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Ready to Roll: RPGs and Accessibility

I think we all have them, regardless of how deeply involved we are in this industry: the areas of podcasting where no matter how much we might appreciate their popularity on an academic level, we just don’t spend much personal time.

For a long time, role playing game (RPG) podcasts fulfilled this role for me. Sure, I’ve enjoyed the odd game of Dungeons & Dragons at a house party, and I’ve even been to a couple of live episodes in this genre when I’ve happened to be at a podcast festival, but I’ve never dug into the subgenre at any more depth.

Then I was alerted to the existence of this report about the state and status of RPG podcasts. It was put together by Tess Cocchio, who created the RPG Casts directory, and I was really intrigued by some of her findings. Her work was based on the 520 shows that had submitted to the directory by the end of 2019, but she theorises that’s a large enough sample to be considered representative.

Before we go any further, take these key stats from her report: approximately two thirds of RPG shows fall into the “actual play” subcategory, meaning that they feature a group of players playing through a table top game like D&D, often with a serialised, multi episode structure with recurring characters that encompasses an entire campaign in the game. A further 19 percent were discussion shows that look at behind the scenes aspects of gaming, with the remainder “one shots” that tend to move between different gaming systems on the same feed.

Over half, or 53 percent, of the shows that Cocchio looked at featured D&D, with the rest divided between 41 other games. Like any other in podcasting, this sector has its big hitter shows, such as the McElroy Brothers’ The Adventure Zone on Maximum Fun or the livestream-podcast hybrid Critical Role (which in 2019 raised a staggering $11 million to make an animated series based on one of their campaigns; from what I’ve been able to find, this makes them one of the top ten most funded Kickstarters ever).

Looking beyond that, though, the space is pretty diverse, according to Cocchio’s findings. Almost half — specifically, 45 percent — of shows have some LGBTQIA+ representation, 25 percent feature people of colour, and 15 percent have non binary players. The report highlights that there is a big gap when it comes to accessibility, though, with only 4.4 percent of shows having any kind of episode transcript available.

This all confirmed my own sense from tentatively dipping a toe into the RPG podcast world: there’s a great variety of stuff out there, but it isn’t always necessarily recruiting new listeners beyond the already initiated. I reached out to Cocchio to find out more about her report, and to get her assessment of the challenges facing this space.

“RPG podcast fans tend not to listen to only one RPG podcast. Most of us have a dozen or more shows that we love and support,” she told me over email. “The barrier isn’t necessarily finding more listeners — there are always more listeners. I think the barrier is discoverability in the sense of letting the listeners find them.”

I tested this hypothesis via the highly scientific method of “asking my friends who play a lot of D&D what they think,” and got some similar responses back. One even admitted that although she had played for a total of ten hours over Zoom last weekend and enjoys podcasts in other genres, she still found navigating the world of D&D podcasts a bit tricky, since the episodes tend to be pretty long, they aren’t often recommended by app curators, and it’s hard to quickly sift through a lot of similar options to find what exactly you like.

While there’s surely the broader context of that much-discussed podcast discoverability problem at work here, Cocchio said that she thinks there’s something specific to RPG podcasts that’s compounding the issue. “I think RPG podcasters could do a better job at making themselves findable,” she said. “In some ways, the RPG podcasting community falls behind other types of podcast communities. It’s rare to find press kits or, on Twitter for example, pinned posts linking to all the places you can find/listen to a show and interact with them.” That’s why she launched her directory, which lets you browse both by type of play and type of host — there, you can seek out shows with women or non binary players specifically, for instance — and why she generally encourages RPG podcasters to make their shows more available for recommendation and discovery.

As I’ve written about before, a really helpful way a podcast can be more accessible is by providing transcripts. Having text alongside the audio means that people who are hard of hearing or with auditory processing issues can still enjoy the show, as can those who aren’t fluent in the original broadcast language. But, as Cocchio pointed out, there are certain intrinsic aspects of RPG podcasts that make this a more time consuming process than your average show. “Most RPG podcasts are largely improvised — there are no scripts — with often anywhere from three to six cast members all improvising, so that is a lot of voices to track,” she explained.

The average episode tends to be anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes, which is a lot of transcription to do from scratch. And there are also factors that make AI transcription less helpful in this genre. “With the nature of RPGs being out of the realm of ‘modern’ or ‘normal’, you’ve got all sorts of names and places and creatures that an AI doesn’t know how to transcribe. Both human and AI transcription options take more time and, of course, money. A lot of RPG podcasts are made from a place of love, and are either breaking even or losing money. None of these are excuses for not being accessible — I think it’s more that when you consider all of those things, creators likely find it daunting to transcribe even a single episode.”

Even providing timestamps with content warnings and summaries can help, though, Cocchio said — transcripts aren’t the only route to greater accessibility and discoverability. There are RPG shows baking this stuff in, too, such as Join the Party from Multitude Productions, which has full transcripts for each campaign installment as well as behind the scenes episodes about how to play.

Improving accessibility matters for opening up the RPG podcasting subgenre to more people, Cocchio said. “The common misconception from outside the RPG podcasting community is that our community generally isn’t professional, doesn’t have good quality shows or high production, or has ‘only a couple’ of decent shows,” she said. “All of these are just so untrue.” RPG podcasters are adapting very well to coronavirus restrictions, she added, since many play online and record remotely anyway. Perhaps this is their moment to shine for a wider audience, as the world pivots towards forms of entertainment that can keep up a regular schedule regardless.