Actual play, in both video and audio forms, has been an enormous part of the current flourishing of tabletop role-playing games. If you know about actual play, you probably know about the powerhouses playing Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition — Critical Role, Dimension 20, The Adventure Zone — that have served as rocket fuel for D&D’s cultural footprint.
D&D has historically had brand recognition and major market share (go and click on Twitch right now, and you’ll see the “D&D” tag with many more viewers than any other TTRPG tag). But that could be changing — and fast. Wizards of the Coast has been sponsoring fewer and fewer actual plays directly, primarily focused on celebrity-fueled one-time events rather than ongoing campaigns. Creators were a major part of the recent rally to save the Open Game License (OGL), including boycotts of D&D Beyond, and experienced increased anxiety about whether performing D&D was worth it. Popular podcast Not Another D&D Podcast recently released a special episode on Pathfinder, and upcoming actual play DesiQuest sent a message to its Kickstarter backers that they were contemplating their choice of system.
Creators — and audiences — who pivot away from D&D will find a thriving but undersung part of the actual play ecosystem. If you need some help to get started, here’s some of the very best in a wide variety of systems.
Yazeba’s Bed & Breakfast (2022 podcast)
A standout in the space of micro-actual plays is the work of Jeff Stormer, the brains behind Party of One, a weekly podcast that introduces listeners to a new system that can be played with just two people every week. A good introduction to Stormer’s style is the award-winning four-episode miniseries he produced for Possum Creek’s forthcoming Yazeba’s Bed & Breakfast, which is currently available in an “ashcan” (pre-release) form as it awaits Indiegogo fulfillment. The game and the show are both incredibly lovely, cozy vignettes, with players selecting from pre-generated members of the bed and breakfast’s found family. What’s particularly lovely about this actual play is the way in which we see how different players can tackle the same character sheet, as each episode sees a different cast exploring a different scenario in the game. It’s also a fabulous mix of the people who make actual play sing, featuring elder statesmen Brennan Lee Mulligan and Matthew Mercer, designers Jeeyon Shim, Viditya Voleti, and Caro Asercion, and rising stars Michelle Nguyen Bradley, Aaron Catano-Saez, Bee Zelda, Danny Quach, Spencer Sunboy, Kate Nyx, and Vana.
Dimension 20 doesn’t need to play D&D to have a good time, and has several shorter campaigns proving this point. Of particular note is Shriek Week, a four-episode miniseries led by designer Gabe Hicks and using his Mythic system derived specifically for the show. The horrifically charismatic cast of Ify Nwadiwe, Ally Beardsley, Lily Du, and Dani Fernandez star as monster undergrads at Bram University playing “one hell of a dating game.”
Friends at the Table (various systems)
One of the most influential games in the actual play space not playing D&D (you’ll catch folks like Griffin McElroy of The Adventure Zone citing it as an ongoing influence), Friends at the Table is a weekly podcast that has roamed across a wide variety of systems in its near-decade of production, anticipating the current trend of combining systems by almost a decade. The show hit an early stride with the Marielda season, which combined a runthrough of world-building game The Quiet Year as a lead-in to Blades in the Dark. For new listeners, this is a great place to start (or check out this handy flowchart!).
Kollok (Kids on Bikes)
Malika and Zac Lim Eubank’s Hyper RPG is the production talent behind an enormous number of actual plays and other streaming live events, going back to Zac’s early days at Geek & Sundry. Their artistic calling card is Kollok, the ultimate “if you know, you know” show with a devoted following. Kollok’s commitment to cinematic and narrative innovations — all originally broadcast live — are ambitious high-wire acts. Each season has been beautifully self-contained, with structures designed to get new viewers up to speed each and every episode. It’s unclear if the show will return, but there is a rich back catalog worthy of your eyeballs (and a forthcoming podcast adaptation designed specifically for your ears). You can also spot a who’s who of actual play luminaries, including a starring role for Aabria Iyengar, as well as cameos by dozens of actual players, streamers, and other nerdy influencers, including special guests Felicia Day (The Guild), WWE Superstar Xavier Woods, JacksFilms, Ray Wise (Twin Peaks), and Shohreh Aghdashloo (The Expanse).
Project Nero (Outbreak: Undead)
Hunters Entertainment has consistently supported the games under its aegis with stellar actual plays and how-to-play content. Their zombie survival simulation RPG Outbreak: Undead has also been the system for some of the best in horror actual play, from Ivan Van Norman-led We’re Alive: Frontier under Geek & Sundry to United States of the Dead (Hyper RPG) and Project Nero (Pixel Circus) led by GM Noxweiler Berf. For horror fans looking for content streaming live right now, this latest incarnation is among the last of the true studio liveplays. You can check out Project Nero live on Pixel Circus’ Twitch channel Tuesday nights at 9 p.m. EST, or catch up on all of Outbreak: Undead on Hunters Entertainment’s YouTube channel.
One Shot (various systems)
Looking to explore a lot of new systems in bite-size chunks? One Shot Network is best known for its weekly podcast that introduces new systems in single, easily digestible episodes (I teach with them). Helmed by Chicago-based comedian, author, and game designer James D’Amato (The Ultimate Micro-RPG Book, The Ultimate RPG Character Backstory Guide), the podcast includes nearly 500 episodes of mini campaigns of one to four episodes, each about an hour long. D’Amato has a skill for selecting guest players who suit the particular vibe of a given system. This is a great place to listen to indie systems that don’t get a lot of space in actual play, like Vincent Baker’s haunting Dogs in the Vineyard, a supernatural Mormon Western. You can listen to One Shot on their official website.
As Above, So Below (Mage: The Ascension)
Produced and run by Mikaela Sims, this Mage: The Ascension mini campaign is an unsung gem. In just four episodes, this video actual play uses every trick in the book to create an actual play worthy of your attention. To set her scenes, Sims uses everything from Google Earth and floor plans to artfully edited photos and more. The overlay is frosted with lore, puns, and commentary (make sure you have captions on). Sims shows what can be done with actual play even if you’re not super familiar with the system. The miniseries is a love letter to LA’s actual play geography and its people, exploring Burbank with a Porto’s potato ball in hand. Players are a classic mix of actual play veterans (B. Dave Walters, Noura Ibrahim, Jennifer Kretchmer, Omega Jones) with writer/designers (Justice Arman, Dan Dillon, Phil Brucato, LaTia Jacquise), along with delightfully surprising cameos. You can check out the series on YouTube.
LA by Night / New York by Night (Vampire: The Masquerade)
Like Mage, Vampire and the other World of Darkness games lend themselves well to actual play, as the systems tell stories of a world just on the other side of our own, where monsters are torn between retaining their humanity and giving into the drives that seek to consume them. Jason Carl has presided over two streamed chronicles: LA by Night and now New York by Night. If you’re familiar with other live-to-tape multicamera shows like Critical Role, the setup will be very familiar, though you won’t see the kind of “breaking” into giggles that happens in many other shows. The unflappable Carl, who has a long history in live-action role-play, has a notable talent for using geography and history to set scenes, building a shadow world on top of real-world cities we think we know, but have barely explored. New York by Night’s seasons are short but flavorful, each following a different group of young vampires, with plenty of guests that enrich the world. These rival groups will come together for the third season later this year on the World of Darkness Twitch — but there’s plenty of time to catch up on the machinations of these gorgeous monsters on their YouTube channel.
Clear Skies: Perseverance (Star Trek Adventures)
Star Trek is another kind of massive sandbox that lends itself well to actual play — and there have been players boldly going where no one has gone before since the Star Trek Adventures system by Modiphius was in beta. Shield of Tomorrow ran for 53 episodes on Geek & Sundry, and their USS Sally Ride made its way into Star Trek canon. The crew originally helmed by Eric Campbell was able to board the USS Ross a year later on Queue Times for another 59-episode run, as well as a 17-episode Klingon series, Blood of the Void, and are now debuting a new show on Star Trek Online’s official Twitch channel. Eric Campbell hands over the GM’s seat to Aliza Pearl, and he and fellow longtime cast members Sam de Leve, Bonnie Gordon, and Jade Law (Blood of the Void), join fellow Streampunks Kaitlin Bruder and Noir Enigma and new cast member Danielle Radford (Dimension 20’s Misfits and Magic). The crew will be on Utopia Planitia shipyards on Mars, drawing from the recent sourcebook. After three shows focused on exploration, Perseverance is billed as the Deep Space Nine, to “stay in one spot” to build out a world (and build starships!), as Pearl said in a recent stream. Clear Skies: Perseverance streams live on Mondays from February through early May on the Cryptic Studios Twitch channel, with the VOD being uploaded to the Streampunks’ YouTube channel shortly thereafter. A preview session will be streamed Monday, Jan. 30, with the official show launch the following week on Monday, Feb. 6, from 6 to 9 p.m. PST.
Into the Mother Lands (Mother Lands RPG)
For those looking for a “brighter, blacker future” drawing from the rich tradition of Afrofuturism to create alternate history and a brilliant future, as well as see a new game system emerge, it’s worth checking out Into the Mother Lands. Playing on the Cortex Prime system, the series is led by Eugenio Vargas, with the considerable talents of Krystina Arielle, Deejay Knight, Tanya DePass, Michael Sinclair II, and Gabriel Hicks. The series spawned a successful Kickstarter to create a TTRPG with new mechanics inspired by the show, and as of Season 4, Mother Lands uses its own custom dice pool system. You can catch up with the series on YouTube or listen to the podcast.
Glass Cannon Live! (Pathfinder 2e)
In recent weeks, a surge of interest in playing Pathfinder has raised Glass Cannon’s already considerable profile. While they’ve now expanded out to shows that explore a wide range of systems (including their new Glass Cannon Labs), their flagship show (2015-22) was in Pathfinder 1st edition. The live version now plays the 2nd edition, touring to sold-out theaters around the U.S. For those looking for an energy comparable to Penny Arcade’s Acquisitions Incorporated, or for listeners trying to dip in without becoming overwhelmed, Glass Cannon Live is worth a listen on any podcast app, or viewed on Twitch (Thursdays at 8 p.m. EST) or YouTube.
This is just a sampling of the riches out there in the world of actual play, and we hope to introduce you to more interesting, innovative, and delightful shows up ahead. I highly recommend the search engine Series Seeker to find exactly the combination of length, system, style, and vibe you’re looking for. If you have any favorites of your own, let us know what they are and why in the comments!