Actual play

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Actual play, also called live play,[1] is a genre of podcast or web show in which people play tabletop role-playing games (TTRPGs) for an audience.[2][3] Actual play often encompasses in-character interactions between players, storytelling from the gamemaster, and out-of-character engagements such as dice rolls and discussion of game mechanics.[3] The genre emerged in the early 2000s[4] and became more popular throughout the decade, particularly with the 2015 debut of Critical Role, an actual play webseries featuring professional voice actors.[2][5]


According to Evan Torner writing in Watch Us Roll, actual play is rooted in phenomena including magazine "play reports" of wargames and internet forums dedicated to role-playing games.[3] With the emergence of esports, livestreamed gaming, and Let's Plays, actual plays of TTRPGs became a popular podcast and webseries format, and contributed to the resurgence of TTRPGs in the 2010s and 2020s.[3][5]

In 2008, the creators of Penny Arcade partnered with Wizards of the Coast to create a podcast of a few 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons adventures which led to the creation of the Acquisitions Incorporated.[6] After the podcast was well-received, the players began livestreaming games starting in 2010 at the PAX festival.[6]: 108 [7] Acquisitions Incorporated went on to be described by Inverse in 2019 as the "longest-running live play game".[8] Critical Role, a web series in which professional voice actors play Dungeons & Dragons, launched in 2015. Critical Role has been credited by VentureBeat as responsible for making actual play shows "their own genre of entertainment", and has since become one of the most prominent actual play series.[5] The Critical Role animated series The Legend of Vox Machina was crowdfunded on Kickstarter in 2019, where it raised US$11.39 million, setting the record for the most highly-funded film or TV project in the platform's history. Following this, Amazon streaming service Prime Video acquired exclusive streaming rights to the series.[9] Another popular series is The Adventure Zone, a comedic actual play podcast which has featured several TTRPG systems.[2] As of 2021, it received over 6 million monthly downloads, and ranked highly on Apple podcast charts.[10] The "Balance" campaign of The Adventure Zone was adapted into a series of graphic novels, the first of which was published in 2018.[11][12] By 2021, there were hundreds of actual play podcasts.[10]

In 2018, the Diana Jones Award for excellence in tabletop gaming named the concept of actual play as that year's award winner, marking the first year the award was not awarded to a game, organization, or individual.[13]

TTRPG publishers have engaged with actual plays by licensing shows based on their products, running their own, incorporating content from actual plays back into source material, and playtesting games in actual play format. L.A. by Night is an actual play licensed by the publisher Paradox Interactive, and based on their role-playing game Vampire: The Masquerade; it premiered on Geek & Sundry in 2018.[14] Rivals of Waterdeep is an official Wizards of the Coast actual play show, based on their Dungeons & Dragons system.[7] Wizards of the Coast has also published collaboration sourcebooks based on actual play shows, such as the Explorer's Guide to Wildemount (2020) based on Critical Role[15] and Acquisitions Incorporated (2019) based on the live play game by the same name.[8]

Cultural impact[edit]

Actual plays have contributed towards improving representation of people of color, women, and others in tabletop gaming, which has had a reputation of being primarily made up of white men.[7][13][16][17] Maze Arcana's Sirens, with Satine Phoenix as dungeonmaster (DM), features an all-women group of players.[18][19] Rivals of Waterdeep (DMed by Tanya DePass) and Into the Motherlands are actual play shows with casts that are entirely made up of people of color.[13][20] Death2Divinity is an actual play show with an all-queer, "all fat-babe" cast.[21]

Actual play shows have also been credited with improving representation of LGBT people in media more generally. Entertainment website CBR has said that LGBT representation has been more easily incorporated into actual plays because they are often produced by independent creators and distributed online. The site named The Adventure Zone and Dimension 20 as two examples of actual plays which include LGBT characters.[2]

Amanda Farough wrote for VentureBeat that "the boundaries and barriers that have traditionally kept TTRPGs hidden behind an opaque divide have come tumbling down" and that actual play "long-form narrative is reshaping itself as an expression of both players and the audiences that accompany them on the journey ahead".[7] Curtis D. Carbonell, in his book the Dread Trident: Tabletop Role-Playing Games and the Modern Fantastic, commented that shows such as Acquisitions Incorporated and Critical Role reflect "a wider phenomenon made clear by numerous videos of individual gaming sessions by random groups ... The confluence of these digital and analog streamed elements adds to the increasing archive of realized gametexts that can be consumed and analyzed with the modern fantastic".[6]: 108  Both Farough and Carbonell highlighted that actual play shows have also increased sales of TTRPGs and related products.[7][6]

List of actual play media[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ DeVille, Chris (November 16, 2017). "The rise of D&D liveplay is changing how fans approach roleplaying". The Verge. Archived from the original on August 29, 2021. Retrieved August 31, 2021.
  2. ^ a b c d Sowa, Alexander (June 14, 2020). "Dungeons & Dragons: How Actual-Play Shows Are Boosting LGBTQ Representation". CBR. Archived from the original on June 29, 2021. Retrieved August 31, 2021.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Jones, Shelly, ed. (2021). Watch Us Roll: Essays on Actual Play and Performance in Tabletop Role-Playing Games. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company. ISBN 978-1-4766-4343-4. OCLC 1263339374. Archived from the original on September 2, 2021. Retrieved September 1, 2021.
  4. ^ Maclean, Paul (December 10, 2008). Lovecraftian Tales from the Table: Horror on the Orient Express & The Masks of Nyarlathotep DVD-ROM: 1. Eric Smith, Francois Launet (DVD-Rom ed.). Yog-Sothoth.
  5. ^ a b c Whitten, Sarah (March 14, 2020). "How Critical Role helped spark a Dungeons & Dragons renaissance". CNBC. Archived from the original on August 12, 2021. Retrieved August 31, 2021.
  6. ^ a b c d e Carbonell, Curtis D. (2019). Dread Trident: Tabletop Role-Playing Games and the Modern Fantastic. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press. ISBN 978-1-78962-468-7. OCLC 1129971339.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g Farough, Amanda (March 17, 2021). "How tabletop RPG actual play shows are inspiring a new generation of fans — and products". VentureBeat. Archived from the original on January 18, 2021. Retrieved August 31, 2021.
  8. ^ a b Plante, Corey (June 16, 2019). "Acquisition Incorporated Source Book Review: Perfect for New D&D Players". Inverse. Archived from the original on January 15, 2021. Retrieved September 2, 2021.
  9. ^ Spangler, Todd (November 5, 2019). "Amazon Orders Two Seasons of Critical Role's Animated 'Legend of Vox Machina' Series". Variety. Archived from the original on January 3, 2021. Retrieved April 7, 2020.
  10. ^ a b Hedge, Stephanie; Grouling, Jennifer, eds. (2021). "Introduction". Roleplaying Games in the Digital Age: Essays on Transmedia Storytelling, Tabletop RPGs and Fandom. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company. p. 3. ISBN 978-1-4766-4201-7. OCLC 1239982762.
  11. ^ Sava, Oliver (May 7, 2018). "This The Adventure Zone Exclusive Brings the Zany Fantasy Podcast to Comics". The A.V. Club. G/O Media. Archived from the original on February 8, 2021. Retrieved January 28, 2021. The Adventure Zone podcast has been delighting listeners for years with its blend of exciting fantasy storytelling and sharp comedy, and it's moving into a new dimension with the release of a new graphic novel from First Second.
  12. ^ Goldberg, Lesley (January 16, 2020). "Peacock Sets Expansive Scripted Development Slate Ahead of Formal Unveiling". The Hollywood Reporter. Archived from the original on February 2, 2021. Retrieved February 14, 2021. The Adventure Zone is a side-splitting and heart-filled fantasy animated comedy series
  13. ^ a b c Hall, Charlie (July 9, 2018). "'Actual play' RPG experiences like Critical Role, Adventure Zone are having a moment". Polygon. Archived from the original on August 24, 2021. Retrieved August 31, 2021.
  14. ^ "Vampire: The Masquerade - What You Need to Know About LA by Night". CBR. June 17, 2020. Archived from the original on March 8, 2021. Retrieved November 12, 2020.
  15. ^ Culver, Jordan (March 25, 2020). "Dungeons & Dragons while social distancing? It's free to try the newest 'Critical Role'-inspired sourcebook". USA Today. Archived from the original on May 12, 2021. Retrieved September 1, 2021.
  16. ^ Gault, Matthew (December 31, 2020). "Dungeons & Dragons' Racial Reckoning Is Long Overdue". Wired. ISSN 1059-1028. Archived from the original on August 25, 2021. Retrieved September 1, 2021.
  17. ^ Cote, Amanda C. (2020). Gaming Sexism: Gender and Identity in the Era of Casual Video Games. New York: New York University Press. p. 194. ISBN 978-1-4798-0221-0. OCLC 1164497475.
  18. ^ Tran, Tony (July 24, 2021). "Rick and Morty vs. D&D actual play is Comic-Con's nerdiest crossover event". Polygon. Archived from the original on July 28, 2021. Retrieved September 1, 2021.
  19. ^ Hoffer, Christian (June 18, 2019). "Satine Pheonix Talks About the Dungeons & Dragons Community and Neverwinter's Enduring Success". CBR. Archived from the original on September 22, 2020. Retrieved September 1, 2021.
  20. ^ Wilson, Jason (October 9, 2020). "Into the Mother Lands interview: Twitch invests in an RPG show led by people of color". VentureBeat. Archived from the original on July 9, 2021. Retrieved September 1, 2021.
  21. ^ Nightingale, Ed (June 30, 2021). "Queer Twitch streamer launches joyous 'all fat-babe' body positive Dungeons and Dragons campaign". PinkNews. Archived from the original on July 5, 2021. Retrieved September 1, 2021.
  22. ^ King, Chris (July 21, 2021). "Critical Role's new D&D show is great but still challenging for newcomers". Polygon. Retrieved July 23, 2021.