Episode 69: Podcast Saga Part 22 - TTRPG Part 1


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            Okay, so while I’ve wanted to talk about this topic for a while, and you might agree it is completely necessary and discussion about it should happen far more often, be grateful that I’m getting to this now because if it had been earlier, you would have gotten a lot more than you could ever possibly want on this topic. I’m being completely serious. It doesn’t matter how much you like tabletop role playing games and the ensuing actual play podcasts, I was going way too deep into things that were only tangentially related to the subject at hand.

            For a while the plan was to take several episodes and unpack everything that actual play TTRPG podcasts were about. And that might seem obvious enough, but to do that, I was going to step back to the somewhat ultimate, umbrella-type, table top role playing games Dungeons and Dragons. And when talking about D&D there’s a lot of pieces and variables that come with the package, and to that I would have to define and examine all the pieces that go into it and the influence of those pieces and the larger whole on our current culture.

            Like, did you know it’s heavily influenced by the work of JRR Tolkien? Because it is, and that kind of begs more questions about Tolkien’s fantasy world, where it came from, and why it speaks to us so strongly. Which kind of fit in the entire mini saga I was essentially proposing. And hey, it’s not like I didn’t want to talk about Tolkien’s work. That’s been on my list of things to get around to discussing for a while. But wow, that’s going to be a lot to unpack.

            And then I would have to think about the escapism that I think, or that some people think, is relevant to role-playing games, the psychology of that, and how that psychology can be incredibly relevant to people in certain phases of their lives. And then there’s let’s plays that these actual play podcasts kind of call back to. Let’s Plays being that YouTube thing, you know?

            But doesn’t that then return to the parasocial interactions discussion? Probably! So I should further unpack that is what you’re saying. Probably not what you’re saying. Because this plate is already full and the overflow plates are also filling up, and seriously, we’re running out of hands to carry all of these plates.

            But earlier this week, I had this moment of clarity, and I suddenly knew what specifically I needed to focus on when it comes to table top role playing game podcasts. And that is this communal aspect of storytelling that TTRPG podcasts offer that really is hard to come by in any other capacity. Because it’s not just a story told by multiple people. There’s a little more to it than that.

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            Hi. It’s M. Welcome to episode 69.

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            But okay, there are some clarifications I need to make in the beginning, regardless ,because yes, some of don’t know what I mean when I say, “actual play table top role playing game podcasts” even if I insert the phrase “like D&D” anywhere in that description. I mean, I didn’t know these were a thing until earlier this year despite being into podcasts for a while. You see, this is a type of show that gets sequestered off into its own little corner of the podcast world where it is hard to link to or off of considering classification in this case is a little hard…

            Like, it’s a fictional story, right? Okay, but some people don’t feel comfortable calling it audio fiction because it also has aspects of a let’s play or a two dudes talking podcast, even though there’s more than just two people involved.

            It’s a hybrid of all of these things, but actual play podcasts don’t look enough like any one parent to make a strong, immediately recognizable link to what came before. And because of that, it can be hard to make a connection.

            But on the other hand, I could always break down the different components of the actual play TTRPG description, and all the pieces start to be visible, and their connections make more sense. And to further illustrate that point, to make all of this a little more clear, while there are other TTRPG’s beyond Dungeons and Dragons and any of them can be used to make these actual play show, Dungeons and Dragons has a strong enough foothold in the popular conscience to make a discussion like this easier for all of us involved.

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            So Dungeons and Dragons is a tabletop role-playing game, right? But what is a table top role playing game. Yes, it’s traditionally played around a table with figurines and a board, though it can be played over something like Discord if you all are organized. Oh, and all the participants have a different part to play, hence the “role playing” part. They aren’t just controlling characters; they are taking on that role. And game refers to game, obviously.

            Okay, back track and redo. TTRPG are games in which participants take on the role of the characters they create, including those distinct personalities and abilities and describe what their characters are doing by describing it in a more-first person and improvised fashion. The actions they come up with are in response to the environment that was either created by the game-makers or another player known as the dungeon master, DM, game master, or GM.

            And because the players have to more or less be the character they created, they speak and act in first person, though they defer to the role of the dice to determine the success of the actions they attempt. The DM fills in the gaps.


            The overall quest or journey or the narrative arc is determined in advance by the DM. They also devise and control any other characters the players encounter, including villains, merchants, and random passersby that got roped into this quest often to their detriment. In my experience on that last bit. And yes, I’ve tried to play, but I killed my entire group and ended the campaign with one catastrophic failure. And the DM wasn’t being mean in that. It was just that bad of a failure. And it was fairly early on in the campaign too. We had just had enough time to rope in some poor unwilling participants. And then we all died.

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            My failures aside, what starts to be uncovered in this description is this radio drama like element or the similarities a listener would experience. Different characters playing different parts with a narrator filling the gaps. And that sounds pretty accurate, right? The thing is: not only is this not a story written in advance, it’s also not the work of a single person. Those things—although admittedly trivial—are traits that are associated with radio dramas. If you think about it.

            Rather, there is a strong improv element to actual play in that the players have to decide—based on their characters—what actions they should or would take. And by design they are held in check by the roll of the different die. In that sense, as a player or voice actor-slash-player, in the case of these podcasts, isn’t just working with their imagination or that of their friends-slash-co-stars. Rather, they are working against the products of their own luck.

            You can take that thought and pull harder on that thread. In tabletop role-playing games, you have a group of players, usually friends, who are facing a set of challenges together—some known and some unknown—and they have to utilize all their creativity and the various skills of their characters to overcome these challenges together.

            Because—to spare you all the details of the mechanics—in Dungeons and Dragon there is no get out of jail free card, you can’t pull a deus ex machine, and your character has their limitations no matter what stunt you attempt to pull when you device them.

            Sure, exceptions can be made, but those exceptions step outside of what D&D is designed to be. While you have the personal freedom to do whatever you would like, you are forced to see that stepping into these exceptions is stepping out of the parameters the game.

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            And in some ways, you don’t want to do that. There’s certainly advantages to sticking within the boundaries, especially with character creation.

            In short, you design the character you play as. You create them. And because each race, class, or ability has its own drawbacks and strength, strategy is fairly irrelevant. You might want to make sure there isn’t too much overlap in your party, but that’s about it. I mean, you also don’t know what the campaign is going to feature, so there’s that aspect further removed. In terms of your choices, the other option, then, is to start picking what feels right to you or what appeals to you. And hope that it works out later.

            It doesn’t just end there, though. To take that even further, your character needs some sort of backstory. And that’s a literal need. For the sake of the game, the dungeon master has to be able to know a bit about your character’s headspace to be able to anticipate or devise situations they have to face. Explaining where they came from helps create that sort of picture.

            Now some people decide to incorporate some of their own story, themselves, or their pains in their characters. And so a one to one connection is a bit more obvious. But even those who don’t are making a conscious choice relative to themselves. In either situation, it’s a choice on how to relate with these aspects of you. It’s a choice on what you want this character to be and the role you want your specific story to play in the story you’re devising. Maybe what your character is what you could never be, maybe it is what you hope to become, and maybe it is what you hope to never be. Or maybe it’s a complete stranger because you feel more comfortable playing as a complete stranger.

            In any of those situations, there is a bit of you underneath the surface, if you feel comfortable digging for it.

            Regardless of all of that, there’s no guidance on motivation involved in character creation, and there’s no need to explain yourself. Sure, you are expected to help the dungeon master incorporate your character into the world, but even then, an experienced dungeon master might not even need your help at that. You become a variable in their story, and they take your story at face value.

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            In every other capacity, the world is fairly set. And in my mind, the fact that characters have to work within clearly understood and immoveable rules emphasize the communal aspect of the game. I might get a terrible role on an attack, but if you as a fellow player have a way to compensate for my bad luck and get a good enough roll, then we’re saved, right?

            To contrast this with improv, I don’t know many comedians or companies that would dare an improve story as long as a D&D campaign, considering that D&D campaigns can last or and hours upon hours nor would they dare a skit with so many rules or restrictions or with such a clearly defined and strictly enforced narrative arc. In improv, it’s more about the individual talents of all the performers. For the sake of that particular show, they might try to compensate for any weak links, but in the end, downplaying the roll that weakest person places in the skit or rotating them out is a solution available to an improv show but not to an actual play podcast or a D&D game.

            Improv is a collection of comedians working together, offering up the entirety of their potential and no other limitations therein. And while they might stick together, the larger comedy schema isn’t going to expect that out of them. It’s a decision made on a case by case basis.

            In actual play, players aren’t defined as individual pieces within a whole but as a collective whole. They make up a band of adventures who collectively serve as a protagonist in the narrative their friendly neighborhood dungeon master devised.

            And to contrast it with the standard audio fiction, this isn’t a story with one creator and a bunch of voice actors, as I’ve been saying. The dungeon master might control most of the story and will lay out a lot of narrative points, obstacles and the framework of a plot. But the other players can easily run all that planning into the ground. Like I did once. And I swear it was only once.

            And for ever campaign run into the ground by players who pushed their luck a little too hard, there are hundreds of campaigns that just took detours or cut to the chase a little sooner than expected.

            Granted, this somewhat disheveled nature of the narrative has its consequences. And these aren’t the life altering stories the overly prideful like to conflate with (quote) art, but there is something incredibly cathartic about that first time you play or hear a D&D campaign. Not because it’s an escape but because it’s a chance for you to not run from circumstances that might otherwise scare you.

            It’s a renegotiation of your own sometimes powerlessness: a renegotiation centered on disengagement.

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            Now this is where the psychology of escapist fantasies would technically fit, but surprisingly, I don’t think unpacking all of that is going to actually do anything of value. Because it might even be too much to bring in that “e” word at all.

            When I play a game or read a book or listen to a podcast or anything of that nature, I am taking a break from my current reality and all the problems therein and shifting focus to difficulties that are more contained or removed from me. And if even witnessing them gets to be too much, or if experiencing them vicariously gets to be too much, I can disengage at any time. It’s a controlled and contained encounter.

            In many ways, the same could be said of Dungeons and Dragons with the exception that I—as the vessel for the story’s character—can confront or tackle these problems head-on. I am the one trying to devise the solution, exercising a sense of power that—yes—is kept in check with every dice roll. And while these problems aren’t perfect reflections of the ones I might be experiencing in real life, parallels can be drawn. Not perfect parallels, but if I see the connection, that might be enough for me and maybe other people as well.

            Like trying to work my way out of a dungeon can feel much like crawling my way out of a job that I really hate, but economic and social forces seem to be conspiring to keep me in. And sure, while the consequences of my efforts aren’t necessarily dictated by the course of a dice roll, they are dictated by other variables that feel just as arbitrary.

            What I think people who don’t play tabletop roleplaying games or don’t listen to these shows necessarily realize is that there is some sort of arc to be seen in the resulting narrative even if the curve isn’t as pronounced as it would be in a straightforward audio fiction show.

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            I promise I’ll talk about specific actual play podcasts in the next episode, but after seeing some comments on Twitter, I feel the need to do some groundwork arguing for their merits before I can get into showcasing specific shows. That might be an overreaction on my part to what might actually be an outlying tweet, but considering that a divide between the many, many actual play TTRPG podcasts and the rest of podcasting world still seems kind of apparent, I think it might be wise to do this just as a way to bridge a gap that might have been accidentally formed.

            For that, I would turn to Harmon Quest a live-action/animated show by Spencer Crittenden and Dan Harmon that streams on VRV with season one on Amazon Prime video. Not sponsored on either front. This show is a Dungeons and Dragons-type campaign turned into a television series. Some of it is live action, and some of it is animated.

            If the name Dan Harmon sounds familiar, congratulations you’ve been on the internet longer than a week. Harmon is one of the writers on the hit show Rick and Morty that is great meme fodder when it is running. Harmon Quest on the other hand, isn’t so iconic despite all of its charms and merits. The irony of that is that this show proves how strong of a writer Harmon really is. Even in this improvised context, he gives his character a backstory and tries to project their growth, even going so far as to let his actions in battle be dictated by the character arc he has devised in his head on the fly.

            Sure, Harmon is more talented than most all people, and he does more with the game, but all the same, he is proof of concept. Harmon proves that playing D&Dor any roleplaying game can be a narrative journey, an unpredictable and communal one. In Harmon Quest and in every actual play TTRPG podcast you have a group of people coming together to tell a story that only they can tell and only in the moment when the dice fell the way it did. It can just be hard to see the storytelling aspect.

            This particular method of storytelling is unlike pretty much anything else. It’s more complex. There’s more to it, and as a result, you get the sort of narratives that really could never come to exist in any other form. Tabletop roleplaying game storytelling is about construction, serendipity, community, and personal growth. It rsonal growth aboutever come to exist in any other form  consequences. And y, and they take your story at face value.s so many things that seemingly only come together in this context.

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            This has been a production of Miscellany Media Studios. Thank you for listening! Follow us on Twitter @miscellanymedia for updates on developing projects, like Aishi Online: an audio fiction show about existing on the social internet.

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