So I thought I'd take a bit of a break from things and muse about some of the podcasts I listen to. Don't worry, this is technically game-related, I haven't gone completely off the rails just yet... I'm going to stick with Actual Play podcasts for this post.
I started listening to podcasts about six or seven years ago, and one of the earlier things I listened to was the Penny Arcade podcast they were running back then. When 4E D&D came out, they ran an audio game on the podcast, and I listened to it. This was actually my very first exposure to tabletop play. There've been a few what you might call key milestones that actually got me into gaming (Warhammer, a copy of Dungeon bought when I couldn't find a White Dwarf in New Jersey, Icewind Dale, and a friend who spent most of uni either gaming or writing comics about it) but this thing really got me paying some attention to actual pen-and-paper RPGs. They were just having so much fun. This was a podcast designed to showcase 4E D&D, and it did a very good job of that; in truth the GM handwaved some things and allowed the players to control things quite a bit, more than the system really allows, but that's advertising for you.
That was a one-off game (though a few more have come out since) and I started looking for other similar podcasts. I found a few that I listened to. Some dissipated into thin air after a few episodes, and after one or two of those I started checking "last updated"s and update schedules before I bothered starting. Others I listened to for a while, but eventually lost interest in: they didn't seem to be going anywhere, or the adventures weren't that interesting, or the group dynamics weren't fun for me. At least one I got cross with the players for the way they were handling the premise, and coupled with a fairly slow pace I gave up. Several just didn't have audio quality I could accept. But there are a few I've stuck with. These are the shows that make me happy just from hearing the theme music starting up.
Eventually I ran into the Icosahedrophilia podcast, which I still listen to whenever an episode comes out (sadly it's fairly irregular). That's fairly impressive, because this is another 4E D&D podcast, and as Dan has mentioned on more than one occasion, it's hard to think of many less interesting premises than listening to other people play 4E D&D, with its drawn-out tactical combats. So why do I like it?
One important thing is that the audio is very good. It has the odd muffled moment, but the vast majority of the time you can hear exactly what's going on; there's very little background noise, dice roll fairly softly, and table chatter is pretty minimal. People don't tend to talk over each other, and as the podcast has progressed they'll actually clarify things for the audience sometimes, rather than treating it as purely a recording of their game. Chris, the DM, will insert clips now and then to explain things that might be confusing otherwise. The audio's carefully edited - I'm sure a fair bit of pausing and noise gets cut out, because there's just not as much as I'd expect, but at other times long digressions or rulebook-consultations are carefully faded through to keep up the pace of the podcast. The result is it's pleasant and easy to listen to, and it's usually also clear what's going on, both mechanically and narratively. Obviously audio quality alone isn't enough, but it's fairly crucial.
The second thing, and the main reason I've stuck with it, is that I just enjoy the storyline. Chris is running his own homebrew campaign, inspired in part by a couple of existing products (like the Stormhaven setting), but mostly drawing on wider inspiration, especially the Cthulhu mythos. The campaign is a globe-trotting adventure that doesn't feel forced, full of characterful locations and a lot of variety. I'm always wondering what will happen next, and the overarching doomsday plot that began in the very first episode has lent structure and direction to the campaign as a whole.
Thirdly, and another major reason for at least my initial interest, I found it a very helpful guide for how the game actually works, and how to DM it. This became very relevant as I ran a 4E game for a while, and as none of us had played a tabletop RPG before, there was nobody else to guide me. Icosahedrophilia gave me a lot more confidence in how things actually went around the table, what kind of adjudications might be made (and why), and how some of the mechanics worked in practice. This is in part because Chris' style is very clear, and the group were initially learning the rules, and now need reminding of them between sessions: rules get read out, clarified, reasoned through and generally made sense of, and people get reminded to place tokens, or take modifiers or keywords into account. Chris also includes a "Prop Shop" segment after most of the podcasts, where he describes minis and tiles used in the game, but also often goes into how he statted up monsters, rules discussions, and comments about the session. He'll mention things the players did that changed his plans or surprised him, and how he responded, as well as more general thoughts about the campaign and the plot. I personally find this makes the podcast significantly more valuable and interesting than the play alone would be. While my 4E game is long deceased, I still enjoy hearing how someone else does GMing.
Of course, Dan's point holds: 4E D&D is a very tactical game with very long combats, and there are absolutely times when a single combat will stretch over several episodes. These aren't my favourites, but I don't find it a huge problem. I think it's partly because I've got to know the characters and their capabilities over time, and so to some extent I can follow along with the tactical decision-making - honestly I suspect it's a lot like listening to sports matches, if you're the kind of person who does that, which I'm not. It does drag sometimes, though. A second helpful factor here is that I listen to podcasts when I'm doing other things - typically either running, commuting or housework. This means the podcast doesn't need to absorb my full attention, only enough to keep me entertained, and it doesn't matter much if my thoughts drift off for a bit. The third thing that compensates is, I just enjoy the dynamics of the group; I find them a very pleasant bunch to sit in with, and enjoy the idle chat and roleplaying, even when they're stuck in the sixtieth round of combat. The helpful flipside is that because combat's so tactical, you could just skip (say) an episode that's just the middle of a combat, without losing track.
Chris also takes the credit for finally getting me to actually read Lovecraft, an author I'd vaguely heard about for nearly twenty years. Problematic aspects aside, I'm glad I did.
The story is very strong, to the point where it could be accused of railroading, though personally I don't think the players are particularly inclined to wander off. I'm also pretty sure that in one podcast Chris mentions his players' preference for knowing what to do next, and moving on to his next idea, rather than trying to sandbox. This is very clearly not a sandbox campaign, but Chris does adapt to the players' actions, sometimes quite dramatically - in one section he completely rewrites (offstage retcon, you could say) the reality of the island they're on to keep the characters as heroes, after his intention and the players' interpretation of events fail to match up. They do also get some freedom in what they do and when they do it, so it's not scripted or anything.
I also appreciate the extra effort Chris puts into making this a public podcast rather than just a recording. As well as the prop-shop segments, there's a brief summary of the campaign at the beginning of each recording, with extra detail on recent events, plus each of the sizeable cast introduce themselves and their characters to help you keep track. A special Story So Far episode gives a much more detailed breakdown of the crew's adventures and goals, perfect for anyone wanting to come straight into the podcast (perhaps to check out one particular episode) or simply to get a reminder of what's been going on, especially after a hiatus. Moreover, Chris provides blog posts for most episodes, often with photos of the session to highlight particular situations, minis or gaming tools he used, and details of many creatures he invented himself. There's also product reviews, and general musings on D&D.
This one is a little strange - I think I actually discovered these folks when I spotted a cataloguing error in the record for their CD in the university library service...
Regardless, I think it was a good while later that I re-stumbled upon them when randomly searching for actual play podcasts to listen to. Honestly I was pretty sceptical about Call of Cthulhu at that point, but decided to give it a go, seeing as they had so much stuff to offer, and I'm glad I did.
There's a huge range of material on YSDC, from audio games to interviews to Lovecraftian news to experimental soundscapes (I kid you not). Mostly I've listened to the games and the news segments, because I'm not sufficiently into the gaming scene to find interviews that appealing - although as I haven't tried them, I may be missing out. The games are a mixture of Innsmouth House Players sessions (the group who started the site) and con games. As such there's quite a variety; even within the IHP games, people GM on rotation and each have their own distinctive style.
Again, this podcast is notable for its audio quality, which really is outstanding. Paul, the chief culprit, is a dedicated audiophile and has gone to the extent of using binaural recording with a bronze head in the middle of their gaming table. The result is that in more recent recordings you're effectively sat in the centre of the group, making it very easy to pick out voices and identify the players, even on the occasions they talk over each other. In general that doesn't happen though; their table-discipline is quite something, and even the snacks are quiet. I find this podcast a real pleasure to listen to, and the melodious northern accents of the Players are certainly not biasing me in any way (ahem).
The second reason I love this podcast is simply that the Innsmouth House Players are so much fun to sit in on. Their chemistry is brilliant, very relaxed and cheerful, without getting anarchic and detracting from the games themselves. There's a certain amount of in-joking, but the more accessible kind, and explanations are usually provided for anything too bizarre. They run quite a jolly style of Call of Cthulhu, full of good humour even when everyone is horribly doomed, which has definitely been a big influence on me when I finally started playing it.
From a GMing-aid point of view, the sheer volume of games and the variety of Keepers means there's plenty of opportunity to pick up ideas, see how other people did things, and decide whether you'd have done it like that. Since they follow the Cthulhu tendency of using prewritten scenarios (often campaigns), you can get some ideas of what you'd like to run, how it might work out (and what doesn't work for you) and so on, though there's enough deviation that things are rarely a straight run through the intended plot.
YSDC has been going long enough (having invented actual play recordings, no less) that they've got a number of retired shows, including a couple of news-like shows that I used to enjoy, though I can see how they felt keeping up with the news was difficult. For Patrons (sponsors of the site) there are extra bonus recordings, including early access to audio games and archive access, plus an excellent show called the Silver Lodge, which covers specific themes in depth, ranging from life in the 1920s to the 1980s gaming scene. Again, the quality of these is really superb, and the guests are just as good company as the Innsmouth House Players themselves. YSDC radio is also notable for sharing a host with the HP Lovecraft Literary Podcast.
Close The Airlock!
I found this podcast relatively recently, soon after it started, and have been listening along with great enjoyment. As I remember, I was specifically looking to learn more about Traveller, and by this time actual plays are my go-to resource for that.
Compared to the last two, the audio quality isn't quite so good: there's usually at least one person Skyping in, which makes their voice much less clear and sometimes leaves the group themselves a bit confused. Some podcasts also feature unwanted baby, and one player sometimes has to leave the table to deal with that; more recently she's been skipping most games entirely, which is a shame, but hey. On the whole, though, the quality is still very decent. They also make some concessions to the audience, explaining things where necessary.
It's a rather more player-driven game than the last two, with little in the way of long-term plot, leaving the players to pick routes and missions with only a little prompting from some NPC contacts. The players can simply head off into space and see what they find, though the GM can predict what their broad options are based on their fuel capacity and other practical constraints. However, there are two long-standing plot elements that may eventually become more prominent. One is a strange alien device they discovered behind a panel of their second-hand spaceship, whose functions they're still experimenting with. The second is that characters regularly disappear for varying periods and reappear, following encounters with some strange nanotech. As you may have guessed, this was set up as an in-game explanation for players missing sessions, but the players are clearly interested in it and I suspect there's some plot lurking in the background that will eventually come to the fore.
Another aspect of the game is that several (possibly all) the players have a scientific background, and they're quite keen on keeping the science fairly hard (as hard as space opera allows). This can be quite fun to listen to, as they debate how a situation would play out realistically and exactly what it is that a weapon does, so as to determine its effects in specific situations; it also occasionally leads to retcons when they suddenly realise that something couldn't have happened.
One of the reasons I particularly like this podcast is that again, the group are actively learning Traveller as they go along, which means it's full of rules discussions and explanations - intended for the players, but also helpful to the ignorant listener. It's a really good showcase for the system too, great advertising.
While I've noticed some differences in the players' styles, they seem to mesh reasonably well, and make concessions to each other; the impregnable armoured killing machine that shows up at one point has a fair run before being retired, and the group has a nice balance in general. They have a nice tongue-in-cheek style without making the whole game cartoonish, and I really enjoy listening to them.
The GM has just changed as I write this, but so far I've been very impressed with the creativity of the plots on show. Everything seems to be homebrewed, and quite a lot of material is invented on the fly as necessary, and very good it is too. From alien gameshows and modesty elbow-patched to addictive hover-hippo, the games are full of rich little touches and fun scenarios that make them genuinely entertaining to listen to.
Josh, the GM, also posts plans of ships and planets used in the game, interesting for checking details, and eminently stealable.
As you may have noticed, there are a few recurring themes here.
While it's not sufficient, I personally find audio quality really important in producing an actual play podcast that I can listen to comfortably. This is partly because of how I listen to podcasts; 99% of the time it's through headphones, and typically there's a certain amount of background noise from nearby traffic, wind, fellow customers, housework or whatever. Poor audio will put me off a podcast faster than just about anything.
Background noise means that it's harder to pick out voices on the recording, so quiet voices or mumbling are a problem. It also intensifies any interference from people talking over each other, rustling wrappers, crunching crisps, nearby hubbub, or simply poor-quality recordings with lots of hum and crackle. Con games are often inaudible because of the sheer amount of constant background noise, including nearby people confusingly talking about other games, and I have to make a special effort to listen to them on speakers sometime if I'm really interested. Mostly they just get forgotten. Background noise is very understandable, so I don't particularly blame anyone for it, but it does make things harder to listen to. I'm generally more sympathetic to generic noise than to loads of table noise, because it's much harder to control. However, I tend to feel that if eating and by-chat take up as much time as the actual game, or constantly run over the game so you can't really hear it, then maybe putting up your game for public consumption is a bit excessive?
The second main issue is volume. Because of real-life background noise, I typically have to put podcasts on fairly high volume to pick out the voices; any noise on the recording itself only adds to that. That's usually tolerable, but when volume is wildly variable it becomes a problem. Some podcasts have very loud theme music, which is careless because it's being deliberately added. Dice often sound very loud and sharp, probably because of where the recorder's sat - I'm struggling with that one myself at the moment - but you've got to expect that in most games.
On the other hand, I've heard a few with sudden bursts of noise at unbelievable volume, including one with unexpected dog that left me stumbling and trying to wrestle off my headphones while passers-by stared at me with concern. Babies also occur sometimes. With the best will in the world: having a dog (or indeed a baby) is entirely your affair, but do not leave them in your podcast. Why anyone has bark-prone dogs in the room during a game baffles me, let alone when they're recording, but I expect the courtesy of removing them before sticking the podcast out there. It's not remotely difficult to look at an audio file and spot the bits where the audio volume is twice normal, and you can't possibly have failed to notice the barking. Neglecting this is like baking a load of free cakes, watching someone spill a bag of marbles into the mix, and then proceeding to distribute the cakes anyway without bothering to sieve out the marbles. It is unforgivable.
As you may have noticed, I'm a teensy bit tetchy about this one.
If you're going to spend at minimum a couple of hours, and potentially dozens or hundreds, listening to a bunch of people play games, that group really needs to be enjoyable to spend time with. Primarily, that means they need to sound like they're having fun. One podcast (At Sixes and Sevens, a Changeling podcast) I drifted away from, because I was starting to feel like the players weren't really enjoying it: they didn't really seem to have much agency in the game, even though the storyline itself was initially interesting, and so it didn't have the spark. Another one, which I can't remember, had some careless remarks that bothered me (I don't remember those either). Some groups simply have a style that grates on me personally, so I shrug and move on - nothing you can (or should) do about that one.
For the most part, podcasts I listen to regularly (be it actual play or whatever) survive because there's really good chemistry between the participants. They sound like they enjoy what they're doing and appreciate each others' company; they riff off each others' creativity, bounce jokes off each other, are genuinely interested in what the others have to say. They make concessions and work together, rather than standing on their independence. The GM steers the ship smoothly, without being too high-handed to follow the prevailing wind. There's a feeling of genuine camaraderie and pleasure in the occasion, which makes my position as an authorised eavesdropper an enjoyable one, so I feel part of a fun social occasion, rather than the stranger shifting awkwardly in the corner wondering how soon I can escape from these people.
Good editing can turn a probably-not-brilliant recording into an enjoyable experience. Most people don't have the time and money to set up complicated recording rigs, and many groups aren't going to want attempts to record them potentially compromising the game - the great advantage of a plain recorder is you can just plonk it down and ignore it. However, by editing well you can remove background noise, edit out people taking toilet breaks, cut long digressions or incomprehensible in-jokes, boost quiet people, muffle loud people, crop hums and haws and frantic rulebook-referencing, and generally make yourselves sound cleverer, smoother, wittier, more focused, more knowledgeable and altogether better than in real life. There's obviously a middle ground here in terms of effort-reward ratios, and the kind of podcast you're looking for: slick professional productions (like the Penny Arcade game) from friendly warts-and-all games intended not to scare anyone off.
In general, I find it a great asset if the group or the editor make some concessions to an audience, by clarifying things that might be very confusing (you just flipped over the mat to teleport the group to a completely different location with completely different NPCs?) or perhaps having a quick reminder of what's going on at the start of a recording. It also helps a lot when you're trying to work out whether you already heard this one, or maybe skipped one by mistake!
So that's it for now. Further suggestions for cool podcasts are always welcome.