At some point I became one of those people who listens to podcasts on 2x-speed, because I’d subscribed to so many — and in many cases they had long backlogs I wanted to catch up on — that I wasn’t getting through episodes at normal speed fast enough to even keep up with the new releases, let alone asymptotically approach the present.
We’re in something of a Podcast Era now, and have been since the early 2010s. Long ago, before I even started my first blog (remember blogs?), there was a First Podcast Era, which began shortly before Ben Hammersley named them “podcasts” in 2004. (Before that, of course, there had been “internet radio” — mp3 streams, which we called shoutcasts after the popular server software produced by Nullsoft; listened to at 96 or even a luxurious 128kbps in Nullsoft’s ubiquitous Winamp media player; and which, as I recall, consisted mostly of European ambient and techno — but you had to be at your desktop computer for those, because in 1998 the iPod was still three years away.) Back in the First Podcast Era, of course there was no Spotify to offer far-right bigots a hundred million dollars, so you had to have a podcatcher app, or eventually iTunes, and figure out how to copy and paste an RSS URL into it. And there was no Patreon to funnel millions a year to “far-left” bigots, and as I recall not much in the way of podcast networks or available sponsorships, so most podcasts had what we would now consider fairly amateurish production, and were strictly side gigs.
Anyway, I used to listen to a lot of podcasts in 2005–2007 or thereabouts, but I sort of fell out of the habit, and by the time the Second Podcast Era got started in earnest around 2012–2013, I didn’t consider myself “a podcast guy”. But eventually I had friends who were doing podcasts, and I wanted to support my friends, and one thing led to another, so here I am with a paid Pocket Casts account and, uh…76 subscribed feeds.
Some of them have been limited runs, or have just ended, the way things sometimes do, without having had a planned ending; or work on a seasonal schedule and are between seasons currently; or are just on some kind of hiatus; so only about two-thirds of those are still releasing new episodes with any kind of frequency, but it’s still a lot to keep up with.
All this woolgathering was by way of establishing why I’m only just getting to the fourth season, “Twilight Mirage”, of Friends at the Table, an “actual play” (i.e. episodes are recordings of gameplay sessions of what we used to call a “pencil-and-paper role-playing game”) podcast that I believe is one of the best of the genre. FatT alternates (roughly) fantasy with (roughly) science fiction, so Twilight Mirage is the second sci-fi season, and the last episode I listened to was the post-mortem Q&A for “Winter in Hieron” and its prequel “Marielda,” which formed the second fantasy season.
The, I suppose, impresario (and also gamemaster) of Friends at the Table is Austin Walker, a critic and author, the former EIC of Vice‘s former Waypoint games vertical (now reduced to “Vice Gaming” because corporate decided there was too much individuality, though the podcast — remember podcasts? — Waypoint Radio lives on with Austin as host). Austin is a genuinely brilliant person, and Disney even let him write some Star Wars stories, and his talents as a GM are matched only by the FatT cast, and in particular Jack de Quidt’s stunning work composing the scores for each season. So when, around the midpoint of the Marielda/Winter postmortem, I heard Austin describe the season 2 (“COUNTER/Weight”) episode “An Animal Out of Context” as “the best thing I’ve ever made”, I decided, well, I remember that being great, but I should go listen to it again.
I don’t know if that episode, which intersperses small vignettes with the other main characters among longer stretches of Jack and Austin playing a GM-less, two-player storytelling game of their own design, recontextualized for the COUNTER/Weight setting, would have the same impact for someone who hadn’t followed the story up to that point, so I hesitate to recommend listening to just that episode alone. But there’s a moment, three-quarters or a little more of the way through, where in one of those side vignettes, Art Martinez-Tebbel mentions casually that “an animal out of context” (in a future zoo, as it happened) is a hard thing to understand — giving, presumably unknowingly in the moment, the episode its title and also perfectly summarizing the alienation Jack’s character feels. I had to pause and take a breath when I heard that again, because it crystallizes a lot of what I think is so great about FatT: that Austin and Jack were telling such a powerful story; that Art, separately, got at such a crucial idea in a different (as it were) context; that Austin and Alicia Acampora, the producer and also a cast member, caught that brief phrase and realized how well it evoked the episode’s themes.
This is a very rambly weekend post, but the short of it is, I’m glad that, in this Second Podcast Era, it can be feasible for a show like Friends at the Table to run for over six years, and if you think a collaborative longform fiction radio show “focused on critical worldbuilding, smart characterization, and fun interaction between good friends” sounds interesting, you should try giving it a listen.