Don't Bag Up The 20-Sided Dice Just Yet: Actual Play Podcasts Are Finding New Ways To Roleplay in Lockdown

Tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons have seen a resurgence in the past decade by offering a more companionable alternative to online video games and screen-mediated social separation. But as lockdown and shelter in place orders stretch over months, gathering around game books and twenty-sided die have become distant memories. Still, while social restrictions designed to slow the spread of COVID-19 have made true tabletop roleplaying trickier than ever, podcasts recreating the roleplaying experience—called "Actual Play" podcasts—are finding ways to keep adventuring.

"The virus means we can't physically be together and that is pretty much the worst thing you could do to us," Taylor Moore, producer of the actual play podcasts Rude Tales of Magic and Fun City told Newsweek. "We really depend on being in the same space and being able to see each other's faces and body language."

For some actual play podcasts, the pandemic's hurdles have meant suspending episodes, similar to the largely halted production of new TV shows and movies. Autonomic, an actual play podcast set in an Indo-Ecuadorian fantasy world, has delayed launching its second season. Like many Actual Play podcasts, Autonomic met in person, at the home of showrunner and narrator Kat Kuhl—something no longer possible.

"We had many plans for the show going into this year and almost all of them have been put on hold for the foreseeable future," Kuhl told Newsweek. "It's odd to go this long without meeting with the entire cast of the show."

Unlike podcasts targeted at roleplaying adults or audiences after some fantastical (and occasionally lewd) laughs, Autonomic is aimed at young listeners and a family-friendly audience. The kind of upbeat spirits and high energy required has made changing their methods an unpalatable option.

'Autonomic' is based around superpowered "Nomics" who embody storytelling archetypes like "the Trickster" and "the Detective." Gisele Weaver

"It's important for us to record the show in person," Autonomic producer Pranks Paul added in an email response to questions. The new conditions created by the ongoing pandemic, which could persist into 2021, makes for an uncertain future. "We're not sure what we'd do yet, as the in-person performance energy is something we value."

The suspended recording has been an acceptable choice for Autonomic in part because the podcast is only one component among broader plans. With its highly original setting—following the superpowered, allegorical "Nomics" of the seven nations of the magical world of Respite—Autonomic aspires to be a platform for other roleplayers, with the podcast as an ongoing playtest and proof of concept. So while the coronavirus lockdown may have suspended Actual Play recording sessions, work continues on their corresponding roleplaying game.

But for podcasts using existing rulesets or focused more on entertainment than tabletop innovations, the lockdown can force some substantial changes. Rude Tales of Magic—a relative newcomer, with fewer than two dozen episodes released before the worldwide outbreak—has come up with a novel solution to their separated, socially-distanced cast (disclosure: I'm sheltering in place with a Rude Tales cast member). After releasing all their episodes recorded before lockdown orders were put in place, Rude Tales will switch to a temporary campaign, set 500 years before their ongoing narrative.

'Rude Tales of Magic' plans to suspend its main campaign for a story set in the same world, 500 years earlier. Carly Monardo

"We could keep doing the main show with lower audio quality and with the Zoom lag affecting our playing and our ability to be in the room together, or we could hit a refresh button and do a campaign that's still set in the same world as the main show and tonally isn't a huge reset, but lets us fiddle with the dials and figure out how we're going to record on our own and make this sound good," Rude Tales of Magic Game Master Branson Reese told Newsweek. "That way, in the future, when someone's listening through all of Rude Tales, they don't have to listen through the four or five 'plague' episodes that everyone agrees sound bad."

Set in a chaotic world called Cordelia, populated by an endless roster of oddball NPCs—lactating pig-men, halfling brothers named after sodas, rogue bear-owl geneticists and elven fops—voiced by GM Reese, Rude Tales has always had a looser approach to world-building. But their upcoming campaign, to be called "Come at the King," will portray a more bureaucratic era, just before the fall of an ancient empire sometimes alluded to in their main storyline.

@of_rude needs a show in Muppet format real bad

— VoidBurger 🍔🎮 (@VoidBurger) May 11, 2020

"We're going to see tax collectors and the people who maintain the roads and we're going to see senators and people in more governmental or lawfully-oriented roles," Reese said. "If you think of this as like The Simpsons, we've seen a lot of Nelsons and Jimbos running around and now we're going to see some Principal Skinners."

The pandemic-specific campaign also means brand new characters for the five Rude Tales players, who have taken the opportunity to play against type and flex different creative muscles. Cast member Tim Platt, who voices Stirfy, a twitchy and servile kenku (a race of bird-people in Dungeons & Dragons), will take on a deeper-timbered, half-elephant-half-man loxodon in "Come at the King." Another cast member, Ali Fisher, will swap out her monstrous—but very chill—Sasquatch character for a murderous, pint-sized harpie.

"This is a cast of people who I came up improvising with, so I know firsthand that these people have a ton of range and flexibility as performers," Reese said. "This gives them an opportunity to stretch their wings and play other sides of themselves—that I know are there and they know are there, but an audience who only know us through this show wouldn't necessarily have heard yet."

But while creative modifications can help blunt the disruptions caused by the ongoing pandemic, physical production hurdles are less easy to work around. Without their foam-dampened recording room, cast members have taken to improvised closet recording spaces and "homemade pillow forts," armed with standardized USB mics that producer Moore drove to their doors (after wiping everything down with rubbing alcohol).

"Sometimes it feels like a crime against nature that it works at all, and now we're adding in all the problems of teleconferencing: technical issues, spotty audio, delays, talking over each other," Moore said, in response to email questions. "This setup does not compare in any way to the professional studio we're used to, but the alternative is what? Stop production? Unthinkable. The show stops over my dead body."

Fun City, another podcast released under Moore's Fortunate Horse label, has not only set aside their ongoing campaign for a seat-of-their-pants quarantine special, but are also trying out a whole new, not-yet-release roleplaying game called Stillfleet. This has meant moving the action from a post-climate catastrophe 22nd century New York to deep space, where the cast will dungeon dive in the wreckage of ruined spacecraft.

"Normally I'd be terrified of switching to a whole new game between arcs. I've seen that really hurt other narrative play shows," Moore said. "But we're so close to our audience, in constant communication with them over social media and patron-only chat servers, that it's easy to take big swings like this. We know what they'll enjoy because it's what we would enjoy. We're all in this together."

Others are less affected by the new realities of pandemic life, particularly those podcasts that already rely on technological solutions to bring distant players together. Actual play podcast Friends at the Table has used Skype, Discord and other online venues to tell their stories since launching in 2014.

Friends at the Table tells sprawling, season-long stories, from the "post-fantasy, post-post apocalyptic" Spring in Hieron to their latest, PARTIZAN, a sci-fi space opera with giant robots, based on the Beam Saber game book by Austin Ramsay, which uses a roleplaying system called "Forged in the Dark" based around six-sided die rolls.

Art for the latest season of 'Friends at the Table,' 'PARTIZAN.' Craig Sheldon

On their site you can listen to Friends at the Table's PARTIZAN, which recently premiered its eighth episode. They've also unlocked previous season Bluff City—a magical realist take on Atlantic City, where noirish characters deal with ghosts and parallel dimensions—for non-subscribers.

But while the coronavirus pandemic hasn't changed how they record episodes, it has led to live show cancellations, merchandise delays and lost opportunities to expand. But more crucially, it's created a different psychic atmosphere that can't help but bleed into the show.

"Simply being cut off from people is something we feel in a real way, and something that likely shows up in our work," GM and host Austin Walker told Newsweek. "I think we've been extra 'punchy' in some recordings, as we've been so eager for that interpersonal activity that we've lost."

While some podcasts may better weather the practical and technical hurdles of creating actual play experiences while under ongoing lockdowns, all are subject to a substantial social shift changing the podcast field: a dearth of commuters. While many podcasts are reporting losing Patreon subscribers and lower listen counts, as people forego the activities they once paired with podcasts, the investment in characters and ongoing stories may make tabletop roleplaying podcasts a little more resilient. Unlike topical podcasts or commute-sized episodic content, deep investments in world-building and ongoing stories can make for a surprisingly engaged audience.

"We're in the middle of our sixth season, PARTIZAN, which judging from fan reaction might be our best yet, and they're doing an incredible job spreading the word, sharing fanart, and generally giving us the support we need to keep on going." Walker said. "Though to be clear, we would totally understand if folks need to put their time and money elsewhere right now."

Narrative TV and movie production has largely shut down in response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, but disbelief can still be suspended for imaginative worlds. It just takes a little tinkering.