One of the final steps a person takes in becoming his or her best nerd self is to sit down at a table and play some Dungeons & Dragons, or any of the thousands of tabletop role-playing games now available. The games are basically like RPG video games, except instead of a computer program deciding if you hit the evil dragon, a roll of the dice determines what happens. A critical miss (rolling a one, for instance) could spell disaster for the roller.
The games can be a lot of fun, but tough to organize due to how long they take and how dependent they are on other players. If you’re having trouble roping some friends into playing with you, or if you’re just unsure if this whole “tabletop game” thing is for you, podcasts are a great way to dip your toes into the role-playing pool.
A relatively new phenomenon, RPG podcasts are simply a group of players who record their tabletop game sessions and load them up on iTunes or wherever podcasts can be downloaded. Some have found a good bit of success; for example, writer and producer Dan Harmon began a role-playing campaign on his comedy podcast Harmontown, and that eventually turned into an online TV show called HarmonQuest, complete with celebrity guests like Aubrey Plaza and animated sequences to show what the players are doing.
Not every RPG podcast out there has the production value and star power of HarmonQuest, but the amount of storytelling and improv humor these shows pack in makes them a delight to listen to. Here’s a selection of three high-quality RPG podcasts to check out if you’re ever feeling the tabletop itch:
The Adventure Zone
The gold standard of RPG podcasts, The Adventure Zone on the Maximum Fun podcast network also found its footing on another show first. Brothers Griffin, Justin and Travis McElroy host My Brother My Brother and Me, a podcast in which they basically goof with each other and answer fan questions about life. On a lark, they tried a game of Dungeons & Dragons with their father, Clint McElroy, and fans absolutely loved it. Thus, The Adventure Zone was born.
With Griffin telling the story as the “Dungeon Master,” TAZ follows the misadventures of Magnus Burnsides the human fighter (played by Travis), Taako Taaco the elf wizard (played by Justin) and Merle Highchurch the dwarven cleric (played by Clint) as they track down artifacts with the power to destroy the world.
The series is an addicting mix of family hijinks and serialized storytelling, as Griffin leads his players through story arcs that often toy with different genres far beyond the traditional fantasy setting. Murder mysteries on trains? They’ve got that. Mad Max-like “battlewagon” races? Oh, they’ve got that. Quaint western towns with supernatural secrets lurking beneath the surface? Why do you even have to ask, you know they’ve got that. And somehow in between the genre hopping, the four still find time to crack each other up with bad puns and questionable in-game decisions. Don't let all the goofs fool you, though: There is an emotional depth to this show that it honestly has no right to have, thanks to the wonderful storytelling by Griffin and the rest of the McElroy clan.
What really sets TAZ apart from other RPG podcasts is the original music, courtesy of Griffin. Sometimes it’s used to convey the story, as with the ethereal tune that dominates the show’s space-themed arc “The Crystal Kingdom.” The music can also be part of the joke, like the catchy theme for the show’s in-game magic store Fantasy Costco (where all your dreams come true), or it can be used as an emotional gut-punch to send off fan-favorite non-player characters. Either way it’s always top quality, from the infectious opening theme to the background music at the crew's Moonbase headquarters.
The Campaign podcast started on its sister show, One Shot, where improv comedians and other guests come together to play standalone role-playing games one or two episodes at a time. Campaign, which is set in the Star Wars Edge of the Empire role-playing system, is a longform podcast that follows the same characters and story throughout. Not counting the multiple sidequest and flashback and “Evil Campaign” episodes, the podcast has 78 episodes of its main story and is still going strong. The show is now affiliated with the Chicago-based Peaches and Hot Sauce podcast network.
Campaign stars the ragtag crew of the “Mynock” spaceship, and is all about letting the players run wild across the Star Wars universe. The core trio of the show includes lothario smuggler Trystan Valentine (voiced by John Patrick Coan), wig-wearing bounty hunter Leenik Geelo (voiced by Johnny O’Mara) and the fatherly clone soldier Bacta (voiced by James D’Amato, who runs the One Shot podcast). The incredible Kat Kuhl hosts the podcast, and voices another member of the Mynock crew — the Indiana Jones-esque Lyntel’luroon. Kat also voices dozens of other characters across the show for the crew to interact with. Fans of the Star Wars movies will love the different alien races and even the occasional cameo from well-known characters, but it definitely helps if you are familiar with related Star Wars TV shows like Clone Wars or Rebels.
The main draw for diving into this dauntingly huge story is the comedy that sparks between the players, and the absurd ways their jokes manage to impact the plot. An early encounter with a pack of deadly alien animals nets the players a new permanent companion in the form of Tony Vornskr, a “400-pound space wolf with above human intelligence,” according to his loving parent Leenik. A throwaway joke upon arriving at a new planet alters the plot to mean that an intergalactic bounty hunter convention is taking place there, which is terrible news for the Mynock crew, aka the most valuable bounties in the galaxy. The crew's ridiculous antics have lasting effects on the plot, and the show’s longform style makes it a joy to see a small joke in episode 23 become an actual plot point in episode 54.
The Film ReRoll
What if movies were role-playing games? What if the roll of the dice, instead of a script, decided the main character's fate? That’s the basic premise of The Film ReRoll, which takes classic movies like Back to the Future II and The Wizard of Oz and turns them on their heads as role-playing campaigns.
What if Dorothy doesn’t trust the shifty Glinda the Good Witch and decides to use her powerful ruby slippers to kick her in the face? What if Robin Williams' character from Jumanji never gets sucked into the game board for decades at the start of the movie? What if they never even make it to the bus in Speed? All of these ridiculous scenarios and more are possible when Paulo Quiros and Co. take your favorite movies and “ruin them” through the magic of role-playing games.
There’s a lot to love in The Film ReRoll: The cast has amazing chemistry, DM Paulo Quiros knows just how to balance telling a story and letting his players have fun with it, and there’s just something satisfying about hearing your favorite movies go so off the rails. Fans of Halloween and Frozen will especially be interested in just how wild these retellings can get. There’s also fun to be had in experiencing a movie you’ve never seen before through this ridiculous medium: Thelma and Louise the movie cannot possibly hold up to Thelma and Louise the reroll.
Each movie the show rerolls acts as its own standalone story, so new fans can jump in anywhere they feel comfortable. The ReRoll crew's latest episode, part one of Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey, features the most inspired casting so far, as each player fits perfectly into his or her role as one of the three main animals.