I believe that at the outset, I was excited about the idea of watching or even hearing a role playing game in real time. But after listening to several “actual play” podcasts, I have been disappointed. And that is due to the fact that role playing games will never be a spectator sport.
On what do I hang this declaration? There are very many podcasts of actual play, or whatever we should deem to call the format, but very very few of them are fit for listening. Many are bogged down with the minutia of dice rolling and rules checking, and those activities are about as fun for listening as you would imagine.
And this is not to knock the players or the format itself, but rather the approach. There are indeed a few actual play podcasts that I’ve enjoyed… well really only one, being the Critical Hit Podcast, to which I have only recently begun listening. The reason that it works is ultimately a matter of showmanship, which the people at Critical Miss understand. Granted I’ve only listened to roughly 10 podcasts, but that’s 9 podcasts more than I was willing to listen to than for other actual play shows.
In the Critical Hit podcast, the players are experienced podcasters. There is minimal “rules banter”, and when rules are referenced they are showcased briefly for learning purposes. That aspect appeals to me for many reasons, even as an experienced role player.
Critical hit puts a lot of thought put into what people want to hear, and there is a sense of timing and presentation that cut down on unnecessary chat. Jokes usually pertain to the setting and plot at hand, attempting at least a semblance of immersion. This is an appealing format, as it keeps the game about the game, and the enjoyment comes from the excitement of the experience.
There is also Nerd Poker, which I actually enjoy, but the draw to that show is that a bunch of people are goofing around and making tangential and irreverent jokes. This is all good and well, but it really isn’t an actual play for the sake of an actual play; it’s comedians playing a role playing game, and I would really classify that as its own animal.
But there is merit to watching actual play beyond entertainment. There are those who watch chess being played, but they certainly are in the minority when compared to those who simply enjoy chess. The fact that there is so much actual play out there is due to that interest in role playing, but it stems from a very specific subset which analyzes play, either from a design standpoint, or simply to see how others do it. I wouldn’t call that compelling or entertaining, but it still serves a purpose. I’m not even sure that I would recommend it to a designer necessarily, but I think I’m still undecided on that end.
Let’s be clear, I’m not saying that role playing game sessions can’t be fun or entertaining. Were that the case, players wouldn’t enjoy being there in the first place. As a facet of the experience of role playing, the players are an intrinsic part of the game, rules and all. The players internalize it all, perhaps even enjoying the roll of the dice and the crunching of numbers. This is not inherently fun for watching or listening.
It is not the constant clatter of dice, the turning of pages between actions, nor the muttering of an unclear rule that make any of it fun for spectators, and the sooner that actual play presenters understand it, the better. I would consider radio drama as a potential alternate route, for one. I would love to hear more radio dramas that took elements from role playing settings and even game sessions. This is exactly the kind of polishing and dramatization needed to invite listeners.
I also would like to cite Japanese Replays (examples HERE, HERE and HERE). These stories can all be made fun, but it needs effort and dramatization. I rather doubt any anime fans out there would be so interested in Lodoss Wars as to want to watch/hear some dude speak as an elven woman at a gaming table. Such a retelling of a game session needs to be a tightly run experience, or else you’re stuck watching something about as interesting as CSPAN; Important and relevant to your interests, but not inherently engaging.
And that is why it cannot be a spectator sport without losing its intrinsic nature. The people who succeed at popularizing actual play are entertainers at heart who know how to present it, and that to me is not so much actual play as it is an entertaining telling/retelling. Those who aren’t successful are merely showing you an experience that really can’t be replicated. If you want that experience, I recommend that you pick up the dice and play, because there really is no way to show you without being at that table with friends and a good game.
Attention: If you want to challenge me on this, feel free. I’m ready and able to eat my words if you can present me with a proper example of fun actual play. I welcome the opportunity.