleplaying game has a lot of improvisation, which, if you’ve ever done improv before, you know doesn’t always hit those perfect story beats, those winning one-liners, or make any sense at all.
Additionally, there is also a lot of table talk during a roleplaying game. This can be discussions of rules, deciding spells or ammo type, tactics talk, blaming Nazir for not bringing the snacks, ribbing Guðrun for forgetting their character’s brother’s name… anything not pertinent to the story is considered table talk and can slow down the pace of the episode.
Both of these things can disengage some listeners as they are reminded that this is fiction by allowing them to peek behind the curtain of the story.
2. Actual Play RAW
When you take the raw recording and do either nothing or the absolute bare minimum to it before presenting it to your audience.
The connection to the players can be as strong as the connection to the characters they are playing. There can be a second level of engagement for the audience as they get to know both player AND character. There is nothing like hearing the players win or lose as they roll dice to determine the fate of Tayless, fighting her father’s killer after months of searching, which could be years in real-time. You can feel for Tayless and for their actor, which is potentially double the audience investment.
You cannot get that, however, if you cut all table talk. The table talk creates a very intimate relationship with the audience – player reactions are as genuine as they can be when they encounter challenges, and listeners connect with real feelings,
And, of course, actual plays have an audience that LOVE the rules. It’s a part of the game, and people want to hear that. They want to hear the dice rolling. They want to hear the mechanics work in the favour of the heroes. The rules are a big part of the hobby that we play, and removing that removes a huge part of the charm of roleplaying games.
3. Actual Plays Edited for Your Listening Pleasure
Editing the content, adding music or fx, minimizing table talk, adding voices…
The final type of actual play that I would like to talk about is the partially edited actual play. This is a delicate balance of finding the right mix between polishing out the rougher edges of unnecessary table talk and keeping the honesty of the moment.
No one wants to hear Alisha struggling with the virtual tabletop online, but they do want to hear them squeal in delight when they realize they missed a clutch spell. It truly is a balance, and every show will have its own mix of story and table talk.
Editors can add music or SFX if they want. The team can retake lines or have important characters played by the GM voiced by another actor, too. This can work together to make something that would take 20 minutes of player planning into a more listenable 5 minute in character discussion, all for the sake of allowing your audience to more easily follow what is going on.
Actual Play Podcasts: Ready to Record & Roll?
As I put my GM’s handbook back onto the bookshelf amongst the horde of dusty RPG tomes, I’ll return my glasses to where they belong on my nose.
Some final thoughts for the day are that actual play podcasts, like all fiction podcasts, require work to have quality, from world-building to audio mixing to storytelling.
And we’ll cover that subject next time, as I reach over to another tome on the bookshelf.