Tabletop roleplaying games have one huge, inescapable drawback: It tends to be a four hour per one or two week (or even monthly) activity. That’s as less as one hour a week, and its sad that I end up spending more of my life watching reruns of New Girl then partaking in my favourite hobby! I can at least empathise with Schmidt’s despair at his friends’ lack of event planning discipline as I doodle beholders on the sofa.
Fortunately for me and those in my shoes, podcasts, YouTube and Twitch are here to help fill in those gaps with actual plays, live plays, tips, discussions and more. Now at least you can be listen to people rolling dice and responding to the question “What do you do?”. So read on for my personal top five tabletop shows.
Warning: There is no Critical Role in this list, sorry Critters. Four hours a week for one show is almost too much for one person to keep on top of.
This podcast used to get me through so many commutes when I lived in Berlin, it was unbelievable. I had this awful long bus ride through the middle of nowhere, bad part of town, mostly leaving around 7pm, in the dark at winter. And I was struggling not to laugh throughout most of it. One Shot is run by James DeMato and regularly features fellow improv comedy aces from Chicago. One Shot does, as you may have guessed, one shots of different systems, giving you a great foundation or RPGs and sense of what’s out there. This is where I realised a one-page RPG could actually work. Campaign is their longer form show which just wrapped up it’s Star Wars adventure that I’ve been listening to for about 4 years. Their new show Skyjacks is shaping up to be just as excellent.
The downside is that, yes they are improv actors first, gamers second. If the idea of a whole session having 3-5 dice rolls disgusts you then you should definitely give it a miss. However the laughs come thick and fast, and entire episodes can be dedicated to ridiculous TV show tropes such as “having to be on two dates at once (but with a bounty hunter and sith inquisitor)” or “spin off episode centered around the child character’s make-believe (except this time it’s a boy training to be a jedi pretending to run a private investigation business in a spaceport)”. It’s edited too so the episodes are tight and punchy.
The Adventure Zone
Much like Campaign, The Adventure Zone has a lot of laughs. Three brothers Justin, Travis, Griffin, and their dad Cliff, play through an epic D&D campaign. Unlike Campaign though, you get a sense that the plot is well thought out, and although the players have little agency in the overall story apart from failing/succeeding, the missions they go on are just so good. There are missions where they’re stuck in a wild west groundhog day where they have to work out what’s going on and stop the bad guy, by repeating the same one hour. There’s a mad scientist’s floating lab base where they have to outsmart a lethal quiz machine reminiscent of Bioshock. The interludes in between allow them to level up, get new gear, continue the overarching plot and continue running gags with favourite NPCs.
Griffin, notably as the guy who used to run Polygon’s video series, is an excellent DM and story-teller. His ability to roll with the all-too-common player thing of breaking the fourth wall or being sassy when a situation wouldn’t call for it, is great. Not to mention his sarcastic and monotone wit and deliverance shows that you don’t have to be a Matt Mercer with 103 NPC voices and characters up his sleeve to be a good DM. And even though his players call him out (in that sweet brotherly way), he doesn’t put up with it. A must if your players are as sassy as these. Also, even though Cliff isn’t great with the rules, he is surprisingly good at creating a funny and heart-warming (dwarf) character.
Swan Song/Court of Swords
These two shows are part of the monumental catalogue of roleplaying shows hosted on Twitch and then uploaded to YouTube by ItmeJP called Rollplay. Unlike the previous two there is no podcast version making it less commuter-friendly, and there’s no editing the sessions down, but there is some top notch roleplaying right here. The Rollplay umbrella has featured many campaigns under many systems, including many variants of D&D, Stars Without Number, Shadowrun, Dungeon World, Apocalypse World, FATE, Dark Heresy and Burning Wheel. Chances are you recognise one of the guests since they’re all streamers or youtubers, mostly coming from an esports background.
Court of Swords is the currently ongoing D&D series run by the excellent DM and person Adam Koebel, that really leans into the essence of D&D with tough dungeons, excellent monster usage and a cool world. Characters have died a lot, but new ones take their places and guests fill up the 4th player slot for each story arc. The longest surviving member is Berg the half-orc, played by GassyMexican. He didn’t even like the dumb orc barbarian at first but after surviving way beyond what anyone thought, and seeing many party members die, Berg has become a wise and noble character that many will never forget.
Swan Song was a campaign played in the rather good sci-fi system, Stars Without Number. Fans of Firefly should check this one out, as well as any cyberpunk fans. Adam regularly adds serious and interesting themes into his games, and sci-fi allowed him to introduce many. My personal favourite theme was the AI they broke near the beginning of the game, and it’s questions and learning over the course of the campaign. It would remember things players would say and do, making the party on edge and constantly having to explain to a young mind why they did what they did, knowing that at any slip-up, they could be giving an AI a reason to go bad. Take that, D&D morality system.
Adam Koebel’s Office Hours
Moving onto shows that do not actually feature play but talk about it, is Office Hours. Adam Koebel, the Rollplay DM (well he isn’t the only one but he is the best one) does a show on his YouTube channel where he answers three questions from his community and goes pretty in-depth with each. First of all the question topics are all on the thumbnail so if you want to dive in for 1 or 2, or even none you can do that.
Second, his whole thing is trying to alleviate the pressure and stress and work from DMs to make their job easier and more welcoming. Real DMs and real players write in with their very real issues and he gives them advice that they can work with. But sometimes DMs also just need to be told that everyone’s fun does not rest on their shoulders, and sometimes you can just roll out a dungeon with some goblins in and it’s fine, and the players will have fun regardless of your crazy high standards that have been set by certain live-play shows.
WebDM is a channel run by Jim and Prewitt who are both long-time D&Ders, and the good news is if you support them on Patreon you get their shows as a podcast! They go in-depth on a topic per episode, including one per class, per monster type, per race, per setting, per magic school, etc. It can be hit and miss, but they are great for just rolling out so many ideas around topics that if you’re really struggling with a cool character, or NPC, or story arc, then they can help you out.
I sometimes send the relevant episodes to my players before we start a campaign so that they can get some food for thought on that rogue they’re cooking up, or even lets you in turn explain to players how they can make their illusion spells cooler. You can definitely pick and choose the ones you’re interested in, making it a great channel to have in your YouTube back pocket (?).
That’s my five favourite channels for tabletop media! Matt Colville gets an honourable mention but he can be a little too ‘big picture’ to be practical sometimes, as in talking about the nature of roleplaying and D&D, but that can be entertaining to fans of the hobby nonetheless. Let me know your favourite shows too, I’m always on the lookout for good recommendations.