The podcasting medium is known for true crime, comedy, and regular hits of ripped-from-the-headlines news. Right now, though, one of the biggest emergent genres is Dungeons & Dragons. Whether it’s “actual play,” in which a group of people sit down and record themselves playing a tabletop roleplaying game, or resources for people wanting to run their own games, D&D and other tabletop podcasts have become beloved listens.
While actual-play podcasts aren’t any replacement for adventuring with friends, they’re a way to get the feeling of a campaign if you don’t have a group yet — and you can take that campaign wherever you go. For new Game Masters, Storytellers, or Keepers, they’re a great way to learn the ins and outs of running a campaign and how to manage players. They give glimpses into platforms you might not have tried yet, show how different rules can be interpreted and, most importantly, have amazing plots and characters. People who have played a tabletop roleplaying games know that it’s a completely different way of experiencing a story, and actual-play podcasts help package that particular kind of magic regardless of where you are or when you’re listening.
Finding the actual-play podcast that’s right for you can be pretty daunting — there’s even a website dedicated to keeping track of all of them — so here’s a collection of some fan favorites and indie greats to start you off.
Dragon Talk is the official Dungeons & Dragons podcast of Wizards of the Coast, featuring both playthroughs and discussion about D&D in all its iterations and editions. The episodes also have guests, ranging from Dylan Sprouse (best known for his role on Disney Channel’s The Suite Life of Zack and Cody) to John Darnielle (the musician behind The Mountain Goats) to Patrick Rothfuss (author of The Kingkiller Chronicle), showing how important D&D has been for such a wide array of creators.
Critical Role is an actual-play podcast made up of voice actors — including Matt Mercer, Ashley Johnson and Laura Bailey — and featuring guests like Felicia Day and Wil Wheaton. While Critical Role is known best for its YouTube and Twitch presence, you can’t watch YouTube while driving during a road trip — or, at least, you really shouldn’t. The podcast frees you from having to have your eyes on the screen but leaves you with all the story. Critical Role has become one of the biggest actual-play stories out there, with a massive, dedicated fan following. The series finished its first full story in October 2017, and is currently on its second campaign. This means you can jump in right at the start of that campaign without having to worry about catching up as much.
Join the Party
If you’ve never played a game of D&D and you’re worried about the rules going over your head, Join the Party is the perfect podcast to start you off. The first arc has two tracks: one for beginners, with quick explanations of how stats and rolls work to help teach listeners how to play, and one for experienced players without the explanations. Join the Party is fantasy with a twist, adding cooking competitions, greaser-esque gargoyles, and an entire arc inspired by The Bachelorette. It also has great music and sound design, making it an immersive experience that’s easy to lose yourself in and enjoy. The main characters are a cool teen rogue, a loveable and formidable warforged barbarian, and a used car salesman of a warlock.
The End of Time and Other Bothers
The End of Time and Other Bothers uses the Dungeon World platform, which is similar to Dungeons & Dragons, but a bit looser with the rules. Run by Sean Howard, writer of the comedy podcast Alba Salix, The End of Time and Other Bothers focuses on a a relatable, exasperated human, an oblivious fairy baker and a ripped, anxiety-prone half demon. When the group is transported from their futuristic reality to a fantastical past, they have to find a way to escape and survive. The End of Time and Other Bothers leans heavily into comedy, weaving in improv games and absurdity to give as many laughs as possible.
If you like the idea of tabletops but you want something with a more off-kilter, modern feel, Serendipity City’s dieselpunk urban fantasy might be up your alley. Serendipity City is strong on aesthetic and flair, and its setting is exemplified in its core cast of characters which ranges from a seer to a witch to a clockmaker. Serendipity City has an edge for intrigue and a focus on the intricate worldbuilding behind the city. Instead of using one specific system, Serendipity City meshes Sprawl, Urban Shadows, and Dungeon World, making its rules and setup totally unique.
Ghostpuncher Corps is a decidedly metal Dungeons & Dragons actual-play podcast that focuses on a modern-day bard, druid, and warlock who are tasked by Lucifer to wrangle up demons that have escaped from hell. The show has a similar feel to the hyperbolic graphic novel series Preacher, and draws on horror movie elements from both slasher classics and more recent comedies like Dale and Tucker vs. Evil or Cabin in the Woods. The podcast’s setting is the same as a webcomic of the same name (but featuring a different plot and different characters) for a visual aspect to the world-building.
bomBARDed is an inventive take on the typical actual-play format. Instead of just being friends playing a tabletop game, the group is made up of bandmates, and in each episode, the players have to write a song to use their bardic inspiration. To make things even more interesting and ridiculous, aspects of the song they have to write are determined by dice rolls. bomBARDed is pun-heavy in a way that’s as funny as it is groan-inducing, and the music jokes range from pretty accessible to nitty-gritty into music theory.
20 Sided Stories
20 Sided Stories is an actual-play podcast that casts its NPCs with voice actors and puts an emphasis on music and sound design — making the whole production that sound like an audio drama. It features several small arcs with different settings and systems, ranging from a post-apocalyptic Western to a Sherlock Holmes style mystery — the current arc is set within the world of Pokémon. The episodes are gripping and usually hilarious, and each campaign stays around just long enough to feel complete before the team moves on to a totally different style of adventure.
Very Random Encounters
Very Random Encounters is extremely true to its name. This podcast is made of up several short campaigns in which everything other than the GM and the system is completely randomized: the player characters’ names, races, classes, and stats, as well as plot points and, of course, encounters. While this usually makes for some early on jokes as each player and GM commits fully to the decisions being made, trying to tell the best story they can with the least amount of control instead of just relying on comedy.
Actual-play podcasts aren’t always about fighting dragons or telling as many jokes per minute as you can, and Heart Beats is here to prove it. While the setting of Heart Beats is fantastical, the main characters and their trials are ordinary. There’s a sweet, earnest slice-of-life feeling to Heart Beats that make it feel more at home with a cozy romcom than Lord of the Rings, but the stakes still feel high enough to get invested in the loveable characters and their conflicts.
The Dungeoncast is a valuable asset for any dungeon master. It’s a conversational podcast about all things Dungeons & Dragons, breaking down different monsters, classes, stats, races, and best practices for DMs. D&D core books are information-heavy and can be overwhelming, so The Dungeoncast breaks them down in a way that’s as entertaining as it is accessible. It’s a way to make planning a little easier, learn some great tips for running a game, and listen to fun conversations about the system.
Behold Her is an interview podcast focusing on women in the tabletop roleplaying game community. Interview guests range from an artist who sells hand-drawn character sheets and hand-crafted dice bags to some of the women on the Dungeons & Dragons team of Wizards of the Coast. The podcast is a combination of discussion on roleplaying games and the guests’ anecdotes from their own campaigns.
The Adventure Zone
Like Critical Role, The Adventure Zone is currently one of the most popular actual-play podcasts. Featuring Griffin and Justin McElroy (both formerly of Polygon), their brother Travis McElroy, and their father Clint McElroy, what started off as a bonus episode of comedy podcast My Brother, My Brother and Me eventually became a profound story about hope and loss — while still maintaining its massive quantity of jokes. The first arc of the first campaign has been adapted into a best-selling graphic novel, and another is in the works for its second arc. The Adventure Zone is in its second campaign, and while the first used a fantasy-based setting and Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition rules, the second campaign is a contemporary adventure story in the vein of Supernatural or Buffy the Vampire Slayer with Evil Hat Production’s Monster of the Week system.
Character Creation Cast
Character Creation Cast is a show that spotlights interesting tabletop systems by interviewing people familiar with them and discussing what sorts of characters you can build in them. Each interview is framed like an arc, starting with building characters and ending in discussion. The podcast also has special episodes with tips on how to run a game in a way that makes sense for your player characters, your players, and your NPCs.
I Am Hear
I Am Hear is an interview podcast that skews towards the meta: The interviews are usually with members of the actual-play community. The discussion of the episode centers on how tabletop roleplaying has been a significant positive change in the interviewee’s life, and how they’ve taken that positivity and spread it through their own podcasts or other tabletop-related work. It’s a delightfully feel-good listen for anyone who’s had their life changed by tabletops.
Wil Williams writes, listens, and loves podcasts. She runs the website Wil Williams Writes, co-hosts the podcast Tuned In Dialed up, and has work featured in Discover Pods and Bello Collective. She is afraid of whales and suspicious of dolphins.