Role Playing Games have grown exponentially in the past several years. They’ve become very accessible and inviting for people to play. One of the biggest reasons is because it is easier than ever to learn to play, watch people play, and find people to play with. Thank you Internet. So, here’s a walk through of some of my favorite actual play RPG podcasts and videos that are out there. Keep in mind the ratings are my own personal opinion and may not actually reflect your personal rating preferences.
If you’ve never heard of Matt Mercer and his crew on Critical Role then you are missing out. Critical Role has become well known for bringing in a massive amount of people to the RPG fandom. Matt Mercer, the Dungeon Master, and his players, Travis Wilingham, Laura Bailey, Sam Reigel, Liam O’Brian, Marisha Ray, Ashley Johnson, and Taliesin Jaffe, are all professional voice actors. If you recognize any of those names it’s probably because of the vast amount of animes and video games they have voiced. Their talent as actors is astounding and draws in the audience making what they do so much more than just a game. This is what every D&D table aspires to however it is rare and hard to find. Because of the talent and dedication of each player the roleplay at their table is leaps and bounds beyond many games I have played. It’s a great goal to aspire to but not to expect from every group (that’s a whole other article in itself!).
There is very little production when it comes to Critical Role. They keep it simple; you’re just watching them play the game sitting at a table. They’ve got some character pictures and hit points on the screen and sometimes give you little tidbits or funny anecdotes on a sidebar but not much else. Don’t watch this show for the production — watch it for the characters. These actors truly embody their characters, using voices, investing emotion in the story, and working together to weave something they love to share. They are in their second campaign with their first campaign totalling 115 episodes. Each episode runs about 3 to 4 hours so it certainly is a commitment. Conveniently, they offer all of their episodes through podcast too, so that’s a great way to enjoy this show on the go.
The Adventure Zone
Episodes available through podcast or website
The McElroy boys from the podcast My Brother, My Brother, and Me have joined the ranks of gaming. It all started as a fun little delve into D&D with the “sweet baby brother” Griffon, leading the game, playing with his brothers, Justin and Travis, and their dad, Clint. The show is distributed by the Maximum Fun network. These guys are hilarious, I cannot stress this enough. If you’re familiar with their original podcast then you’ll know exactly what to expect in the D&D game. They’re just family, sitting around, enjoying laughs and a fantastic game.
The first season, The Adventure Zone: Balance, uses the Dungeons and Dragons system. After they finish that story each of them takes a couple episodes to lead the others on a short adventure using a different system. They finally decide to continue the storyline led by Griffin in The Adventure Zone: Amnesty using the Monster of the Week system. In this story the players play seemingly normal people that fight off evil in a small West Virginia town.
Griffon does a masterful job of weaving an enthralling story while the other boys have a blast with their characters and amazing goofs. Understand, they have lots of fun and there are a lot of jokes but there are also times the story can get pretty intense. Griffon does an amazing job of editing, adding intro music, and playing narrator. The tale they tell is mesmerizing.
Sagas of Sundry
Episodes available on Project Alpha
If you’re into suspense and horror this is the show for you. Sagas of Sundry is based on the Dread system but they use so much more than just a Jenga tower. The Game Master, Ivan van Norman, takes an incredible cast of characters through an emotional and terrifying ordeal. The players don’t just play their characters, they live them out: from the clothes to the mannerisms, this is more akin to a stage production than a game.
The first season, Dread, is about a group of friends going camping; there’s some relationship issues that need to be dealt with, and some sort of demon goatman. What? I won’t spoil it for you but it gets intense! The second season, Madness, is about a group of strangers all living in an old apartment building with a very shady landlord. Oh yeah, there’s a cult involved.
Keep in mind the show is locked behind a subscription fee but you can use a trial week on Project Alpha to binge through the episodes. The production of this show is excellent. The sets, actors, costumes, music, and camera work all help immerse you into the world and characters. These are talented people playing a fantastic game. The Game Master is a wonderful storyteller who pushes the players hard to reach into their character’s psyche. He presents challenging puzzles for them to solve, some of which are life or death (for the character!).
An honorable mention to Project Alpha in general. They offer a wide variety of gaming, pop culture, comic book, and nerd shows.
Episodes available on podcast
Produced through The One Shot Podcast Network, the term ‘actual play’ may be a bit of a stretch for the podcast NeoScum. Things can go off the rails real fast! A group of friends, Blair Britt, Mike Migdall, Eleni Sauvageau, Casey Toney, and Gannon Reedy, actors or directors in theater, get together and play Shadowrun. If you don’t know anything about the Shadowrun System I’ll just say it is overwhelming and that’s putting it lightly. I’ve tried playing it and I think my brain oozed out of my ears a little. It is a massive system with rules for everything. However it is an old, well established, and respected system. It’s just not for everyone. Thankfully NeoScum edits out most of the boring number crunching and dice rolling.
Here’s the thing about NeoScum; it is very open storytelling. Based in a cyberpunk fantasy future world the characters are basically guns for hire: Scummers. Gannon Reedy, the Game Master, puts up with a lot of shenanigans from his players and most of the time he runs with it! He expertly takes jokes, suggestions, and story elements from his players and plugs them right into the game. Sometimes they help but often they come back around to cause trouble for our
heroes main characters. Some true magic comes from Casey Toney, the editor. The first episodes sound awful, they play with several computer mics plugged into a laptop. However, it doesn’t take long for Casey to find a rhythm and develop the skill to add amazing music and sound effects and make the excitement and drama come to life in your ears. A little warning though, if swearing, sex, drugs, and pus bother you, do NOT listen to this show.
Another honorable mention goes out to The One Shot Podcast where you can find a variety of actual play RPGs.
Episodes available on podcast, youtube, and Acq Inc
From the minds behind Penny Arcade comes Acquisitions Inc! A group of adventurers have created their own company that goes on quests for profit. Since 2008 Chris Perkins, game designer and editor for Dungeons & Dragons, has GMed this group. They started audio recording some short adventures, did a short series of live recordings at the table, and then it grew to playing live at the PAX events all over the world.
Chris Perkins has become a phenomenal GM over the years and brings some fantastic showmanship to his live shows; he wears costumes, brings characters to life with accents, and has astounding terrain created for the game table. His knowledge of D&D, because he works there, is very helpful while watching if you don’t know the rules. He has woven an absolutely gripping story through the live shows and is able to incorporate the new adventure books that Wizards of the Coast (publisher of D&D). Also, honorable mention to his ongoing campaign through Wizards of the Coast, Dice, Camera, Action.
This is a group of friends that have been together for years. Because of their familiarity they interact as though it’s second nature. This brings huge laughs to the table but also some emotionally tense and exciting moments. The live studio audience can be off putting sometimes because people really want to be involved (yell rules, suggestions, make jokes) but the crew handles it well and Perkins has found ways to get the audience in on the act.
The last honorable mention goes to two shows that take place in the same world and have characters that cross over. Check out Dice, Camera, Action, DMed by Chris Perkins, and Acquisitions Inc: The “C” Team, DMed by Jerry Holkins.
Episodes available on podcast
Available on The One Shot Podcest Network, a band in Texas, Lindby sat down and started playing D&D. This sounds like all the other actual play things I’ve mentioned. Well, it’s how the greats start out. BomBARDed is unique though. You’ve got to be a great storyteller in this game and the DM (Dungeon Maestro), Kyle Claset is exactly that. But he also expects something very unique from his players, Nick Spurrier, Ali Grant, and Nick Goodrich. The three players all created characters of level 3 but then they multiclassed into bards. That’s right, it’s a party of bards. So, why is this interesting? At some point in every episode the DM presents a puzzle, fight, or social interaction for them to overcome with music. The 3 players roll chord dice (dice with letters of the musical alphabet) and then select a drum track by rolling dice. The DM gives them time to go away and come up with a song and they play and sing it! It is absolutely amazing.
The songs are available to download after they collect them and touch up the sound. Even the music they create as background is available to add to your collection. These guys are very talented musicians and have a blast creating. I’ve often found myself humming or singing one of the songs. Not only do they create and play their own music but they teach you about music while you listen to the adventure! They talk about keys and time signatures and notes and beats. Educated while being entertained!
The episodes are about and hour so listening is easy and sound quality is great. They’re musicians after all. The story is a lot of fun as they are sent on adventures from their Bard School to learn more about the world and gather stories. There are only about two dozen episodes so they’re still fairly new and the real adventure is just getting started. With a great DM and some fun loving characters it’s hard not to get caught up in their story.
So there you have my Top 6 Actual Play RPGs. There are so many games out there through Twitch, YouTube, and in podcast form that I encourage you to do a little searching yourself. You’re sure to find some genres and games that you love and that fit your interests. What has drawn me to these is both the talent and camaraderie of the casts. All of these groups are a mix of friends who are doing something they love with people they love. That is why I enjoy gaming so much. We get to sit around a table, tell a story, get lost in a magical, fantastical, world, create memories of laughter and tears, and allow each other to bare our souls in a safe place. And when we can watch and listen to others share that and do it with such talent and giftedness it is a connection that you just can’t find in a movie and TV show.
What are your favorite actual play shows? I’m always looking for more systems to learn, adventures to listen to, and worlds to experience. Share them in the comments below!