Friday, June 10, 2016

An Excerpt from the Journals of Podcasting

There are some things you talk about around the water cooler. Or, rather, would. If you had one. Perhaps the latest Game of Thrones or Walking Dead. But I don't really watch TV, both because I just don't care to and because I don't even have cable. Serial media in general is hard for me to keep up with. If I fall off, even for a moment, I almost never regain my momentum. It's why I watched nine seasons of Scrubs in half as many days. When it comes to shows, I usually have to wait for it to be out and over with before I start.

That's why I like podcasts. I can listen to them just about anywhere, so I don't need to set aside special time for them. Since I am a security guard who works nights, podcasts are the perfect type of entertainment that can get me through the long hours of nothing without getting me in trouble for bringing in a book or a laptop. One type of podcast that I have started listening to of late is the actual play genre, which essentially is like a Let's Play, but of a tabletop RPG like Dungeons & Dragons.
Friends at the Table is an actual play podcast focused on critical worldbuilding, smart characterization, and fun interactions between good friends. Says so right at the start of every episode. I have been following this podcast for about ten months now, getting to know its world and characters. It's become a big part of my creative mind as I see fan art and interact with the showrunners on twitter (read: hassle).

Their most recent season, called COUNTER/Weight, is a 43 episode space opera with heavy cyberpunk and anime influences. In the wake of a galactic war, we follow the adventures of four spectacular individuals. As bounty hunters and problem solvers, they navigate the treacherous post-war politics of the planet Counterweight while slowly unraveling the mysteries of the galaxy around them. Mysteries that draw them ever closer to another war--or worse. Along the way, they meet some of the most colorful characters I've ever seen, including the fan favorite: a character inspired by the rapper Riff Raff.

Sounds familiar, right? Standard adventuring party stuff. But FatT adds another layer. Then a few more. On a monthly basis, the game shifts to a galactic scale, and we watch the factions and powerhouses of the Golden Branch Star Sector trade blows, forge alliances, awaken ancient evils, and generally cause ripples throughout the sector that affect the ground level game. Then the next layer gets added. For the Friends at the Table Holiday Special, they take a look back at the Golden War nine years prior, exploring the actions and motives of its heroes and villains. Another flashback later on takes us even farther back some 80,000 years before the start of the campaign, and one episode shows us scenes from so long ago I can't even remember the chronology.

This could easily be cumbersome and dense, but it's all welded together by the airtight pre- and post-episode narrations by the GM, Austin Walker. This dude is easily among my favorite GMs, and I'd put him up alongside the greats like Chris Perkins and Matt Mercer. This is obviously a very different beast, but Austin delivers tone and setting so skillfully that I just have to give him some major props. I was so invested in the world created by this show that background characters with no speaking parts were among my favorites just because of where they came from and what they could do.

It's refreshing to see something end with intent. All too often I see things, especially serial media, end on either a cliffhanger or a gentle fade into obscurity and mediocrity. COUNTER/Weight ends with a gut-wrenching series of vignettes showcasing all of the people and places that we've come to love over the last year. Then Austin gives one last ending narration before we see one last scene, tinged with nostalgia, that doesn't end with credits or music, but fades out as we contentedly unfocus from the world, its story told and done.

On top of the actual content, the delivery and presentation are top-notch. Music is provided by one of the players, Jack de Quidt, which you can find at the link below, and it's masterfully spliced into the audio mix by another player, Alicia Acampora. While I loved every episode of the show, it switches systems in episode 10. The change from MechNoir to The Sprawl brings some stability and consistency to the game, and you're totally able to jump in at that point if you want a more streamlined listening experience. If you do, however, I'd strongly suggest you still listen to episodes 0, 5, and 9, as they provide quite a bit of crucial context to the setting.

Perhaps the strangest thing about this is knowing that I'm carrying these warm memories alone. None of my friends have gotten around to listening to COUNTER/Weight, as none of them have the spare time I do. I'm walking around with this piece of media that I love, with awesome moments that blew me away just like when I watched...well, I was going to give examples, but they're mostly anime. I'll just say "more public works." But my point is that since I don't know anyone else who's listened to this show, I have these moments to myself. They are purely my own memories, and it's a very unique feeling. Kind of like imagining that perfect anime you wish was real, except it is. In the words of Ibex, Candidate of Righteousness, it's a special kind of warmth.


Friends at the Table can be found here: http://friendsatthetable.net/
and here: http://twitter.com/Friends_Table
The soundtrack, by Jack de Quidt, can be found here: https://notquitereal.bandcamp.com/

And lastly, I'll just direct you to the creators' twitter accounts.

Austin Walker, GM: http://twitter.com/austin_walker
Ali Acampora, Aria Joie & Jace Rethal: http://twitter.com/ali_west
Keith Carberry, Mako Trig & Sokrates Nikon Artemisios: http://twitter.com/keithjcarberry
Art Tebbel, Cassander Timaeus Berenice & Addax: http://twitter.com/atebbel
Jack de Quidt, Automated Dynamics ("AuDy") & Orth Godlove: http://twitter.com/notquitereal
Andi Clare, Faction Game, Tea Kenridge, & Jillian Red: http://twitter.com/captaintrash
Andrew Swan, Faction Game, Natalya Greaves, & Kobus: http://twitter.com/swandre3000

3 comments:

  1. Your last paragraph is *exactly* right. I hate and love that I can't really talk about this to anybody else, so I just end up finishing episodes with a sad smile and laughing about lines to myself and knowing there's a weird intimate secret I have.

    Thanks for writing this.

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  2. My boyfriend and I both listen, but not together, so I've gotten in the habit of walking over when I'm ahead of him and saying things like, "Laser Ted's job prospects" or "Orth's final word to the twins." Avoiding spoilers, but seeding things I want him to come talk to me about when he catches up!

    One of my favorite "seeds" was just "Buffy."

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  3. really enjoyed reading this, summed up my feeling well, especially the last para

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