What I learned about storytelling from my five-year D&D podcast.

Silhouettes of the new characters for season 2 of Adventure Incorporated.
Campaign 2 of Adventure Incorporated starts April 19th

Five years ago I got a message from a friend I hadn’t spoken to in half a decade. We were close in college and, as people do, we lost touch over time. “It would be great to get our friends group together” he said to me, “I miss everyone. Maybe we could play some Dungeons and Dragons online or something.”

Ah D&D. A mainstay of my young adult life. In the last few years this roleplaying classic has broken out of its shell in a big way. No longer relegated to obscure geekdom, the game has gained huge popularity with an ever expanding community and a bumper crop of twitch streams, YouTube shows, and podcasts. The history of the D&D podcast is one that has fascinated me. From the first wave of shows like Critical Hit, Nerd Poker, and Drunks and Dragons (Now Greetings Adventurers) there was something special about the roleplaying experience shared via audio podcast. This was a group of friends at a table sharing a bond and saving you a silent seat to witness the power of storytelling and camaraderie. I had been playing D&D for nearly twenty years already when I stumbled on The Adventure Zone and the idea of combining broad performance to an audience and this game I loved with my friends was very appealing.

Could my friends and I play D&D online together? Absolutely. We’d all roll characters, fire up Skype (It was 2016. That’s what we did then.), and probably play twice before everyone got too busy and life got in the way. Then it would be another half decade before we all spoke again. But this group of friends had one other thing in common, we were all performers at heart. We had been in an improv troupe together in college and I knew if there was one thing that would keep us coming back for more week after week, it was an audience. Last week we put out our 260th episode of Adventure Incorporated; the culmination to a five year campaign that told of daring heroes battling the forces of cosmic darkness for the fate of reality. It had laughter, tenderness, and twists. Moments of genuine joy and sorrow amongst a group of friends shared with strangers. The show does well: it’s had a rock solid release schedule, a patreon you can support, some live shows at a major convention, and an amazing community most people would beg for. It’s been good to us and I feel compelled to pass on some of the things I’ve learned about telling stories over the last five years.

It All Comes Down To Trust. In the story we told I controlled the world. I created the cosmology, I spoke for the NPCs, I dictated their motivations, I was the interface for the world. I had near infinite cosmic power, except when it came to the agency of my players. In turn, my players were able to make their own choices, but that only happens if you feel like your decisions have an impact of any kind, and there is a possibility that the decisions you make can have a positive outcome. In order for both situations above to be true and come out in any way successful it requires a very tight trust between everyone at the table. I have to be able to trust that my players are invested enough in the goings on to make decisions that push things forward and give me fodder to play against. They have to trust that I’m not out to get them or that the choices they are making are actual choices, not a thin façade meant to look like choice while I read a book at them. Even among good friends who have performed together many times, this trust needs to be earned. One way to do this, that I think is so important, is to have conversations with your players out of game about what the story they are trying to tell with their character is and then make real steps towards trying to provide opportunities for the players to make choices that play into the conflicts of that story. This can be one of the most difficult things to achieve with a group because it can’t be forced, but it’s one of the biggest differences between a good game of D&D and a bad one.

Expectations Are Everything. As a storyteller, you have no greater tool in your arsenal than expectation. It’s such a wonderful weapon to wield because we get to use it in so many different ways, and the more we use it, the more powerful it becomes. Storytelling is a transaction between the storyteller and the audience. The storyteller is providing a consumable good and the audience provides attention (and sometimes other forms of currency, like over at patreon). Just as a transaction needs a clear understanding of the goods being bought and sold and the currency being used to buy them, a story goes sour when you expect one thing and are delivered something very different indeed. Expectation can be a burden if you’re not prepared for it, just ask Game of Thrones. Through this show, however, I learned that it’s vital to share your expectations of a story as a storyteller, and not just at the beginning, but to always be communicating that expectation. That information is crucial to convey to your audience (both players and actual audience in our case) so that they aren’t expecting something else and facing disappointment. If you are all on the same page, everyone can enjoy the experience rather than be annoyed or put off by the outcome. The more you stick to those expectations, the more your audience will settle into them, and when you do subvert those expectations in an intentional way (as is incumbent upon you as a storyteller from time to time) the shock of your audience is all the sweeter.

Perfection Is The Enemy Of Progress. Like all things on the internet, consistency is a key part of creating a podcast like this. Your audience has a routine, and if you are there for them, they will be there for you; if you aren’t there for them, they’ll find someone who will be. When I first started producing the show it was the first time I’d ever done any real audio editing. I was going through with a fine-tooth comb and removing every blemish. For every hour of audio I produced I spent ten hours editing and re-editing to get it just right. Not only was this not tenable, it wasn’t good. Of course, no small part of that length of time was my own undeveloped skills, but in addition to that the end product lacked something that was fundamental to the medium we were playing in. People came to the podcast because there is a feeling inherent to a podcast that isn’t present in other media. The feeling is one of friendship, that by listening in on this intimate experience you are part of the group. I don’t think anyone literally thinks they are part of the group, but there is a warmth and an energy to a group with chemistry that is palpable and it draws you in. When I was overediting the show, some of that charm was left on the cutting room floor. There was real value in having something that felt more natural and real. Letting your story have its heart and soul isn’t a bad thing, it is endearing. And if things aren’t quite perfect, well, there’s always next week’s episode.

The podcast has been a huge part of my life for the last five years, and while it isn’t going away, this is the ending of an era that has been so integral to the daily life of my cast and me. The life changes we have gone through while this show has been in production have been numerous and monumental. We have had weddings, engagements, and births (two of our players got engaged to one another!) We’ve had divorce, family deaths, and severe bouts of mental illness. We’ve fought monsters and demons in our fake little story while we fought them in real life. We have had wins and losses, but for these five years we’ve had each other, and we’ve had our audience. To those of you who were on this journey with us for the last five years, thank you for being a part of things. For those of you who weren’t, next Monday we begin again with an all new adventure and we’d love to have you along for the ride. Follow us on Twitter or get the podcast on our website (and we have a patreon too, if I didn’t mention it already.) We have so much more story to tell.