Actual Plague

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:

Real Time

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.

Surrounded by Strangers

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.

Active vs. Passive

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).

Conclusion

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.

Comments

  1. In defense of the AP Podcast:

    I can think of a few reasons why one would listen to AP podcasts:
    1) If one hasn’t played a system and wants to hear how it runs before taking the plunge
    2) If one wants to GM for the first time and would like to hear a variety of different styles of running a game before they run their own
    3) If one needs inspiration
    4) If one just simply wants to hear how others run their favorite system
    5) If one is in a situation like mine, where one can pay attention most of the time, but needs to zone out and attend to something else for a few minutes but doesn’t want to keep pressing start and stop all the time. In AP podcasts, you can usually skip small sections and be okay.


    It’s funny – I thought it would be weird to listen to actual play podcasts, but then I started some experiments at my job that were very redundant and tedious, but required short bursts of high attention, so I needed something that I could listen to in the background that was entertaining, but that I could ignore for spots of time and still have the flow of the thing.

    Music just doesn’t do it for me all the time, so I started listening to podcasts, I listen to the science fiction book review podcast, some role-playing related podcasts, and some other sciency stuff. The problem with those is that I have to pay attention all the time or I miss stuff. So actual play is the thing that works for me in that situation.

    Also, I found it to be great for listening to a system I haven’t played and getting a feel for it (noted above). Also, on long drives by oneself, AP podcasts can be entertaining if done well.

    Anyway, there’s my defense of them, though I DO understand why one would feel as you do.

  2. A well-written piece as always; especially love the phrases: “which can last, at a rough estimate, forever.” and “I was starving and couldn’t get anything to eat, but at least I could look at pictures of food.” Tight, well-done irony!

  3. As someone who puts together a regular podcast and actual play episodes, I must say you make some great points in your article.

    I’ve only released 3 of our Gamma World actual play podcasts, the first with next to no editing (It was only an hour long) and the next two with minimal editing (took out the pauses, added intros).

    I initially looked at the AP stuff as something to do in-between the regular episodes, but I have to say I’m surprised at the response. I think I’ll be spending more time editing them and giving the AP episodes additional thought.

    One thing I have done is the introduction. I give the who, what and where of the episode. Something like, “When we last left our heroes…”

    I think the AP podcast genre is in its infancy, and I think there is a demand for good AP podcasts. The direction I think I’m going to take with ours is run it more like serial fiction… “Stay tuned next week when…!”

    Actual Play podcasts don’t have to suck. Like other styles of podcasts and entertainment, you need a good story, good production, and actors (hosts!) that can make it happen.

    Thanks again for writing your articles!

    -Carl

  4. This is exactly why we haven’t released an actual-play podcast, though we’ve had dozens of requests to do so.

    I *did* record a single one-shot Savage Worlds/Ghostbusters meet Cthulhu adventure using a pair of omni overhead condensers. The sound quality was surprisingly good, even though we were playing outside. And I could clearly hear every side-conversation and tangent.

    If totaled up, all the side conversations would add up to about 30% of the total game length.

    It was weird, even the players who normally don’t go off on tangents and normally remain focused were all over the place. I kept wanting to say, “you *do* realize I’m recording this, right?”

    I have done a lot of audio editing in my studio (though I refuse to edit our podcast), and I generally allow 2- to 4-times the length of the material being edited. So if I record another session, it’s going to be with a small, hand-picked group.

    I have no interest in spending 8-20 hours editing something I don’t get to hand someone an invoice when I’m done.

  5. One of the best ‘actual session’ podcast series I listened to was Return to Northmoor. I loved their format as they truncated the entire session with a commentary of events and played back key points of roleplay. When the dice hit the table for a combat, a general overview of the fight was given. Maybe they would give a playback of a key attack or failed save, etc. but most of it was glossed over.

    The fun stuff is the interaction with everyone around the table, talking to NPCs and such. Combats are only fun if you are participating in them. Listening to actual play session combats are a bore.

  6. I listen to them because I’m stuck in a soul-sucking mindless job where i can just tune out and listen to whatever i can find on the internet. The joy of an actual play episode is that it takes so very long, I’m trying to fill in 8 hours a day and after that long with people playing a game I find myself able to pick out the details of peoples personalities and differentiate them. Poor sound quality however, is something even I can’t stand if I can’t hear the wizard every time he says something it will drive me insane.

  7. Running series of podcasts must have recaps and intros. Otherwise I forget what happened between episodes. Not to mention the fact my attention may have wandered at some point. Musical cues are helpful too.

  8. *applauds*. This summed up many of my frustrations very well.

    My other issue is that, especially when combat breaks out, there are a lot of visual elements. I was trying to listen to some 4e and GW podcasts, and could not follow the action at all. WAY too many pronouns. “I move here” and “I hit him” don’t mean anything without the physical context.

  9. I enjoy podcasts not as an alternative to real play, but as a way to expose myself to a wider variety of player and GM styles. I’m generally doing something else while I listen though– so it plays in the background like radio. I started playing and DM’ing in the last 6 months, and exposing myself to as wide a variety of gamers as possible has been very helpful.

  10. Dixon Trimline says:

    I continue to have no internet at home, so I wasn’t able to read / process / respond to any of the comments over the weekend. But here I am at work, and instead of working on manuals…

    @DMSamuel: You make some excellent points about the value and purpose of AP podcasts, which I am definitely not arguing against. I’m not calling for the cessation of these podcasts, but rather their improvement, to increase their listenability and entertainment value.

    @alexandra: Thanks for reading, and the praise. I can never get enough of that 🙂

    @Carl Bussler: I’ve listened to your AP podcasts, and they’re among the good ones. It was nice to hear someone else doing some Gamma World stuff right as I was starting to get caught up in the mutant fun.

    @Stu Venable: “You *do* realize I’m recording this, right?” This made me laugh. I really do appreciate all the work that has to go into one of these, and wouldn’t SERIOUSLY demand of anybody: “Either do it my way or don’t do it at all!” Mostly I wanted to put out there, “Here are a few ideas… maybe try to incorporate one of them.”

    @Geek Ken: Absolutely, I loved Return to Northmoor, and have e-mailed them to see if there are more in the offing. So far, no dice. (get it?) But I’m hopeful, and I still check in on their webpage now and then.

    @salubri: That’s a good point, and it might be part of my frustration that I don’t have the time to devote to 6 1/2 hours of staticky giggling. I tend to be a more “cut to the chase” kind of person, and if I’m not in on the inside joke, it’s just time wasted I can’t get back.

    @Claytonian: Excellent point about the recaps, and a geniune high-five on the musical cues. Those are so big-time important. I would say that if you are going to do recaps and character introductions, it would be super-neat if the producer did a custom one for each and every episode. My brain tends to tune out pre-recorded content after the third time I’ve heard it.

    @Lugh: Oh man, the visual elements! I completely spaced on that point, but of course, it’s at the top of the list. (If I wrote the article again, I’d definitely add it) “I move here, pick up that thing, and give it to him.” What? Who? Where?

    @Sunyaku: Absolutely, it’s a great chance to get exposure to any number of games, but it also feels like an opportunity for teaching. Let’s say the podcast producer is a GM. Wouldn’t it be wonderful for him to add comments during post-production like a DVD’s commentary track? “At this point, I completely forgot how the charge rules worked, but I just gave the barbarian a bonus to hit and damage and I liked the way it turned out.”

  11. Thanks for your kind words on Return to Northmoor. I agree that editing is everything for AP, but it sure is time consuming! 🙂

  12. Dixon Trimline says:

    @Tim White: It was entirely my pleasure to give you a shout out. Hopefully a few people took a look and realized the beauty! And I’m not completely ignorant to the miseries of editing. A while ago, I put together music videos for each of my kids, and it was a total nightmare. I wouldn’t wish that on anybody, honestly.