How to Try a New Actual-Play RPG Podcast

So you heard about an actual-play RPG podcast from a friend, and you want to try it out. You download it from iTunes or on RSS. Now… how do you get started?

Let’s assume that you’re not a podcast n00b. You managed to find and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or RSS or whatever.  So now you’re looking at a list of episodes in reverse chronological order (that is, the newest episodes are at the top, and the oldest at the bottom).

Here’s a fictional example, but pretty typical:

  • Season 3:  Episode 6: The Pretender <- The most recent episode
  • Season 3:  Episode 5:  Off to the Races
  • Season 3: Episode 1: A New Day
  • One-shot: Star Wars Special
  • Season 2: Episode 48: The Finale
  • One-shot: A Different Story
  • Season 2: Episode 1: Let’s Try This Again
  • Season 1: Episode 16: The Wrap-up
  • Season 1: Episode 1: First Try <- The first episode
  • Episode 0

Episodes are often grouped into “seasons” or “campaigns”.  These are collections of episodes that follow one narrative arc, similar to the seasons on a TV show. The episodes are usually numbered, either from the beginning of the podcast, or from the beginning of the season, or both.  Occasionally there are also “one-shots”, “mini-arcs” or live shows interspersed at random places between the regular shows on the feed.

The question is, where do you start? And the (wishy-washy) answer is: it depends on what you want to get out of the podcast. Here are some strategies you can try. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.

The Most Recent Episode

This is the way people used to try a new TV show, back in the olden days. The TV show came on at a particular time of day on a particular day of the week, and if you wanted to try the show, you had to watch the latest episode, period.

TV series back in those days sucked. Because every week there were brand new viewers,  the series would never have any kind of plot development or story arc between shows.  Nothing ever happened permanently; everything just restarted, week after week.

TV doesn’t work like that any more. Actual-play RPG podcasts don’t work that way, either.

By the time people like you and me who aren’t friends and family of the cast hear about a podcast, there are dozens if not hundreds of episodes already published. And each one builds on the previous one.

The characters advance. They develop relationships with each other or with NPCs. They get catchphrases. They have history that they reference and joke about.

Starting at the most recent episode can be, for these reasons, really confusing. Sure, you’re smart; you can probably figure out most of the details from context, but you’re not going to be getting the best out of the podcast.

Also, if you do decide to go back in the archives and listen to the older episodes, you’re going to be spoiled. You’ll know that this PC and that NPC eventually get together, or that some PC loses their hand in battle.

One good advantage of starting with the most recent, though, is that you’ll be able to participate in the fan community without worrying about being spoiled. You’ll know what’s going on and what has everyone else excited.

The First Episode

This is the grueling way to pay your dues as an actual-play podcast listener. Go to the very first episode, listen to it all the way through. Then listen to Season 1: Episode 2. Then Season 1: Episode 3. In just 128 more hours, you’ll be all caught up and ready for the newest episode coming out next Thursday.

The first problem with this is that Episode 1 is usually bad. The cast is just starting to play together, or they’re just starting to record an existing game. Either way, they often have abysmally bad audio on Episode 1. Often, the cast is still figuring out how to perform for an audience, so they make asides, mutter, make jokes under their breath, or do other things to make following the story really tough.

Story-wise, the players will usually have bad character descriptions, inventory items that don’t matter, and stilted introductions. There’s a lot of telling without showing: my character is like this, they feel like that, this is what their personality is like, their great-grandparents were from who knows where. Usually, it doesn’t matter at all for the actual story.

It’s hard to stick it out with bad episodes. After two or three, you’re going to start skipping this podcast when it comes up in your queue, and just listen to the newest Hello From the Magic Tavern or Pod Save America. Which is too bad, because somewhere in those next twenty or thirty or fifty episodes, the cast found its stride, and you never got to that point. On the Adventure Zone, there’s a point where a character says, “Abra-ka-fuck-you!”, and it changes the show. It becomes something great.

Starting at the first episode is also tough because with a long-running podcast, it’s going to take you a long time to get caught up. You won’t be able to refer to the podcast’s wiki or Facebook group or sub-Reddit or whatever, because a) you’ll be afraid of getting spoiled and b) you won’t understand what anyone is talking about.

If you’ve got a cross-country car trip planned, or you’re really patient with sub-par media, this strategy might work, but it’s more likely you’ll just fall off.

Episode 0

For some podcasts, the earliest episode of the podcast is an “Episode 0”, in which the podcast producers, game master and party will explain what they’re trying to do with the podcast. (See the Introduction to Friends at the Table for an example.)

Usually, these episodes were recorded well after the podcast started. (They might be back-dated so that they sort down at the beginning of the feed.) They often give you a recommended listening order (“Start with season 2, then come back to season 1, then go on to season 3”) as well as info about which seasons have good audio and when the cast might come on or leave.

They also sometimes go over the game engine and the setting of the story, like in Episode 0 of Shadow of the Cabal. Especially if the show isn’t for an engine or setting that you already know, this can be really helpful, too.

Not all podcasts have an episode 0, and not all episodes 0 have recommended listening order. And sometimes these episodes are old, and don’t have information about the most recent seasons. And also sometimes, they are just apologies for how bad the audio is in Season 1: Episode 1. But they’re almost always short, so they’re worth listening to carefully before you start with something else.

Season 2: Episode 1

If you’re really sure you want to do your homework and listen to most of the podcast, starting at the premiere of Season 2 can be a great place to start.

By the time the cast gets to Season 2, they’ve usually figured out their audio setups. They’ve figured out how to address each other,  and how to work together to make a good performance,. They’ve figured out what’s good to talk about on mic, and what is better handled off mic. Starting a new season is a chance to correct their mistakes.

They’ve also usually finished the finale of Season 1, and they’re energized by that. And they have the freedom to try out all the ideas they had during the first season but couldn’t because they were in the middle of an adventure.

Often the beginning of season two is when long-lasting cast changes are made, too. If there’s someone who’s only half-hearted about recording a podcast every single week, they’ll have dropped out at this point. If there’s someone talented and enthusiastic in their social circle, they’ll usually roll up a new character and join at this point.

Of course, you’ll have skipped a lot of the story and character development of the first season. But season premieres usually have great recaps of the narrative up till this point, and a reintroduction of the main party.  And you can always loop back around to the first season when you’re caught up to the tip of the feed and you need something fresh to listen to.

If you want to earn your stripes as a fan, this is a better place to start than with Season 1. But you’re still going to have to slog your way through to the latest episodes (although it will probably be more enjoyable), and spoilers will still be a problem.

A One-Shot

Starting with a one-shot or a mini arc can be a great way to get started with a podcast. These are usually short adventures told over just one episode, or maybe a handful of episodes.

They’re good because you get a chance to hear the gamemaster and players go through a whole adventure. You can judge their talent and the quality of their audio. And you don’t have to devote a whole lot of time to the good stuff.

You’re usually not likely to get too spoiled, because one-shot episodes are often played outside of the main narrative. The cast may play characters in a different part of the setting, or different characters in the same setting, or sometimes completely different characters in a completely different setting or game engine.

If you listen to a one-shot or mini-arc later in the podcast, the cast will likely have hit their groove. Earlier problems with audio or with cast members will usually have been smoothed over. If you’re trying to pick a one-shot to listen to, maybe try the most recent.

The downside of listening to one-shots is that you’re usually only able to evaluate the gamemaster and players, and not the characters of the main narrative. That’s usually OK; it’s rare to have a good cast that’s made a bunch of cruddy characters. But it can happen.

The other downside of listening to a one-shot is if it’s a live performance, it can often be just a series of fan-service shout-outs. If you haven’t listened to the main podcast, it’s going to be confusing and meaningless. Live performances are probably one of the worst places to start a new podcast.

 Latest Season Premiere

Depending on how many episodes are in the current season, this can be an excellent place to get started with a podcast.

You’ll usually get a good recap of the previous seasons and their episodes. Now, that will somewhat spoil them for you, but on the upside it just happens once.

Then you can listen to the season in order from the premiere. Hopefully, the current season is long enough that you’ll have enough material to do a real evaluation, but short enough that you can get caught up fast. <10 episodes is ideal.

Because the big advantage of this strategy is that you can get caught up to the current episode really quickly. You’re then able to participate in the fan community without worrying about being spoiled. You pre-spoiled yourself with that season premiere and whatever summary it contains. Usually fans are only talking about the most recent 2-3 episodes online, so you might even have valuable insights to share with other fans, because of your fresh perspective.

The other great part of this strategy is that on those frustrating days when you finish the current episode and want something else to listen to, you can dive back into the archives, picking different episodes to listen to.

The most recent episodes are usually the best produced and the most polished. With experience under their belts, the cast will usually be at the top of their game.

The downside, of course, is spoilage. For a long-running podcast, you are fast-forwarding all the way to the end almost, so you miss getting the plot twists and turns as they happen. But you can always go back and listen to them later. There’s usually a lot of pleasure in hearing a key narrative plot point played through, even if you know how it’s going to turn out.

When I’m deciding whether to listen to a new podcast and review it for Head Games, this is what I do. It lets me get caught up to a point where I can provide current reviews quickly. I can afford to hear the summary, and if I really like it I can go back in the archives.

Do you have another way you like starting a podcast? Let me know in the comments.