I listen to a handful of role playing game podcasts; almost all of them use Dungeons and Dragons as their system, but there’s one exception to that, Friends at the Table. For a while, I was slowly going through the Friends at the Table back catalog, but over the last half year or so, my pace of listening to episodes of the show has sped up quite a bit. And, in particular, their last two completed seasons as of when I’m writing this (Spring in Hieron and PARTIZAN) are, I think, kind of special?

And the way in which those seasons are special has to do with the fact that they’re not using D&D as their system. Don’t get me wrong, I genuinely enjoy listening to D&D-based podcasts! But Friends of the Table is doing something interesting that’s system-related.


Actually, let me start by extending the analogy: I also enjoy listening to audio drama podcasts. It’s great hearing a well-crafted, well-acted story. But, while I’m not going to say that D&D podcasts are better or worse in general than audio drama podcasts, there’s something different about them.

Part of that is the dice rolls: things could take a surprising turn for the worse, or for the better, at any moment. And that level of unpredictability brings a certain edge to things: each scenario is (hopefully) leveled out correctly at a probabilistic level, but that leaves lots of room for micro surprises!

But it’s not just that you don’t know what the dice will do: it’s that you don’t know what the players will do. You don’t know what approach they’ll take to solving problems (whether at the small scale or the medium scale); and you don’t know how they’ll act as people, interacting with others. Or rather, you’ll get a feel for how they interact with others, but it’s more improvisatory and with more of each player authoring their own character than you get from audio dramas.


Having said that, it’s still the case in a D&D campaign that the DM has a lot of control over the structure of encounters and the major beats. They’ve probably got a list of rooms in a location, with a list of creatures you’ll encounter in those rooms, items you’ll find there, and so forth.

And, also, the rules provide a lot of structure! This is structure that’s missing in audio dramas: on the one hand, in a D&D encounter, you don’t really know the details of how it’s going to work until you see how the dice behave, and you don’t even know what dice rolls are going to be made until the players take their actions. But the flip side is that, if a player decides to, say, cast a certain spell, then the structure of how that spell could play out is predermined. So there’s a certain sameness in D&D battles, where you’re seeing players pick from a menu of attacks and spells, the DM doing the same thing, and everybody waiting until hit points hit zero.

In contrast, in an audio drama, the actors cede much more of the authorship to, well, the author; and the author in turn has rather more freedom, without a rule book that they need to conform to.


Which brings me to the systems used at Friends at the Table. (The systems mostly fall into the buckets of “Powered by the Apocalypse” or “Forged in the Dark”.) Now, don’t get me wrong, clearly Austin (the Friends at the Table dungeon master) does a huge amount of prep work creating scenarios! (And the other players are involved in broad worldbuilding, too.) But, just as clearly, he doesn’t have a long list of rooms with enemies, hit points, items, and so forth that the players can encounter.

Instead, he’s got some ideas for scenes; and yes, those probably include specific enemies, and some idea of the difficulty of those enemies. And he’s also clearly thought enough about how those encounters might go that he’s sure that there are a few different ways to successfully navigate past them.

But it’s also frequently the case that players come up with ideas that Austin clearly hadn’t thought of in advance. And the systems he uses provide enough support to let them all navigate that: there will probably be some dice rolls (though not nearly as many as in a D&D battle!), the systems give the participants some guidance for the kinds of thing that those dice rolls might mean. And then the players and DM work together to figure out what the scene looks like, coming up with a dramatic narration that turns it into what you’d see if you were watching it on TV or reading about it on a book or something.

So it’s a really nice place in the design space. The system provides enough structure that it’s not pure improvisational acting, but, compared to D&D, it’s a lot closer to improv. (Not that I have anything against improv, that’s also a nice place in the design space!) And so entire scenes end up basically being collectively created, with the non-DM players having significant instance as to where those scenes will lead to next.


As I write this, the latest season that they’ve completed is PARTIZAN. (If you’re reading this in the far future, it’s the first season of PARTIZAN, the 2020 season.) At multiple points during the season, there are situations where the players come up with an idea for a situation that the DM clearly had not planned out in advance, sometimes a very big idea indeed. And you can see this play out live: Austin throws away whatever preconception and planning he had for how the rest of that mission would go, he figures out on the fly how to structure the rest of the mission in light of that, and the whole season changes as a result.

I came to Friends of the Table after it had already been running for several seasons, but I started listening from the beginning. And I’m happy with that choice (I’m kind of a completionist at heart), but it’s also the case that they’ve all gotten significantly better at understanding and taking advantage of that creative freedom as the years have gone on. (In particular, both of the first two seasons start off a little rough; both seasons end up great, but I wouldn’t blame people for giving up on either of those seasons after a few episodes.) And PARTIZAN in particular impressed me from the beginning, I really felt like they were firing on all cylinders from the drop.

So if this piques your interest, PARTIZAN would be a good place to start; it’s connected to some of the previous seasons, but only very very loosely, so you’ll be just fine without that prior context. Don’t do the Road to PARTIZAN bits, those are a different sort of thing (interesting at times, but not really what I’m talking about here); just start with episode 0 (if you like world building) or episode 1 (if you just want to get into the action).

Or, alternatively, if you’re willing to sit through a bit of a learning experience, just start at the beginning of the podcast feed, with Autumn in Hieron. There’s some good stuff even at the beginning, it gets better as each season goes on and from season to season, and it builds up well. I actually probably liked Spring in Hieron as much as PARTIZAN, I just can’t recommend it as well as a place to start from, because that season wouldn’t make as much sense and wouldn’t have as much impact for people who haven’t listened to prior Hieron seasons.


I’m finally caught up with the Friends at the Table back catalog; I’ve just started listening to some of the Patreon bonus content, but I’m also wondering what I should listen to next. I see a lot of D&D podcasts that get mentioned on my Twitter feed; are there other similarly good Powered by the Apocalypse / Forged in the Dark podcasts out there, or podcasts using other similarly loose systems? Or, for that matter, are there podcasts you recommend that go even further in an improv space, or otherwise explore interesting areas of the collaborative fiction design space?

Post Revisions:

This post has not been revised since publication.