Playing Through Actual Play: The Makeup of Actual Plays

Us RPG fans are a creative bunch. We kind of have to be for this hobby. It’s the lifeblood of it, isn’t it? You gotta think of what your character says when their best friend reveals a deep dark secret to you. You need to come up with a quick witted comeback to an insult from the mercenaries in the tavern who are just begging to have their teeth kicked in. You embody a character. And that requires creativity.

And the thing about creativity? It’s entertaining. We’ve all shared a deep laugh when someone at the our game table makes a joke that just fits so well for that scene. We wait on baited breath when our players finally confront that baron who’s been making their lives hell. We see these stories being played out in front of us. And even when we are not directly participating, it’s fun. It’s engaging. It’s a story.

And what’s to stop us from letting those on the outside of the table engage with these stories too?

Actual plays (or “APs”) are a very simple concept. Whether done through the audio medium of a podcast, or combining the audio with the visual medium of a stream or pre-recorded/edited video, it’s all about displaying the story being told by the table. The trials and tribulations of the player characters. The situations being set up by the GM. It’s about putting on a narrative that grips the viewers and does not let go.

While the concept is simple, it becomes a much more complex thing when we come to the execution. When someone sets up an RPG actual play, many questions often go through their mind:

What story do I want to tell?

What should I edit out and what should I leave in?

Should I give parameters for my players?

Why am I doing this?

For unlike TV shows, which are often-times about progressing the actor’s careers or making profit, actual plays are a majority of the time not built with the idea of instant financial success in mind. 

There are exceptions, such as the blockbuster of Critical Role and fandom inspiring Adventure Zone. But for every High Rollers, there are at least ten more that the listeners of these actual plays will have never heard of.

So that begs the question: Why do people do it?

The most inspiring thing I found about podcasts is the diversity. While D&D is obviously the lead of these products, you do not have to look far to find anything from Masks: A New Generation (it’s an article by me. You had to know Masks would be mentioned) to Dream Askew. People want to show off the systems they enjoy. They want to show the stories you can tell with them. They want to show how they do it. And it’s pretty awesome when you hear these people putting a part of themselves into their shows.

And the thing with entertaining stuff with a lot of heart that inspires people? It makes them want to do it themselves.

During my research, Adventure Zone popped up repeatedly as a recurring inspiration for many actual plays; in particular, their hilarious humor that often weaves interconnectedly with their high drama moments that tug at your heartstrings. Many see it as the perfect template for how to do an actual play.

“I think the way it influences me is mostly in that I want to lean into silly comedic moments of life while still providing drama. I think one without the other can’t sustain any form of entertainment.”

-Danni, GM of Unlabelled.

They are entertainment at their core. They’re about putting on something that draws the viewer in and gives them something to spend an hour or three to listen to. And yet, while that is the core, it is not the sole aspect.

While many actors, writers, and other people in the creative field enjoy what they do, TTRPG actual plays have a whole other aspect. It can be seen in forms similar to the RPG cousins of video games’ Let’s-Plays. The person/people putting on the spectacle, while wishing for those viewing to enjoy it, are also having fun themselves. That’s the point of what they’re doing. This is a game at the end of the day. It’ll push and pull your emotions. But it’s a game for people to have fun.

And when you listen to these people playing games and having such fun, it makes you think “Hey, why don’t I get some friends together and pick up this game myself?” You cannot do that with a TV Show about fighting demons with magical arcane arts. But when you hear an actual play playing a game about that, it’s just as easy as walking down to your local game store, picking up the rulebook, and getting some friends together. 

Or in my case, going online and buying a PDF. I live in Ireland. Not too many options around here.

“We definitely draw inspiration from the Dresden Files novels, since they’re the core source for the RPG system we’re using. I love the central idea that all myths and religions are valid and true, and what ramifications that has for the characters in that world. Similarly, there’s some inspiration from Neil Gaiman’s novels: American Gods, which has a similar idea at its core; (…)”

-Michael Freitag, GM of Green Mountain Mysteries.

While Green Mountain Mysteries utilizes the Fate Core-based Dresden Files system, making a clear source for it’s influence and inspiration, Michael Freitag mentioning American Gods and other sources highlights something particularly appealing to audiences about actual plays.

Throughout my talking with those who hosted and participated in actual plays, I asked them each what media they feel helped give a sense for how they wanted to do their actual play. I will list a few now:

  1. Danni – Unlabelled: Soul Eater/My Hero Academia.
  2. Jermey – Apex City: Young Justice
  3. Landon – Saint Fleur Podcast: Trickster’s Choice/Queen by Tamora Pierce.

While these podcasts do a phenomenal job of being and becoming their own piece of media that their fan base enjoys, the touchstones of these pieces of media help ensure a piece of familiarity for the initial listen. It allows them to read a quick description and think “Oh, I enjoyed that show! I might like this.”

And for the podcasters themselves, they’re part of the reason they begin such projects. Media can touch us deeply. It can make us cry, laugh, and cry again. It impacts us. Don’t need too look far to realize that. So, when a piece of media hits us deeply, creatives like to use that emotion to make something awesome.

Some write fanfiction. Some draw fanart. Some weave theories. And some make actual plays that were influenced by these pieces of media. It’s the power of media. It makes us want to do our own version. 

And actual plays have had their own inspirational history.

“It was Actually a Mix of AP’s that inspired me to make my own! Mostly Protean City, but also a bit of Adventure Zone and Friends at the Table who got me to want to make my own. I’ve always wanted a platform to entertain others and hang out with people!”

-Danni, GM of Unlabelled.

“I liked the character focused storytelling that LGBT&D does, so I think that drove me to be more character focused over something else.”

-Landon, MC of Saint Fleur.

“I was first introduced to AP by the Adventure Zone, but the AP that inspired me to begin hosting was actually Shuffle Quest, a hilarious and bizarre AP.”

-Noa Heinrich, Producer of Tabletop Potluck

“Friends at the Table is the AP that inspired me to start my own; I was inspired and influenced by their risk-taking, creativity, the games they were playing beyond Dungeons & Dragons (which was the only TTRPG I’d played or even heard of before that), and the lengths they could go to with collaborative storytelling that were far beyond what I would have thought possible based on my previous experience in TTRPGs.”

-Christine, GM of Unexplored Places.

This is only a sampling of the feedback I got from those who I researched with for this article. And already, you can see how listening to actual play podcasts has inspired already an entirely new generation of actual plays, and how their actual play’s expand a little further beyond the inspirational source every time. 

Where one may have used D&D, one inspired may pick up 13th Age to try something different. A source would use a roll for every action, where the inspired may go for a more narrative and story-first approach. 

The joking line about RPG rulebooks “being more guidelines than rules” is well known and used by many an RPG player. And that goes for actual plays also. Actual plays are not monolithic. They are all numerous and diverse in their own way, proving to be a media market all of its own.

But while all of this community input shows us how actual plays work and begin, there’s another question I brought up that still needs to be answered:

Why am I doing this?

And for that, I feel like those experienced can give a far better explanation than I ever could.

“(…)but I genuinely mean I just want to entertain. I want people to laugh, cry, and chant along with the girls and I want to make someone’s day when a new episode of Unlabelled gets uploaded.”

-Danni, GM of Unlabelled.

 “I really love Urban Shadows, and there’s not a PCC or Critical Bits for Urban Shadows so to speak, so I thought the market there was a little under-served. I also felt like it gave me the opportunity to make something that wasn’t overtly influenced by another AP podcast. It was definitely my enjoyment of LGBT&D and then ongoing friendship with Andy (the GM) that made me feel like it was possible for me to make my own though.”

-Landon, GM of Saint Fleur.

“I’m a big believer that RPGs should be used to tell stories, and those stories should reflect their influences. My show, Tabletop Potluck, plays a bunch of systems, so I always try to change my style to reflect the type of story we’re telling”

-Noa Heinrich, Producer of TableTop Potluck

“With my own AP, I really set out wanting to tell a story that I felt like only I could tell, that was just as weird and queer and niche as me and my friends, and that felt like something I would have wanted to listen to before I knew AP existed.”

-Christine, GM of Unexplored Places.

“I love how positive, friendly, and diverse the TAZ community is. If we can help continue that positive trend in the AP scene, even if we only make a difference for just one person, then it’s worth it to me.”

-Michael Freitag, GM of Green Mountain Mysteries.

“The greatest strength of APs is honestly, for me, the ability to tell stories with my friends. I’m not a writer, I’m not an artist or an animator, but I can pretend to be John Cena for an hour, and then I can record that and release it for others and that’s all I want to do in the world!”

-Riley Hopkins, GM of Interstitial Actual Play Season One/Creator of Interstitial: Our Hearts Intertwined.

All of these people are making actual plays because they care. Deeply and truly. They want to tell stories they wished to see in the media today. They want people to feel happier just by throwing on their podcast. They want to show what they can do. They want to have fun. They want to create.

Actual plays are living narratives. They’re a way for people to tell a story and be continually surprised by what they hear, no matter what part they partake of in the podcast. They are a way for the people who make them to pour what they enjoy into them, making characters and storylines influenced by the media that touched them

 And that is frankly beautiful. 

Thank you to Michael Freitag, Danni, Christine, Noa Heindrich, Riley Hopkins, Landon and the entire actual play community for their invaluable feedback on this article.

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