Category Archives: Roleplaying

Actual Play Podcasts Do Not Portray Actual Play, Actually

Actual play podcasts are not what the name suggests. They’re a form of podcast that purportedly serializes a recording of a group playing a tabletop roleplaying game. The listener hears the dice rolls, the out-of-character discussions, and the social interaction that surrounds the in-character story being told at the table. The apparent appeal is the fun of hearing the “actual play” occurring when creating an interesting story.

But actual play podcasts are a lie.

Actual Play

Roleplaying game systems (tabletop or otherwise) are more complex to examine than other games. I’ve written about their oddnesses over the course of years, but here is a summary1:

  • Unlike most games, what you purchase when you buy a traditional RPG is a ruleset, not a potential narrative. When you buy Arkham Horror or DUSK, you can immediately begin playing without doing much creative work of your own. With RPG systems, on the other hand, one or more players must create characters, settings, and/or conflicts, depending on the game2.
  • Once this “campaign material” has been created (or purchased as a separate supplement), then you have a potential narrative: a set of rules for simulation plus an initial world state (and potential future events).
  • Playing through the campaign concretizes this potential narrative into an actual one. The campaign material is transformed by the rules and the player choices into the actual events that occur in the narrative and can later be breathlessly related to a gracious and patient third party.

Actual play podcasts add an additional layer to this matryoshka of potentiality:

Notional Play

Games already involve a chain of fake people, and actual play podcasts add an extra few, including the editor and the listener. They also flavor the whole endeavor with the feeling of performance. A roleplaying game played with the intent to present it to a listener is different than one played “just for fun.” There can’t help but be a pressure to produce something consumable. To do what is interesting to hear rather than what is wise or fun or interesting to play. To ignore rules to avoid them bogging down the story, or to enforce rules just so you don’t get irate responses about your laxness.

There are few other artistic forms in which the process of making the final work is immortalized as part of the work. Actual play presents both in-character and out-of-character as essential. Reality television revels in presenting the process of its own creation, but generally doesn’t have an inner narrative; the story of the show is the story of the creation of the show only. Professional wrestling presents a fictional narrative partially improvised live, but it keeps the out-of-character bits blurry through the doctrine of kayfabe4.

But actual play podcasts give similar weight to the inner narrative of the game’s characters as they do to the “backstage” process of the players collaborating to construct that narrative. The closest thing I can think of is The Great British Bake Off and similar cooking competition shows, where the viewer both admires the aesthetics of the dishes being cooked and also enjoys the drama of the kitchen process.

Artificial Play

Actual play podcasts seek to provide listeners with an experience that evokes actual play, not one which documents it. Spectating tabletop roleplaying in life (not on stage) is uncommon, perhaps because it can be unsatisfying to sit passively through such a participatory experience, complete with its pauses for inside jokes and snacks and bathroom breaks.

Instead, these podcasts represent their play in a way that provides a hyperreal5 experience, one in which the listener feels like they are listening to a roleplaying game, despite this feeling resulting from the experience being an inaccurate representation of typical home play.

This dishonesty may not be intentional on the part of the show creators, but that doesn’t matter. The act of recording a play session, editing it, and presenting it to an audience unavoidably transforms it, affecting both the moment-to-moment actions of the players and the shape of the final product.

The lies that are being told varies from show to show. When you listen to The Adventure Zone, you are shown a version of play that is ridiculous and informal yet transcends this mood to be deeply emotional. When you listen to Friends at the Table, you see complex worlds emerging from casual interplay between friends. When you listen to Tabletop Garden, you (hopefully) see rich characters emerging as the result of intentional play practices.

The lies told by these shows may be true of some games, some of the time. However, by presenting their curated, edited view of play experience, the shows craft a subtle argument about how roleplaying games are, or should be. The listener is complicit in their own deception, enjoying this manufactured version of play and unavoidably allowing it to shape their future views and play practices.

Actual play podcasts do not portray actual play, but an ideal that the creator has chosen to present. Keeping this distinction in mind will help a creator make sure to convey an ideal they embrace, and will help a listener to recognize how this ideal is being presented to them.

  1. Throughout this piece, I’ll use the word “players” in a way that includes the possible Game Master, Dungeon Master, Storyteller, etc.
  2. “No-prep” games like Fiasco or Lady Blackbird are weird edge-cases where the setting seems very entangled with the rules, but these still tend to require detailing and/or interpretation that happens before play proper begins.
  3. From the transcript: “They all destroyed the world and then flew away and then that was the ending and we finished recording and then almost like we hung up on the Skype call, and then like a minute later we started texting like ‘That sucked.'”
  4. In which wrestlers pretend, even outside of an event, that they are engaging in honest athletic competition rather than the partially pre-scripted acrobatic performance everyone knows they’re doing
  5. The hyperreal is an imitation of something which does not exist.

Tabletop Garden: New RPG Podcast

I’ve started a new podcast! It’s called Tabletop Garden, and it’s an “actual play” show where a rotating cast plays tabletop roleplaying games and talks about them.

Tabletop Garden is an actual-play podcast where we collaborate on short, self-contained stories about interesting characters, and we do it with an agenda. Throughout each campaign we discuss values, techniques, and how to play with intention.

Our first pilot campaign uses Mechanical Oryx by Grant Howitt to tell a tale of looming violence in the solarpunk postapocalypse. During each campaign, episodes will release weekly. Check out the show at tabletop.garden.

Rosette Diceless Released

At Future Proof Games, we just released a tabletop/live-action roleplaying game called Rosette Diceless. For those who have followed me for a while, this is a distant descendant of my 2009 beta release, LORE. We’ve been playtesting it for a year or two, and we’re looking forward to hearing what other folks use it for.

As with the rest of Rosette, Rosette Diceless has an agenda: it is dedicated to a consensus-based, story-first, and improvisational approach. We believe that this creates the best social environment for creating and expressing stories that incorporate everyone’s creativity.

You can pick up a digital copy of Rosette Diceless on itch.io, Kindle, or DriveThruRPG. We’ll have a paperback print-on-demand version on DTRPG soon; if you get the digital version before then, send us a proof of purchase to info@futureproofgames.com and you can pick up the print-on-demand at the bundle price.

Check out Rosette Diceless on its website!

Helping RPGs Play Themselves

Rosette LogoA big secret of tabletop RPG design is that roleplaying games play themselves. Get the right group of people together and they’ll have fun telling a good story, regardless of which edition of which game they’re playing. The hard parts of RPGs are things the designer can’t control: social dynamics.

What good are rules at all, then? Rules serve two purposes: to enable and constrain the play. The rules of an RPG serve to make the creative process easier by enabling story, and they constrain the scope of the story to keep the group within a manageable narrative space.

In my role as lead designer on Future Proof Games‘s upcoming tabletop RPG Rosette1, I’ve made tons of decisions regarding how the rules work. By the request of one of my patrons, I’ll go over that process from a high level.

Continue reading Helping RPGs Play Themselves

  1. Formerly LORE.

How to Fix D&D 4e Combat

If you like this blog post, you can help support my writing by pledging a small monthly donation in exchange for exclusive content on my Patreon page.

I’ve been running a Dungeons and Dragons fourth edition campaign for going on five years, and it feels like we’ve finally figured out how to fix the combat system. D&D 4e is intensely tactical, more so than any other edition, and I find the grid-focused combat quite fun, but it suffers from some severe problems. The biggest of these for us is that combats stretch on too long without enough excitement. Here’s how to solve that.

Continue reading How to Fix D&D 4e Combat

The Perils of a Long D&D Campaign

A map of the campaign setting I’ve been running a Dungeons and Dragons 4e game called “Urgo” for almost five years. All of my original five players have been replaced except one. It was always a high-magic, swashbuckling campaign featuring airships and demigods, and it’s escalated from there. The player characters are level 16 of 30 and we’ve reached a point in the game where it takes some effort to maintain the tone and even more effort to properly prepare. For some background, here’s the current situation:
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Courtly Intrigue LARP Rules Part 1

I’ve found myself longing to play in a Live-Action Roleplaying Game that focuses on courtly intrigue. What I mean by this is the social sparring, witty repartee, and backroom dealing that happens among aristocrats in the movie Ridicule or among university professors jockeying for tenure. I’ve experienced some of this when playing Vampire: The Requiem using the Mind’s Eye Theatre rules, but that game has a major problem for me. Characters can kill each other with strange powers, so someone playing the political game has to also worry that the person they’re verbally sparring with can decapitate them with a swipe.

I’m working on the rules, but I want to design in the open so that I can get feedback and suggestions. Here are my base concepts for the game:

  1. This will be a LARP in the American Theatrical style. No foam weapons, and the game runs similarly to a tabletop roleplaying game.
  2. Sessions take approximately four hours and can be linked into an ongoing game.
  3. The game can be played with minimal intervention from a Game Master, although an organizer may help with bookkeeping.
  4. The game can be played while standing and moving around, with limited interference from out-of-character mechanics.
  5. Direct combat is not useful. Any victories or defeats will happen through social interaction.
  6. Special in-character skills or abilities may help a character, but they will not take the place of social intrigue.
  7. While a player’s strategy and charisma will be helpful, a player lacking social skills or cleverness can still have fun and influence things.

My idea so far is a combination of concepts from the card game Whist, the TV show Survivor, and the mancala game Oware.
Continue reading Courtly Intrigue LARP Rules Part 1

The Fall of Stronghold

An image of an unfinished RPG terrain board with some miniatures, walls, and craft toolsIn tabletop roleplaying games, it’s often tough to provide backstory and broader setting information to the players. Reciting a summary or printing handouts is seldom effective; even if players pay attention, they’re less likely to remember events in which they did not participate. In the Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition campaign I’m currently running, I ran into this problem, and addressed it with the Cutscene technique.
Continue reading The Fall of Stronghold

Cardstock Dungeons


I play in and run tabletop RPGs. For many games, like White Wolf’s World of Darkness series, all you need for supplies is paper, pencils, and some dice. However, some games call for a more elaborate setup. Since at least its third edition, Dungeons and Dragons, the perennial mainstay of the form, has pretty much required some sort of gridded surface and tokens for use in battle. The combat system depends on knowing how many squares (inches) away two combatants are, and many rules deal with the exact position of characters as compared to enemies and scenery. For years, I’ve used a slightly-misaligned Chessex battlemat and wet-erase markers for the surface and environment layout, with simple wooden disc-shaped tokens labeled in tape for combatants. Lately, however, I’ve found myself yearning for a more visually evocative battlescape, and I think I’ve found it in the form of Fat Dragon Games’s 3D cardstock terrain.
Continue reading Cardstock Dungeons

Games As Simulation

Games are simulations.

Games take a set of rules describing how things work, and they apply those rules to a world state to determine how that world changes over time. Sometimes the rules are very simple; “Snakes and Ladders” has about four rules. Sometimes, they are extraordinarily complex; World of Warcraft has rules that govern the actions and interactions of thousands of actors at once, with each actor having maybe a hundred different ways to affect the progress of the simulation. All games, however, share these fundamental attributes: they simulate the changes in a system over time using a set of rules.

Inherent in their status as a simulation is the fact that games are abstractions. No simulation can be an exact model of real life. Therefore, games use only a subset of the rules present in the systems they simulate. Sometimes, games simulate the real world: Roller Coaster Tycoon simulates the everyday workings of a theme park. Sometimes, they simulate a fantastic world: Morrowind is a simulation of the fictional fantasy island of Vvardenfell. Sometimes, they simulate an abstract world: Conway’s “Game of Life” simulates a world composed of either a grid of unicellular organisms, or a world of multicellular organisms with a very strange way of living. In all these cases, however, the designers of the game have chosen which rules to include in the simulation and which to abstract away. Roller Coaster Tycoon does not require the player character to get sleep. Morrowind allows the PC to eat, but does not require it. The “Game of Life” uses a very limited set of rules.

What distinguishes a game from, say, the sort of airflow simulation used by aerospace engineers? Player interaction. In games, players can modify the progress of the simulation. They can change the starting parameters, or choose what an actor will do, or even modify the rules of the simulation as it progresses. It is this interactivity that is essential to the nature of games. Games simulate worlds, but their most important property is that they allow the player to affect the simulation. It is from this ability that goals emerge, that agency arises, that fun appears. Games are simulations with life.