KD301 In Writing

Welcome and Introductions

[00:00:20] Esther: Hello and welcome to Know Direction, your number one source for Pathfinder news, reviews, and interviews. I’m Esther. 

[00:00:27] Navaar: And I’m Navaar. 

[00:00:29] Esther: And today we are so excited to talk to someone that I pitched to Navaar being on the show, being like our mutual friend from the tabletop space, would just be such a fabulous guest to have on and share all of her thoughts and wisdom and knowledge with our listeners.

I am so excited to welcome Dr. Emily Friedman to the show. Em, please introduce yourself and tell our listeners a little about who you are and what you do. 

[00:01:00] Em: Hi! Uh, yay! So happy to be here. I’m Dr. Emily Friedman. I’m an Associate Professor of English at Auburn University, which means I have tenure and I do what I want.

And for a long time, that meant researching, in my home field of 18th Century Studies, folks who were creating things outside of like mass commercial capitalism. And when the archives all, you know, closed down in 2020, I found myself studying more and more the world of tabletop roleplaying games, and more specifically Actual Play.

And as of the time of this recording, I am one of the senior scholars among a great host of us who are trying to understand the now two or three decades of this really interesting art form online. And I write for Polygon, when I want to boost that kind of awareness of that field. And I now keep a review blog ,starting this year, on my own website ecfriedman.com, where I do a little bit more of a deeper dive into what works and what doesn’t in Actual Play. 

Em’s TTRPG Origin Story 

[00:02:16] Esther: Amazing. We always start off by asking our guests — usually it’s what’s your Pathfinder origin story, but I don’t actually know if you’ve played Pathfinder! So I’ll make it “what is your tabletop RPG origin story?”

[00:02:31] Em: Yeah, so, um, I started in the late-ish 1990s when I was in high school, and my — and because of where we are in the 1990s, and because I was in Texas, that was dominated by two things: the World of Darkness, uh, which then had kind of a real market dominance, and Steve Jackson games. Which most people will know best for the Generic Universal Roleplaying System, or GURPS, which basically took all kinds of, like, minor IPs and turned them into games you could play.

What I knew it for was it was the company that brought the French roleplaying game In Nomine into English version. And so I was at a Catholic high school, having been at public schools prior to that, faring very awkward. And when we couldn’t convince people to play Vampire as intensely as we wanted to, my nerdy friends and I were able to convince people to play this game of angels and demons and the humans in between.

And then, as I’ve talked about with Navaar before, in college the tabletop space was dominated at my college by what we might now call kind of eugenicists or borderline white supremacists. And so it was not the thing you wanted to do! Um, so, you know, a capella and other things took over.

And came back to the hobby, god help me for this podcast, during the resurgence of 5th edition. Because around here I have a long time good friend who is, we call Forever DM, because he has indeed been running, uh, the game since almost the earliest editions. So yeah, not a whole lot of Pathfinder experience aside from making characters on Demiplane, which has been like a super fun thing that one does, right? We always make more characters and then we end up playing, right? 

Approaching Pathfinder As A Newbie

[00:04:35] Navaar: So true. So what’s the, of the ones that you’ve made on Demiplane, do you have one that you’re like, if I get to play, this is the first one I want to do? 

[00:04:43] Em: You know, what’s been really interesting with me about kind of trying to grok Pathfinder by way of character creation has been kind of playing around with the kinds of translations of classes as we might think of it, and like how much more kind of granular configuration is in those kinds of ways.

And so what’s really struck me is I’m usually like, a utility caster, and that freedom looks like too many choices — um, uh, at least as a kind of newbie. And so I find myself going back to, you know, what does one do when one’s starting a system? One figures out the, like, thing that feels the, the simplest.

And I think that’s still the search for me is like, which, which option is the thing that… I mean, I’m curious to kind of turn it back to you. Like, what would you recommend for someone who’s getting started in Pathfinder? Who’s familiar with the kind of, you know, architecture of, of gameplay, but what kinds of classes and ancestries and backgrounds are like, do you think are the most kind of user friendly if I was, like, telling my students or myself?

[00:05:58] Navaar: It’s so hard because I was literally, we were having a conversation the other day, I think, about how, like, complicated the Fighter is. 

[00:06:05] Em: Mm. 

[00:06:06] Navaar: Um, and not like — maybe complicated is the wrong word,. But like, the options that you have to absolutely customize that Fighter is very, very deep. And it’s not as straightforward as, like, do I use a sword and shield, or do I use two swords, or do I use a big sword? 

Those are options, but it’s very much like the, the trees, the branches go deep. So I honestly think that… here’s what I would say: for anybody that’s new, because I’ve introduced quite a few people to the system, what speaks to you as a fun character idea? And then let’s just build that. Because the reality is it looks scarier than it is — because there’s so many options, true.

But once you have your options and you’re playing, then it starts to feel good. And then you can start to think about like, “Oh, this would be really cool if I could combine this next thing next,” and you follow that sort of feat tree. And then you get general feats and that changes how your character feels in the world at large, in your ancestry feats and those things.

So it’s like, I wouldn’t just put somebody down that road. I think anytime you’re going with spellcaster, the hardest part is always like, I have to learn all these spells and what they mean and how to like manage that part of it. Yeah, I think you could have fun regardless.

I’ve talked a lot about, like, my Sorcerer, who is a multi-class Wizard. And, like, I have a familiar, and I’m a divine Sorcerer. And it’s all this like, really fun stuff that like, I could just do, because of all the things that are already there, so. Yeah, I think, I think you just gotta do it. 

[00:07:43] Em: You just gotta dive in and…

[00:07:45] Navaar: You just gotta dive in, yeah, whatever sounds cool.

Like, if you wanna make a support caster, then do it and just jump in. And, yeah. I’m sure Esther and I both would be happy to run a game for you or teach you how, so. 

[00:07:57] Em: Oh! Yay! 

[00:07:58] Esther: Absolutely. Absolutely. We would love that. And it’s so funny, Navaar had this beautiful and like, welcoming answer, and I went to like a very specific place, which is: I would tell you to play a Ranger.

[00:08:12] Em: Bold! 

[00:08:12] Esther: And I love the Pathfinder Ranger. 

[00:08:16] Navaar: The Ranger’s great. 

[00:08:17] Esther: I think it’s a fantastic class that’s also fairly easy to get a handle on in a way that I did not expect when I played a Ranger. And it has options if you want to add in spellcasting and not multiclass. You can just choose that like, tree for the ranger and it’s a great way to get a feel for combat and for spellcasting in that way. So I was like, play a Ranger! But, yeah you might — it might just be a matter of like figuring out what you’d ideally like to do and then diving in and having a friend to call on for all the different ways you could do it.


On D&D Market Saturation

[00:08:54] Em: Yeah, it’s so interesting. I mean, I talk to my students a lot. I mean some of them are very experienced with TTRPGs — and famously, like I’ll never forget the student who in an opening survey was like, “I have played UNO.” Right? Like, that’s the kind of other end of the scale. And talking about the friction. And the friction is more likely to happen with people who have experience with D&D, as opposed to total newbies. Because total newbies are pretty malleable, and don’t have preconceived notions about how things are supposed to go, which is really fascinating. Especially as– not that this is going to be a dog on, on D&D, uh, sort of evening — but one of the things that we were looking at this term was Wizards of the Coast has put out these like, “D&D in the classroom,” “D&D for after school activities” sorts of handouts.

And I have to say, just from a design perspective, they’re not great. They’re hard to print out, they’re in full color, they’re a mess. And they don’t simplify the game. But what they do do, of course, is promote an idea that D&D is the first game. And so to add that friction that makes it so that other d20 games, other games of fantasy, anything that is proximate to it has now the learning hump of, “Well, but I know how to play D&D, and doesn’t that do everything I need it to do?”

Which is really fascinating. I mean, you would think kind of — or at least I thought– “Yeah, once you’ve got one system down, additional systems make sense!” But only in as far as that they are categorically distinct enough to not to get tangled up in the weeds.

Which is why I think when I do think about classes in Pathfinder, like, it’s almost always classes that don’t have a nomenclature that is one to one with D&D.

So, you know, I bopped off of Wizard, but was like, “Okay, so tell me about this Oracle situation. Tell me about this, like, you know, Psychic stuff. Like, what’s going on here?” Because it’s like, this is where I’m not, I know I’m not gonna get tangled up in my brain. Which I think is, yeah, a friction point that I don’t think we talk enough about.

[00:11:22] Navaar: Yeah, that’s true. I mean, my nephew got into TTRPGs through school, but it’s D&D Club specifically is what it’s called. So it’s like, that’s what they’re playing. That’s not TTRPG Club, where they’re like, let’s learn a bunch of different games. It’s very specifically, whoever is running it decided “This is going to be D&D Club.”

[00:11:41] Em: They want to be Kleenex!

[00:11:41] Navaar: Which is like… yeah, for sure!

And in that way, it’s like, “Well, I’m glad that you’re playing TTRPGs. Let me show you the Mwangi Expanse, because I think it’s very important for you, young Black man, to read this book.” And it’s true. I think it’s… the marketing is there and that makes a difference. 

[00:12:02] Em: Well, and so interesting.

So I got a– I had an interview a couple of weeks ago that I don’t know if it’s… like, I don’t know if the piece is going to come out. I don’t know if I’m going to be part of it. It was like a whole bunch of people got interviewed about D&D in the classroom, and at the end of the interview,the journalist was like, “This is not how I expected this to go.” Because what I did — and I, I warned him ahead of time!

Like, “Look, I love D&D. I think D&D is great. I play it on a regular basis, but it’s not in my classroom, by design and with the, with the consent of my students. Here’s all of the games that I teach. Here’s the games that I introduced to my, you know, eight year old nephew and his little sister who is five.”

You know, here’s the world beyond, right? And the same kind of critiques that I just talked about in terms of the D&D in the classroom handouts. And so this was a surprise to the journalist because everyone else who had been put in touch with him to talk about this subject feels beholden to D&D as the making and the establishing of their career. Like, their brands are tied. Like, so many people in the space. And it’s uncompletely understandable, right? D&D — like, the number of Twitch streams that use Dungeons and Dragons as a label even if they’re not playing D&D, because It is a Kleenex type term, right?

At Polygon, I can guarantee you Critical Role or Dimension 20 — or not Dimension 20. Critical Role or Dungeons and Dragons will end up in either the title or either the headline or the, like, lead-in to any piece in order to — you know, if I could do Baldur’s Gate, I guess that would probably also function, in a similar kind of way.

But yeah, I mean, because that’s what’s gonna, you know, the algorithm privileges those. Which is irritating, right? Like if I wrote, if I started writing about Pathfinder, it would be like, you know, “D&D rival does blah, blah, blah,” right? 

[00:14:04] Navaar: I was literally thinking that in my brain. I was like, yeah, I could see this exactly going this way. 

[00:14:08] Em: Yeah, you can imagine the headline! And, you know, for something like Polygon, you do it because you know, hopefully some people do click through and go, “Oh, well, here’s this whole other world.” But on a kind of just looking at search engine results, it kind of reinforces the cycle.

And this is true also, I should note, in scholarship. Scholarship assumes, you know, a d20 system in many cases. And often it does assume, you know, specifically Dungeons and Dragons. And that’s less… that’s ebbing. But we are here in the year of the 50th quote unquote anniversary according to John Peterson, and thus we fall in line.

And so it is in people’s…

 In the same way that like I’m watching with increasing horror as many of my colleagues who are digital humanists find it useful for their careers and for their ability to communicate with the public like, to add AI as a word to their talk. And God knows that I would probably end up having to do that if I was active in that particular part of the field, which only just kind of, you know, replicates the idea that quote unquote artificial intelligence — which, friends, is artificial indeed, but is actually extremely human based and it is not intelligent at all!– but is that AI is something that we all have to pay attention to? Which I don’t think we actually do. But that is a rant for a different day. But yeah, so it’s it’s frustrating the ways in which, you know, there was a piece in Vox the other day about how we all have to be brands.

[00:15:40] Em: And we all have to kind of think about our self-presentation in that kind of way, unless we’re Tracy Chapman, in which case our body of work stands for ourselves and we can rock onto the Grammys whenever we want, moisturized and unbothered. 

But for the rest of us normal mortals, who are trying to build readerships and communicate effectively, we’re bound to these algorithms we don’t understand, and we have these kinds of, you know, terminology creeps and all kinds of things that really are, a bugbear. Or, are there bugbears in Pathfinder? Um, haha. uh, insert, uh, I think that’s actually a legally not distinct, uh — 

[00:16:19] Navaar: I don’t know! There’s hobgoblins… 

[00:16:20] Em: — bad guy. I don’t think that’s IP that belongs to anyone. I think that’s, that’s open. But yeah, so it’s — this is the thing we all juggle as we try to do different kinds of work. 

Replicating the Success of Big Name Actual Plays

[00:16:31] Navaar: Yeah. I do want to go back just real quick to the Ranger thing, because I was thinking about this and my first NPC I ever made was a Ranger. And he was, I think, at Level 3. And I made him so that he, uh, had another feat that gave him an extra Ranger feat, which allowed him to not only be good at shooting — using two swords — but also have a familiar, which then made me have the options of, how do I use this in combat?

So I’m just saying, yes, Rangers are great. I don’t know how, like, simple it is when you, like, break it down. But I think, like, again, these options are incredible. But yeah, to kind of go back to more of the current conversation, you’ve brought up a lot of things that I think we’re very interested in.

And typically, you of course study all this stuff with games in general, but Actual Play is the other big thing. Esther recently on the show asked me if I wanted to have a big Pathfinder podcast. 

And all I could think about as I was answering the question was you! And so — because, because I, I just think about like conversations that you and I have had, both like recorded and unrecorded about just like, what is the world of big Actual pPay?

How possible is it for somebody to just like, pick up and do the Critical Role thing? Which, I know that there’s a whole lot of nuance to that. You know, but like how easy is it for somebody to come in and go World-Beyond-Numbers-style, we’re just going to become the 5th, 3rd, 4th, whatever biggest podcast in the world when it comes to this specific hobby?

And I just don’t know how possible that is unless it’s, you know, a Brennan, an Aabria, and a Lou and a Erika, like making another podcast. But anyway! So to kind of just like load that gun, APs, education, combining those two things. 

[00:18:28] Em: I mean, so, the first thing I try to communicate to folks — and you’ve, I think you’ve heard me say this before, probably not to you, because I think you know this better than, than most — but certainly like, I feel like a non-trivial part of my time at Big Bad Con was like delivering this kind of news in person. Which is, you know, first of all, Critical Role in the year of our whatever 2023 can’t do what Critical Role did in 2015. Like full stop.

To the extent that we are able to understand their workflow, which is to say almost not at all, because it is is not in their interest to be transparent in the ways, for example, Dimension 20 is. It’s not part of their understanding of their brand. And Critical Role is more likely than most, as the biggest player in the scene, to be criticized for breathing.

I’m shocked — today, the Critical Role Foundation was praised on socials by Shanti Bhavan, Ajit George’s kind of school, for a visit from much of the cast of Critical Role. I’m surprised that hasn’t turned ugly in some unforeseeable way up till now, and it might still. So this is all to say we don’t — I don’t have any insider knowledge on to how Critical Role works, any more than anybody else. But what we do know is that it, whatever its workflow is, it can still be disrupted by illness.

There was a recent sick day where basically they had to have an entirely improvised livestream of Baldur’s Gate character creation rather than air what would have already been pre-recorded material. So we know that there’s at least points in their production cycle where it’s too close to air, where things can fall apart.

It is not quite the well-oiled machine of a bunch of people recording in a basement that hallmarks Dimension 20. Which is all to say that Critical Role’s figuring out what sustainable means for them, in relationship to their stuff. Dimension 20 seems to have a reasonably decent workflow, so does Worlds Beyond Number.

They, like many shows now, do batch recording. Which, when you have a large enough production going that talent is not doing the same labor that production is — you have full-time production to keep stuff kind of chugging out — talent meets in a concentrated amount of time to do the raw recording and then can go off and do the other kinds of things.

And that seems to function. 

That said, there’s — none of the big shows started without some kind of supportive capital, be it personal capital, be it the backing of something like Geek and Sundry or Dropout or Beyond. Even on the podcast side, that tends to be true; if not at the very beginning, the initial podcast production almost becomes like a pilot before a network picks it up. That’s the story, right, behind Three Black Halflings. That’s the story, behind actually most Headgum podcasts, except for their most recent one, which is the next subject of a salty review by me coming behind a walled garden to my site sometime this month.

But yeah, so when I think about Actual Play, there’s a couple of things that I think about. One is that there is a non-zero number of people who believe that no one should be paid for any aspect of tabletop roleplaying including Actual Play. So there are people who believe, very sincerely, that they should not be paid.

And this is not audience-upon-creator. These are creators who believe very strongly that they do not want the constraints of capital on their work. And there are more constraints from capital than there were in the 2010s. One of the things that was fascinating to me originally about this form was the ways in which it is able to elude a lot of the pressures of big media.

But there’s now, especially with the Ambitious Middle or even some of the bigger shows — not all. I think Dimension 20 and Critical Role are able to keep their own sense of their artistic vision for better, worse, and neutral. But, you know, if your show is basically sponsored by Chaosium, like say, The Bookstores and now the Graveyards of Arkham, that’s ceding some creative control in terms of what the final product is.

One of the things that my current research student, who I think you both got to meet at Big Bad Con, Carson Barnes, and I are working on is a new survey. A new year, a new survey! And a survey specifically asking folks about these kinds of, like, commercial and authorship terms. 

Like, do you see yourself as the owner of intellectual property? Do you see yourself as contributing to work for hire? All those kinds of questions. Because we are in a changing moment in relationship to how people think about these things. And some people have very — like I think about, Hamnah’s relationship to their work in terms of what Gudiya was supposed to do.

Gudiya was not supposed to make a gajillion dollars for that team. It was supposed to be a work of art that communicated something. And hopefully, like, if it could break even through grants or through some other kind of you know, mild monetization, hey, great. Like, and it’s sponsored by Roll and all those sorts of things.

But it’s not trying to be their full-time job in the way that other projects are. And so I think there’s a scale of, where does this fit in your creative life? And what’s striking to me is if you’re talking about the people who are closest to the like, the dream — your Matt Mercer’s, your Brennan Lee Mulligan’s — this was not the plan.

And this is not the current lived reality, right? This is not their full-time job. It is one job among many. It happens to be — it may be, in some cases, the most lucrative part of their work. But it may not be. It may be the loss leader. It may be the thing that, you know, gives them exposure in a weird kind of way.

But then you see this tier of, you know, what I’ve been calling the Ambitious Middle all over the place, of folks who believe that it’s possible to get to what in the history of TTRPGs has never been possible, which — or has rarely been possible — which is the making of either Actual Play or tabletop roleplaying games your full-time job.

Very few people have managed to do it,. And you’ve got people like Meguey Baker saying, “It’s not worth trying. Get a day job, you know, that allows your brain to explore and have this on the side as the thing that fills your cup so that you both have health insurance and, and the kind of, you know, room of one’s own that allows you to do the work.”

Now, I don’t have good answers. I’m just a dum-dum in the ivory tower. But I do see this kind of constellation of different attitudes towards making this stuff, and some of them seem more tethered to an understanding of the possibilities and the history of this, of this space, and others that seem less moored in… objective reality. Precedent! Let’s put it — I mean, precedent’s really hard, right? And when you have the, like, greatest storytellers, or the biggest storytellers in the space, not telling the full story of the circumstances of their own production, you have a real challenge when, you know, folks coming in think, “Well, I want to be the next Critical Role.”

And while they say, you know, we hope other people will surpass us — and I think Matt is sincere when he says that’s his goal — it’s not going to be in the same way. And it’s not going to look the same. Technology is changing. All these kinds of things are changing all the time. We don’t know what it looks like next, and we don’t know what the pathway is. But anybody who’s trying to replicate past success is in big trouble if what they want is that outcome.

This has been your sermon of the evening from the Reverend Doc. No, I am not the Revered Dr. Friedman. Um, but, this is. 

[00:27:22] Navaar: It doesn’t take much, just go online, I’ve done it, I’m a reverend! 

[00:27:27] Em: Yeah, I haven’t had to marry anybody! But no, it’s very interesting. This is a conversation that happened the other day.

This is academic hiring season at the time of this recording. It’s also academic graduation and acceptance period for, for graduate school. And so you have a lot of people who are, whose hearts are hurting. And hurt people say things on the internet, and my job is to let that go or take the lesson from it.

And one of them is, you know, the person who gets the academic job or gets into graduate school and is like, “There’s for all the people who didn’t believe in me!” It’s like, I wonder how many of the people this person spoke to, I wonder how many of them truly did not believe in this person and their ability to do the thing that they’ve done. And how many of them were looking at the like, strewn broken bodies of all the people who had tried, and wanted either this person to be aware of those risks in the same way that we tell, like, actors, right, you’re, you’re going to have a day job, and it’s going to be grunt work and, you know, auditioning is going to be your actual job, you know? All those kinds of things. 

But yeah, how do we as mentors say the thing I just said, which is like, “This is hard, it’s not gonna look — success is not gonna look the way it has in the past. The world’s on fire.” And not have it kind of get filtered through to the recipient of the communication as, “You don’t believe in me. You want me to fail. You think I can’t do it for whatever reason.” Which is not the case at all. It’s more, look, this system? None of us know the answer to how to navigate it. This is, this is the current thing that keeps me up at night, for sure.

On Critical Reading, Source Materials, and Actual Play

[00:29:10] Esther: I have a question that I think is related in some ways and may may feel like a bit of a tangent in others, and it requires a bit of setup. So on the show, we frequently review Pathfinder products, either technical manuals or their more like worldbuilding guides in the Lost Omens line.

And one of the things that has been really striking to me is approaching these works critically and thinking critically about them, and how it feels like that’s still relatively rare in this field. And so I’m curious as a scholar of narrative, to ask you, like, why does it matter to approach source books critically? And why does it matter to approach Actual Play and that kind of narrative and storytelling more critically and more analytically?

[00:30:04] Em: On one level, it doesn’t, right? Is the very short answer. And this is something that I think about a lot. In some ways, for some things, criticism is not something that the object can bear, right? If you are putting out a Actual Play that is a product placement, and that is its goal, then maybe it’s too much to critique the choices made. Because that’s irrelevant to the goal. The creators will not appreciate it and the people consuming it won’t find it useful. And I think that’s also true with printed material, right? And this is the constant, like, debate. I mean, Evan Torner knows this much better than I do.

And this is really big in LARP as well. Like that’s the current kerfuffle going on in Nordic LARP, is like what does it mean to review a LARP, given that no one person has a 360 view of what it was, let alone what it fits in like the larger history of LARP? And there was a piece that Evan just shared with me that came out that was entitled, “This LARP is Terrible and You Should Know,” which was basically, like, promoting, like, yes, criticism is one kind of thing, but so is reviewing in terms of the like, Yelp review? Like, LARPs need Yelp reviews, uh, in ways that they don’t have. I digress slightly. 

But this kind of, what is criticism specifically for? Is something that’s very much on my mind. And why am I not doing hardcore criticism in Polygon, where I’m sure I could get clicks? And Charlie would probably let me at least try? Versus what I’m doing, which is building it behind a kind of subscriber, free, walled garden for people I think of as people of goodwill, who either are curious about the form and its history or who are trying to make the form and are artistically ambitious. Not just ambitious in terms of “I want to be famous,” or “I want this thing to do well,” but “I want to do this thing well.” Present company included, right? And so in that sense, what criticism does — and obviously I’ve devoted my entire life to the notion that literary criticism does this — is make it so that we understand and have a vocabulary for what this individual thing is, what it was trying to do, according to the terms of its own construction, and how well or not it achieves it.

And so it’s irrelevant what — although it can sometimes come what the critic thinks of it or whether they like it — what’s important is: is it fulfilling the, the contract that it wants to be? The example I’ve been trotting out recently is, I’m very glad that The Real Housewives and D&D exists.

I don’t need it. I mean, it’s fine. I think it’s done well for what it is. I don’t, it’s not my particular, you know, form of “this is the Actual Play I need to be listening to.” But it fulfills a particular niche, right? And it reaches a new audience. Somebody, you know, people who are big Real Housewives nerds, welcome! It’s D&D. Have a fantasy version. 

It’s clever and it, and then we can think about, okay, so how’s the sound design? And, you know, what’s the pacing like? And how does it, you know, and, and — what we don’t yet have and what this experiment on my site is trying to do is figure out, okay, so what are those like… when we talk about pacing, what are we looking for?

Do we have an agreement on, you know, how quickly we should be getting into story in an actual play? And of course, that’s very dependent on, video versus audio, all edited versus not. And of course, part of what we have to do is take things in their particular kind of format and not compare apples to oranges to pears. And so this is the kind of work that I’m trying to do. 

And in terms of supplements, I think it gets stickier. Because with TTRPGs — as opposed to the art objects that come out of them, which are Actual Plays — we are in a very different kind of reviewing space. One, almost all reviewers don’t play… don’t playtest the material that they write about. A notable exception is Quinten Smith’s new Quinn’s Quest, which has a explicit — although it’s behind a Patreon paywall, but I’m just gonna share here — an explicit goal of convincing people to play literally anything other than Dungeons Dragons. And Quinn’s has spent the last two years playtesting games with his home game group.

He is committed to, there will be no review that he does that won’t have been him running the game. That’s rare. And it’s really important as part of reviewing because then you know actually how it played. Now, at the same time, we almost always futz and tinker, right? No game supplement, no game adventure, no game materials survive contact with actual flesh and blood human beings.

And this is that we’ve long known in game studies is, you know, that that’s the difficult variable. It’s like, how much is the supplement, the campaign guide, the adventure, whatever, giving you to work with? And how much are you bringing to it? And there is not a good answer to that part, honestly.

But I do think that the, the move towards encouraging people to play before they speak is really useful. And so what I’m hoping is that Quinn’s will do for tabletop roleplaying game reviews what he did for the last over a decade for board game reviews. So it’s not just him, but now there’s an entire style of board game reviewers, which means they can cover more ground and review more games because there’s more people playing and thinking about them in those kinds of ways.

So if we turn the discourse away from one person’s, like, just churning out hot takes about everything, but instead saying look, Quinn’s new channel –at the time of this recording, it’s been less than a week since he announced this channel.

It already has almost 30,000 subscribers, almost 100, 000 views on the first, that first review. That’s better than many other media outlets and tabletop that have a lot more content and have been going around for a lot, a lot longer. And this is a guy who sells out board games. I do this reviewing work because of the inspiration of Quinten Smith.

I came into this space because of Shut Up and Sit Down. And so I am looking to what he’s doing to, as kind of what I’m hoping will be the model going forward. But yeah, it’s really hard. Especially when it’s not the full game system, but you’re talking about you know, trying to unpack what an individual supplement is doing, for sure.

[00:37:34] Navaar: Yeah. You touch on something about the promise. So, a lot of people know this — I guess the people that talk to me — my game design mentor is Quinn Murphy. And he has a blog, and he talked about recently, about what can make a quality game that’s like, measurable. And promise is one of the things. Does it, like, deliver on the promise? 

Consistency. Are multiple people having a, a consistent kind of game? It’s not gonna be the same game, of course, but are we having a consistent experience of how we understand? And economy. You should read it. It’s called Imagination is for Everyone.”

Yeah. But all that said, I think it’s one of those things where… I think about this a lot as a person who recently like, designed and had a game published, and a person who recently produced and released an Actual Play. 

[00:38:23] Em: And it sounds very lovely, by the way, Navaar. 

[00:38:25] Navaar: Thank you. Thank you. And I want people to listen to and tell me all their thoughts about the Actual Play. And I’m very excited for that. And I also want people to play the game, but I’m more reticent about what that review of the game looks like.

In the reviews that I’ve seen, there’s always this, it seems to be that there’s oftentimes a part of the people that they just can’t get out of themselves that goes into the review, that has nothing or very little to do with what actually you did. I do think that game design is artistic, it’s an art form. But I also think that there’s like, it’s a technical skill as well. 

[00:39:02] Em: Mm hmm. 

[00:39:03] Navaar: Is the game functional, right? Yes, you have your themes and your creative ideas, but is the game functional? And a lot of times that’s the, the core of the review is, is this game functional?

Like, yeah, this is cool. This is really cool ideas over here– 

[00:39:15] Em: Right. 

[00:39:15] Navaar: –but this game doesn’t play…

[00:39:16] Em: That’s the stuff that it’s easy to identify without playing it. 

[00:39:20] Navaar: Right. 

[00:39:21] Em: And I think what’s, what’s interesting is, you know I think about Candela, ’cause Candela kind of ate my brain as a critic, ’cause it kept coming up in conversation. Because I had to like, mainline that quick start guide alongside the Actual Play.

And having run that opening adventure and having watched the Candela Actual Plays, none of which follow the game as-written, including the one run by Spencer — Spencer Stark and his two friends all each ran a three-episode chapter of Candela and not a damn one of them– I think Aabria arguably got the closest in terms of like, the one of the hallmarks of, of Candela is a five-to- seven-minute functional cinematic that the storyteller, the GM, reads out. It is a narrativized version of what the players of the Candela circle have been told as kind of the info dump about the phenomenon.

But it is a very weird like, the camera is moving and seeing things that, quite honestly, it would be impossible, but it’s somehow an eyewitness account. Fascinating, uh, strategy. Matt Mercer turns it into a roleplaying opportunity with one of the characters, so it becomes personal and becomes the kind of origin point for one of the characters. And Spencer just functionally all but throws it out because he starts in medias res and then like, starts over again with yet another adventure. Which is all to say that one of the things that’s really interesting to me about, you know, that consistency of experience rate is which parts are consistent.

‘Cause if, you know, this incredibly, what seems to be an important part of the structure of Candela, its designers even kind of eschew — or, you know, kind of warp to their purposes — it’s a good reminder. And I also think about the ways in which, you know, For The Queen is foundational to my tabletop class and the number of ways I’ve seen that game, you know, not deliver a consistent experience to players! And that’s part of one of the, you know, charms of that game. 

To tie it to Actual Play– and not to do an on-air critique of your Actual Play when you weren’t expecting it — but one of the things I will say that listening to your episode reminded me of — but it wasn’t the only show that reminded me of this by a country mile! But it reminded me that depending on the rule system, rules can become much less legible to an audience, especially if they’re not already familiar with them, unless you’re really pedagogically like front-loading them. And that goes kind of double in an edited audio format. And that’s not a bad thing. It’s, it’s just a thing, right? It’s just a reality of the form is that, you know, people ask me like, why is D&D dominant?

And like, one, it’s Kleenex. And two, if you are playing D&D, then you have the advantage of adding, in addition to the reality TV show layer and the improvised story layer, sportsball. Right? Like, you now have stats you can track, you can imagine alternate moves in addition to alternate character choices, and, you know, all of those sorts of things.

And other systems can have the element of chance! And I think it’s very important for Actual Play to have the very visible or audible element of chance so that the audience can understand the ways it could have gone differently, and also so that we have the kind of liberatory narrative possibility of it not following the traditional genre scripts in interesting kinds of ways. 

Other people disagree with me. Travis from Dark Dice is twitching somewhere. But yeah, so I think that’s one of the things that is quite striking to me. We don’t have — as like scholars who have debated this for decades, and I’m coming late to the conversation where scholars and designers and folks have been having this fight about, you know, what is a game? You know, what makes a good game? You know, how do you know? How do you evaluate? All of those sorts of things. Which only matter in a time of scarcity, right? Either of time, of money, of resources, in those kinds of ways– 

[00:44:08] Navaar: yeah. 

[00:44:08] Em: –I think. 

Intentionality and Actual Play

[00:44:10] Navaar: It’s interesting, because I know what you’re talking about. And that was an intentional thing, right? Like, I think we’ve — you talked about this before, about the way that Actual Plays can be these different things. Like some people think, still, that Actual Play is only recording the game that you played, right? That is like, for playtesting purposes or whatever. And then we have like, I saw somebody put out on Twitter what they want to see more in Actual Plays, what people want to see more. And everybody’s like, “Please, like, give me all the roles and, like, all the things.

[00:44:38] Em: Do you? Do you really… all of them? 

[00:44:41] Navaar: Not everybody thinks that’s interesting or listenable. And I made a choice to say that I’m not going to teach you how to play this game. If you find it interesting and you want to play the game, I think that’s amazing. And I will help you, if you’re not a weirdo. And by that I mean, like, actually being a creepy person. 

[00:44:58] Em: Sure, sure. 

[00:44:59] Navaar: Um, but, I think that the design of it is that it’s for entertainment. I know specifically that that is like a subset of, of the Actual Play. And I think it’s… we talked about this in our last recording.

I don’t know if it’s going to be the last episode based on when these things release, but in our last recording that Esther and I did, we talked about intentionality and Actual Play and like ,what that looks like. So I know what you mean. I’m sure there’s going to be people who are like, “I don’t understand how to play your game, though.” And I’m like, “That’s great! I get that, but did you have fun listening to it? ‘Cause that’s what you’re here for at this moment. It’s just the story this time. If you want to play the game, then I think that’s wonderful.”

So I know that I… yeah, it’s one of those things. Like I think it’s a, it’s an interesting gamble. But I think like, to kind of tie it into the conversation in that same way, if we were to say like, “Cool, somebody make a like, big time TTRPG celebrity Pathfinder Actual Play,” I think they’d have to play and demonstrate rules or else it just, it’s gonna lose its quote unquote Pathfinder polish, I guess.

Like yes, you’re using that subset. But like, it’s… to have it be like the thing that drives people to like, go buy Pathfinder books, it’s going to have to be like a Pathfinder game. And you just can’t ignore that, I don’t… I don’t think, personally. 

[00:46:19] Em: Yeah, I mean, I have not, for many different reasons, good, bad, and petty, spent a lot of time analyzing the Glass Cannon, which of course is the– 

[00:46:32] Navaar: Yeah. 

[00:46:33] Em: –the, you know, the big dog in the space. But yeah, I, I’m curious as to… you know, it is an edit — it is a pretty tightly edited podcast, when it’s a podcast. 

[00:46:48] Navaar: Yeah. 

[00:46:49] Em: But… 

[00:46:49] Navaar: I’ll say this as a person who listened to the entire first season, which was Pathfinder First Edition. 

[00:46:56] Em: Yes. 

[00:46:57] Navaar: They play a lot of like, there’s a lot of rules. I think the only times that they edited out stuff was like when it was like a 40-minute like full-on rules fight between the GM and the players of being like, “You got this wrong.”

And then they were just like, you’d get like the beginning of that and then you get the end of that with the result and, and things would move forward. But there was a lot of like, you’d still hear the dice. You’d still, you know, get like all of their, you know, the results and all those other things. I haven’t listened to them recently, for the petty and, and the bad. But I will say like, I think that I did check out like 20 minutes of the introduction and the editing seemed the same. And I was like, okay. 

[00:47:35] Em: Well, and I think — and they’re an unusual case in the sense that they’re nominally independent, but they do have a licensing agreement with Paizo. And I do know, right, they’re using, like… it’s weird, right? They have the ability to use, like, Adventure Paths and things like that from Paizo. They also, as I understand it, have a whole bunch of like, weird homebrew and stuff.

But yeah, it’s… it’s… 

[00:48:02] Navaar: Yeah. It’s like, it’s one of those things like you can’t talk about the history of Actual Play with and exclude Glass Cannon because in terms of like, coming from not having financial backing to like, being independent as a company, they’re one of the few. 

[00:48:18] Em: They are one of the few. Although they’re comparatively… I won’t say late, but like, they’re not firsties, right?

Like, if you’re talking about an Actual Play that has a, has a licensing agreement with a publisher and is quite large, then you’re talking about Penny Arcade’s relationship with Wizards of the Coast for Acquisitions Incorporated. If you’re talking about a podcast network that is built on Actual Play primarily, then I think you’re probably talking about Glass Cannon.

There are a couple of others that can make those kinds of claims. Yeah, I mean, and this is the kind of not-joys of Actual Play history, is how many of the firsties, or near firsties, or people who will send me angry emails when I don’t mention them but would not like it if I did, are kind of…

I mean, so we’ve been dancing around the petty. But like, let’s, the, the two frames of Glass Cannon’s critique are of course, this time last year — or not last year.

Uh, no, it wasn’t the OGL. It was the, during the Screen Actors Guild Strike and the Writers Guild Strike in the summer. The Glass Cannon, who could have kept their mouths shut because they are not covered by SAG as most Actual Plays are not, chose instead, to have one of their cast owners go on the record to say that they were glad that they were not unionized.

Now, it should be noted that there are other creators in the space who I admire a great deal, who believe very strongly, right, unionization is the next best thing to owning something yourself, right? You could absolutely frame such a comment as collective worker ownership — for example, the way that Maximum Fun has moved to a worker-owned collective — you know, is the highest ideal.

That is — that was not the, that was not the terms under which this was being discussed. Uh, it’s also worth noting that the Glass Cannon is not a worker-owned collective. They have employees. So no, they actually — even if they had gone that route, then it would have been like, so when are you going to have a worker-owned collective?

I digress. The other sticking point is that Glass Cannon shows so far have not moved the needle on their casting practices in any meaningful way. Which is to say that you can pretty much, for any of the shows that they produce, anticipate that there will be one person of color, one female identified person, and then the rest will be cisgender white men.

And that’s a choice. It’s a choice that seems to be working for them. It is antithetical to my choice for Polygon coverage. You either have to be so large and so impactful — for example, Natural 6 got coverage because they’re a bunch of video game folks. Uh, I think there is room to critique if they blow up. The fact that they have chosen to follow the Critical Role playbook in this The Year of Our Lord 2023 -24 while intentionally remaining a group of all-white friends… and that’s not something that really flies anymore in the space.

But they’re… it’s a big enough project that at least gets some lip service. Also, if you get grandfathered in, right? Your Critical Roles and things of that ilk. And it’s worth noting that most of the things that would be officially grandfathered in under that kind of policy of “we would like to do more representative coverage,” are in turn trying in different kinds of ways to have more representative casts.

And we could go on all day about how Critical Role’s very notion of cast ownership makes it difficult for them to have new full-time cast members, because then they’re not owners and then you have a two-tiered system and that seems weird. So they — Critical Role in this, as in many things, has themselves in a dilly of a pickle.

This is a long way of saying: Glass Cannon? Kind of annoying in their choices. And it’s a bummer that they’re the most visible Pathfinder… not just show, but right? It’s like this whole extended universe of material. And that’s the thing that’s also wild to me about where we are is, in terms of Actual Play, is it’s very hard for there to be criticism in a form where people don’t watch their own work, let alone that of others.

Because we are talking about the production of, for especially things that are very large, a kind of constant stream of material. So that you basically overwhelm your audience so that they live in your ecosystem forever, because that is the way to retain valuable viewer engagement in all kinds of ways. Which is antithetical to thinking about any one thing as a, you know, as a work of intentional art. Some people do manage it, but not, not all.

[00:53:31] Esther: I’m like, I don’t know if they listen to the show, but hello, Glass Cannon people! If you listen to the show, um… 

[00:53:37] Em: Yeah. Call in. Call, calling in. Call in. 

[00:53:41] Esther: We invite you… 

[00:53:44] Em: You could do better. 

[00:53:46] Esther: We invite you to do better.

[00:53:48] Em: Yeah. You tour all over! Imagine what houses you could book if you looked different. 

[00:53:54] Navaar: Yeah. It’s, it’s an interesting thing. 

[00:53:56] Em: And what’s frustrating is like people who, uh, whose work I very much admire are in the Glass Cannon kind of extended universe. 

[00:54:04] Navaar: Yeah. 

[00:54:04] Em: That’s the other kind of difficult thing is like, you can’t blame anybody for taking a gig.

[00:54:08] Navaar: Yeah. For getting paid. 

[00:54:12] Em: Yeah. ‘Cause paying gigs are — well, one hopes they’re being paid, and being paid sufficiently. I have no knowledge one way or the other. I do sometimes hear about pay rates and things like that, but I have, I do not have any particular knowledge there. 

Diversity, Inclusion, and Actual Play

[00:54:29] Navaar: It’s a whole thing. It’s a whole thing, Glass Cannon Podcast. I mean, it’s one of those things, I think that we all have that like… I talk a lot about this, especially with like, my friends, other friends who are, are people of color, of like, we all have that show that we started out with that was an all-white show.

A lot of people, it’s Critical Role. Some people it’s NADDPod. Some people it’s Adventure Zone. Some people it’s Glass Cannon. But I think like one of the things that we can do, even if there is like not that mega show, right? I think… I think Actual Play is important, hands down. And I think that like finding other shows to listen to that, that need your listen and your view more than a show that has, you know, 60, 000 concurrent viewers or whatever the hell…

If you care about this as a art form and as entertainment, like it’s important for us to help feed into it as well when we can. And even if you can’t catch a stream by catching VODs, listening to podcasts, like rating and supporting shows, telling people that you enjoy their work, those kinds of things like seem — not like insignificant, but they actually matter a lot to people who are working their asses off to make something with the hope that somebody will listen to it and enjoy it. So… 

[00:55:43] Em: Yeah, I mean, I think that the tricky part, right, is that we are still talking about entertainment. Right? And so one of the challenges, and this is, you know, kind of the ouroboros of — this is the, you know, snake eating its own tail kind of challenge — is that we also see in the kind of… there was a recent piece on the video game industry, right?

If you have a woman-led, or even a woman on the lead team — to say nothing of people of color in the leadership team — you’re far less likely to get venture capital money. And so we’re talking about the combination of inherited wealth, generational wealth, in terms of some members, uh, you know, of different collectives on top of the kinds of looks-like-me kinds of support funding structures. And so the kinds of high quality, like, and time-intensive kind of production choices are more accessible to certain positionalities. And I think — I appreciate that in some cases that’s changing. Like DesiQuest is a good example of this, right? Because if you look at who’s who’s on the backstage of that?

It’s Michael Schabach, who’s been directing Dimension20 since the beginning. It’s Ash Minnick, who’s basically a project manager on a whole bunch of different kind of shows and, and production coordinator, and different kinds of roles. And so, I think one of the, the things that I think about that I don’t have a good answer to is, because we don’t have a kind of pipeline or avenues for getting those kinds of resources to smaller shows, more representative shows — especially because the big publishers, for one, are either cheap as hell — Wizards– or not as big as you’d think they are, everybody else, including Paizo.

Advertising budgets don’t necessarily stretch to the kinds of productions that are at the forefront. It’s more possible in audio to create something through sheer just throwing hours at it than on the video side, which is why it’s always– which is why it’s wild to me when folks do livestreaming video, like the, as their primary focus. It’s like, I mean, go with God, but like, that is a very different kinds of, um set of expectations and all kinds of things.

And I know that there are a non- insignificant number of kind of journalists and media writers and things like that who, if it’s not Critical Role, if you’re an unedited video-first, streaming Actual Play, you’re not – first of all, they’re not watching Critical Role, they’re checking on recaps and things like that, just like everybody else.

But, more importantly, that’s just not the place that’s getting media attention. Podcasts? Much more likely. Edited material? Much more likely. Edited video is the most resource- intensive of all of those options. Live video is no joke! And I don’t want to downplay the amount of labor, but it’s definitely far less labor. 

And so it’s hard to know like, as somebody who’s like, bringing people into the medium and trying to point people in places where I know like, that their imagination’s gonna get caught and run with… 

Part of it is, if you want to build a small audience and find your people, then that’s a very different lift than, “I want this to be financially sustainable,” especially depending on the different production asks.

And so I think about that a lot. Because I believe very strongly that every encounter with an Actual Play and an audience member becomes a certain kind of love story, right? I also know that a small, passionate, devoted audience base can be enough for certain kinds of things. And we have a long history in like, the history of the world– I do not normally go since the dawn of time, but the vast majority of human history and art is not about millions of people watching or reading or seeing your stuff. 

 I study the 18th-century novel. I can pull out of a database the number of copies of say, Jane Austen, published in her lifetime. We are talking about thousands. Not tens of thousands, not hundreds of thousands, not millions.

Now, granted… now, absolutely. And she was impactful on the basis of thousands of copies. Now, that’s also because of power and literacy rates and who’s reading. But so much of the history of art is about something that’s made for a small group, and some of them become of interest to people in power, and power imagined in different kinds of ways.

But if all of us are chasing millions, then we’re gonna water down what we do to nothing. And if we expect that something that is — to use the old term from the 90s, “for us, by us” — is going to be uptaken by the masses in a kind of charitable giving situation, I don’t think that’s going to happen. And so then what do we do with that?

And I… for some reason when I’m thinking about kind of DesiQuest, is one of their visual ways of splitting the difference. Which is, that table unapologetically uses Bengali terms and other terms, um, from the Indian subcontinent. And then there’s a lower third that’s like, if your honky ass doesn’t know what this is, then here, have the quick explainer. We’re not gonna stop and explain for you. We’ve delegated to post-production because we can — as a kind of having it both ways. And then they’re also using like — I really found it really fascinating when I saw their TikToks. Their TikToks are all tagged Indian Comedy, not Indian Actual Play. But like, they’re trying to pull in that broader audience. So not the subset of folks who are identified as South Asian already in the TTRPG space, but instead falling beyond. And I think… that’s one of the things that I think a lot about, is: how do we pull in the larger part of our communities, that aren’t aware of TTRPGs, into this space? Because then you’ve got something approaching critical mass or, you know, the Thousand Loyal Fans concept or something along those lines.

And Actual Play, then, has to change. And it has to change, I think, in interesting ways for different audiences, right? If you were designing an Actual Play for Black Twitter, for the old livetweeting kind of vibe of Black Twitter at its height, you would make different kinds of stylistic choices than, say, if you were thinking structurally about what does it mean to make a kind of, you know, telenovela, sort of Actual Play. And I think people are trying to do that. I’m seeing it all the time.

I think that we are so married to so many of the structures that we’ve inherited from the early days, in terms of what the screen should look like or how things should sound or that sort of thing, that the kind of experimentation that could kind of be truly transformative is not happening. 

So like the other day on Twitter, I asked: are you trying to reach a new audience beyond TTRPGs with your show? If so, what are you trying to do? And almost everybody was like, “we explain the rules.” And I’m like, okay, so that means somebody that, that means somebody who doesn’t know TTRPGs will understand what you’re doing once they’re there, but they’re still coming in because they’re presumably — unless you’re tricking them in some kind of way, in which case I want to know how you’re tricking them, 

[01:04:30] Navaar: [laughs] Yeah.

[01:04:31] Em: You know, and they’re — I get into fights that are not fights with Brian and, Elliot from My First Dungeon, because sometimes they’ll label something in such a way so that it’s not quite Actual Play so that they can get the audio drama audiences in. 

[01:04:47] Navaar: Yeah. 

Innovation and Actual Play

[01:04:47] Em: And I think, you know, in the same way that — and this is 18th-century novel kid speaking again — in the same way that the 18th-century novel originally came out of a whole bunch of other storytelling forms, and in fact was such a duplicate of those forms, that the books all sat on the same shelves and you couldn’t tell which were like, the true criminal histories and which were like the fake ones based on a true story.

You know, Robinson Crusoe, based on a real guy’s story? Total novel. Also really weird novel about like, accounting. And so it’s travel literature, it’s criminal biographies, it’s personal memoirs, it’s secret books of letters, right? And so the novel comes and becomes its own thing first by like, imitating all of these other forms.

And we saw that in the beginning of Actual Play through the kind of Let’s Play format. It’s literally looking like play style, or the kind of audio drama-adjacent kinds of moves. But I think there’s other things that we can do. I personally, like — Encounter Party was not made for me. But Encounter Party is doing this, right?

It’s edited by a production team that has most of its experience in reality television shows. The pitch is, what if D&D was edited like Masterchef? It’s finding an audience!

[01:06:14] Navaar: Yeah. 

[01:06:15] Em: I mean, and it’s squirreled away on the D&D Fast channel. You kinda have to go looking for it. 

But I think there’s ways in which we can push the form further. What do shows that don’t already have you know, a bunch of money rolling in — what do they have to lose to experiment? To try something out for a couple of episodes and see, what if we try telling this in a different kind of way?

You know, what if we take the things that we love not just for thematic grist for the mill, but for structural grist for the mill in terms of storytelling? And what if we unapologetically made something that’s for whatever communities we feel like we’re not just representing, but talking to?

What if you didn’t care what my white lady ass thought? I would eat that up with a spoon. Not that anybody cares about that, but like, I think that’s where the new stuff will come in. ‘Cause like, I get so many pitches in my inbox of people telling me like, “We’re all friends!” Like, congratulations, you like your coworkers. The bar is on the floor for that. 

Or I get, you know, “We’re playing a new system.” Like, okay, but are you playing a new system in an interesting way? And also it’s not a new system! Whatever system you’ve mentioned to me has been — or you know, “We’re rotating the cast.” And I’m like, you mean like Rotating Heroes did and does?

If you start from the assumption that everything under the sun has been done and that that’s not going to make you interesting, and if you start from the idea that we are in a beautiful time of not a predominance of — aside from the old guard. Like, new shows coming in, generally speaking, can say with authority that they are either BIPOC- concentrated-representative. And this is an overwhelmingly queer form, so like, congratulations, your cast is queer. Again, bar on floor. But, the cast — 

[01:08:18] Navaar: It’s one of those, it’s like, it’s like — it’s like bad audio. Like, we don’t care unless, unless you make it apparent that you didn’t have any people of color and you didn’t have any people that are queer in your show. Then we care. We expect it to be the normal thing. 

[01:08:29] Em: Exactly. And so, so none of those things are bad. They’re insufficient to get eyes on in a time when there are thousands of these things. And that’s really tricky. 

As I’ve, as we’ve been talking about, you know, I’m not trying to discourage anybody from making something interesting. Because the next person who comes in the space may be the person who, you know, makes the gripping telenovela both in style and in content of Passione de los Pasioneros that we’ve all been dreaming of. 

But at the same time, we’ve overlooked because our timeframe of reference is so short. and I mean: people don’t remember two years ago. And so we think that shows build audiences overnight. And aside from Worlds Beyond Number, they don’t. And Worlds Beyond Number, in turn, isn’t an overnight success. It had been in development for well over a year, and those cast owners had been doing this work, and their producer had been doing this work for years prior to that. And prior to even Dimension 20, Brennan Lee Mulligan has been Dungeon Mastering since he was a child.

He has devoted his life to roleplaying games in one form or another. That’s a lot. 

[01:09:52] Navaar: And have an audience already built in when Dimension 20 arrived! 

[01:09:56] Em: Yeah. ‘Cause Wayfinder, the summer camp that he worked at — works at, is still is affiliated with! There’s going to be a book — I’m not going to write it, but somebody’s going to write this book one day — about the Wayfinder experience and the way it’s been such a cradle for TTRPG.

Because it’s where Jay Dragon of Yazeba’s and Possum Creek more broadly is, you know, kind of, you know, earning their stripes and all kinds of things. But yeah, I mean, roots grow deep in the dark. And I think that it’s a combination of some people who, this is the current hotness for building a kind of visible portfolio of streaming content. Which is valid, understandable, not gonna critique it. But again, not gonna critique it. ‘Cause it is beyond the scope of kind of what we’re talking about when we’re talking about this as an art form. And so you’ve got a fair amount of that. 

But also you do have people who have genuine ambitions, and they don’t know that either rocket fuel was added through money you can’t see or the work was happening for many years in one form or another prior to what seems like the overnight success.

And I think we’re like, we’re used to that in everything else, generally speaking. But, you know, that the Grammy Best New Artist has been a working songwriter in L. A. for decades, but somehow it just, with Actual Play, there’s the sense, there’s always the sense — and it’s also the fault of the media. The Rolling Stone has much to justify for –it discovered actual play this year, having previously written about Actual Play multiple times.

But yeah, so it’s one of the reasons why I keep saying like, this has a history and we need to, to talk about it and write about it. And that it’s two decades old at minimum, not counting the stuff that was happening offline before that. To note that we’ve seen a lot of technological changes, all this kind of stuff, and we’ll see more. 

But it’s hard when the folk — we’re talking about a form that is dominated by people my age, and I am 42. And we’ve got aspirants in the space who are literally half our age. And that’s tricky, right? Because you kind of have… this is completely different worlds, completely different understandings of everything. And neither is wrong or bad, but it’s literally different worlds.

Financial Realities of Career Actual Play 

[01:12:31] Navaar: It’s fascinating to think about. I have quite a few friends that are like, in their early twenties who are just like, this is their thing that they’re going after. And here I am at 35, like… “I enjoy doing this!” Yeah. 

[01:12:44] Em: I think about — Brooke Aaron Duffy wrote a book, which was based on research from like a decade ago, so 2015 to 2018. The book’s called Not Getting Paid to Do What You Love. And it’s a book on mostly Instagram fashion influencers, and then bloggers cause that was when blogs were big. And one of the things that Duffy argues and has argued in their subsequent research, which is still about kind of influencer and content creator culture is: the choices that we’re describing these Gen Z folks making are completely logical in the illogics of late-stage capitalism, right?

If you know that like, if every pathway that allows you to have a creative life is kind of screwed over, why not try? You might as well try while you hold down, you know, whatever job you can get. You know, it’s a rational act, even though it seems — it’s easy to criticize going all in on Actual Play or content creation or something like that as an irrational act. I mean, it’s no less irrational than going to grad school. 

[01:13:50] Navaar: Yeah, literally. 

[01:13:52] Em: It’s just, it’s just differently socially constructed. 

[01:13:55] Navaar: Yeah. 

[01:13:56] Esther: I have a couple thoughts. 

[01:13:57] Em: Yay! 

[01:13:58] Esther: To, to bring it back to Pathfinder. Well, the first one is — like, I think it plugs back into Pathfinder ultimately.

But my first one is, listeners of the show may know that my professional life recently has been in religion and being a clergyperson. And before that I did several things, one of which was run a tiny nonprofit that I had to fundraise for. And many of my, the people I’ve learned a lot from, have talked about this problem of funding in the the space of activism, nonprofits, organizing. And one of my idols in the space, Mariame Kaba, talks a lot on social media about how nobody wants to talk about where the money comes from. And, when I was in grad school, when I was in seminary, we had a guest speaker at one of our symposia. And she has been in the work of organizing for social justice from a religious place for many years, and was asked the question, you know, how is this sustainable? How do we do this long-term? And I will never forget her answer, which was very practical and was like, “I’m going to be real with you. A lot of this work gets sustained through wealthy partners of people who want to do this work.” And it stuck with me because of the realness, because that’s the place through sheer luck I have landed in life, married to a wonderful person whose earning potential is a sickening number of times greater than my own based on our interests.

And I think that I see a lot of parallels with the AP space in just the questions about who has the money, where does the money flow, and how, currently, is this sustainable, and how do we imagine it being sustainable in different ways? 

The other thing I wanted to say is in response to this beautiful musing on the potential of AP as art and, and doing creative things, bringing new ideas and new ways of making this art into the space– one of the critiques I have for Pathfinder APs, including my own, is that I think there isn’t as much of that as I would like to see.

Now, An Unwavering Force is doing amazing things. I like to think Chromythica is doing some cool stuff, but I look at what we have done, and I think, “Oh, there could be even more room to experiment, to do these things that will draw in new audiences!” 

And there are a lot of Pathfinder APs out there that are a lot of white guys. I say that with love to the white guys, the white queers, but there’s a lot of us in the space. And my question to, to all of us, both making and consuming APs, is how can we be opening that and expanding that and not just making more room at a table, but looking to the tables that already exist that are trying to make this art and saying, what can we do to support them and to bring this more to the center, more to folks attention?

So yeah, that, that’s where it took me, just wondering about the future of Pathfinder-specific APs and how they can, how we can construct more experimental art. 

[01:17:23] Em: Yeah, it’s interesting to think about. Choosing targets for support, I think, is, is really, really interesting, precisely because the first thing that flashed through my head as you were talking, right, is like, the differences in the recent crowdfunding campaigns for Actual Plays.

So famously, Wizards of the Coast stops funding Rivals of Waterdeep, famously an all-BIPOC production that had been running a good long time. And its crowdfund does not succeed, and so the show is not able to finish on its own terms. And now, of course, it’s being run on the D&D TV channel, which meant Wizards actually had to go back and pay because they had to pay for TV- acceptable captions. Fun fact! 

And then I think about– one of the things I noticed about the Acquisitions Incorporated TV series crowdfund, which is that something like around a dozen people donated a thousand dollars or more. Their highest tiers were multiple thousands of dollars, which meant that they had an audience. And that’s not surprising, right, given the particular demographics.

It’s an older Actual Play, it’s an Actual Play that’s been fronted — that was originally a bunch of white dudes, not anymore, but has been for, quite some time — that they would have folks with that kind of disposable income to throw around in ways that, you know, other Actual Plays don’t.

You know, we joke about the same five dollars going around to everybody. And that’s definitely one of the challenges once we start talking about art made for smaller segments of a population, and historically less cash rich, either by virtue of the kinds of work that they take or by virtue of their age or by virtue of historical patterns of injustice or things like that.

And that’s a real sticking point. And so either you get the kind of platforming that facilitates that, and so we can think about that part of Worlds Beyond Number is an, is a majority — aside from Brennan and their backstage labor, Taylor Moore — that is a, you know, a BIPOC cast and a queer cast. And they’re able to come to prominence in no small part because of the kind of platforming of, you have seen Aabria on everything. You have seen Erika on everything. Erika is also a video game voice, but like, let’s be honest, it’s Actual Play that makes Erika Ishii visible in these kinds of ways. And Lou Wilson’s, late-night TV show fans are not the ones who are, who are investing in Worlds Beyond Number. 

And so there is a certain amount of that kind of boosting that’s coming from the bigger shows. DesiQuest obviously has a symbiotic relationship by virtue of Jasmine Bhullar’s relationship with both Dimension20 and even more strongly Penny Arcade and Acquisitions Incorporated.

But that’s a scenario where, of course you’re always talking about it as power flowing from these big shows and not a grassroots kind of effort. And then it continues the built-in assumption that I think is insidious, which is the kowtowing to the imagined power of something like Critical Role, Penny Arcade, or Dimension 20. I don’t know that there’s a whole lot more of that kind of boosting that is possible. I mean, for example, it seems clear that Luis Carrazzo, Christian Navarro, and Anjali Bhimani, who have all appeared many times on Critical Role, are doing something.

They’re talking about it without talking about it on social media all over the place. It seems very likely that they are trying to launch an Actual Play a lá Worlds Beyond Number. They have previously all appeared on a Shadowrun Actual Play miniseries that did not go well. One, Shadowrun, very hard. Two, production was iffy. It was not what it should have been. So it’s going to be interesting, right? To see, again, this is an all — another kind of majority-minority project by those people you saw on Critical Role, none of whom, interestingly, are known for being Dungeon Masters. I mean, not to say that Luis isn’t capable of doing so, but it’ll be very interesting to see how that literally plays.

And I think that’s going to be the next test, right? Is like, was Worlds Beyond Number a fluke? Can that success be replicated? If so, then it becomes — oh god, then Critical Role is potentially like this kind of incubator, which is what they want to be, right? Like, speaking as a 42-year-old, I can very much sympathize with the like, “I’m tired. I don’t want to do this necessarily forever in quite the way that I do it” kind of notion of being at that particular life stage. And so if we’ve got that kind of second proof of concept then, it becomes all the more incumbent for places like Critical Role to platform more people of color, and not the same ones over and over again.

I mean, I don’t know. I’m curious about that. because the alternative is you do grassroots, but you’ve got to build it to a bigger scale, and that’s really tricky. And yeah, I have a lot of curiosities about how this is all gonna, as we say, play out.

[01:23:12] Navaar: As listeners of my interview with Em on Secret Nerd Podcast know, we could go on forever. But we probably should not do that for the sake of podcasting. However, as always, an absolute pleasure. 

[01:23:27] Em: Yes. 

[01:23:27] Navaar: Incredible to have you on. 

[01:23:28] Em: Yay! 

[01:23:29] Navaar: Incredible to get your thoughts. I told you recently that I love getting your thoughts on this stuff and that still stands true. Unless Esther has another question? 


[01:23:35] Esther: I was going to say, we always ask folks: where can we find you online? What are you working on right now? 

[01:23:41] Em: Sure! So I, for over half my life, I have owned my little corner of the internet at www.ecfriedman — that’s fried man — .com. That’s actually where you really wanna go these days, because that is where I’m keeping a blog.

You can sign up, even with a burner email if you so choose, and get access. Each month I’m gonna be reviewing an Actual Play from some part of the wild history of the form, thinking about not just the kind of “would you want to watch or listen to this,” but also thinking about where it fits in the history, potential frictions, things like that. So the first one I did, very weirdly, was When Shut Up and Sit Down, best known for board game reviews, tried their hand at Actual Play when Actual Play was just getting started in 2014. Uh, it didn’t go well, but I found myself thinking about the ways in which it did and didn’t go well, and why they chose a different path.

This month, in the spirit of love and Valentine’s Day, I’m gonna rip apart an Actual Play that made me so angry I’m forcing myself to listen to more of it, and then I swear I’m gonna be more measured from there on out. But yeah, so this is me experimenting with different ways of what we’re doing, what we’ve been talking about tonight, which is talking and taking seriously Actual Plays.

And I’ve already gotten one unhinged, message from somebody in Twitter DMs, both asking for coverage, but not to be reviewed on my blog. Yeah. So my new favorite litmus test is, if you don’t want me to reviewing you on your blog, that tells me something about how you think about your work.

I digress. You can find me on the thing that I still call Twitter, because we deadname corporations, @ friede, that’s F R I E D E. You can also find me with that same handle on Bluesky. And you can find me on YouTube vlogging about teaching games and other nerdy stuff as CriticalProf, which is also my handle on Instagram.

[01:25:43] Esther: Amazing. 

[01:25:45] Navaar: You can find me on social media at N A V A A R S N P, like Secret Nerd Podcast. You can find the podcast wherever you pod, um, and you can find the Secret Nerd Podcast on Twitter @SecretNRDSocial. Check out the podcast right now, because I took a year off, even though I said brief hiatus for a long time, and came back swinging. So, we have an excellent discussion about audio editing in Actual Play. 

[01:26:09] Em: It’s so good, guys. I made my students listen. 

[01:26:13] Navaar: Thank you. And we immediately kicked off an Actual Play after that, that I spend 20 to 25 hours an episode editing. So, if you love horror and survival and you’re a fan of The Last of Us, uh, you should listen to it.

I won’t explain how to play the game. 

[01:26:32] Em: You explain the dice a little! 

[01:26:33] Navaar: But you can still enjoy the entertainment! A little bit, but yeah. Anyway, yeah, it’s very much a narrative story about three survivors, technically. So check it out. That’s all for me. 

[01:26:46] Esther: Amazing. Um, Emily, thank you again so much for coming on the show.

It has been a delight. I have learned so much as always. 

You can find me everywhere online @dungeonminister. And more importantly, you can find Know Direction online @KnowDirection, primarily on Bluesky, YouTube, and Mastodon, and at our Discord server, which you are welcome to join and chat with us about Pathfinder and many other TTRPG and life things. 

[01:27:17] Em: And we will play, maybe we will play, Pathfinder at Big Bad Con this fall. 

[01:27:23] Navaar: Yes! 

[01:27:25] Esther: Absolutely. 

[01:27:26] Em: Yay! 

[01:27:28] Esther: I would really love that. 


Ryan Costello

What started as one gamer wanting to talk about his love of a game grew into a podcast network. Ryan founded what would become the Know Direction Podcast network with Jason "Jay" Dubsky, his friend and fellow 3.5 enthusiast. They and their game group moved on to Pathfinder, and the Know Direction podcast network was born. Now married and a father, Ryan continues to serve the network as the director of logistics and co-host of Upshift podcast, dedicated to the Essence20 RPG system he writes for and helped design. You can find out more about Ryan and the history of the network in this episode of Presenting: http://knowdirectionpodcast.com/2021/01/presenting-ryan-costello/