Storytelling, Tabletop and Pop Culture
This is an optional bonus entry (after our basics and looking for group entries) but if you really want a better idea of how the game works, watch/listen to some other folks do it. There are soooo many actual play shows (podcasts, Twitch streams or videos where people play TTRPGs specifically for an audience). And honestly, if you’re really wanting to drop some time into TTRPGs, actual plays are one of the primary ways to enjoy the game between sessions. I’ll include some favorites below.
Sometimes a rule or concept on paper is a bit hard to decipher but when you can see it happening in real play it can make a lot more sense. More importantly, actual plays help capture some of those great storytelling vibes that the page just can’t convey. Character death on a page is a series of d20 rolls, but in an actual play you can see the escalating tension and the high stakes emotional rollercoaster of the players. You will see real people cry when fake people die. You’ll also see joy and wonder and sadness and anger and a whole range of complex story moments. And sometimes someone lands a crit and blasts a dragon’s head clean off and the whole room cheers.
Even as you’re enjoying the awesome vibes, one thing to remember is that a lot of the most popular actual plays are popular because the participants are professional comedians, storytellers, voice actors, improvisers etc. They are a very particular kind of professional. Many of the DM’s literally prep D&D as their job. They have set designers who build terrain and paint miniatures for them. They sometimes have light and sound and professional tech support. Some even have extensive editing to cut out all the ums, uhs, long pauses and looking stuff up. Your game is going to be pick up basketball in the park but it can still be fun to watch the NBA. When you watch these sorts of games you are enjoying the ride, maybe learning some tips and techniques and setting some dream goals. Your actual game will not be exactly the same.
I’d also encourage you to at least experience a few more “normal” actual plays. People will flub rules, forget important plot details or their own abilities. They will say “um” and “uh” and mess up (or not do) character accents. Sometimes a joke or story beat just won’t land. And that’s fine. That’s how the game works. Your game won’t be good because it’s perfect, it’ll be good because it's the one you and your table make together. The stories you make together might not interest anyone else in the world but for you and your fellow players they’ll be something amazing you made for yourselves.
So here’s a great big list!
This is the biggest and most popular of the D&D actual plays and for good reason. All 7 players are notable voice actors and creatives and they bring that energy to the table with complex characters and a great table dynamic. DM Matt Mercer is a phenomenal DM who is so good that he has become synonymous with the act of players/DMs feeling intimidated by the seemingly impossible standard he sets for worldbuilding and roleplaying (not his vibe at all, he’s actually super supportive of new players/DMs but it underlines his skill level). In a lot of ways this is a gold standard for D&D actual play.
That being said, Critical Role is looooong. They transitioned from a home game and have never lost some of that meandering table energy. Episodes are 3-5 hours and Campaigns 1 and 2 each run over 100 episodes. There’s a great mix of drama, fantasy, combat, humor and even romance but if you jump in it's a long ride.
Campaign 1. This campaign follows the adventures of a band of misfit heroes called Vox Machina. They are fairly standard fantasy trope characters on fairly standard quests but their excellent roleplay and Mercer’s wonderful DM’ing really helps elevate the experience and create some very cool moments. It doesn’t start precisely at the beginning though so you’ll be scrambling a bit to work out the pre-stream events, characters and relationships.
(Instead of Campaign 1 you might try The Legend of Vox Machina instead, the CR crew’s animated adaptation of season 1 airing on Amazon Prime. It tells the story directly streamlined and without the players and table.)
Campaign 2. This might actually be the easier jumping on point for a new viewer. This tells the tale of the Mighty Nein, a more eclectic group of just barely heroes who get tangled up in complex regional politics, extra-dimensional villains and their own messy backstories. A much tighter experience that clearly learns from Campaign 1. The sound and video are also much improved right out of the gate. Begins at the beginning but still very very long.
Campaign 3. Only 13 episodes in at the time of publication, this is the most recent Critical Role campaign and follows an as yet unnamed group of heroes in yet another corner of Mercer’s massive homebrew world of Exandria. The biggest selling point for jumping in here is the lower number of episodes and also the sheer energy and enthusiasm that surrounds watching the show as it airs. Twitter will positively explode with reactions and art and the wave will continue across the whole weekend.
The Adventure Zone
Balance. “Thus ends the Adventure Zone: Balance, the story of four idiots that played D&D so hard that they made themselves cry.” Balance started off as a one off experiment of the popular McElroy brothers (and their dad Clint) playing together through the D&D Starter Set. It quickly took off and spun out into its own weird but compelling homebrew world.
The McElroys are much more comedic and you can expect plenty of 4th wall breaking references and dick jokes but the story builds a surprisingly deep emotional core and brings some clever plot twists that elevate the finished product way above the initial idea. You will cry at the end and probably at multiple points throughout.
A big selling point here is that none of the McElroys are really professionals when it comes to D&D. They have great comedic and podcasting (or radio) chops but they approach D&D as almost complete noobs. For new players there is some comfort in their confusion and loose approach to the rules and the amazing story they still bring together out of it.
For a more meta non-actual play look at the world of Balance you might also check out their Adventure Zone comic books. So far they’ve covered the first 4 arcs of Balance and are theoretically on track to cover the entire series. Notably, the comics maintain some of the nods to the Dungeon Master Griffin’s role as narrator and 4th character in their story as well as some explicit references to mechanics and rules.
Ethersea. Ethersea is the most recent Adventure Zone campaign and it is a total departure from anything else they’ve made. It’s a post-apocalyptic, underwater adventure set in a desperate world ruined by magic where survivors are still trying to adapt to an entirely new way of life below the waters. While Balance ran mostly on rails with the players going to “the next thing”, Ethersea is more of what we would call a sandbox, with a wide variety of possible objectives and a variety of random mechanics to create interesting situations on the fly as they play.
They are 27 episodes in but each episode is only about an hour so catching up is relatively quick. While not as large of a fan base as Critical Role, there is still a lot of excitement in getting to enjoy a new and unfolding story together with the community.
Not Another D&D Podcast (NADDPod)
Not Another D&D Podcast is perhaps the silliest of all the actual plays mentioned up to this point. The cast consists entirely of former College Humor writers, actors and comedians so they bring the comedy bonafides to the table (as well as their guests). But what really elevates it is the way they manage to blend it with some truly superb character development without losing that fun and charm. A big selling point for NADDPod is that it represents a diversity of player experience levels. DM Murph and player Emily are veterans of Dimension20 and amazing storytellers who take the 5E system and really make it sing for gameplay and worldbuilding. On the other side you have new players Caldwell and Jake (who supposedly was hearing the rules for the first time during the first episode).
Campaign 1: Bahumia. The inaugural campaign of NADDPod takes place in an almost stereotypical fantasy world but with a unique twist: the campaign takes place in a world that has already been “saved” by a seemingly much more competent/heroic band of adventurers some years earlier. But it's not all wrapped up as well or as neatly as they might have hoped. So “Crick” Elf Moonshine, Green Teen Beverly and Dw-orphan Hardwon have to set it right. It takes a bit to find its feet but it's funny throughout. I highly recommend sticking around at least through the Gladeholm arc where the storytelling really finds its lore, drama and RP coming to life. They also have fantastic guest stars, roping in nearly the entire College Humor cast at one point or another for several episode stints.
Campaign 2 Eldermourne. Eldermourne keeps a lot of the same energy but delves into a somewhat darker world, more of a grim fairy tales meets victorian steampunk vibe. The humor is definitely still around in spades but expect some more spooks, scares and existential pondering. It clocks in at a much shorter run of episodes and is maybe a more manageable first bite of NADDPod.
(I should also point out that player Emily Axford composes some real banger music for both seasons!)
Dimension 20 is an actual play series spin off of College Humor (now Dropout). It is just season after season of fast, fun, hilarious games with a lot of heart. Dimension 20 seasons run as short as 8 episodes (for side adventures) or nearly 20 for "Intrepid Heroes" seasons (the primary cast). The cast are all College Humor/Dropout comedians with deep backgrounds in comedy, improv and storytelling. (including Emily and Murph who do NADDPod). They have a mix of D&D experience with complete noobs like Ally at the table as well as devious D&D galaxy brains like Emily. I also can't talk enough about the phenomenal DM Brennan Lee Mulligan who is one of the fastest and most skilled improvisers in Dungeon Mastering. He can pull a huge, memorable NPC out of thin air on the fly and respond to every whacky thing his players throw at him.
There are tons of great seasons with lots of off the wall concepts like a D&D high school, a miniature heist executed by toys and bugs and a Game of Thrones grim fantasy world populated by Candy and Groceries. Most of the seasons are only available through Dropout's subscription service but the first episode of each season is available on YouTube as well as the entire runs of Fantasy High Season 1 and Unsleeping City Season 1.
Other Great Actual Plays
Black Dice Society. A more horror-centric D&D campaign that ventures into the official campaign setting of Ravenloft. An excellent cast and DM’d by the illustrious B. Dave Walters
Invitation to Party. A new experiment in D&D space, a high production actual play that combines more theatrical elements like costuming, lighting and even players fully getting up from the table to act out scenes together. B. Dave once again ringleads the shenanigans, pacing the center floor like a resplendent storytelling lion. Part of the G4 revival on Twitch. For folks who want to see what roleplaying looks like cranked up to 11.
Bombarded. An all-bard podcast featuring real musicians making real music as part of each episode. Sung spells, original compositions and even a special music making magic subsystem. This is a totally wild vision of what 5E D&D can do.
A Crown of Cold Iron. Since you're reading this blog you might also be interested in checking out our actual play! My friends and I stream a modern urban fantasy campaign called "A Crown of Cold Iron" every Monday evening. Our first few eps have some Twitch issues but it smoothes out after that.
And we'll be back next week with tips and advice on the all-important Session 0 and the conversations you need to have with your DM and party before you start playing!
(PS I'm going to be updating and adding to this list for future use so check back occasionally! Let us know if we missed any of your favorite actual plays!)
Hi! I'm Colby. DM, Nerd, IRL Cleric and Writer.