tl;dr There are thousands of role-playing game systems available to groups who want to do an actual-play podcast. Which ones work best?
We live in a golden age of RPGs. There are thousands of game systems available, for every setting imaginable, some paid, some free. Enduring standards like D&D and Runequest have survived for almost half a century, edition through edition. And in the last decade or two independent game designers have seen the aesthetic value of table-top RPGs and built new engines that explore different settings, play styles and strategies. Some take hundreds of hardback-bound pages to define; others fit on an index card.
But the game system that’s great for your table or at a con might not be the best one for an actual-play RPG podcast. Some things that work well at home, among a private group, might not translate well to audio entertainment going out to tens or hundreds of thousands of people each week.
Of course, the quality of a podcast isn’t solely dependent on the game engine used. So many factors matter, like rapport between the GM and the party, audio quality, depth and originality of the world. That said, the game engine does play a part. It is hard to imagine a successful long-form podcast based on the Honey Heist one-pager (I would loved to be proved wrong on this, btw).
And that’s a big part of the issue. Some game engines seem to naturally attract long-form podcasts; others seems to fit right into mini-arcs or short-form shows. And some that work really well for long-form are, strangely, most often used for short-form.
What follows is a list of various role-playing game systems with highly opinionated descriptions of how well they work for podcasting. It’s important to note that this is from the listener’s point of view. If you want to record the goings-on at your weekly session and post it up on iTunes, well, you do you. This is just about what works best on the other end of the headphone cable.
Shadowrun doesn’t seem like it would make for good podcasts. Its techno-magical dystopic setting is highly defined and is very tightly coupled with the game mechanics. But that setting is really awesome. It’s complex, layered, socially aware and also personal and psychological. You could explore the Shadowrun universe for years and never get bored.
Shadowrun is also really episodic by its nature. Runs break down a longer campaign into focused, identifiable arcs that listeners can really dig into. They give a medium-sized unit of narrative between an episode and a season.
I’ve only heard a few campaigns that used Shadowrun, but I think it deserves more attention.
Star Wars Roleplaying
By this, I mean the Star Wars RPG from Fantasy Flight Games, although special shout-out to the Falling Star podcast which uses the beloved D6 system. The Star Wars RPG is popular for actual play podcasts because Star Wars is popular for actual play podcasts. And almost all the ones I listen to are very narrativist — the game system takes a back burner to the story. This might be, partly, because dice rolls in Star Wars RPG are super weird and just sound like gibberish when you call them out on audio.
That all said, Star Wars actual play podcasts are some of the best and most popular around, so there must be something about this engine. Or maybe it’s just that Star Wars is a fascinating universe, and this engine is the go-to for it. I haven’t yet heard someone using an old d20 Star Wars or one of the FATE hacks, for example. Setting and engine are so intertwined it’s hard to tell which one makes these podcasts so great.
Call of Cthulhu
CoC is the most prominent game system that’s based on Chaosium’s Basic Roleplaying that’s frequently used for actual-play podcasts. Like the Star Wars RPG, it’s so closely tied to the Lovecraftiana setting that it’s hard to imagine another game system being used for that style of horror. (Or, really, any style of horror? Kind of…? Unless you count Urban Shadows?)
Call of Cthulhu is a great engine… for what it does. CoC campaigns make amazing one-offs for short-form podcasts, and are almost impossible to do as long-form podcasts. The main goal of the party of a CoC campaign is to lose as slowly as possible; but there’s no doubt you’re going to lose. It’s literally downhill, steep or slow, until you hit the bottom. You just can’t maintain that trajectory over 100 podcast episodes.
That said, CoC makes for some of the best audio experiences out there. The engine enables good GMs to tell great stories and good players to dig the PCs deeper into their own graves. Just, y’know, keep it short.
Ah, FATE. What a lovely, elegant, flexible and powerful role-playing system it is. Simple and memorable mechanics, exciting co-creation of the world, infinite hackability, dozens of great spins in all kinds of settings. So, why doesn’t it play well for long-form podcasts?
FATE is great for short-form or mini-arcs. The game creation process is so much fun, and you get such interesting worlds with so many cool facets. But FATE campaigns seem to run out of steam after a few sessions. I think the simple mechanics, which make short-form play so great, make longer-form campaigns harder to slog through.
The uniform dice-roll mechanics also make combat kind of bland. Wizard spell? Roll 4df. Cowboy shootout? Roll 4df. Pirate sword fight? Roll 4df. Using skills, stunts, FATE points and advantages you can get some pretty cool story-telling, but it ultimately boils down to modifiers on your 4df roll. There’s just not a lot of story-telling happening in the mechanics, if that makes sense.
There’s also usually so little to look forward to with FATE. Unlike other RPG engines, leveling up just isn’t that big a deal for this system. Any kind of progress really needs to be based on the story, and that only seems to work if you’ve got an experienced GM who knows how to keep things moving forward. Otherwise, you develop so many loose threads that the whole sweater falls apart.
FATE is the engine I reach for whenever I’m starting a new game. I’d really love to see a long-form podcast that takes this engine and really runs with it. Instead, I’m resigned to seeing podcasts start off enthusiastically using it for mini-arcs and getting bogged down into a slow finish.
Powered by the Apocalypse
Whether it’s Urban Shadows, Dungeon World, Monster of the Week, Blades in the Dark or any of dozens of other spins, PbtA games might have the most listenable engine available. There are so many interesting parts of this engine that make it really attractive to podcast audiences.
First is that it’s really conducive to co-created campaigns. Usually, the stories in PbtA flow out of the lives and relationships of the PCs.
GMing a game is much more about understanding the landscape around the characters and moving it in interesting ways than about building dungeon crawls and miniature maps. So much of the GMing of PbtA games happens on-mic. It makes listeners feel like they’re part of the action.
There’s also a lot more mechanics that happens in the middle of role playing. Dice get rolled at times that never have rolling dice in other game systems, and their outcomes affect the way the story develops. Instead of just doing a perception check to determine if you see the knife coming for your ribs, PbtA games often give you a way to change or modify what that knife is, who it’s for, and who’s wielding it. The randomness is really invigorating.
The downside is that PbtA game systems usually favour long-form podcasts, and yet they’re used so frequently for mini-arcs. Because of the structure of the engine, NPCs and their related organizations tend to multiply in PbtA games. Things get more and more complex in an interesting, fractal way. This is fantastic for long-form; it gives lots of opportunities to call back in old enemies, friends and rivals in new configurations. But it makes short-form campaigns hard to pinch off. There’s just rarely a moment when everyone’s counting their gold and getting a medal from the king in a PbtA game.
I think using PbtA systems for short form is so attractive because there are so many cool settings available. Which is just great, but it seems like only systems that really focus on episodic play, like Blades in the Dark, work well in that model.
Dungeons and Dragons
Pathfinder, 5e, 4e, 3.5e, or even spins of the d20 system — I’m putting them all under the D&D rubric. (Watch this space for a future article on which version of D&D is best for podcasts. I have opinions.) Counting just by number of listeners, my unscientific fingers-and-toes survey makes this the number one most popular game engine for podcasts by a long shot. But why?
First, it’s just the most complex and fleshed-out fantasy engine out there. Over these 40+ years of D&D development, there are dozens (hundreds?) of character classes and sub-classes, each with its own finicky little mechanics for advancement or action. Add to that classic monsters, gods, spellbooks, and you’ve got so much for listeners to grasp on to. If they’re not giving whoops for old favourites like otyughs and Tiamat, they’re listening intently to figure out a new sub-class and how it can best work.
Second, combat in D&D is amazing. With its roots in military simulations, D&D has always put combat first. Many podcast campaigns are, let’s face it, just really cool combats linked together by ale-and-belches jokes and thin excuses to get from battlefield A to battlefield B. But those combats are so cool. Every PC gets so many chances to shine, in so many interesting ways. Theories about how to balance a party or build up a PC are all centered around how effective they’ll be in combat.
Weirdly, the de-emphasis of non-combat mechanics means that a rich culture of role-playing has built up around pretty much everything else in the game. In D&D, except for the occasional Perception or Insight check, most of the action that happens outside of combat doesn’t require a dice roll. D&D players know that this is their time for improv creativity, and for many podcasters, this is their favourite part of the show.
Advancement, also, provides a great impetus for long-form shows. It is really satisfying to see a level-one party move through its awkward babyhood into competence and then god-like ability. By the time you get deep into a hundred-plus episodes, you’ve seen a big mechanical development in the PCs… even if they’re making the same fart jokes they made in episode 1.
It’s also worth pointing out that a lot of the software tools for managing remote sessions are highly optimized for D&D. That matters when you’ve got a party playing together week after week; the tools can make the process much easier.
I think there are a lot of problems with D&D for podcasts. For one thing, about 98% of the creativity in a D&D campaign is dependent on one overworked GM. PCs make small choices like what color their tunic is; DMs write ten-thousand page histories of kingdoms the party decides at the last minute not to visit.
There’s so much that goes into DMing a game week after week that sometimes the world is a little shallow. Either the DM spreads their creative effort over a lot of narrative territory, only a tiny bit of which gets seen on-mic, or they focus everything on just a narrow path, which puts the game on rails.
Regardless, the fact that D&D is the default RPG means that great creative work gets done here. There may be other engines that are worth a look-see, but D&D remains the dominant engine for actual-play podcasts for the time being.
So… what did I miss?
I’m sure that there are plenty of readers screaming, “I can’t believe he ignored [Game Engine X]! It is the best engine used in my favourite podcast!” Let me know; I’m always on the lookout for new podcasts and new engines.