It’s OK if your Dungeons & Dragons campaign sucks

Actual play podcasts are the best thing to happen to tabletop games since Kickstarter. Friends at the Table is a consistent master class in world-building and players dragging their characters through hell for the sake of the story. Critical Role invites you to listen to professional voice actors giving it their all. (Its Twitter account has almost as many followers as the official Dungeons & Dragons account.) And The Adventure Zone’s riotous take on D&D will have you cracking up — and sometimes gasping for breath after an emotional sucker punch.

These podcasts are brilliant. They give listeners models of tabletop role-playing at its best. When a group of friends get together and work with each other to tell the best story they can, their session fills your mind for days afterward. You can’t wait to see what happens next.

Entire fandoms have grown around these podcasts — not just fans of D&D, but of a specific D&D campaign on an actual play podcast. Spend some time on Twitter or Tumblr after a new episode goes live and see how much fanart you can find of Magnus, Merle and Taako, or Vax and Vex. Go on Youtube and you’ll find highlights of the podcasts used as audio tracks for fan-made animations. It’s incredible.

For me, these podcasts are a bittersweet window into a form of tabletop gaming I never got to experience. I suspect I’m not alone. That group of 100 percent chill players with lasting bonds and no group drama and schedules allowing for long-running campaigns? That Dungeon Master with an innate grasp of pacing and drama and a mastery of improvisation? Folks, you just don’t find a group like that on the first bounce.

I have younger brothers who listen to these podcasts and despair to see their own tabletop groups. They tell me their players don’t take the game seriously enough, or entrench into character concepts that don’t work with the rest of the group. A few show no interest in playing anything but the stereotypical murder hobo. Or maybe everything starts out fine, but someone at the table had a bad week, and a frustrating dice roll brings out an emotional eruption.

I love actual play podcasts, but my brothers’ frustrations resonate with me more than a group of seasoned professionals performing for an audience. My first sessions of Dungeons & Dragons were… not good. In junior high, I derailed games with outbursts of teen angst. In high school, depression flexed its talons into my brain and I would spend whole sessions with my head on the table, going through the motions.

My attempts at running tabletop games in college fared little better. I had to woo players away from a mutual friend’s more successful D&D campaign. My pacing was so leaden that, during one session, one of the players had their character pray to the setting’s primary god to reveal the game’s plot.

One player used my game as a way to work through his own mental baggage. He told me his stomach twisted during every game. Another player bailed on a campaign right before a big setpiece fight. He didn’t like the way the game was going. It didn’t make him feel good. In desperation, I spoiled the end of the story arc, described how the battle might look and the heavy decisions the PCs would make at its conclusion. He told me he wouldn’t have enjoyed it, so that was that.

After a while, I stopped trying to organize tabletop games, except for a few halfhearted attempts in recent years. A badly-run pen-and-paper RPG is a dreadful chore. The old phrase “20 minutes of fun packed into four hours” rings true when you’re thumbing through social media feeds on your phone, waiting for your turn in combat because the person playing the spellcaster forgot what all their stuff does.

This feeling simply does not exist in the best actual play podcasts. They trim out the dead time and fumbling for rules. They add music. Sometimes the players sing original songs. These are people with years of acting experience. They know how to perform. I love listening to them, but I can’t help but feel bitter about all the times I’ve beefed it as a player or a game master.

But here’s the thing.

Every so often, I get to talking with my old tabletop pals. As the years went by, they forgot the angst and bad pacing and scheduling conflicts. They remembered their characters, the jokes they made, and the cool things they got to do. For them, time washed away the negative aspects of my doomed tabletop games. They held onto the good parts of our sessions, like polished stones, as keepsakes. My games weren’t master works to shake the pillars of heaven. But for a few evenings, my friends and I got to step out of our own skulls. That’s worth something.

That’s not to say players should stay in toxic groups, or spend two to four weekends a month shackled to an activity they don’t enjoy. Finding a gaming group that clicks is hard, and sometimes you have to cut your losses. But that’s not the same as finding a group of the walking wounded: players who really want to play, but have to fight their own lives and the noise in their heads to get to the table.

Actual play podcasts are great. They’re great inspiration. But don’t hold yourself to professional standards. It’s all right to have a messy game. The world won’t stop spinning if you implode your campaign with drama. If you could only bring your friends together for a single session before everything fell apart? Be proud of that one session. You may feel bitter about the story you never got to finish. But after time passes, I promise, you and your friends will remember the story you managed to tell. And maybe you’ll reach for your bag of dice for one more try.