I think it’s fair to say that the massive and popular actual play scene can claim credit for a lot of the resurgence in role playing games in the last several years. People of all walks of life can listen to them, hear how much fun they’re having and either rekindle their interest in RPGs or be inspired to try for the first time. It makes sense for the medium to have had this impact, especially with all the talented people involved. Today, though, I want to talk about some of the fall out.
It’s only natural that the actual play scene leans toward the narrative aesthetic of play, given their desire to present a coherent story to listeners over the course of many episodes with a well-produced beginning, middle, and end. What this modelled behavior creates, however, is a skewed focus in the community on narrative. Many of the new players coming into the game come with an expectation for a narrative focused table, whether or not that is what they would really most enjoy.
At the same time, fledgling DMs come to their first games with a similar vision, only to be frustrated and disappointed that the players aren’t mere actors in their prewritten narrative or that their hobby narrative doesn’t compare favorably to the developed narratives from the podcasts they’ve enjoyed so much.
This lack of diversity in play preference isn’t reflective of a normal table, where at any given table there will be players expecting something of everything: challenge, discovery, expression, fantasy, and yes, fellowship and narrative. The focus on narrative alone engendered by these role models creates a flat and bland experience for most players at (dare I say) all tables.
Exceptions I’ve Found:
Someone pointed me to this great Dungeon Crawl Classics podcast that is very diverse in its aesthetics, really feels like a real table.
One-Shot Onslaught, as the name implies, throws narrative out the window, but is almost entirely fellowship driven and the players would have fun just hanging together regardless of the game.
Entertainment vs. Gameplay
It makes sense that the most popular podcasts would be the most entertaining ones, but there is shockingly little attention to quality of play in all of the actual plays I’ve encountered. Rules are often misinterpreted. Players and GMs frequently forget active effects. Significant resources are constantly wasted on sheer pure shenanigans.
I’m willing to accept that it’s a personal problem how worked up I get about bad play in these things. But, completely apart from my personal reaction to it, these kinds of haphazard play can confuse new players about how the rules work and imply that inefficient play is the standard. Now, there may be tables where game rules aren’t important and no one cares about efficiency. I have no problem with that, I only ask: if that’s your table, why do you have rules at all?
This is all good and well, but I have yet to find an example of an actual play where the players are stellar role models of quality play. This happens in other games as well, with lots of streams growing to popularity through the entertainment ability of the streamer rather than any special quality of their play. However, in these other games there are also plenty of streams that grow popular primarily through their quality of play: professional competitors, speed runners, etc. These pros can be entertaining, of course, but they are watched by people who aspire to greater levels of skill. Is anyone aware of an RPG actual play that could be looked to as a role model for quality play?
Curious about some of the things that made me groan “oh, come on” during a run? Continue. If not, skip to the next heading.
*In a podcast that generally does pretty well with the rules and is surprisingly challenging given that the main players are children (and that its 5e), the DM declared that one of the PCs had been killed when a vampire’s bite reduced its hit points to 0 hit points. The DM hurriedly reread the rule and didn’t catch that the bite only kills instantly if the hit point maximum is reduced to 0. An easy mistake to make, but I’m always a little more careful when killing a character (particularly in 5e, where death is not the norm). Did the DM just want them to need to seek resurrection taking them onto a whole new side arc? I doubt it.
*A typically casual and low-challenge podcast was showcasing an official module that was appropriate for their level for once. It started with a little investigation and apparently not in the mood to knock on a few doors to find witnesses to talk to, they instead used a level 2, level 3, and level 7 spell to promise hot dogs in order to attract witnesses. They then got bored with the witnesses and only bothered to question half of them. I figured with serious resources expended for nothing they’d struggle later in the module. I forgot it was 5e.
*On this one, I have to admit that I don’t know the system well enough to be super confident (or at all), but the players are considerate enough to read the spells from the book and I’m starting to catch on. In this case, a player with two characters cast a earthquake on a target with one character and read that it reduced their AC by 2. His other character then attacked, got a 15, and he was told he missed. A 16 had previously hit the target, so it became pretty clear that while the players seem to fight for every advantage they can get, they aren’t paying enough attention to get use of an advantage they gained on the same turn.
It comes as no surprise that podcasts that are trying tell a story to an audience would have a plot with a beginning, middle, and end in mind for the campaign. It also comes as no surprise that the players in such a podcast would be willing to sacrifice some agency to play along with such a plot. But that isn’t the player driven experience we tout in the community, is it?
The role models given by these podcasts portray an undesirable (in my mind) table culture where the players come to each session eager to see what is going to happen at best and willing to be a quirky pinball in the GMs machine at worst. This may be what the GM/producer of a podcast is looking for in a good player/actor, but it isn’t what I’m looking for in a player. I’m looking for players who come up with plans of their own and drive the story of their characters. Players who come to the game with these role models often aren’t prepared to carry their own weight in the story.
The Iron Tavern Dungeon Crawl Classics podcast is a welcome exception to this (and I’m open to others) as the GM has an apparent world and final conclusion clearly in mind, but the players also clearly have the reins and, wild and fickle as they are, they decide what they’re doing and GM uses the world to prod them toward the intended conflict. I’d be interested to know if you know of other examples. I’d love to see a podcast that begins each session with the players summarizing the goal of their adventure and the preparations they’ve made
So, I’ve rambled quite a bit. I feel like I caught everything I wanted to say on the subject, though it seems to me if I had taken better notes while I mulled this subject over the last several weeks I would have organized this better. Regrets. In the end, what I really want to say is that the actual plays I’m aware of don’t at all model the kind of play I look for. I may one day bite the bullet and try to make such a thing exist, but it’s a huge time commitment with the recording and editing, so I doubt it.