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Danielle Radford, with heavy in-character eye makeup, beholds the undead bear vehicle of her nightmares for the first time. Her mouth is agape. Image: Dimension 20

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The 5 best moments in actual play of 2023

From sound to visuals to entirely new storytelling techniques, these programs pushed the form forward

From body-horror battlemaps and soaring choral anthems to creative live visual and in-fiction language lessons, actual play last year had moments that shocked, delighted, and even instructed — inspiring waypoints for players and performers alike. As a professor who studies troupes performing Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games, I’ve spent time with hundreds of shows across thousands of hours, watching and listening. These are the sounds, images, and ideas from 2023 that will stick with me for years to come.

Cassi Mothwin’s Jenga tower in space

Cassi Mothwin’s work this year has been an interesting mix of game design and performance experience, including the combination audio drama and solo journaling RPG The Sticker Game, which won her an Indie Groundbreaker award and the prize for best actual-play video at Minnesota WebFest. While not a prolific actual-play creator, her livestreamed playthrough of Chris Bissette’s solo game The Wretched is an engaging experience. With a deft use of digital overlays, her multi-camera setup turned humble wooden blocks into a stylized representation of a doomed starship. A tight 40 minutes of gameplay with an introduction and a 15-minute postgame reflection, it’s also a reminder of the impact shorter sessions and smaller systems can have on an audience.

Gudiya cracks to let light in

Another livestream you may have missed that earned kudos across various web fests, including multiple nominations and awards, was Gudiya, a playthrough of Bluebeard’s Bride that used the novel system to explore ideas of colonial and gendered violence in a South Asian setting. Three players are different aspects of the titular bride, and as their dynamic shifts, so too does the lush, animated representation of Gudiya’s face by Stella Luna — a gorgeous, and haunting, set of images of fracture and reintegration.

Worlds Beyond Number brings us to “The Rain Road”

There’s a lot of strong contenders for original music these days in actual play, following in the tradition of Griffin McElroy’s work on The Adventure Zone. Musician J. Strautman of Planet Arcana follows in the McElroy tradition of scoring and DMing (including an opening theme that is never far from my brain), and the team led by Steven Melin at Dark Dice composes immersive, haunting sonic landscapes. There’s even in-character concept albums by the Dungeons and Daddies team.

The one moment I’ve been showing to students, colleagues, and the curious has been the finale of Worlds Beyond Number’s first arc, “There is an Ocean Vaster than This One,” which uses an original song by producer Taylor Moore with DM Brennan Lee Mulligan, “The Rain Road.” Inspired by Mulligan’s deep engagement with Celtic lore, and including a combination of individual singers and a choir sourced from all over the world, the song is an expression of unity and hope renewed and brings the first arc of this ambitious new actual play to an equally astonishing end.

DesiQuest’s glossy glossary

Jasmine Bhullar’s love letter to the Indian subcontinent, DesiQuest, arrived a little later than anticipated, but it was time and money well spent. There’s much to love, with brisk pacing, thoughtful world-building, and a delightful cast of characters (young construct Baccha has my whole heart). But the show earns special kudos for the choice to add pop-up witty definitions in the lower third. The choice allows Bhullar and her stellar cast to proceed without interruption or explanation in this all-Desi space, while graciously inviting wider audiences in to share in the fun. It’s one of many small touches that make the project sing.

Iyengar’s bear

Aabria Iyengar is best known for theater-of-the-mind-style play, and her prior times in charge of Dimension 20’s Dome had her calling on the talents of Rick Perry and the art team to create projections and props, not battlemaps. That all changed with episode 2 of Burrow’s End, where Iyengar unveiled her monsterpiece: an undead bear, now being piloted by chipmunks. Part miniature, part battlemap, the bear was the first sign of the true horror of this campaign, as well as a clever foreshadowing of the themes and plot points yet to come.

Honorable mention: Shoutout to CritRoleStats

While most media now relies heavily on what scholar Ludi Price calls “fan information labor” — the work of compiling info, wikis, clipping moments, and more — it’s the lifeblood of actual play. Having devoted, nerdy-ass (and detail-oriented) fans is almost as important to a fledgling show’s success as the cast and crew. This is particularly true of Critical Role, whose gargantuan episodes have been live-tweeted by CritRoleStats since the first summer of airing. For the final broadcast of 2023, the team (Andrew K., Singing Badger, Lauren K., and Katherine K.) got a shoutout by DM Matt Mercer and loremaster Dani Carr. In response, the team tweeted, “It’s been an honor and a pleasure to serve, record, laugh, cry, and experience with this community, this show, and the people who create it. Thank you all for eight astounding years.” It was a touching tribute to a project whose impact on audiences (and scholarship!) cannot be overstated — of a kind we likely will not see again.

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