Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Dead Ghost Production’s New Show ‘Replay’ Is A Love Letter To Actual Play

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Dead Ghost Production’s latest series REPLAY is a self-aware cautionary tale about cannibalizing your passions and relationships for celebrity and success. 

At this pivotal moment in the evolution of Actual Play, Replay (like many DGP shows) sits at the forefront of what the narrative medium can create. It uses highly stylized sound design to meditate on what Actual Play once was, what it is now, and what it can become – for better or worse.

The limited series centers on the 20 year cast reunion of an early (fictional) actual play program recorded in a high school radio station. The night before a live reunion show, the group is transported into the world of the game. Expanding on the meta nature of TTRPG storytelling, each player acts as two characters: A Persona in the “real world,” and A Paragon in the world of the game. 

The cover of Replay Chapter 1: Compression
The cover of Replay Chapter 1: Compression

In the real world, time has only been kind to some. Each character has a different relationship to the show that once gave them a taste of fame, with some still making money from the show while others never having seen a single cent. To an outsider it may seem like a dramatic framing for the narrative, but to a member of the entertainment industry, it acts as critique of problematic blind spots in the medium’s DIY roots.

Replay uses the DIE RPG system from Rowan, Rook, & Decard; based on the graphic novel of the same name by Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Hans. Aram Vartian leads a game filled with familiar faces from the AP space: Haley Whipjack, Banana Chan, Jenn de la Vega and Christian Kappa. 

The Fandomentals sat down to speak with the Dead Ghost Production team Dylan Malenfant, Alex, and Aram about Replay’s conversation with the Actual Play industry, the value of safety tools both on air and behind the scenes, and the importance of treating an Actual Play production as a professional venture.

The following interview has been edited down for clarity.

Welcome to Aquarion (the fictional Actual play in the world of Replay) written in a cyberpunk style, overlaying an island and a radio tower with the moon behind it.
Replay feels like a love letter to actual play and TTRPGs, but also kind of a condemnation of what corporatization of passion does to us as people. Where did that inspiration for this season come?

Alex V: I wanted to play this game with the galaxy of people who sort of gravitate around Kill Every Monster. Aram and I played a one on one game, which DIE is not currently built to do, but you can make it work.

Literally five minutes before we finished the game, Aram was already saying, we’re making an AP out of this. 

Aram: The moment I hooked into DIE, it hooked right back into me. The big question of DIE is why do we play these games? As soon as I heard that question, the next question to me is why do we record and share these games? If I was gonna dive into this, I absolutely had to dive into that as well. 

DIE talks about bleed, and I get it, you have to be careful. I bled a lot in making this game. I didn’t really hold back. I just kind of poured out, how it felt to me, the things I’ve seen or experienced, and also just the absolute willingness and joy to create and share despite all of those things.

You bring up the context of Bleed and in the show reference the terms originator, Emily Care Ross. This idea of Bleed specifically within Replay, Aram you’re playing The Game Master, but you’re also playing a character that uses first person “I”. How did that experience impact you?

Aram: It was really interesting in my decision making throughout because there are sometimes I say “Jacob” and I separate it from myself. There’s many times where I just simply say “I” because I am playing that character. At first I was worried that I kept switching back and forth. It blurs the line. It makes it so I’m not sure which one I’m playing. Even in character or not, which one am I? 

Alex: I think there is a necessary point to be made here that it was all done within safety guidelines. Everything was established from the start. We had breaks in between recording sessions. We had talk backs at the end of recording sessions. There were check-ins happening all the time. When you listen to the first episode, you will hear Aram describe Jacob as someone who is totally not Aram. That is very explicit.

Dylan: This is also sort of the point of DIE. It is specifically a game about Bleed, right? You are playing a person who is now the character in the RPG, usually in a way that is fundamentally not positive. 

The game wants you to do that in a certain way and as Alex mentioned it’s what makes the safety guidelines so incredibly important in this context. The game is inviting you into dangerous territory both narratively and literally emotionally in physical meat space.

Aram: DIE kind of invokes a bit of safety in the act of making the Game Master a player, putting them in the world, emphasizing the fact that they are part of the game, not a part of the game. Because you’re being dragged along too, you think of yourself differently. I certainly did. 

The separation from me and the character got blurry. I think that heightened my desire that was already there to keep the table safe, but it underlined the fact that yes, we have to be safe in this world, not from overlooking it, because I’m here too. I’m standing right next to you. We need to be safe.

With Replay, you show the impact of these people 20 years later having this unsafe game where everyone’s egos are put at the front, where it has different impacts on everyone’s career and personal life. What are you trying to say about the nature of actual play as an entertainment industry rather than as a group of people playing games together?

Aram: There’s something about putting a game out into the universe. You play it with your friends and it’s already powerful. It feels bigger. Those stories are larger than the four, five, six people gathered around a table. That’s why these games are so magical. 

Then you take that and you put it out into the universe. You broadcast it. And people hear it without some of the nuances, without some of the behind the scenes, especially when you’re cutting away the talk and you’re just showing this to the world. 

That’s a powerful thing to do. And I don’t think people always consider how much they’re showing, how much they’re exposing, and how much they’re affecting by putting things out there. So that’s the other part of this that I really wanted to underline. When you create something and put it in the universe, it exists past you and it can become bigger than you very, very quickly.

Dylan: And to date the recording a little bit, they just announced the newest season of Dimension 20. One of the things that came with that was the 60 person cast and crew list. It’s magnificent that D20 does this, that it is so transparent that it is a production. 

One of the things Aram and Alex really nailed with this is: a lot of us don’t do that properly. You think of yourselves as some friends at the table and we just have some microphones and that’s the only thing that makes it difficult. No, this is a business now. This is a venture. You are creating something. It is art. It is a separate thing. And new considerations must be in place.

What your characters played 20 years ago within the world of game is very experiential, you are at the table in a recording studio, listening to people play a game. And then from that, you are now creating a highly edited, highly produced narrative game that still captures some of that feeling of the experience at the table, but is so highly narrativized that it almost feels scripted.

Alex: One of the early pitches Aram and I were throwing around was the game we recorded back then was kind of following the Dark Dice example of removing all of the mechanics to not make it look like a game. 

But would we have been able to do that in high school? Would it have been something that would have worked 20 years ago? No, it makes more sense that it would just be a bunch of high school nerds gathered in a room in a recording setting. 

And yes, some of it was scripted and I think it does show up in the first episode. It is one of the things that comes up immediately in character creation. One of the big secrets is that some of the elements were scripted.

Aram: In episode two, where we actually are just getting into first person acting, right? When we’re in that part of it, all of the people besides me, that’s what they said at the table. Those lines are just edited. 

My parts, I would say maybe a fourth of them end up being reread over when I’m back. I polish things. I pull things together by re-voicing some things. But as far as the cast, that was them at the table with the exception of the opening and the closing line reads.

Every layer of Replay asks the question: What is actual play? What are you creating and What did you did you set out to create? Parts of it felt almost like a reality show.

Aram: I never really put a pin on it until you just said that, but that is kind of what I was going for there. Even with a bit of a like, even the MagicalMatch Girl transformations kind of feel confessional, in a way that is the vibe I was really going for.

In creating that reality show feeling, you inherently create conflict out of these deeply flawed characters. Each of the characters represent different aspects of how, specifically capitalism, but also the idea of celebrity, poisons this game that we all play together. Did each player decide “Here’s going to be my hubris, here’s going to be my fatal flaw,” or did that come organically?

Alex: Aram cast people based on the paragons that we thought would be best for them to play. 

Aram: Yep. I was like, Banana, you’re the Godbinder. You’re a writer in this. So I basically assigned people their paragon, and I assigned people what their role was on the old show and everything else they went with it.

Alex: This was using the character creation scenario, from both The Driven Circle and The Con Quest scenarios you can find in the DIE RPG manual. A lot of original work comes in the narrative and the development, but the mechanics are all remixed from the manual itself. Everyone had an idea of who they were as a stereotype. Then everyone just automatically, organically brought, how is this stereotype a horrible person?

Dylan: It’s one of the nice things about picking the guests out of Kill Every Monster is we all have them primed. They know their role. It’s like, Hey, I need to talk about how the thing that I’m currently doing is awful.

Was there anything that, especially using these safety tools, did anyone have to stop and be like, this is hitting too close to home and I need to breathe for a second? Because specifically with, I don’t know, Lucas’s relationship to celebrity and how dehumanizing celebrity can become, especially in the terms of when you’re playing this game that you’re doing for fun and you take your passion and turn it into a career, were there moments like that where people had to step away for a second?

Aram:  There were definitely a couple of times during the recordings where it felt like that hit close to home, but I don’t remember us stopping and having to take a break. 

Alex: I think there was an organic break we took at the end of the second recording session, No one felt the need to take an additional break. Either because everyone was too absorbed in the story or because no one felt like the actual bleed coming through in a way they needed an additional break. We had breaks scheduled in.

Dylan: One of the dangers I always see in these conversations, we’ll talk about like, oh no, we all felt comfortable, no one needed to take breaks. That isn’t a positive or a negative and I just wanna make sure that’s stated explicitly. The fact that certain safety tools didn’t get invoked doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have been there. The fact that you got home fine doesn’t mean next time you drive, don’t put on a seatbelt, right?

That’s a very important thing to note. You only were able to facilitate that because of the trust you had at the table with your players. How did you use safety tools in session zero to prepare, knowing this was going to be an emotionally tense story?

Alex: Specifically this game, it does give you questions in the setting up of the Magic Circle.

The Magic Circle is a term coined by Edward Castranova. It was not designed specifically for DIE, but the Magic Circle is essentially the set of tools, discussions, questions and answers that create that environment of accountability you create before going into character creation. It’s setting the tone and it’s a circle of trust that forms around the table when you go to play a game.

Aram: For this game, we had experience playing with each other. I think that did make it easier to get started. 

Alex and I play DIE on startplaying.games. We’re playing with crews that may know of us, but otherwise we don’t know that well. There isn’t that interaction when you’re playing online for the first time. As Alex said, DIE does such a good organic way of building in that aspect into the expectations of character and world generation that it fits so seamlessly. 

It is a game that anticipates the need of a Session Zero so much that they hesitate to even call it a Session Zero. This is just your first game. It’s not extra, it’s not added on, it’s not something you can skip when you listen to the show. This is an important part of the show that sets up everything else and all of the safety you’re going to experience at the table from there on out.

Dylan: One of the important things that I think gets skipped over with safety tools is there is an inherent risk in using them and that needs to be acknowledged and accepted. 

One of the things we tell all of our guests when we go to record the AP or when we have the discussion is: You can stop us at any point. If we veer into territory, you become uncomfortable, you see something later and you realize, “Oh, I don’t want to have said that,” you can torpedo it. 

Until the day the audio hits the feed, you have absolute right to text us, message us on something and say, this episode can’t happen. And if you’re not willing to make those sorts of concessions, it isn’t safe. 

Aram: We will torpedo the whole thing. There was one time we did actually rerecord [for Kill Every Monster]. The communication wasn’t as good as we hoped it was gonna be and we were so happy that they came to us and said “I don’t think I was heard as well as I should have been.” That makes for a better show. It builds trust and that way we don’t screw over anyone who is generally coming to us and just sharing their love of some weird ass monster.

Dylan: Everyone present knows if there is ever a moment where something feels unsafe, you have the absolute authority to kill the project, let alone stop the game. And that’s where the safety lives, is the knowledge that if something becomes unsafe, it will end.

Replay is a critique of actual plays and TTRPGs. Obviously no one piece of art can kind of change the entire ecosystem, but what do you feel that Replay does specifically as a show that you hope people start to adapt into other actual plays in the future

Dylan: I say this as the outsider on this one because I had to step back on this production and Alex stepped in and took what is usually my role and did such a phenomenal job. It’s that consideration of production versus play. You are not people at the table with microphones.

The moment you decide you’re gonna have any sort of advertisers, you’re gonna have revenue, you’re gonna have money involved, and you’re gonna post this and you’re gonna have fans, you are not just some folks. You have to treat this as if there’s some level of celebrity attached to it, as if there’s some power in your voice now. 

Every step of character creation you can see where like there’s the mismatch of characters who walked in thinking, “Oh no, it’s fine, I’m just playing with my friends.” Jacob thinks he’s building a media empire. Fern is drawing all these beautiful pictures because it’s “Fun with my friends” And then Rory is taking it all and turning it into a different media empire. 

Then the resentment builds because everyone’s individual media empires are differing sizes, and no one has any level of agreement on what that game was supposed to be. If you don’t approach this with the knowledge that you are making a production, there is a very good chance that someone is going to be angry.

What safety tools in real life do you guys have? What advice do you have to creators of actual play for how to do this successfully and maintain sanity, friendship throughout it?

Dylan: Codify decision making. It’s what makes most relationships work. You will find problems if you ever wind up resenting that someone else isn’t getting X task done, but they don’t know they’re supposed to do it. 

Aram: Transparency with all your money. If you are doing things with people that involve money, show them the money. Show them where the money goes, show them how much you’re raising. Show them what you need in order to get them more paid. Show them what you need to do in order to get new equipment in their hands. Be honest about the money. 

Don’t hide things, because people just wonder. We pay our guests. It’s not a huge amount of money, but every guest who comes on Kill Every Monster gets paid. Everyone on Replay gets paid. 

Even for small productions, you have to give people money when they show up to do work. You have to do stuff or exchange. I will do graphic design for your thing. I will design your logos and then you can come on the show and we do a little bit of bartering. You just have to acknowledge people’s time as value. 

Alex: Everything we’ve said so far is exactly what doesn’t happen within the world of Replay. Jacob made money through sponsorship, but never gave enough of the money to anyone.

Deliria, Rory and Fern have this conversation going through which is who owns the rights to this? Why do the creators of this not get any compensation or credit? 

Dylan: Let’s hide Andrea in the background, who has secretly snuck under everyone’s noses, stolen their production, and republished it. And just gone, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, I’m just a fun little fan.”

Replay’s first episode released through Dead Ghost Productions on October 3rd. You can find new episodes every two weeks wherever you find podcasts.

Images via Dead Ghost Productions

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