Saturday, 7 January 2017

On the elusiveness of upbeat actual play

I have a massive heap of downloaded podcasts, but somehow I wanted something different. Perhaps it's because nearly 300 of the nearly 1000 podcasts in my folder are by the RPPR crowd, whose games are often entertaining but also tend to be grim and downbeat (yes, in most cases the group are clearly enjoying themselves hugely, but the actual events are rarely cheerful). And a lot of the rest are non-fiction from the BBC, quite a lot of which is also not very cheerful.

I decided to head out and look again for podcasts that might suit me. The criteria this time:

  • Not Call of Cthulhu. I have plenty of that, and it's rare to find a single episode that's not grim, however lightly it's presented. I enjoy it enough to both listen and play, but I'm depressive - I very much don't need a diet of all bad things happening all the time.
  • Still going. I've no wish to get into the archives of a podcast that only hit nine episodes. Been there, done that.
  • Not stuff that is as or even more depressing than Call of Cthulhu. I found some recommendation threads, and found myself staring at lists of sessions about Apocalypse World (no, never, under any circumstances*) or Monsterhearts (also no**), or You Are A Horrible Person And Bad Things Happen To You Which You Can't Control***.
  • Lucid. There's quite a few podcasts that received praise, but which are also described as people getting increasingly drunk and silly. People getting drunk are boring. If I'm listening to a gaming podcast, it's because I want to hear the game. There's a few podcasts I listen to where people do sometimes drink, and whenever it's noticeable it always detracts from the experience of that episode.

* It's technically possible to do post-apocalyptic narratives that aren't about how horrible human beings are, but from everything I can tell this game is designed to do exactly the opposite. And given most proudly-labelled "Post-Apocalyptic!" stuff I've encountered is about selfishness, human failings, pointless violence, manly manhood and rape, I will give that a flying pass.

** So from what I can tell, this is a game about being horrible teenagers, except you're also actually monsters I think? You lost me at "being horrible". That does not seem an enjoyable premise for an, well, for anything at all actually.

*** I know this isn't a real game, but I've seen quite a few games described which seem like they could neatly be summed up in this basket. I do not understand the fascination of indie gamers with this premise.

I found a few leads. It's striking just how many of them are actually "3-6 improv comedians play some games" rather than "some people play some games". I am somewhat wary of these, because I'm suspicious that either a) the podcast is part of a marketing exercise rather than just a hobby; or b) people whose main hobby is theatricals will make the podcast about them and their performance rather than the game - but I'm willing to give it a shot.

I'm also trying to find podcasts that aren't American. I mean, nothing against Americans, but I have plenty of American gaming podcasts. It's hard though, because that's never an available search term.

I am struggling to come up with a useful way to explain "upbeat" versus "downbeat". Downer endings are obviously downbeat. But I also don't want traumatic and grim things happening to the PCs. I don't want choices with no option that isn't horrible. I don't really the backstory to be framed around lots of bad stuff that happened to people.

I appreciate this is relatively difficult, because RPGs are generally built around challenge, and because a lot of the types of challenge you can offer a group of 3-6 players are extrinsic and based on open conflict. And most RPGs are quite reactive, usually reacting to bad things that have happened. And of course, quite a lot of roleplayers (like quite a lot of people in general) genuinely like dark grittiness and murders and gratuitous violence and so on.

Stuff I noticed

So, some exasperations of this time!

Archives. People are going to come to your podcast and want to listen to your archives. Why do you make it so difficult? Quite a few sites just have, for example, a "podcast" tag which they put on all those episodes. But - what with half of them being improv groups - the same sites also often host two (or, in extreme cases, fifteen) other podcasts of no relevance whatsoever to me. Or the group plays six rotating campaigns, four of which I don't want to listen to. Or they play a hundred different mini-campaigns. It's really, really useful to tag and mark and group podcast episodes in useful ways, so that people can find the stuff they're actually looking for.

Fun fact: if it's a pain to trawl through your archive, people stop, like I did.

I would like to draw your attention to the massive tag cloud to my right to help people sort through my stuff.

Filenames, yet again

Also, I know I've talked about podcast file names a lot, but why stop now? Normally I don't call people out for this bullshit but hello Rusty Quill! You seemed so promising, being British and everything (although improv, so...) but your website is a pain and so is your naming convention. The webpage has an unnecessarily large banner and puts the "older posts" option in an unusual place, so I didn't spot it until late in the day. Now, you get kudos for having your entire podcast archive in the RSS feed - and extra kudos for having different feeds for each podcast! Good on yous.

But what sort of person looks at a file they're saving for public release and concludes that "207829424-rustyquill-1-rqg-0-metacast-character.mp3" is a good name?

Okay, first off, breathing room. If you're going to number things (and you should) do not start with single digits, because this means computers will sort things called 1 next to things called 10. This is basic, basic stuff, guys. I'm going to venture a guess that if you do improv you probably have arts degrees and didn't study much computing (nothing wrong with that!) but sort order isn't complicated so I feel you should have thought of this.

But secondly, what is this 207829424 about? What does that mean? Is it relevant to the audience, at all? No? Then don't include it! Because, and I appreciate this may not happen to everyone, when I scroll through files on my player, all I will see on the screen for several seconds is a string of numbers. I don't know what that is. If I listen to your podcast a lot I might realise it's yours, but it could also be a random podcast from somewhere else (the BBC inexplicably does this sometimes). Just begin the filename with something identifiable so I know what I'm looking at.

In fact, for particular exasperation, my phone will only show the first twenty-odd characters of a filename in music player, which means I won't be able to tell your episodes apart. They'll all be "STRINGOFNUMBERS-rustyqui". Does that seem helpful?

To be fair, I've checked again and they change their filenames partway through the archive. You know, you could go back and change the older ones too.

Here's a list of stuff I am currently planning to try out, and will try to comment on later:

  • Rusty Quill
  • She's a Super Geek
  • Shark Bone
  • In Sanity We Trust
  • One Shot Podcast


  1. I think the initial string of numbers is something libsyn has taken to adding recently. Not sure why. What you're supposed to do is to listen to one episode at a time, on the device that's downloading it, and not keep any kind of archive.

    Nerts to that.

    You may find Whartson Hall interesting, though I'll admit we don't tend to take things entirely seriously.

    * Not CoC - well, mostly.
    * Still going - yup! We tend to play short multi-session games and then go on to something else.
    * Not ≥ CoC levels of depressingness - yup.
    * Lucid - well, mostly.
    * UnAmerican - yup.

    1. I've been catching up on Whartson Hall for a couple of months now actually - it's really good (although I've had to put Flight 13 on hold). I'm enjoying Pirates of Drinax and waiting eagerly for more episodes. In general I'm getting the feeling that Traveller is a pretty undepressing game for the most part, which is useful.

      That's very tiresome of libsyn - presumably it's something like a unique identifier. What sort of monster doesn't carefully file all their podcasts in an extensive archive, preferably tagged? (okay, I've only tagged a small proportion, but I maintain detailed metatagging is really useful for a non-skimmable medium)