What Makes a Good Actual Play Podcast?

An examination of what works, from Molly's Monsters to The Adventure Zone.

My Druid and Paladin both had kids, so they’re basically out, and I can’t run a game with just a Warlock and a Wizard, that’s ridiculous. I moved away from Chicago anyway so the superhero team of Bobble Boy, Shocky Boi, Hangover, and Stretchy Boy are also defunct, and the bodyguard to my Wild West-era undead geriatric lawyer/secret agent got a promotion.

Life changes such as these kill most roleplaying game campaigns, and while I’ve learned to accept and even love the incomplete stories and infinite potential that these characters occupy in a liminal space between adventures past and potential, it sure is nice to know that somewhere out there someone is finishing games.

This is all to say: thank Pan for podcasts. A friend of mine once said podcasts are “secondary entertainment,” something you can listen to while doing something else, and I sure do a lot of that on my commute or while washing dishes or folding laundry. I’ve got a lot of laundry and a lot of dishes, which is fine, we’re at Peak Podcast. Clearly I’ve got a fascination with roleplaying games, and like a lot of people I’ve started more than I’ve finished, usually due to life changes.

rude tales of magic

It’s nice to be able to dip into someone else’s fantasy world, and over the years I’ve found some that really gel with me. Maybe, like me, you’ve thought about trying your own hand at the Actual Play phenomenon, and while I’m not in any position to help out (though I wish you luck) I feel like I’m in a good spot to talk about things that attract me to the podcasts I love. A note before I get started: there are many reasons to love all the podcasts here, but I’ve chosen to focus on things that really make each stand out.

There are many reasons to play games. Some do it for escape, some for storytelling, some to stretch their acting or writing chops. In the end, the thing that brings people to the table with Mountain Dew and funny dice every week is a need for social interaction, and my taste in podcasts reflects this first and foremost. I want to hear people who enjoy each other’s company having a good time, because that’s the kind of community I always strive for at my own table.

I’ve sampled a few Actual Play podcasts with adversarial player-game master relationships and… why? Why would you do that, I don’t want that at my table, and certainly don’t want that in my earholes. It’s not cute or funny, if I wanted people hear people be mean I’d read youtube comments. For that reason I love newcomer Rude Tales of Magic and the seldom-updated but always great Molly’s Monsters* (a small sidebar to a podcast about truly terrible books). Both feature casts of people who know and trust one another, one of the foundations of both having a good time and making  good theater. As a listener, I feel included in the fun.

mollys monsters

But as anyone who’s attended a party that goes after 9 knows, being social is a lot of work and I don’t always wish I were in the room. For those times, I want a good story that’s well told. I think that’s why the “heavy hitters” in the actual play world, The Adventure Zone and Critical Role, have had the success they do (well, that and the celebrity of their producers, but let’s pretend we live in a meritocracy for the sake of this article). Both benefit from the talent of their casts, but the real star of each show is the careful plotting and storycraft of their game masters. 

Speaking of storytelling, the cast of Friends at the Table has a singular commitment to dramatic irony that leads to some of the best dramatic reveals I’ve heard from an Actual Play podcast. But the real reason I wanted to talk about FatT is the same reason I wanted to bring up Six Feats Under: I like learning about new games from people who like talking about new games, and both podcasts have exposed me to all kinds of games I might not have heard of and certainly wouldn’t have played or purchased otherwise! 

Not only are both a great resource for learning (and hacking) the rules, but they’re a wonderful way for me to learn about games that wouldn’t necessarily grab my interest on the shelf. I can’t guarantee I’d have otherwise looked at Mouse Guard or Blades in the Dark no matter how many awards they’d won between them without either of these podcasts.

neo scum

Sometimes, though, all I need is a laugh, and while Rude Tales of Magic is certainly hilarious only Neo Scum has the commitment to comic absurdism that plants crave. The incompetent crew of buffoonish Shadowrunners careen through the post-Awakening world with the grace and subtlety of the gang from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. They do so in a way that leaves them blaming everyone else for the problems they inevitably create, naturally. And while world-saving escapist fantasy of the Adventure Zone genre is great, I know in my heart that the Neo Scum act much closer to how I would if I found myself needing to become a cyberpunk mercenary — which is increasingly my most likely retirement plan.

At my own table, I like to tell stories while avoiding tropes and clichés where I can. I’m not always successful, unlike DM Cameron Kunzelman and his often whimsical, always engaging take on the Forgotten Realms (you know, of Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights fame) in Sword Coast Coast 2 Coast, which features interesting and unusual takes on genre. Where Adventure Zone leans into genre conventions heavily and Friends at the Table is keen on inverting and interrogating common ideas about expectations in fantasy and science fiction, SCC2C acknowledges its roots in grounded Gygaxian fantasy while keeping the players guessing and still showcasing interesting adventure design. 

A particular standout, a recent adventure about a kidnapping, is proudly adapted from an adventure in an old Dragon magazine; Kunzelman makes no secret of this but including this adventure with its particular twists and turns displays an interest in the types of stories games can tell besides regular dungeon crawls.

Sword Coast

There are a few additional things that make an Actual Play podcast a better listen, but all of these I’ve mentioned do them in equal measure, so I’m going to say these are foundational elements of a successful podcast. 

Each of these podcasts features high production values (although their first couple episodes of most Actual Plays are almost always a little rough in sound quality), often editing in sound effects and music to enhance the action. This helps make each one a little more of a radio drama (or radio comedy, if you’re Rude Tales or Neo Scum) and shows a commitment to a polished product. 

They all feature a consistent tone, even if the adventures vary greatly like TAZ or SCC2C, and great characters – I enjoy the television-like quality of seeing a joke’s sails appear on the horizon or feeling dramatic tension based on how I expect a particular character to react to a situation. Some lean more into character voice work than others (this is what attracts most people to Critical Role initially, it’s professional voice actors doing professional-quality work!) but just as in real life, character is action, and you get these great character moments from listening to people discover the character of their fantasy avatar over months or years.

friends at the table

In the end, of course, what makes an actual play podcast stand out (besides luck, celebrity, advertising, trying and failing One Thousand Times first) isn’t just these things, but finding a unique voice – what’s the story only you and your friends can tell? The stuff discussed here is the bare skeleton of success; I’m trying to avoid the word “gimmick,” but maybe I can get away with it in the professional wrestling sense: what’s the distinguishing trait and attitude you’re going to use to build and maintain interest, on top of everything else?

Friends at the Table has its critical world-building and queer content, Critical Role has its voice acting, and listening to Molly’s Monsters makes me feel like I’m catching up with family while fulfilling my ultimate fantasy of “having an ongoing game with my partner and friends.” All of these podcasts did something to stand out, and the world – and my evenings, while I’m chopping vegetables or doing housework – are all the better for it.

*full disclosure, I am friends with one of the players, but listen, lots of my friends have made Actual Play podcasts and this is the one I’ve chosen to talk about for good reason