Tag Archives: friends at the table

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.