After wrapping a long day on location in South Africa during the filming of HBO’s second season of Raised by Wolves, Abubakar Salim, who plays Father on the series, was invited out by the rest of the cast for a night on the town. But he had other plans — participating in his weekly session of the tabletop role-playing game Vampire: The Masquerade broadcast live online.
Initially his castmates were a bit confused by his hobby of actual play, that is broadcasting full-length tabletop role-playing games online in sessions that can go on for three or four hours at a time. But before long, the other actors working on Raised by Wolves became engrossed with his double life spent playing make believe with his friends.
“They got really interested in it,” Salim told Polygon in an interview earlier this month. “They wanted to get into it, and I think there was this sense of [discovery]. We had the space to kind of go into this and dive into this.”
Now Salim is taking his talent for tabletop role-playing games in a different direction. Instead of a bloodsucking ghoul, he’s taking on the role of a powerful, violent enforcer named Valkos, an unholy weapon covered in ritual scars and tattoos, and generally not someone to be trifled with. He’s part of the cast of Haunted City, a new series based on John Harper’s Blades in the Dark and broadcast on The Glass Cannon Network.
For Salim, he’s not playing games on Twitch for exposure. Instead, he’s there because he loves it.
“I’d be an idiot to miss it,” Salim said. “It’s this purest form of storytelling, and purest form of actually going into a world and losing yourself in a world. And I think it’s so funny, especially when I’m used to being on set where you have all the costumes and everything there, and you’ve got a script. [...] There’s something about being in what feels like the passenger seat, but also with a steering wheel in front of you. [...] As a human being, it just keeps you alive.”
Actual play programs have been growing in popularity since 2014, right around the same time that the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons was launched. The most popular example of the format is Critical Role, a troupe created by a group of professional voice actors. The years-long actual play program recently spawned an animated series on Amazon’s Prime Video streaming service, and a second season has already been ordered.
The Glass Cannon Network sprang up around the same time as Critical Role, primarily as a Pathfinder actual play podcast. Now the network’s CEO, Troy Lavallee, tells Polygon he’s bringing in more than $1 million each year on Patreon. What was originally just a single program with a single cast of players has bloomed into multiple different programs. He says eight new actual play shows will be launched in 2022 alone, supplemented by 18 touring dates for live performances in front of paying audiences.
Playing in Haunted City alongside Salim are fellow actors Josephine McAdam and Ross Bryant. Game master (GM) Jared Logan joined The Glass Cannon Network only recently, bringing his expertise and his regular players over from his own Stream of Blood. That acquisition has helped to beef up The Glass Cannon Network’s pool of talent. It recently launched another actual play called Inherit the Sand, a series that explores Modiphius’ Dune: Adventures in the Imperium based on the original novels by Frank Herbert. But it’s more than just getting a critical mass of talented players. Lavalle says it’s about finding the right chemistry, one that clicks with what can be a fickle audience.
“I’ve seen celebrities guest on streams that have like 40 people watching,” Lavallee said. “How aren’t more people watching? I look at their Twitter and like they’re tweeting about it, it’s just people are either into it or they’re not. And I think a lot of it has to do with whether or not the celebrity is into gaming, because you can get any Joe Schmo celebrity to play. If they’re not into the game it’s going to have limited returns.
“It’s finding the right mix of personalities and continuing to create a ton of content, but [also] making sure that the casts are fun and diverse.”
For GM Logan, it’s also about the system being played. There’s more to the role-playing hobby than swords and sorcery. Blades in the Dark, for instance, mixes Peaky Blinders-style serialized thievery with the occult. It also relies heavily on improvisation, empowering players to actively make up the story as they go along, and creating a found family of characters bound together by the same desires. That process is baked into the rules of the game itself.
“In Blades in the Dark, you not only create your character with your character sheet, you create your gang,” Logan said. “So the book makes it clear that really the main character of the series, of the campaign, is your gang.”
With an even larger cast baked into the fiction of the universe itself, Logan said it’s an excellent opportunity to swap new players in and out over time. Salim, for his part, isn’t concerned about rotating out any time soon. Instead he’s excited about the next opportunity to play.
“On Raised by Wolves I always know what scene we’re doing,” Salim said. “With this, I have no idea what is going to happen. It’s one of those things where you throw yourself all in because you want to, because it just draws you in.”
“You have to be awake,” he continued. “It’s terrifying, but I think that’s what makes it so exciting.”