I listen to a lot of podcasts and more and more of that list are becoming RPG actual plays. Does that sound like gobbledygook? Well, podcasts are radio-style shows you can download through Apple Podcast, Stitcher, or another "podcatcher" (I use Downcast) and listen at your leisure. Podcasts feel customizable and intimate, especially as you get to know the performers and styles of each show. Podcasts are a medium, so like books or films, they cover the whole gamut of genres. "Actual Plays" are one such genre in which the performers use an RPG game system (Dungeons & Dragons, Call of Cthulhu, Powered by the Apocalypse) to move the action along and create spontaneity in the storytelling while giving the players a toolbox to work with. Some of these are also videos like Geek & Sundry's Critical Role, now in its second season with the Mighty Nein. (Seasons in actual plays are a joke in themselves as they are often multi-year campaigns.)
Curious? Here are a few favorites from my list and others:
Season One: Balance (Dungeons & Dragons), Season Two: Amnesty (Monster of the Week)
This is what got me started on actual plays. I'd bounced off of Critical Role's videos with their unedited length, massive cast, and table talk, but Justin, Travis, Griffin and father Clint McElroy are a bunch of goofy joys to listen to. Their first arch, Balance, starts out with a bit more fumbling dudeliness that many may like, but they find their footing in a beautiful homage to their late mother with a delightful cast of NPCs like Angus the Boy Detective to the indomitable Killian Fangbattle and so, so many more. They're also adapting their adventures with painstaking care (it is taking way too long) to comic format! After Balance, they try out some various systems before settling into Monster of the Week with Amnesty, where a small West Virginia town deals with chaotic magical creatures with collaborative care for their home state (which has inspired a bit of my Zweihänder work with the Corruption of Saint Barberra). Their various special live episodes are riotously funny with Halloween and Candlenights specials well-worth a re-listen.
I mentioned The Infinite Bad in a previous post, but this show is excellent. It has bouts of tight, character driven, and mostly in-character action and investigation with touches of gloomy summary, all with a light d20 system that gets the action moving. I was so smitten with the show that I developed a system to run it since I couldn't find a ruleset that I'm, for the moment, calling d20 Pronto. The stories are in generally eight episode arcs that are shorter than most of the other actual plays on the list with moments of deep, unsettling horror. This is the kind of storytelling that goes great in an audio format for the same reason Lovecraft works as a written medium: Your mind summons the dark horrors with this incredible nudging.
This is a two for one, but One Shot runs, well, single session RPGs, generally with multiple episodes per system. To be honest, I don't listen to all of the One Shot episodes, but they're self-contained, so that's just fine! If you do nothing else listen to either Oh Fuck! It's Dracula or the heartwarming Kids on Bikes with author Patrick Rothfuss. Either is just fantastic and exemplars of what RPGs can do. (Pictured is a gif from Kids on Bike RPG.) If you like the production style, then check out Campaign, which recently started its second season (again, inside joke) with a setting called Sky Jacks inspired by the music of the Decemberists (it really works). It is about steampunk pirates, traders, and smugglers with a lot of odd science and loosey-goosey magic. Oh, and there is a walking, winking, totally not brain-hungry Frankenstein monster. The music brings the setting alive and it is just a blast. (Note: I did not listen to the first season set in the Star Wars Rebellion era, but it also seems great.) One Shot Network goes out of its way to be inclusive and think that is rad.
S1: The Unmarked, S2: Orbital Decay, & S3 Heroes of the Realm
Gamers with Jobs has a pretty solid conference call style podcast that is mostly about video games. When I got too jealous of the hundreds of hours they had plugged into Europa Universalis IV and the rounds of virtual reality, I unsubscribed. What I kept was the GWJ RPG podcast, which they've done three seasons of with various vibes. The first is fabulist American Gothic using a custom Tarot based system that I loved. The second season was science fiction ruins using Powered by the Apocalypse-inspired rules, but I ultimately passed on it as it lulled and felt too much like fantasy-space and not like its own world. The third season, though, feels like it has a dozen inspirations, most notably the Chronicles of Narnia in a sort of The Magicians way with less soap opera atrociousness. Both seasons one and three brought me to tears as the excellent characters reach their own conclusions. I love these. They lag sometimes and rely on audio storytelling without additional production, but I love them, especially the first season. They're raw and developed and just cool in an unadorned kind of way.
Looking for something that is more produced, more voice-acted, and more bent on driving characters mad? Try the Nerdy Show's impeccable Call of Cthulhu Mystery Program now in its second season. These games do a lot with the Call of Cthulhu RPG ruleset (switching from 6th edition to 7th edition between seasons) with moody music, tongue-in-cheek radio ads, constantly in-character voice acting, sound effects, NPC voice actors, and more. I don't really know how they pull it all off. These are classic, creepy Lovecraftian tales and I have eaten them up, writhing tentacles and all.
You probably have heard of Critical Role, Dungeon Master Matt Mercer, and the Mighty Nein. Critical Role is wildly popular in the community and does incredible work in world-building and storytelling. I know plenty of people who are very invested in the current season. And I bounce off of it. Obviously, it doesn't need my support. The world, the gameplay, the character nuance, that all feels really great, but between the number of players (most of these have four, CR has seven players) and the unedited breadth of the show, I just kept letting it slide. And now on episode 46, it is a big challenge to catch up. That said, try it out and, if you have the time, play the video feed and see what you think.
I swear to you that Bubble is a dramatized actual play, likely using Powered by the Apocalypse in its bones. I want to play in this world. I want to write the campaign setting and the system (pretty much already done by the show). But I'm not nearly funny enough. This is an eight episode binge of a dystopian pseudo-contemporary science fiction world where there's an Uber for monster hunters called Huntrs. There are drugs made from imp blood and there are so, so many jokes thrown in between gory, often absurd, homage-fueled fight scenes. I love this show so much.
I'm cheating now. but I have to boost for these two unrelated podcasts, but they're both high quality. To quote the show, "Imaginary Worlds is a podcast about why we make them and why we suspend our disbelief," and it is real good. I want to draw special attention to Rolling the Twenty-Sided Dice when host Eric Molinksy dives into Dungeons & Dragons, D&D Revisited when he returns to the topic, Winning the LARP when he talks about live-action roleplaying, and the most recent How I Won the LARP. Really, they're just all great and while tabletops and dice are not Molinsky's strong suit or major love, he dives in with his typical compassion, heartfelt interest, and earnestedness that I adore. And if you're looking for clever characters and concepts, check out the absolutely essential the memory palace with Nate DiMeo. Each episode is perfect in its own way. It just is. In the Corruption of Saint Barberra, Burgomeister Acacia Clare is pulled from Ida Lewis, which is elegant and perfect, while Antidisestablishmentarianism brought me to tears and is also perfect. Like I said, they're all perfect.
Oh! So you're super savvy and just know all this stuff already? Do I bore you? Honestly, who the heck are you because I'm a little weirded out. There's a bunch of stuff that aren't actual plays on this list but you knew about them? Hmm...