The first Actual Play podcast I listened to was Chris Perkins introducing the Penny Arcade team, Scott Kurtz and Wil Wheaton to Fourth Edition D&D. I hadn’t played a tabletop RPG since university and the mixture of irreverent humour and tropey genre adventure had me hooked immediately. Searching around for more of the same I stumbled across Critical Hit from Major Spoilers, a show I have kept up with ever since, featuring what must be one of the longest-running campaigns to have been made into a podcast- they are coming towards the end of that 4e game now and I’m excited to see where they end up. As my circumstances changed I had more time to listen to podcasts and at the same time there was an explosion of new shows being created. When I was planning to get a tabletop group together I had heard a few people mention Dungeon World so I went in search of podcasts playing that game and after listening to a few one-shots and short campaigns I discovered Friends at the Table.
It’s fair to say that the first few episodes of Friends at the Table sound a little rough ( check out one of the excellent fan guides for where to start ) but the mix of players and Austin Walker’s skill as a GM caught my attention immediately. Following the adventures of the two parties as they created the world while they explored it was an entirely novel opportunity to enjoy a story and hear the sparks fly as the setting was born and the pieces fell into place around it. Creative and audacious, imaginative and blessed with beautiful original music, I was absolutely blown away; five years later I still am.
With that in mind, my plans to get a tabletop group together collided with the thought I had been toying with for years that my friends are a superbly funny and inventive group and it would be super fun to be able to share their antics with an audience. At some point in mid 2015 we finally managed to get everyone on the same call at the same time and Crudely Drawn Swords was born. We’re not far from our hundredth episode now and editing our campaign into a podcast that maintains the character, humour and storytelling of the game with a little more pace has been an ongoing challenge, one that is amply rewarded by the response we have seen from our steadily growing audience over the years.
As a participant and a fan I have listened to a lot of Actual Play shows and recently it got me thinking about our place in the world of narrative media and how unique it is. A film has to tell a story in a couple of hours, a television season -unless it’s a true epic - might get ten or twenty hours at best whereas some of the Actual Play shows I listen to come in at eighty hours per season. The combination of game mechanics and improvisation obviously means that these stories are happening in the moment with no narrative direction beyond the skill of the players and GM, we’re not working to create tight scripts or trying to tell a neat story in a planned way, but that also means we have so much time to develop our stories, so much space to explore characters and their relationships. The way those change and respond to the unexpected events that come up at the table – collaborative, unique, sometimes hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking – really is unique to Actual Play shows.
So if you’re listening to or producing Actual Play content, congratulations – you’re part of a new entertainment genre; one that could only become viable at this moment in history because it relies on technology that has only been widely available for a few years. Now it is open to any group who can afford to spend a little money on microphones and hosting. Like punk bands, almost anyone can start an AP podcast or stream now; also like punk bands, the vast majority will be terrible and that is fine too – we’re all learning how to do this as we go along, helping one another out where we can and having an awesome time doing it. But somewhere out there, a group of friends are getting together and starting to play a game that is going to blow our minds when they broadcast it – there are going to be some truly outstanding shows to listen to and watch and that is brilliant. We’re all part of something that has never happened before- unlike the games we’re playing, the rules for this genre haven’t yet been written and we’re just getting started.