The Seven Deadly Sins of Actual-Play RPG Podcasts

Making actual-play RPG podcasts is hard — really hard. So it’s kind of incredible that GMs and players keep putting the same bad habits between themselves and success. Here’s a list of some of the most glaring mistakes that AP podcasts make, and some suggestions for how to fix them.

  1. Amateur audio. It doesn’t matter how deep your world-building is or how intense your narrative gets; if your audio quality is garbage, people won’t be able to stand listening to it. You just can’t ask people to spend dozens of hours with scratchy, indistinguishable robot voices echoing inside their skulls. They won’t do it.
    Throwing a mic in the middle of your gaming table isn’t enough to make a podcast worth listening to. Ditto with recording a Skype call. You have to have decent quality mics recording separate tracks for the GM and every player, and you have to put time into editing each and every episode. That’s not a luxury; that’s table stakes.
  2. Uncalled rolls. It is amazing how many players (and GMs!) do this on their podcasts. “OK, roll to defend. <pause> Right, so now we should move on to the barbarians’ turn.” Leaving thousands of listeners yelling into their headphones, What just happened?!?!
    Uncalled dice rolls are a failure to acknowledge that the listening audience exists and can’t see the activities around the table or on your Roll20 pages. Just like a radio audience for a sports event, we need the GM and the players to be our eyes on the scene.
    Calling your rolls should become just automatic. “I’m rolling a d20 plus my strength modifier of +1… that’s 14.” It’s a good way to double-check that you’re actually doing the right roll, as well as inviting the listener into the game.
  3. Lack of diversity. It’s 2018 (or later; hello future reader!). Shows that are wall-to-wall cis het white dudes just aren’t as good as ones with diverse GMs and parties. First, because it doesn’t reflect the diversity of the listeners. If people can’t hear themselves represented in the story, they’re less likely to enjoy the show.
    But also, because including players that are people of colour, women, and of diverse sexuality and gender does more to bring depth to the game world. Narratives that delve deep into the lives of characters need diverse perspectives from the real world. And, let’s face it: shows with all-dude casts are really likely to descend into guffawing bro-downs. Finally, it’s hard to tell five guys’ voices apart.
  4. Tight-lipped PCs. How many times have you heard dialogue like this?
    NPC: “So, where are you from?”
    PC: “Here and there. I make my own way.”
    NPC: “Why are you in our town now?”
    PC: “I have my reasons.”
    Gee, what a compelling audio experience that is. Sure, the character might have their motivation to keep secrets and not give away too much about themselves. The player and the GM are motivated to tell an interesting story to the listening audience.
    Secrets about the characters and the world can build dramatic tension, but they have to reach a point where they come out on-mic.
    GMs, this is all on you. Players have an obligation to be true to their character’s needs, and sometimes that need is for secrecy and self-protection. So it’s your job to rip off the band-aid and make the characters talk about their secrets on-mic. Don’t have a sheriff ask where the gunslinger is from; have the gunslinger’s mother and sister arrive on the next train.
  5. Overworked GMs. Sure, it’s a gaming cliche: the GM who does all the research, preparation, and organizational work for the gaming group, and on top of it all also brings the chips and beer every week. The job of GM is intrinsically harder than that of the player, so adding the extra duties of editing audio and promoting the show is just too much.
    Offload as much work as you can from the GM. Have someone else edit the audio, someone else schedule the sessions, and someone else promote the show on social media. If you can, having an unmic’d GM’s helper available during the session to look up vehicle movement tables in rule books or double-check spell effects can really keep the story moving. And, finally, think about using game systems and techniques that channel everyone at the table’s creativity into building the world. Let the players describe the inn they find for the night. Ask the detective’s player what kind of people are in the diner that night. It makes for more interesting worlds, better audio, and less work for the GM.
  6. Non-stop goofiness. Your characters all go drinking and wenching whenever they can! What fun! They fart in the dragon’s lair! They poop in the wizard’s castle! Farting and drinking across the land!
    Jokes are fun. Being goofy is fun. But they are the spice in the dish of audio entertainment. They work best as a surprise. If it’s joke after joke after joke, eventually the surprise wears off.
    Most often, the non-stop goofiness feels defensive. It’s players and GMs who are afraid to delve deeper into their characters or themselves. Your show has more to bring to the audience besides butt jokes. You have more inside you than just butt jokes. Explore that. It’s more rewarding for you and for us.
  7. Disrespect for the hobby. I can’t believe that people can take all the time and effort to put together a cast and story for an actual-play RPG podcast and then go on mic and make fun of the hobby. “What a bunch of losers we are, playing this dumb game!”
    It partly feels like self-protection. Players don’t want to let anyone know how much the game can mean to them, so they try to put it down before someone else does.
    But high-school bullies don’t listen to actual-play RPG podcasts. The audience aren’t listening because we think RPGs are stupid and that everyone who plays them are big idiots. We recognize how powerful a tool they are for making great stories. We’re listening because we love the game. You should love the game, too.