It was a year of big moves in actual play in 2023 with the debuts of DesiQuest and the highly anticipated podcast Worlds Beyond Number. At the same time, Critical Role’s anthology series Candela Obscura took the groundbreaking troupe in an entirely different direction, while Acquisitions Incorporated’s success signaled a return to more traditional Dungeons & Dragons gameplay. Meanwhile, a series of fascinating new experiments, like the visually arresting Bluebeard’s Bride actual play Gudiya, gave the merest glimpse of what’s to come. Wizards of the Coast even put its own hat in the ring, rolling out the bloody comedy series Faster, Purple Worm! Kill! Kill! and Encounter Party, which aims to provide a quicker, sleeker version of actual play for a mass audience.
As we noted last year, many actual plays still tend to hold announcements until close to air date. Even so, here’s some of what to look for coming up this year: more fan favorites returning from yearslong hiatuses, promising new systems, and hidden treasures revealed by the international web festival circuit.
Dimension 20’s fifth anniversary video last fall teased three upcoming seasons — an usually long look ahead for the show. The year begins with the long-anticipated return of the core “Intrepid Heroes” cast in the setting that started it all, the John Hughes-inspired Fantasy High, which arrived with a full week of behind-the-scenes fanfare and an extended documentary devoted to art director Rick Perry. The 20-episode season will be followed by the mysteriously titled “Never Stop Blowing Up,” and crossover hit Dungeons and Drag Queens will return for another season later in the year.
In addition, D20 cast member Zac Oyama has revived his beloved Patreon-exclusive Rotating Heroes podcast, which vanished from the internet during the show’s hiatus in 2022. The show’s past arcs are now public, and new seasons feature Jasper William Cartwright (Three Black Halflings, Dimension 20’s Burrow’s End) as DM and Oyama as permanent player.
The Adventure Zone team has announced they will be moving to shorter campaigns, reminiscent of their experimental period in 2017-18 after the end of their beloved first campaign, Balance. Patriarch Clint McElroy served as GM for Outre Space, a superhero-styled four-episode run similar to his 2017 mini-campaign Commitment, using Marvel Multiverse Role-Playing Game and including guest players Gabe Hicks (Dimension 20’s Shriek Week, The Session Zero System) and Kate Welch (Acquisitions Incorporated: The C Team). Griffin McElroy now resumes the DM’s seat for The Adventure Zone Versus Dracula. [Disclosure: Justin McElroy and Griffin McElroy are co-founders of Polygon.]
The U.K. side of actual play is often an undersung corner of the scene, anchored by the long-running High Rollers (which recently returned with a new campaign), Oxventure, and Three Black Halflings, with recent convention collaborations and shared streams. They’ll be joined in 2024 by Natural Six, a crowdfunded miniseries with a familiar pitch: D&D as played by nerdy-ass voice actors. Will their star power be the rising tide that lifts the ship of British actual play? Time will tell.
Actual play goes meta
Actual plays have always been a little self-reflexive — from Liam O’Brien’s “LiamQuest” one-shots, where the Critical Role cast play versions of themselves exploring a post-apocalyptic Burbank, to Mike Sims’ Mage miniseries and beyond. And last year, Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Hans’ comic and game Die handed a whole new set of tools for actual players looking to explore the nature of RPGs. The system includes play within play, as characters play a TTRPG within the structure of the game.
Some troupes have already taken up the challenge: Anthology series My First Dungeon created an eight-episode miniseries along with supporting instructional content and interviews, and Dead Ghosts’ Replay used the same “Reunion” playbook with the discomfiting reframing of the characters as members of a past actual play. It will be very surprising if we don’t see more actual plays take up the tantalising lure of holding a mirror up to the art form.
No gods, no masters?
Actual play is grappling more and more with the inherent strangeness of the nature of divinity, from the endless debates about the role of the gods among the characters of Critical Role to the revolving door of gods allied to Ally Beardsley’s Kristen Applebees on Dimension 20’s Fantasy High.
It’s thus a perfect time for Connie Chang’s duet TTRPG Godkiller, which is getting several interesting actual play productions this year. Chang released 16-episode miniseries Godkiller: First Blood in support of the game’s launch, and 2024 has some ambitious projects using the system. BlackwaterDnD will run an 11-episode Godkiller: Oblivion featuring guest Christian Navarro (Critical Role). Chris Colón and Hamnah Shahid (executive producer on Gudiya) will be combining inspirations from their Caribbean and Pakistani roots for a visually immersive Godkiller: Forsaken.
Look to the web fests
One of the ways that art forms try to move beyond popularity contests is through juried awards. New Jersey, Minnesota, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Cusco, and New Zealand web fests all now include actual play categories, and many have scholarship programs — including the CROWN Grant Program sponsored by the multi-award-winning Queen’s Court Games. (Disclosure: I was a judge for New Jersey in 2023.)
Web fest selections are quickly becoming one of the best places to discover the undersung “ambitious middle” of actual plays — that is, shows that aspire to the same storytelling heights as the most popular troupes, but that lack the resources of time and production budget. It’s worth keeping an eye on the web festival circuit for actual plays that have been recognized for their stellar editing, sound, casts, and more.