When you offer any sort of criticism, the reflexive response from the noisy void can be, “Well, that’s just your opinion!” Whether it’s a TV critic observing that Glee is gaudy cynicism swaddled in pop tunes and references, or a movie critic decrying the impenetrability of the Mission Impossible plot, or a music critic describing Judas Priest’s Jugulator as gimmicky, flat, and juvenile, the audience that adores these products will dismiss the criticism as just the critic’s opinion.
And here’s the thing: it’s true. Criticism is opinion. We can hope the opinion is informed, instead of being your standard, internet-based, “That sucks, it sucks, you suck, they suck.” We can hope the critic has watched the show, seen the movie, listened to the music, and then rendered an opinion on it, based on some sort of semi-objective criteria. The critic has analyzed the particular medium for an extended period of time, understanding elements of its architecture, such as pacing, characterization, construction, and depth.
I say all of that to say this: actual play podcasts suck.
Now, I’m not condemning any of the participants who make these things happen. They are adding to the gaming library while putting themselves out in a public forum for correction and ridicule. I am, however, questioning the purpose and production of the actual play podcasts, since the current approach renders them virtually inaccessible.
Here are the problems as I see them:
I am a baseball fan. My whole life, I’ve watched and loved the game, and this past season, I watched more games than I ever have before (thank you, DirecTV). Despite my devotion, even I have to admit that baseball games run a little long. A tight, defensive game wrapped around a pitcher’s duel can still last THREE hours–one eighth of an entire day–and three hours is definitely on the short side of a standard RPG session. I’m not even talking about one of those full-on, all-out, weekly campaign type adventure, which can last, at a rough estimate, forever.
Three to four to six to eight hours is an awful lot of time to devote to any activity, even one you might enjoy, like eating or napping, and if you are committing yourself to a campaign type podcast, it’ll account for an infinitesimal amount of the listening marathon. As an audience member, it’s a particularly soul-crushing moment to finish out a great chunk of podcast–say, four hours–and then realize, “Only 83 more hours to go.”
So, what’s the solution? Actually, it’s both simple and impossible, and it’s an ugly, filthy, dirty word among writers: editing. Not only is it a long process, as the podcast producer will have to listen through multiple times, but it means, as Stephen King says, killing those darlings, baby, and killing them all. Arbitrarily, I’d say convert each four hour block of gaming session into no more than one hour of podcast, which means a lot of voiceover interruptions like, “The party argued for a while and then decided to go to the moathouse.” If you want an example of great editing execution, give a listen to the Return to Northmoor actual play podcast. The intent in these podcasts was to teach the adventure to prospective DMs, but the result is a tight, interesting actual play with all the flab removed.
I know my friends, but I don’t know yours. Jesse as Mourn Earthstone could have a brilliant strategic mind, Steve as Horkin Sharpweather might be the class clown, Daniel as Runtee the Dark could be the serious roleplayer, Robbie as Githin Tol might be Machiavellian in his party interactions, Fred as Savage Wind is probably an old soul and gentle friend, but I don’t know any of them, and they all pretty much sound the same to me. I wind up sitting in the metaphorical next room, my ear against the door, hearing this tangled web of voices as the players bombard each other with inside jokes, invisible gestures, and noncontextualized non sequiturs.
Some of this is because of poor audio quality, as few people have the wherewithal for full coverage with sensitive ambient microphones and a vast production team of sound mixers. However, most of it is because a vague disinterest on my part, and it’s your responsibility to hook and hold me with the story you’re telling, not my responsibility to cross the divide and manufacture emotional investment in your adventure.
So, what’s the solution? As I see it, it’s a two-fold fix: 1) Limit the number of players to three or four, since any more than that and there are just too many voices jabbering; 2) Require the players to establish distinctive voices (growly fighter, whispery mage, high-pitched rogue, etc.), starting with an introduction at the beginning and maintaining the voice throughout the entire session. When I hear the voice, I should be able to immediately identify the speaker.
I can’t identify a single game that’s as much fun to hear about as it is to play. When I used to visit my friend Joe, he would want to show me his progress in Everquest, and this usually required a couple hours to paint the whole picture. Initially, this could be interesting–hey, cool, you’re playing some sort of character–but the wonder and fascination burned off fast, resulting in me staring at him staring at the screen. “Hey, Joe, look, I gotta get–” “No wait, watch this part, watch this part!”
When it comes to actual play podcasts, I have much the same reaction. Honestly, I’d rather be playing instead of listening to people playing. This could even devolve into resent, as I start hating the stupid, pig-headed DM who refuses to ever say yes to the poor, beleaguered players, or I start hating the stupid, pig-headed players who seem intent on ruining the excellent story of the poor, beleaguered DM. Now you could make the argument, “I couldn’t get into a group, but at least I can still enjoy a game,” which to me sounds like, “I was starving and couldn’t get anything to eat, but at least I could look at pictures of food.”
So, what’s the solution? This is a tricky one, and it may come down to managing expectations. Actual play podcasts cannot be a replacement for gaming, since they are entirely a passive experience. No, I’ll have to force myself to receive them as pure entertainment and possible inspiration for my own games, and for that to happen, the first two points would have to apply (shorter podcasts, better voices).
I have to acknowledge the actual play podcasts which may not have started the trend but certainly made a lot of people think, “Hey, I could do that too!” Yes, I’m referring to the Penny Arcade/PvP series of podcasts that all began approximately 1000 years ago (in gaming time). I have downloaded all of these, listened to them, and loved them. They are marvelous, funny, instructive, thrilling, and just a fine time for all. Clearly, these should be the standard to which all actual play podcasts aspire.
However, before you talk to your gaming group, before you set up the microphones and punch that record button, you need to objectively consider if you and your group come anywhere near the entertainment available from Penny Arcade and PvP. Is your DM really as sharp, deadly, even-handed, and clever as Chris Perkins? Are your characters as rich, engaging, and hilarious as Jim Darkmagic, Omin Dran, Binwin Bronzebottom, and the late and living Aeofel Elhromane? If not, maybe it would be better if you kept your game to you and your players.