I never liked Actual Play Podcasts. I mean, I tried to get into them, even listened in on some supposed great ones with “celebrities” and all that. Never did anything for me though so I largely avoided the things in favor of podcasts that just talked about gaming in general. I think this mostly stemmed from the fact that I was looking for a different experience than was being provided. You see, I am a child of theater. I was a Thespian in High School and went on to be a Musical Theater Major in college for a time. I also make no secret of the fact that I play Role-Playing Games to fuel my passion for acting and storytelling more than for a love of mechanics. So whenever I went in search of an Actual Play podcast I was unknowingly looking for a Radio Drama of sorts and if I have to compare what the folks over at Gamerstable do with their Actual Plays, Radio Drama fits the bill perfectly.
For those unfamiliar with Gamerstable they are a group out of Illinois that gathers weekly to record podcasts that focus almost exclusively to the hobby of Tabletop RPGs. They’ve been doing so since 2011 and early on in their run they dabbled in Actual Plays. I never did get around to listening to their AP for the system Victoriana but first started listening during their Star Wars run titled “Power of the Dark Side“. PotDS was good but they really hit their stride with a Savage Worlds based game using some Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age Conan Lore. That Actual Play was titled “Tower of the Ape” and was some brilliant work, I certainly recommend a listen, but I’m here to talk about their current run “The Stygian Fragment“
“The Stygian Fragment” is just over half available on their site, but I’ve been fortunate enough to have been offered a full listen and though it was a healthy five hours long I devoured it. I will attempt to be as unspoilery as possible but damn do I wish I had someone else to talk to about this!
The place is St. Louis set firmly in the throes of prohibition and fully immersed in Lovecraftian lore. That’s right, if the keyword “Stygian” didn’t key you off, this is a Call of Cthulhu romp. Seven years prior the current timeline the players are in an event occurred that resulted in the deaths of important people in some of the players’ lives and nearly drove insane the remainder. All centered around a strange cult and its hideous artifact. The tone is noir, very fitting for the time and place and introduced well by Brandon Williams playing, the pickled, Detective Clarence Rouse and Shannon Steele as the Dame you’d expect to find in such a story, reporter Julia Barnes.
The other players in the game, run by the capable Eric Ausley, are introduced soon enough. Father Evan Leary is played by Mike Bridges, he carries the weight of being one of the few survivors of the mysterious tragedy that binds most of the group together the other survivor being Finn Lockwood played by Daniel Helderman, a trumpet player who would just as well not be caught up in this whole mess. Jayson King takes the role of Jack Houston Smith, an Archaeologist who finds himself involved despite having nothing to do with the event seven years prior and admits he probably should have just walked away. Lastly Shawn King rounds out the main cast as Dr. Robert Covington who finds himself interested after a few mysteries surrounding a young lady’s death.
Eric Ausley writes and runs his game and records the sessions. Most Actual Plays would stop at that, or maybe add some mood music. Eric works with Daniel to to trim and edit the work, yes adding mood music but also trimming the fat. Add to this, Eric leaves his own ego at the door by largely writing himself out of the entire story, instead opting to recruit talented voice actors to bring his NPCs to life. I cannot stress how this adds a shine to the drama. On one hand you have the players themselves playing the game with the usual improv that goes with role-playing and, post edit, you find that tip-of-the-tongue acting matched with dialogue from the voice actors. It really sets the scene.
The story itself has all the tellings of a solid Lovecraft tale. Insanity and death around every turn. A black cult with nefarious plans at work in the background. Books and artifacts of an occult nature being used to fuel an investigation that quickly grows beyond what these poor souls should really have to deal with but if they don’t press forward, who will?
“The Stygian Fragment” is quality work. A perfectly eerie listen that’s prime for this time of year. If you are a St. Louis native you’ll love the attention to detail given to our city and the surrounding area. The measures taken to make sure everything had the feel of the 1920-30’s were spot on. Another great touch was having the players play some roles in a flashback scene set during the pivotal event seven years before the current story line.
This is easily my favorite Actual Play to come out of Sidetangent Productions, the studio name for Gamerstable’s creative work. I’ve always been a fan of Lovecraftian lore and to see such time and energy put into creating an original fan made story set in his world delights me. Hell, there’s even a mention of a certain Arkham, Massachusetts. I urge you to keep downloading the episodes as they come out or, if you’re like me, wait until you can listen to them all in nearly one sitting (which is honestly what I had planned to do before getting the opportunity to get an early taste of the whole production). Also, pay attention to the voice of a Mr. Charles Falstaff, he might just be voiced by some talented guy…goes by the name Kevin Smith, sometimes Melvin Smif!…It’s me… I voice Charles Falstaff.
P.S. I would really like to post a follow up article once everyone else has gotten to listen to the whole thing. There’re some mysteries to be discussed!