On a sticky night near the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, NY, Third Coast brought five head honchos of the audio world together on one stage. To the delight of the audio nerds in the crowd (read: Brooklynites. Read: me), the moderator Johanna Zorn asked the panel what they wanted to see next in podcasting. Gimlet’s Alex Blumberg said he wanted to see fiction pieces that sounded less like the theater and more like television. The panel nodded their heads and agreed, and everyone drank an artisanal beer.
Alex, I love Reply All and Matt Lieber, but I gotta disagree with you. I want audio fiction that sounds less like a TV show and more like a game of Dungeons & Dragons.
For the uninitiated, Dungeons & Dragons is a fantasy role-playing game. With only a few sets of dice, a piece of paper and a whole lot of Doritos, a group of friends can sit around a table and weave an epic tale. As the Dungeon Master constructs a story framework and plot points, the players interact with and tackle the plot as it comes up. The game mechanics are set to entertain, inspire and, most importantly, hold the players’ attention for hours at a time.
D&D has actually been a niche mainstay of the audio landscape for years. Groups of players record their games and release the audio as an “actual play” podcast, where each session is a different episode. You might have heard of The Adventure Zone, a real play podcast run by the indefatigable McElroy Brothers, that has racked up nearly 5,000 iTunes reviews and might be the most popular show on the Maximum Fun Network. Now everyone can enjoy Xorex the Barbarian jumping headfirst off a waterfall to save a child from the brink of a watery death.
Why is this so exciting and rich with audio possibilities?
A D&D real play podcast threads a needle between improvisation and scripted drama. Everyone acts, makes jokes and moves the plot along, while the Dungeon Master facilitates order and exposition. And, critically, you roll the dice to represent the whims of fate. This isn’t just a bunch of friends deciding successes and failures–rolling dice adds randomness and chance into the game. This forces players to find creative ways to justify the outcomes of the rolls in a way that doesn’t break their story.
Audio entertainment currently looks like a barbell: sharply divided between highly produced audio dramas and unscripted, largely unedited freeform conversations. On one side, we have shows like the The Bright Sessions, Wolf 359, and Greater Boston. They’re written with thrilling twists and complex characters, shined to perfection with skillful editing and mixing, and their actors seem genetically created to make listeners feel extreme things just using their voices. These serialized dramas require as much devotion to the story as diving into a prestige HBO show.
On the other hand, we have the “funny people talk about funny stuff for two hours” podcast. Dan Harmon and his motley crew on Harmontown and the Sklar Brothers on Dumb People Town ramble for two hours, unedited, and spit comedy gold into the mic. The shows are light, fun, and easy for new listeners to jump into without catching up on past episodes. Talent, and not production or pre-production, is at the center of what makes these shows entertaining.
Entertainment audio and audio fiction haven’t explored the vast space in between these two extremes. How incredible would it be for a show to borrow from the best of rigid disciplines like theatre and radio drama, while preserving the energy of charismatic entertainers joking and improvising together?
Don’t let the elves, dwarves, and wizards distract you: D&D is essentially structured improvisation. It uses rules and dice rolls to facilitate storytelling and give players structure in which to be truly creative. On an episode of Dragon Talk, the official D&D podcast from the game’s creators, Wizards of the Coast, chief rules developer Jeremy Crawford explains why rules are so important to a game like D&D. “The storytelling… is conducted by the Dungeon Master. I’m thinking of the DM almost like the conductor of a symphony, and the players are each playing their instrument. And together, they sometimes create beautiful music. Sometimes it’s a cacophony, but at its best it’s fun, funny, [and] sometimes moving.”
Letting collaborators do what they do best within a well-designed structure allows the action to move in unpredictable ways. Instead of imposing a plot upon a set of characters, the players collaborate with the storyteller to discover what comes next. Imagine J. K. Rowling is writing a scene in Harry Potter. “And the three friends walked into potions class,” she types. But then Ron says, “You know what, there’s a great game of pickup Quidditch happening, I’m gonna bail.” Now the trio is split into two different scenes: Harry and Hermione have to cover for Ron, and the youngest Weasley boy might just become a Keeper a whole lot earlier in the series.
The writer no longer works on the story in seclusion and delivers it, polished and static, to the outside world. They become an active participant, constantly writing, rewriting and improvising action. They’re building a car as it drives–then retooling it into a submarine as it careens towards the sea.
Few shows have ventured into this space between. Most notably the fantasy longform improv Welcome to the Magic Tavern has constructed a sprawling fantasy world by locking the dumb jokes that arise from improvisation. But the potential for such podcasts crackle with creativity and possibility.
Imagine scenes that start with bare-bones plot details and develop when the microphone comes on. Imagine a producer rolling a die to respond to an actor’s surprising choice. Imagine Lauren Shippen, the creator and writer of The Bright Sessions, throwing out ten pages of a script because the plot veers in a different direction–only to bring that scene back three episodes later when her collaborators surprise her again.
Real play podcasts can also learn from the best features of audio dramas: plots that can stand up outside the fantasy realm, complex characters, diverse representation, commitment to story over easy jokes, and world-class production and editing.
I want my audio fiction to run like a D&D game. But if my games could sound like an audio drama, I would never get up from the table.
Eric Silver is the host, the Dungeon Master, and a producer of Join the Party. He loves chunky peanut butter, cardigans, and being five minutes early.