Actual play podcasts are undergoing a bit of a renaissance right now. Instead of the traditional format of just a few friends playing Dungeons and Dragons with minimal editing, the focus put on just the personalities and jokes of the hosts, more recent actual plays have made steps to flip the script and try something new. One of these more recent additions to the genre is 20 Sided Stories, a podcast that mixes actual play setups with lush sound design and a great score, but doesn’t take itself too seriously.
20 Sided Stories is an improvised, actual-play podcast where a rotating cast of comedians, actors, performers, nerds, writers, and what have you, play a table-top RPG and deliver the spontaneity to you in the form of a improvised radio play. That means sound effects and design and an original music score. And we want you to freely drop in and out, so every season will be a NEW adventure with new characters and new stories.
20 Sided Stories features several small campaigns with a wide variety in genre. So far, they’ve played in a post-apocalyptic desert, compared to Red Dead Redemption and Fallout; a sci-fi one-shot; a mystery in Victorian London a la a very goofy Sherlock Holmes; and, currently, a game set in the Pokemon Universe–specifically in the classic Kanto region. The setup of having a variety of genres with short campaigns means that new listeners can start listening without too much of a backlog to get caught up on, as well as picking and choosing the campaigns they listen to.
While each campaign does have a different genre, the tone is fairly consistent. Some campaigns skew slightly more dramatic (currently “Macabreverse” and “Lasers & Feelings”) but none of them are too self-serious. There’s a vein of lighthearted jokes in each campaign, whether it be the over-the-top accents in “Victoria 1890” or the absurdity of the Pokemon universe in “Pokemon.” There’s also a consistency in how much each arc fully commits to the aesthetic of its campaign. Each episode is fully scored and sound designed, focusing much more on the story at hand than the actual game mechanics. It makes for a space that keeps your attention like any lush audio drama, even while slinging jokes that would feel at home in something like Hello from the Magic Tavern.
And while 20 Sided Stories is one of the few podcasts that sounds fantastic and feels engaging from its first episode, the current “Pokemon” arc is an unsurprising favorite. The silly, whimsical, hyperbolic nature of the storytelling is contrasted with the genuine horror of much of the Pokemon universe–but luckily, the “Pokemon” arc isn’t here to make fun of that universe. Instead, it’s a painstaking, meticulously crafted love story to the Pokemon games, movies, and TV shows. The arc feels like playing the games for the first time, but it also feels like talking with your friends about how weird that universe is. Tonally, it actually feels a bit like Potterless–loving, but not without critiques; filled to the brim with jokes, but appreciative instead of condescending.
20 Sided Stories purposefully lacks consistency in one major facet of its production, though: its players. The move to bring on new actors to play in each campaign is bold, given most actual play podcasts build listenership through dedication not just to characters, but a consistent cast. Instead, 20 Sided Stories is seemingly banking on its quality and design to keep listeners loyal, getting actors that fit each individual story instead of trying to blend into each arc. For me, this feels like a refreshing departure from most actual play setups. I worry, however, that a broader audience will crave something more long-term to get attached.
In my eyes (ears?), 20 Sided Stories has proven its ability to hook listeners through its inventive use of genres and consistently stunning design. It’s an actual play podcast that feels decidedly different and new while still meshing in with the current actual play greats like Join the Party and The End of Time and Other Bothers.