Why should actual-play podcasts stop at DnD?

Wizards Of The Coast doesn’t have a monopoly on podcast-friendly game formats

If you’re in the Venn diagram of podcast nerds and actual geeks, it can’t have escaped your knowledge that Dungeons and Dragons podcasts have become an enormous trend. These ‘actual play’ shows generally involve a group of friends running through a tabletop role-playing game campaign in real time, complete with all the narrative drama and worldbuilding that has made the game itself so enduringly successful. 

The most popular of these is undoubtedly Critical Role - a juggernaut of a franchise which has spawned a full-on multi-million-dollar media empire over the course of its almost ten-year history. Not only does it have multiple successful seasons under its belt and a TV adaptation on Amazon Prime (currently working on a third season) but it also supports multiple sell-out live shows, with the latest taking place in Wembley Arena a few weeks ago. 

Part of the reason it’s so successful is that its cast are all voice actors by trade; a quietly genius touch which means that the improvisational and dramatic elements which are so central to the appeal of TTRPGs are compelling and well-executed. 

The show has inspired a generation of successors based on the same principle, including Dimension 20 from the talented team of comedy writers and performers behind Dropout (née CollegeHumour), and The Apocalypse Players - a podcast based on the Call of Cthulu RPG which aims to blend the roleplaying with sound design, foley effects and meatier dialogue to create something between an actual-play podcast and a Radio 4 drama.

The show won two categories at the recent Independent Podcast Awards, and its success demonstrates the thriving creativity to be found within this particular sub-genre of podcasting. My question is this, though: why does it need to be limited to TTRPGs like Call of Cthulu, Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder? 

I think there’s a rich world of potential podcast content that is yet to be tapped, leveraging the same elements that make franchises like Critical Role and Dimension 20 so popular but without the mechanic complexity that can turn people off from tabletop RPGs.

Here’s an example: I have many fond memories from my youth of my parents throwing murder mystery dinner parties - the kind where everyone gets assigned a character, with instructions to reveal details about their character throughout the course of the evening. One of you has committed a horrible murder, and the goal is to piece together the clues, guided by a pre-recorded narration from an Agatha Christie-type investigator, to try and guess who’s to blame.

Most of my family is in the arts in some capacity, and so these parties tended to be quite theatrical - both in terms of the attendees and in terms of how much everyone committed to their roles. It was always wildly entertaining, and I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to translate the same kind of evening into a podcast. 

It’s got all the narrative excitement of DnD, while still allowing for the lively improvisational moments that characterise actual-play podcasts at their best. Not only that, but they’re also neatly self-contained, rather than multi-session campaigns, allowing for a greater variety of settings and characters, and they let listeners play along with guessing who the murderer is. 

They even come with built-in bonus content; the dinner-party setting means that most traditional murder mystery party kits come with a selection of themed recipes for hosts to serve their guests. Incorporating this element via a series of bonus cooking episodes is a perfect way to add value for subscribers while still keeping it thematically relevant.

A bit of cursory Googling hasn’t turned up any existing examples of this format, so I think I might be onto a winner here - although publishing this column means I’m running the risk that if it actually is a good idea, some enterprising producer will beat me to the punch. Until that happens, though, I’m going to start bingeing Midsummer Murders and batch-cooking lasagna in the name of research.