Episode 70: Podcast Saga 23 - A time to Shine (If the Dice Permit)


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            As promised, though after a bit of a mental health delay… because even the best work places or situations can occasionally figuratively punch you in the teeth, here is the first episode featuring some actual play podcasts that I love. Look because I make this show piece by piece over the course of the week, it’s a pretty delicate balance for me. We’re all doing the best we can, or that’s what I keep telling myself. And I could muse poetically about the irony of all this. That media can be a refuge from the struggles of day to day life; it can be comforting, it can give us solace, or it can at least distract us. And yet I got completely derailed in a discussion on those sorts of things by the very circumstance that might lead me to retreat to media. Or maybe that’s not ironic and it just kind of… feels like it. And yeah, I did listen to a lot of podcasts and watch a lot of television that week, but that’s neither here nor there.

            Except it kind of is. Because actual play podcasting fits into that need in a very special way. The social and cooperative nature of the narrative provides additional comfort or engagement.

            So yeah, that sort of thing is tempting, but I don’t want to think about all that stress right now. Even if it did influence the shows I selected for these showcases. The important is I’m back to my usual production, and I’m ready to talk about some great actual play podcasting! In case you wanted to get into it. And I hope you would at least try.

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            Hi. It’s M. Welcome to Episode 70.

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So there’s many places to begin when discussing the various actual play podcasts that are out there, but there’s something fitting about starting with the one that pulled me into this genre, right? I mean, the beginning of a relationship is a perfectly fine place to start, to paraphrase that song. Except my story isn’t very exciting.

            You see, a couple of my very good friends from college are big fans of The Adventure Zone, and they convinced me to give it a try by saying it is a lot of fun to listen to, and they were right.

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            You see, The Adventure Zone is a biweekly comedy podcast distributed by the Maximum Fun network and the rest of the work done by the McElroy brothers, and their father Clint. Clint is a bit new to the podcast scene, but the McElroy brothers—Justin, Travis, and Griffin—host another show. You might be familiar. It’s called My Brother, My Brother and Me. And while some familial situations might be… complicated, to be polite about it. The McElroy brothers have a great relationship one that seems defined by their jovial nature and personalities that mesh well together. As seen immediately in The Adventure Zone, when in the beginning they start discussing their character abilities and do so with many jokes and much laughter.

It’s hard to explain the family dynamic beyond just saying that they play well off of each other well. But there’s absolutely no animosity in their frequent, playful banter. Or the way they tease and joke with each other. And no lines are ever crossed. As someone who has always romanticized the experience of having siblings, this is definitely appealing, and I feel like I should probably unpack that.

            Because I know and understand that sibling relationships are complicated. It might not be something I’ve personally experienced growing up, but I have two eyes and people in my close circle who are very much living that life, so I feel confident in saying that having e, so I can say it’s not always great even if I can’t fully articulate that lived experienced. I mean, the philosophy of it is pretty apparent.

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            In reality, having DNA in common doesn’t mean that much. Having been raised in the same household at the same time might mean a little more, but relatively speaking when considering the grand cosmos, that little more isn’t a lot. At the end of the day, people still grow independently, into their own people, on their own life trajectories and according to their own decisions. Therein lies the problem. Even if, in a sibling pairing, no one is in the wrong or does the other wrong, people can still grow apart. Or lives fall into place, and there’s just no room. Sometimes at a wedding you have to cut the guest list not because you want to but because you can’t justify the expense. And life isn’t very different.

            There’s something sad about that. There is something else, moderately unsettling. That there really are no guarantees. And that even our siblings might leave us despite us not doing anything wrong. But while we might want to avoid thinking about that reality in favor of a proposed permanent safety net in fraternal ties, it doesn’t make estrangement any less possible. I mean, we outgrow friendships. And aren’t siblings just friends you share a lot more with?

            I’m well aware how depressing that sounds, particularly because I’m referring to a best case scenario—in which no one acts maliciously or destructively. And even that can be a big “if” from time to time. But it still happens. It all happens.

            And yet, there’s a reason we hesitate to call that relationship disposable in anyway. Our siblings are the people who helped us navigate our childhoods and the ups and downs therein. Hopefully mostly ups and the occasionally dips being related to the awkward parts of learning how to be a person. But once again, life isn’t always so kind.

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            Insert apology about getting too personal, but that’s part of the show, so what were you expecting? I think I wanted to have a sibling growing up because I always assumed it would have made handling Dad’s many illnesses easier. I could have had someone to talk to, especially when Mom had to take him to the hospital, and Grandma didn’t know if telling me anything was in my best interest or not. At the very least, it would have felt less isolating to not be the only one in the school with a sick parent. I mean, maybe I shouldn’t have wished that on anyone else, even in the abstract. But as a child, I wasn’t going to stop myself from a fantasy that brought me a bit of comfort.

            And now with Dad gone, that desire has just evolved a bit. To having someone to reminiscence with. And not just about the good parts.

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            The thing about siblings that always appealed to me was this sense that it meant sharing the burden of my personal narrative with others in a similar stage of life. It meant that all challenges were distributed across more than just me, and I think that’s why The Adventure Zone appealed to me as much as it did and still does. After all, I don’t listen to My Brother, My Brother, and Me. And “at” me all you want. It’s not that I don’t like the show but that I don’t prioritize it on my listening queue. And maybe you think I would, considering everything I’ve just said.

            I mean, if the McElroy dynamic plays into this deep seated need, then that would only make sense, right? I should love both rather than just one and be something just above disinterested in the other. And I think it’s because while My Brother, My Brother and Me is a show of sibling having funny conversations, The Adventure Zone features a challenge, a pursuit of some sort. In the arc of that pursuit, the characteristics that I mentioned wanting from a sibling relationship do come forward, albeit in a light-hearted and not serious way. It just seems inevitable in an actual play podcast. There are other reasons to like the show, yes, but I think this is one that would likely never be mentioned. Because it probably doesn’t need to be.

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            But to give the required part of any review. In terms of the arcs or the campaigns involved, they flow incredibly well. You’ve got actual quests and then what I think of as recovery days when the merry band of adventures can restock on supplies or otherwise goof around, and I really like that setup. Especially when I was listening for the first time and playing a game of catch up. It gives the campaign great pacing for the listener, even if that seems somewhat counter intuitive as well as giving Griffin McElroy, who serves as the Dungeon Master in the beginning, a chance to build up the world, the world on which the campaign depends.

            Come to think of it. I’m not sure exactly if it does feel intuitive or not to do it that way. I know it works remarkably well, but when I think about actual play, I think about keeping that momentum going indefinitely. So I don’t I would have made that choice. But The Adventure Zone was my first dip into this, so even it’s not a creative choice I would have made, I should not be trusting my judgment . So for all the podcasting I want to do, I should leave out an actual play for now.

            We all have different talents, as they say.

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            But if you, dear listener, are making your first dive into actual play podcasting, might I recommend starting with Lakeshore & Limbo. In which the rules are clearly spelled out in the beginning and are a bit more simplified than other actual play shows.

            Is it explicitly actual play? Not exactly. It takes what it wants and leaves everything else on the table. Like the rules make for a great story mechanic even if there is no actual game. It does what it wants. And I appreciate that.

            But to go beyond that, Lakeshore & Limbo is an Occult-Noir story improvised with the guidance of dice, produced by Arcade Audio. It focuses on the bizarre and spooky occurrences that happen in Chicago. And obviously there would be a lot of them; after all, there’s a lot going on in this city. We have a lot of history. For better or worse.

            It’s a recent discovery of mine that I came across in the sea of tweeting and retweeting in the podcast space of Twitter. And it’s quickly become one of my favorites, but at the same time, it’s a show that only seems possible because of the actual play mechanic. Simply put, the bizarre team that is taking on these challenges or mysteries really can’t thrive in another context. But look, that’s not meant to be critical. We’re talking about a team made up of a former cat, a… look-a-life to a golden age film star, and an actual detective who maybe needs to cheer up a little bit.

            And I’m not even kidding, that’s a pretty accurate description of our heroes, the people who are diving into this occult chaos. But even if you aren’t inclined to be optimistic about their abilities, it’s okay. For characters in actual play podcasts, ability can influence luck, but luck carries the day. And the details of how don’t necessarily need to be considered. The Game Master or narrator is empowered to fill in the blanks in whatever feels right. And James Harvey Freetly does a great job at it. All the actors do.

            Actual play gives them all a chance to shine. In a way you couldn’t see anywhere else. You couldn’t fall in love with these characters if they were doing any other thing. Or written in a more standard way. They have to be free to do what they need to. And that is particularly relevant when it comes to one other aspect of the show or gameplay, and that is—or are—the poker chips and what they offer.

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            Basically, in Lakeshore & Limbo, players can use their mysterious powers (don’t worry about that for now), but to do so--to do something particularly useful, right? But to activate those mysterious powers, they need to use poker chips. But while that might seem like a finite resource, players have the ability to earn additional ones by (quote) “doing something cool.”

            It’s a neat idea even to hear or say, but as I see it, this offers two different things. For one, it means players will always have the ability to push forward in the story, in a way that listeners would find engaging. After all, you can’t really have an occult story without mysterious powers. That’s like having a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a giant hole in one of the slices of bread because when you made when you didn’t spread something correctly and you ended up stabbing a hole in the bread, or you know what I mean. It’s an easy way to bolster the world, the plot, and the characters. And given that poker chips are precious commodities that have to last until the end, it avoids being a deus ex machina situation.

            But the opportunity to earn new ones through somewhat vague means encourages the players to act out. (Pause) In the good way. They can test boundaries, and—in fact—for their ongoing success, they probably should.

            But it’s not that the players aren’t talented—they very much are. That mechanic isn’t meant to compensate for any sort of weakness. It’s just yet another tool for players to use and play with as they devise the story. Think of it like this. The poker chips aren’t training wheels. Rather, they’re a good knife. Sure, it would help the novice to have a quality set like that, but it’s also a tool for the expert chef to craft a perfect, legend meal.

            And whatever the podcast equivalent is of that standard, that’s where Lakeshore & Limbo fits in.

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            Everything is fine now, I promise. I’m going to feature two more actual play podcasts next week, but oh hey, I’ve got that new podcast Aishi Online to promote, right? So there was this second trailer that didn’t make it onto the feed because while the first episode was done, it wasn’t. So I guess it becomes exclusive content for subscribers to other Miscellany Media Shows, right? In the right light, I guess. Don’t think too much about it.

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            For all the gifts of the internet, there’s one major drawback. At least from what I can see. In some ways, despite all the explorations we can do and knowledge we can find, we are still very much trapped. Maybe more so than every because now we are trapped in a room full of mirrors. But not ordinary mirrors. Funhouse type mirror. The ones in which you can tell it’s you in the glass, but it also doesn’t look like you. Recognizable and yet unrecognizable.

            On the internet, particularly the social internet, the best and worst versions of ourselves live simultaneously, even if we are no longer either of those people. And they’re not alone. They dwell amongst every version in between.

            At least on the social internet that defines our current age. Or anything that involves large websites with a great deal of servers and server support. Data is precious. And anything that valuable can be preserved. 

            But there are other websites out there, more fragile ones. 

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            And that’s where I met the girl… person? Girl. Who became one of my best friends at all time. Even if I don’t have her anymore. 

            We started playing a point and click graphic-less adventure game then met up on a forum site associated with it that kept crashing. At some point between now and then, it crashed again. For the final time. All of it is gone now. And so is she. She just disappeared one day. Which… fair enough. I mean I disappeared a lot too. It’s the internet: we don’t have to be here at all, never mind on specific sites. But I always came back. Aishi didn’t.

            Sometimes it bothers me, and sometimes it doesn’t. People come and go IRL and digitally. Or they used to. Relationships can no longer die organically when you have to actively opt out of them. Natural decay has become rejection, and it feels terrible to be rejected. So how about we don’t?

            Looking back, in many ways, losing Aishi was just a part of life. She couldn’t be in my life forever. But at the same time, maybe she could have been. We did get along so well, but I never knew who she was. And I feel… guilty about that.

            Aishi was a great listener. She took on all the problems I gave her, and I never returned the favor. Look, it’s not that I didn’t care. I guess I just wasn’t good at caring.

            But if I were, I might know what happened to her. And I mean… what if it was something bad. She might have been sick, hospitalized, when I knew her. It would explain why she was always available to talk. And I guess, it’s not impossible that someone… hurt her. 

I mean, I don’t know. But I’ll tell you everything I do. And the rest, we can find out together.

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