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Encounter Party!, the actual-play-meets-audio-fiction fantasy podcast that focuses on story over gameplay, will release the first episode of its third season on Sept. 29. And although Season 3 of the Dungeons & Dragons-inspired podcast concludes the campaign that the show has been on since its inception, that doesn’t mean the party’s over. In fact, not only are its creators already at work developing a new campaign for the show’s fourth season, they’re also looking to add a visual element to the currently audio-only show.
Encounter Party! is an audio adventure podcast — governed by the rules of D&D — in which a group of actors plays a role-playing fantasy adventure game. But unlike other tabletop role-playing podcasts like Critical Role or The Adventure Zone, Encounter Party! cuts out all the dice rolling, dead air, side chatter among players, and any time spent looking up rules or browsing The Player's Handbook, leaving audiences with taut, roughly hourlong episodes that are more about the story and characters than the players’ personalities.
SYFY WIRE spoke with Encounter Party!'s co-creators and producers Brian David Judkins and Ned Donovan via Zoom about the show’s origins, how it differs from other actual play podcasts, and what to expect for its third and fourth seasons.
“We edit the fluff and filler,” says Donovan, who also serves as an actor and post-production director on the show.
When putting the podcast together, Judkins, who also serves as Dungeon Master and creative director, says they wanted to avoid what he calls “the Ocean's Eleven effect,” where audiences are watching “a group of people have fun without them, which sometimes can happen with shows like this.” So, after recording their cast of actors play for two or three hours, they’ll cut out all the side jokes and conversations that occur during the gaming session, leaving only the parts that pertain to the story.
They also didn’t want to script anything for the show, as that would take away anything organic or spontaneous. So they decided to bring on actors who specialize in improvisational comedy, “because they have skills in telling a story off the cuff, rather than people who are really good at playing a game,” Judkins says.
When mapping out the campaign, Judkins knows “where the checkpoints are,” but ultimately where the story goes is determined by the actors.
“A good Dungeon Master is never going to script out scenes,” he says. “We set up a story where there are events that affect the story, but how they traverse to those events is almost always up to them, and that has created the best organic writing experience.”
Since the show’s first season, Encounter Party! has followed one campaign, “The Orb of Descent,” which takes place in Ravnica, a realm from Magic: The Gathering. The campaign has followed five Ravnican citizens who get their lives turned upside down when they find a mysterious metal orb that’s somehow connected to an infection spreading throughout the city, which is causing people to either lose their minds or gain new ones. Season 3 will conclude this story.
“This story arc is such an interwoven mystery that you can listen to this twice and have two completely different listening experiences,” Judkins says, adding that “Season 3 is almost like a halfway point,” since once it ends, if listeners go back and listen from the very beginning, “it will be a different story. That’s how layered the mystery is.”
But, even if there will be a lot more to gain from a relisten, Season 3 does indeed mark the end of the Ravnica campaign. “Our fourth season will be bigger, better, and very different,” Donovan teases.
Season 4, the start of a campaign the team is currently designing, will take place in Islabréa, a wholly original world created by the Encounter Party! team. The world of Islabréa is a maze of airships and floating islands after the god that lived at its core abandoned the planet, which tore the world apart. Now its inhabitants try to seek stability after their god has left them.
Not only are the creators of Encounter Party! creating a new campaign that takes place in a new realm, but they’re also planning to make the show something audiences can watch as well as hear.
“We are working to adapt the show for a multicamera capture,” Donovan says, adding that the game would be played the same way, only now they would record the gaming sessions “on a set, with a film crew who are capturing us from a variety of angles,” so when the show is in the post-production phase, they “can make dramatic choices that are not just audio-based but also visual.”
“One of the things we always said was if this format works, can we make this formula work in another medium?” Donovan explains. “If we are editing to make it emotionally driving for the audience, a lot of that comes from the way you direct the visuals. Can we apply those dynamic movements, hard cuts, fades, can we take the things that drive emotion within an edited piece and apply it to a fully improvised tabletop experience?”
Judkins adds that they intend to rectify a major problem with livestream gaming shows that have a visual element, which is “static cameras on people who aren’t doing anything. That is horrible for live TV.”
This, according to Judkins, is another element the creators of Encounter Party! want to add to make a more story-focused and engaging experience for an audience, “rather than people just sitting around watching us play with toys on a table.”
Each season of Encounter Party! is recorded in person over the course of roughly a week. And for this third season, the team was able to record everything “before the truly worst of COVID,” Donovan says.
“Season 3 was captured COVID-safely before the wave hit. So we have not recorded a single thing since the lockdowns have gone into effect,” Donovan adds. “A lot of our show’s heart comes from eye-to-eye contact sitting at a table, and I think something would be lost if we tried to adapt to a different recording style.”
Going forward, Donovan says they “are currently discussing a lot of options” while planning the fourth season, if they need to adapt to a new method of production.
As for how the pandemic has broadly affected role-playing gaming, in Donovan’s view, “it has elevated it.” He says that the number of fans reaching out to them saying they want to get into tabletop gaming has increased.
“A significant number of my friends are either getting into tabletop gaming or getting back into tabletop gaming, especially role-playing, because it’s something that you can achieve through Zoom or a Discord,” Donovan adds.
The third season of Encounter Party! launches on Tuesday, Sept. 29.