Illustration courtesy of Witchymomo

So You Want to Create a Roleplaying Podcast

There are three shows I want to thank from the bottom of my 15-year-old, acne infested heart for re-awakening the role-player inside of me. They are: The Adventure Zone, Join the Party and The Infinite Bad. These shows are also equally to blame for Eli and I setting out to create our own roleplaying podcast, The End of Time and Other Bothers.

If you want to run a roleplaying session, it’s pretty straight forward: select a system, create a world, gather a group of friends and have a great time playing a roleplaying game.

But what about recording the session? We knew that putting up microphones and pressing Record would not be enough.

We wanted to create something entertaining and captivating for both the listener and ourselves. But how does one go about a task such as this? What are the steps and key decisions?

This is not a recipe for creating a show, but rather just me documenting the key decisions we made and even some of our mistakes.

First Things First. We Hired A Story Consultant.

Laura Packer is someone I had worked with in the past. She is an award-winning storyteller with an insane number of years under her belt telling stories, as well as helping others to tell their own. We didn’t have the money for this lying around, but I knew that this was an investment we had to make. I wanted someone that could provide critical insight and input for the show, and take us to task where we could improve our craft. We got all of that, and so much more.

Laura is a deep ally in the worldbuilding. We can fly our craziest ideas past her and know that she will call out anything that doesn’t hold true to the world-building efforts we’ve shared to date.

Having someone external pushed us to come to the table ready, no matter what. The days before a meeting with Laura were (and are) insanely stressful as we invariably realize how many things we still have to figure out. But these sessions are truly inspiring in how they keep us moving and give us very clear feedback.

We Worked On Our Rough Edges

Eli set to answering all the worldbuilding questions that he’d never even considered when creating Alba Salix.

I got involved with the local improv community and signed up for classes, several nights a week.

We ran test campaigns with our friends and potential players.

And we stayed up late into the night working on the world for our characters to explore.

In hindsight, I should have spent some time working on my filler words. As a Game Master working in a new game system, playing in a world that has to hold true to Alba Salix canon, I found myself scrambling to keep up, and using, “like”, “right” and “um” like a Valley Boy on speed.

So now I practice with LikeSo, an iPhone app that measures filler words on random topics while under time pressure. And I’m happy to report that I do improve, at least a bit.

Listening to Our Elders

The people behind Join the Party are amazing and we can’t thank them enough. (Listen to their show, already!) They’ve shared a wealth of information about their creative process and community-building, and in a recent interview for Radio Drama Revival, we learned how they created a set of ideals before they ever recorded a single session.

We loved this and worked with our cast and crew to come up with four ideals that we post on the wall every time we sit down to record.

  • Have Fun!
  • Listen fully: Don’t interrupt or talk over each other, focus on the scene, not the joke, “Yes, and…” “No, but…”
  • Empathy First: Willingness to explore the uncomfortable with clear boundaries, less focus on the violence, no killing of animals
  • Be Inclusive: Play the game we will be proud of later

Find New Ground

We wanted to create a roleplaying podcast where the story came first, and we also wanted it to be deeply collaborative in its DNA. So one of our choices was to use an improv approach.

In Episode 1, for example, it was super fun to drop Eggerton into a situation he was not prepared for — giving a presentation at work — and then continue to escalate, making “offers” that made his situation worse and worse. And it made for some great moments.

This is not to say that you need to scour your neighbourhood for improv players. You might choose to find new ground in the game system you are going to use. Or you might innovate in how you are going to record and produce your show, as Liberty Vigilance did.

Spend some time listening to every roleplaying podcast you can get your hands on. Borrow the things you like, and more importantly, push into new territory. Create the show that you want to hear but can’t find anyone else doing yet.

EDIT. EDIT. EDIT.

If you believe you can just press record and have a hit show, I’m afraid you are mistaken. Pull together a super strong post-production team. We realized early on that this was too much work for just Eli (our wizard engineer, sound designer and editor), so now Michael (who plays Eggerton), does a first-pass at a dialogue edit for each show.

Michael and I can work on the structure while Eli is deep into sound design and finalizing episodes closer to their launch window.

Create Many Drafts

One of the ideas behind this project was to find a format that would allow us to put out more shows. Alba Salix and The Axe & Crown require three to five weeks of post-production per episode. Our hope was to take that schedule and compress it into a week per episode, or less.

But this did not mean we would lower our standards. So that was a little challenging. We opted for a revision cycle where we could get notes from the team and our consultants earlier in the process, even before the sound design was fully applied.

Eli turned around a first edit of episode one in 24 hours and we had a second edit a day after that. We then send this cut out to our cast and our story consultant Laura for their notes.

We’d never opened up our post-production process like this before. It was hard, but also insanely valuable. Between all our contributors, we ended up with five pages of notes for episode 1 alone, but also an end product we could really be proud of.

This is not about chasing perfection. We were aiming for a certain level of polish while also embracing the fact that this is four people sitting around a table and playing an improvised roleplaying game in-the-moment.

If something really isn’t working and we can’t fix it in the edit, then we can always re-run a scene at our next gathering. There’s a game in improv where you do a scene and then you do the scene again. And while the players look to hit the major beats of the first pass, new things totally happen. It can be quite hysterical.

I get way too excited about salsa

We ended up doing this with the beginning of episode 2. Mainly because I forgot Cyrus’s voice between the first gaming session and an hour later. I blame the salsa we ate on break. I get a little too excited about salsa.

Let Things Sit

It’s not easy to work without much sleep for two or three days straight, just to learn that everyone has a problem with your story. It can hurt. And it can be hard to hear what people are saying when you have listened to an episode a hundred times in the past 24 hours.

Capture everyone’s notes and then set them aside. After a day or so, create some space to just sit and listen to the episode. Then walk through all the notes and make your decisions on what is going to stay as-is and what is going to be tweaked. You will now be able to better hear what your early listeners heard.

Valuing People’s Contributions

If you ask people for notes, follow up with them. Many of the notes we received definitely led to changes we implemented, but some didn’t. It’s hard as a creator to know what to change. And sometimes you are going to choose wrong, but at the end of the day, you want to make sure everyone who gave you notes feels like their input mattered and helped to create something better.

Test Audience

Finally, you gotta get that bad boy out there with a test audience and get some real input on what’s working (or not working.) What made sense? What didn’t work? What did they like? What kicked them out of the story?

The key is to ask about their feelings or what stood out, not the solutions. If they want to give you solutions, that’s fine; it just means you’ll need to dig to find the root cause of what they are trying to fix.

I can’t stress this enough. It’s hard to accept criticism. Always say, “Thank you for your input!” And then give yourself time to process what they are telling you. Many times, people will tell you what to fix instead of what their experience was. And when people do this, even though they are trying to be helpful, it can be really difficult to not be hurt or confused when receiving their input.

Here’s some examples of some statements one might receive (read with a choked up voice) and how one might remap them.

“Kill the bit with the squirrel and Cyrus. This part makes no sense.” -> becomes -> They are confused by the opening bit. They may not understand how this story is framing the other story. Expectations not being managed. Jump to main storyline is too jarring for them as a result.

“Delete the scene with the Hall of Wonders. It slows down the story too much.” -> becomes -> The weight of this scene is not translating. Consider edits and music to make this moment more impactful.

“I don’t like the relationship between Darcy and the Minotaur.” -> becomes -> Opinion. Disregard if you, as the creator, do like their r/ship. Or if you get a lot of people telling you this, then consider reworking the edit as perhaps key information has been left out.

Photo by Diomari Madulara

Know Your Format

Beyond using improv, we wanted to explore different ways of telling a roleplaying story.

Traditionally, live-play roleplaying podcasts are told in a linear fashion where we follow the players as the GM takes them through the world.

We wanted to interweave A, B, and even C plots, as you would find in our scripted shows. Only there are no scripts with The End of Time and Other Bothers, with the exception of a very short bit from the narrator at the opening.

So we had to experiment.

And everyone who reviewed our second cut of episode 1 had a significant problem with the format. They all had the same advice. Kill the opening bit with Cyrus. It wasn’t working.

Even our cast was having trouble with it.

We had to make a call. Do we stick to our guns or do we drop the B storyline from episode 1?

From the very beginning, we wanted to go bigger and play with multiple plot lines in an improv-based roleplaying audio drama. Do we walk away from this idea? Do we remove the parts that weren’t working, or do we double down on our format and find a way to make it work?

So we turned to our story consultant. Laura urged us to not only keep it, but to double down. So we did just that.

This may sound like it’s going against everything we said above, specifically, the “listen to your collaborators” part.

But we did hear them. And we made many changes, but we also had to make a call about the structure and format for the show. This came down to many late-night conversations between Eli and myself. What risks were we committed to taking? And why?

All of this, incidentally, is where our narrator came from: an all-seeing being who can weave our different stories together. I approached an amazing fellow improv player, Maggie Makar, to voice Ananka. And we haven’t looked back.

Let Your Baby Go

In our first two episodes, we had to make some calls we will never be 100% sure about. But at some point you have to say, “this is good enough.”

It’s not just about what’s funny or what’s a good edit. Creating a show is about attempting to achieve a certain style and form while simultaneously struggling to define said style and form. You have to allow yourself to explore and learn and improve. Don’t be afraid to take a risk. At some point you just have to get your baby out there.

Best of luck and definitely hit us up if you you launch a show. We love roleplaying podcasts and want to see more out there!

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Sean Howard is the co-creator of Alba Salix, Royal Physican and the GM behind The End of Time and Other Bothers. He can be reached via Twitter or email.