The RPG Scrollbars: Hello From The Magic Tavern

Pubs would be so much more interesting if they were like RPG taverns. Go in for a refreshing beverage. Leave on an epic quest to save the world from evil, instead of to pick up that knock-off TV you accidentally bought from the tattooed bloke who really didn’t understand the meaning of the word ‘no’. True, ‘You all meet in a tavern’ is the Dungeon Master equivalent of ‘It was a dark and stormy night’, but it’s hard to argue with the efficiency. Where else would heroes assemble, to eat, drink and be merry?

Hello From The Magic Tavern is what happens when they do a podcast instead.

It’s one of my favourites of the last year or so, easily joining the likes of Welcome To Night Vale as a world worth checking in on each week. The premise is that host Arnie Niekamp fell through a portal behind a Burger King into the fantastical land of Foon, and like all good podcasters, immediately set up a podcast with his two new best friends – Usidore the Blue, Wizard of the 12th Realm of Ephysiyies, Master of Light and Shadow, Manipulator of Magical Delights, Devourer of Chaos, Champion of the Great Halls of Terr’akkas, whom the elves know as Fi’ang Yalok, the dwarves as Zoenen Hoogstandjes, and who is known in the east as Gaismunēnas Meistar… and Chunt, a shapeshifter who typically appears as a badger. Not always, but usually.

Each week they’re joined by one or more guests from the Chicago improv scene, and pretty much just roll with it. Characters include just everything from Arnor, greatest hero in Foon, unimpressed that a nebbishy podcaster dare share syllables from his name, to a bit of Ooze that Arnie stepped in while exploring the local dungeon in a quest to retrieve its treasure that at current progress should be finished sometime after the heat-death of every sun in the universe. (So far he’s gotten quite good at fighting an amiable skeleton that lets him win, but remains terrified of literally every natural feature being a trap put there to squish him… though in fairness, there is a good chance…)

Going back to the early episodes inevitably doesn’t show it at its best. Those in particular have a tendency to go for easy gags, like ‘creating’ a vicious race of blue creatures called Smorps, Chunt’s shape-changing being kicked off by having sex with other animals, and a fixation on the joy of having multiple buttholes. (One is apparently inefficient. Wizards have two. The Earth ‘OK’ symbol on Foon translates to ‘I have three buttholes’. This is particularly relevant for those show-off elves.)

Once the series finds its feet though, it does a surprisingly good job of building a lore for the world considering how many guests are brought in, and how the basic rule is that if someone says something that doesn’t contradict something important, it gets thrown into the pot. A year in, it’s a patchwork quilt of bad puns and off-the-cuff inventions, but still juuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuust coherent enough to feel like more.

At the very least, within the Tavern is relative sanity, where any guest can enjoy a Rainbow Bowl, a cup of mead with a little raspberry, or the Foonish speciality, the spiced potato. Which is literally a raw potato rubbed in spices. So far, Arnie hasn’t developed a taste for them. Over seventy episodes in though, there’s no shortage of running gags and references, like former tavern owner Otak having set out on a quest to find his daughter, and most recently, political instability in the realm thanks to Arnie having accidentally murdered its most important king in cold blood. Whoops?

The downside of improv is that episodes vary wildly in quality, with some characters that were just a bad idea from the start, and a few that ultimately don’t have the oomph to carry an episode. (As I understand it, guests are asked to pitch a couple of one-line suggestions, but otherwise it’s left to the record how things go.) It doesn’t really matter though because the core of the show is so strong. Each week’s episode is like heading in to hang with friends for half an hour or so; albeit friends who never actually acknowledge your presence or talk to you or offer you a drink or spiced potato or anything. So, rude friends. Most impolite! But friends none-the-less.

It’s the camaraderie behind all this that really sells it. The main actors have worked together frequently, and that relationship comes through almost immediately. Nobody hogs the microphone or tries to overshadow anyone, guests are allowed to steer and be the stars of their episodes, and the trio support every crazy thing that they might come up with, with additional questions or additional flavour confirming what they just said and adding a level to it… such as when talking about Mittens, Foon’s far more violent version of baseball. When it’s just the three of them however, things can get brutal. Arnie tends to get the bulk of the butt-monkey duties – however many buttholes one of those has, probably twelve – but all three audibly know each other well enough to know when it’s time to leave someone hanging or stammering through a joke and when it’s time to throw a rope, as well as always being willing to jump into challenging improv like making up a limerick or song on the fly.

Either way, the tone never gets too unpleasant and never for too long. You can hear the smirk when someone thinks of a pun and desperately tries to squeeze it in, and feel the wince of it as it lands. Chunt for instance holds a blood drive for vampires in the tenth month of every year, just to call it the Chunt For Red October. Honk the Assassin gets through almost an entire episode before someone finds a way to casually start a sentence “Honk, if you’re horny…” By far the meanest character isn’t even technically in it – the Mysterious Man who handles the credits and is obsessed with everyone a) knowing it’s not real and that everyone involved is simply a terrible actor with no life and nothing better to do and of late, b) pimping Cards Against Humanity, the beyond tedious card game where people with no discernible sense of humour can at least pretend for a while. At least it beats enduring another Audible, Squarespace, Harry’s or Casper advert – the four horsemen of every bloody podcast right now.

In short, if you’re in the mood for a comedy podcast, it’s definitely one worth checking out. Follow anything similar? Let me know in the comments, not as a throw-away line to get a larger number down there, but because I burn through a lot of podcasts and am always looking for new recommendations of fun things to listen to while walking or working or cursing my inability to read on trains, planes and automobiles.

While we’re on this subject though, I thought I’d throw a quick shout-out to a couple of other D&D related series that I’ve been watching lately. To my shame, I’ve never actually played it, with most of my knowledge coming either second hand or via CRPGs. (What can I say? At school, friends were into wargaming stuff, which I wasn’t.) Still, I have a fondness for watching people play and seeing that sense of camaraderie and feuding play out over campaigns, with wit and snark flying as much as dice. If you’re in a similar mood, or simply want to click on something right now, Dan “Community” Harmon recently launched HarmonQuest, which combines the table-top stuff with animation, which is a pretty fun way to handle it. Simpler, but interesting for the fact that it’s mostly game designers playing it, is Jordan “Bioshock 2” Thomas’ Dice With Death – a permadeath run through the realm of Ravenloft, where Strahd’s Posession is 9/10ths of the lore. That’s definitely a more traditional version – very slow, very methodical, definitely lacking in Bojack Horseman actors, but still interesting. I’ve been slowly working through it over the last week as a kind of second-screen soap opera and it’s been pretty engaging… even if several episodes in, I still don’t know how many buttholes everyone has. Details count, people! Even the most anal ones!

To subscribe to the above, click the links. For Hello From The Magic Tavern, head here for all the episodes and a handy Podcast link. Other things to click on, like iTunes buttons, are also available. There’s also a wiki charting the lore in all its strangeness, which may come in useful if jumping into the later episodes, but honestly isn’t essential. The show’s pretty good about explaining things you need to know when a reminder is needed, and sometimes even in a way that almost makes sense.

Or as much sense as Something Which Is Not Real can, anyway.

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39 Comments

  1. theblazeuk says:

    I first came across The Magic Tavern when they guest-starred on ‘One Shot’ podcast, an actual play series that basically changes up its system, setting and performers after each ‘story’. They played Dungeon World with Arnie, Chunt and Isidor and it was great. They also do a long-form podcast set in Star Wars Edge of the Empire which is great for different reasons (and some other non-actual play ones which I don’t listen to).

    link to oneshotpodcast.com

    It’s often hilarious but sometimes there are some real moments of drama even in these short throw-away games. Highly, highly recommended.

    • theblazeuk says:

      & here is the Magic Tavern link to oneshotpodcast.com

      (oh and I think JPC, a performer who plays in lots of One Shot eps, appears on Magic Tavern from time to time but IDK never listed to MT).

    • kaisergav says:

      The 60-odd hours I’ve spent listening to Campaign are what finally pushed me into roleplaying games:)

      • theblazeuk says:

        Ditto :) that and THe adventure zone cast, which got me into D&D 5e link to maximumfun.org

        Gonna be starting a Star Wars edge of empire soon I think to follow in footsteps of e mynock

    • warper321 says:

      I second One Shot Podcast. They’re hilarious. The sixth episode of the series is an amazing kick-off to a perfect Jackie Chan adventure.

  2. Skeletor68 says:

    Ooh, will have to give

    Quick shout out to the original series of Rollplay on
    YouTube with itmeJP. It was a great starting point for me as I have never played a game of D&D and they learn as they go along with DM Neal Erickson. Crude, funny and plenty of risk. It’s probably a little slow to begin with but is a fantastic piece of free entertainment to have on in the background. It has since branched out into a number of different shows, rulesets and guests. Poor Genevieve gets a little too much abuse at times but she comes up with some of the funniest stuff.

    Otherwise the Adventure Zone with the McIlroy brothers (Monster Factory at Polygon) is really funny. Three brothers and their Dad playing D&D. It’s more of an entertainment show than a strict D&D game but it’s just hilarious stuff.

    • westyfield says:

      Agree on the recommendation for The Adventure Zone. It’s really got me interested in D&D, and they do a good job of moving things away from a strict fantasy setting. So far their stories have been fantasy, murder-mystery, Mad Max style, sci-fi, and now western.

      link to maximumfun.org

      • laiwm says:

        Another vote for The Adventure Zone. Went into it knowing almost nothing about D&D, and every new arc has totally changed my ideas about what tabletop RPGs can be. I won’t spoil it, but the central mechanic of the Eleventh Hour arc is brilliant.

    • Skeletor68 says:

      Apologies for the formatting on my paragraph there.

      Voice work on the Adventure Zone is great stuff as are the character names. Don’t want to spoil anything!

  3. Synesthesia says:

    Yes! Thanks for this. I was about to suggest harmonquest, too.

  4. Premium User Badge

    Benratha says:

    Not exactly a podcast, but some interesting by-play on YouTube is the whole “Acquisitions Anonymous” series. There are certainly Podcast variants, but I will admit to only watching the various PAX (etc) broadcasts which originally had Will Wheaton guesting, but have more recently moved to have Patrick Rothfuss paying as a bard (of sorts).

  5. cheesyboy says:

    I’ve been listening to HFTMT for the past 3 or four months, still catching up with the back catalogue (on about ep 35). It’s really very good.

    As this is a gaming site, worth pointing out what host Arnie Niekamp’s day job is – he works as a writer for Jackbox Games (You Don’t Know Jack, Drawful etc)

  6. Premium User Badge

    phuzz says:

    When do people listen to podcasts? I find that if I try and do something else, like gaming, I tend not to pay attention, but if I just sit down and put one on, I get bored and need more stimulus.

    • cheesyboy says:

      Most of my listening is when on my drive to/from work.

      I find I do have to be doing something fairly automatic, like driving, or wrapping birthday/xmas presents, or making a big batch of bolognese sauce. And, yes, would also get restless if I was only listening to a podcast and not doing anything else.

      • kaisergav says:

        I find it really good for painting 40k. The painting is something I really want to *do*, but at the time (or at least when getting started) it feels like a slog so it’s good to have something to listen to at the same time.

        • cheesyboy says:

          I reckon it must be to do with what part of the brain you’re using for the particular task. Driving, wrapping, painting etc are all simple physical things that don’t involve much ‘thinking’. No real problem solving.

    • gunny1993 says:

      At work work mostly, maybe if I’m playing a game solo… Which I really don’t do much nowadays

      Or when walking the dog

    • laiwm says:

      I have the exact same problem, and for me the answer is Desert Golfing. I play it on my phone while listening, and I find that it’s just involving enough to mop up that 15% of spare attention that would otherwise get me distracted.

    • Author X says:

      When I’m driving, walking, cooking, eating, showering/getting ready for work (I have a little silicone bluetooth speaker), basically any time I can’t do something else because my hands are busy. And sometimes I’ll load up a simple action game that requires little or no reading, like Legend of Zelda, and play that to keep my hands occupied while I listen.

    • Synesthesia says:

      As was said above, they go really well with certain tasks. Conmuting, doing a repetitive job, playing a puzzle game. Try to get into them, you are missing out!

    • Turkey says:

      I listen to them while I draw and right before I go to sleep. They’re great for when I’m cleaning too.

    • April March says:

      I listen to them when I’m doing something physical which would otherwise bore me. House chores and working out are great. Though I can only do it for timed exercise, or I lose count of the repetitions.

    • Premium User Badge

      phuzz says:

      So to summarise, I just don’t spend much time doing the sort of thing that would give me time to listen to podcasts (short walking commute, don’t exercise etc).
      Oh well, now I know.

  7. Capt. Bumchum McMerryweather says:

    It’s a little known fact that the Hello from the Magic Tavern podcast was actually a hasty reskin of Doki Doki Panic.

  8. Author X says:

    I cannot recommend Friends at the Table, or The Adventure Zone (Enough -Ed)

    Friends at the Table is my favorite podcast, far and away. Their two campaigns have spiraled out into epic stories based on the players’ decisions, they put a lot of work into collaborative worldbuilding, and the GM and players are not afraid to try other systems and games for specific sessions (like their holiday specials) to shake things up with their characters.
    They just finished Season 2, which was a complete epic with a very final Finale, and it was emotional. I got more invested in their cyberpunk/pop idol/mecha story, Counter/WEIGHT, than in any TV show this year.

    The GM posted an introduction that talks about what their goals are and where to start, or you could just listen to their last two episodes, “Marielda” 01 and 02, as it’s a prequel to their first campagin. Basically, the very start is a little rough, both game-wise and audio-wise as they get used to playing and recording, but episode 5 really picks up as they go off on the main adventure. Season 1 is mostly Dungeon World, played in a destroyed-and-reconstructed fantasy world. It reached a dramatic climax and was put on hold, but they’ll be going back to it after the current mid-season break. Or you could jump to season 2, COUNTER/Weight, which as I mentioned is a now-complete scifi epic. They jump between a few different games, but for the most part it starts with Mechnoir, then later they switch to The Sprawl (another PbtA game like Dungeon World).

    Second favorite, and maybe better-known, is The Adventure Zone. It’s a straight-up D&D 5e adventure with three brothers (from My Brother, My Brother, and Me) and their dad, with varying levels of D&D experience. It’s less collaborative than FatT and more “the GM writes a story and the characters bumble their way through it” but the production is really good and they’re all very entertaining and have a lot of fun together. This video is based on the first moment I really loved that podcast, and the best pitch it can get. The storylines get more dramatic but it’s still mostly goofing around, maybe 80% goofball 20% drama.

    I did actually try listening to Hello From the Magic Tavern, but I just couldn’t get into it and dropped it after half a dozen episodes or so. Maybe it was the early before-they-found-their-legsiness but the humour was more miss than hit for me, and in particular I found Usidore’s stammering and mumbling as he tries to come up with lines grating. There’s only so many times I can listen to SHOUT mumble mumble stutter SHOUT before I decide that it’s worth sitting through it for the few jokes that land.

    • Author X says:

      ENOUGH, I cannot recommend them ENOUGH, that’s what I get for writing a 5-paragraph comment and not skimming it back before hitting post!

    • theblazeuk says:

      You solved my grammar puzzle! Love that TAZcast.

  9. Gustav says:

    Listen to Pretend Wizards! They are an actual play D&D (5e) podcast! Great group of friends that updates weekly!

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    magogjack says:

    Well it is even rougher to start; have you checked out Improv Star Trek Robert? It is from the chicago scene as well and has many of the same people involved. Matt Young(Usidore) for example is one of the main people.

  11. Premium User Badge

    Fluxo says:

    Not a podcast, but I really enjoy watching Critical Role each Thursday.

  12. Turkey says:

    Harmonquest originated from a segment on Dan’s podcast: Harmontown. They stopped playing a while back, though.

    I think someone extracted most of the D&D segments from the podcast and put them on youtube.

    • King_Rocket says:

      I think that the D&D segments(really it was pathfinder though)in Harmontown are more fun than HarmonQuest. Trying to fit it into a TV format really takes some of pep out of it.

    • dreadguacamole says:

      …And nope, the code didn’t work. Oh well. The podcast is called Nerd Poker.

      • Premium User Badge

        magogjack says:

        This was a great podcast unfortuantly Sark leaves after a while and it becomes less of a focused experience.

  13. cytokindness says:

    I highly recommend the “D&D Is For Nerds” podcast.
    link to sanspantsradio.com
    A few Australians have a go at DnD, and everything goes wrong and right at the same time.

    (Hell, I just recommend the Sanspants Radio network in general. If you want a good intro to their style, listen to their show “Plumbing the Death Star”, in which they workshop the concepts contained in fiction and figure out the terrible untold consequences. I’d recommend starting with the episode “Is Madrox just the worst for the MU?”
    (“In which our heroes look at the Marvel U and come to the conclusion that Jamie Madrox aka Multiple Man would ruin everything.”)