Interview with Amanda McLoughlin & Eric Silver

Tan background with a four sided die with Join the Party overlayed in redIf you are not aware, I really love the people over at Join the Party, they are my tabletop RPG heroes. I’ve said many times that D&D always felt like something that I wasn’t allowed to play. At first, I felt like I wasn’t “nerdy” enough, and later it felt like I was “too queer” to join in on the fantasy fun. I have always wanted to play though, I loved the thought of being able to tell a story with a group of friends. It wasn’t until I listened to Join the Party, that I discovered that there were people actively welcoming people like me into the world of D&D. The moment that they said that they were open to being interviewed, I was ruined for the rest of the week. I had a countdown to the interview in my calendars and planners. Enough of my gushing, let’s get on with the interview!
Amanda McLoughlin and Eric Silver of Join the Party Podcast posing in front of a building

Amanda McLoughlin and Eric Silver

How did you get into D&D?

Amanda: I got into D&D as an adult. I’m the oldest of four kids, and my younger brother was, unbeknownst to me, really into D&D. He started playing when he was 11, and every Friday night, I thought him and his buddies were just smoking weed on the down low, but no, they were playing D&D. My brother Connor, who is one of the creative collaborators for the show, was super into it and I didn’t start playing until I became friends with Eric. He really wanted to play D&D, and so did Julia, my best friend from childhood and co-host on spirits. So I said, “Yeah, sure, why not?” You are hearing my entrance into D&D. You are hearing me develop as a player, and the learning curve of my development as a person that never plays games, period. I never played video games, never played anything like that, and I barely like boardgames. So, I am an unlikely D&D podcaster, but I have really come to love it, and I put a lot of that down to Eric and the way that it is so story focused.

Eric: I feel like 50% of the stories are like, my older brother did it, or I was a nerdy straight white man that found it, and I am the latter. I saw this thing that was in pop culture, and it was something I was always attracted to as much as I love fantasy, reading, and writing, I needed another creative outlet, which I didn’t have in my life. So I really wanted to play D&D. I started reading the books, and then I got the opportunity to DM a game before JTP, Amanda, Julia, and a bunch of our friends played, and I made Julia cry. So I thought that maybe, I’m actually kind of good at this. I used to play this game with my friends, well we still do, called scenario. The context of the game is my friends will go up to me and say “We want to play scenario,” and then I basically just make up a story on whatever their theme, genre, or archetype is that includes everyone.

Amanda: I do remember this from your birthday celebration. Brandon and I were sitting in the corner, being quiet, and then you were suddenly holding court saying “and then Penny came down the stairs in Times Square and brought forth Excalibur.” Like you were just telling a story.

Eric: Yeah, that was fun. It seems like I had the skills to do that the entire time and thought, “You know what? I should go from doing things casually with my friends to having it recorded and scored. Everyone will listen to it. That sounds smart and good.”

Amanda: Yeah, I know, what were we thinking?

I have to pause the actual questions and ask if you have watched the IT Crowd?

Eric: Yes, I watched all of them, I just don’t remember them off the top of my head.

There is an episode where Moss and Roy are playing a campaign with these business men because Jen was supposed to set up entertainment, but I always think of that moment when I think about D&D. Like I had seen D&D portrayed before, but it was the point that I knew that I really wanted to play. 

If you have never watched the IT Crowd, here is a part of the scene that I’m talking about:

Amanda: you were like, that nerdy shit, that’s me!

Eric: I want to say that it’s interesting that you bring up an episode of the IT Crowd because no one references that episode as a formative example of D&D in media. I think that it’s probably close to the Freaks and Geeks episode of that where they talk about D&D. James Franco plays D&D with everyone, and he’s actually really good at it.

Amanda: Hypothesis: People nerdy enough to watch the IT Crowd in America, were nerdy enough to know D&D. To be clear, I include myself in that group.

Eric: A lot of media from before the 90s and going forward were just using D&D as a signifier for nerdiness, which was like the IT Crowd and Freaks and Geeks or it was a signifier that people who are watching knew D&D, which I would say that a lot of cartoons did, most notably is Gravity Falls. But shows like Community and Stranger Things actually describe the act of playing D&D. It is the most faithful to what it’s like, although they don’t spend a lot of time with the rules. It’s about a bunch of people coming together to tell a story. I think that’s what’s most faithful, so I went back and rewatched those episodes to get that feeling. So just a D&D in media sidebar.

How did you develop the world for Join the Party?

Eric: Before I can answer your question, I have to sort of set the scene. It was more important to me that we got the podcast right more than I got the story right. We thought about this when we first started the game. It was like all of us are going to do a thing that we are the best at, and we are going to crush it. Brandon is a tech and audio wizard, so I never had any worries that he wasn’t going to make it sound as beautiful as possible. Amanda was going to make our game gay as fuck and keep everything running smoothly. Fische has been playing D&D for years, so I never worried about him as a player. I trusted that he knew what he was going to do. Everyone trusted that my game was going to run smoothly and that I was going to tell this story. I appreciate that responsibility and the faith that they have in me. What we put so much time and work into, is the prep to make sure that our D&D game was accessible to everyone. There are so many actual play podcasts out there, and a lot of them are bad. And not in the way of fuck that person, but because they are detrimental to you, and might make you feel bad for a variety of reasons. We came up with these four pillars of mediocre D&D podcasts. I always forget the four, but I think Amanda will help me if I forget. They are too male-centric, too joke centric, too nerd-centric, and their audio is bad.

Amanda: You got them all!

Eric: Yes! I was listening to actual play podcasts before we started doing Join the Party. It was literally my job. I was working at this company that was curating podcasts, and I took it upon myself to listen to D&D podcasts to find the best. So many of them are just dudes talking about dude humor, e.g., farts, boobs, and bad sexual politics. There were jokes for nerds that you will only get if you know everything about D&D, anime, and Quentin Tarantino. Then there was the miasma of racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia. Finally, it all sounded terrible. After that, I felt more informed about the game and the world. That we would make sure that we did better. That we put a lot of time and effort into understanding how to do better, and I think that my story emerged from there. Like being able to casually have a gay wedding as our main plot device in episode one and two.

Amanda: It signals to people like me that this is a space that is not just actively intolerant of me, but actually wants me there, which is something that I talked a lot about in our, three-ish months of preproduction before we launched. We were talking about accessibility, which is not just making our story enjoyable to people who haven’t experienced D&D, but also having transcripts available for are deaf or hard of hearing, or people who need or want to read along as they listen. A lot of Michael Fische’s family speaks Spanish, and they are able to enjoy the show as well.

This nicely segues into my next question about accessibility. Join the Party has become the go-to example for making an accessible podcast, especially an actual play podcast. How did you ensure that it was accessible?

Eric: I think that it’s going back to those four pillars is where we started. The story had to be representative of everyone, and not just another story about a straight white, able-bodied dude. Fantasy has a lot of issues with race and prejudice, so we were trying to move away from the standard fantasy tropes and let all the characters have all the choices.

Amanda: And not just theoretically, but in practice. The same way that this isn’t just a bunch of cishet white people that are making a story that they think is going to be inclusive. But there are representatives of those groups. This was like we were showing up to work, and one of the missions that we were there to work towards is having people who didn’t feel welcome in D&D realize that this world is amazing and I am actively represented and shown to be here.

Eric: At the same time, being able to support that by making all the humor and entertainment in the podcast, be about the actual story and moving the plot forward. You don’t have to listen to our chatter about pop culture references, make inside jokes, or us messing up. That stuff will never be a part of the show. And that is all Brandon, the audio quality and editing is all him. We want to make sure that anyone can listen and be like, wow this is pleasing to my ears.

Amanda: I had that experience that many did growing up, I was a bookish kid who didn’t talk to a lot of other kids. I know that feeling of not getting the joke and having when other kids are joking about pop culture references, it’s an awful feeling. And when podcasts do that, it’s the same and puts you off the story. We want to give people a really immersive experience regardless of their background.

The beginner’s track was something that I have not seen anywhere else and was what really got me into listening to some actual play podcasts. Because there was a barrier keeping me from enjoying any of them. How did that come about?

Amanda: It was definitely a collaboration between Eric and me, as well as our creative collaborators and the other players. To be honest, that really was my experience learning how to play D&D. I knew the very basics going in like I knew what my character was, but I didn’t know a lot. I wasn’t required to read the player’s guide or pass a quiz before I started playing. Eric and Julia didn’t tell me a whole lot.

Eric: We just hoped that Amanda would soak it up. She still asks me about her attack bonus, which is fine. We’ve recorded enough that I know Amanda’s capable, and you can tell. She became a rogue, which is the most complicated class in D&D.

Amanda: The only mistake you made in Join the Party was letting me play a rogue.

Eric: Not just a rogue, but a rogue assassin.

Amanda: Yeah. But that was what we did. I came to the table with the bare minimum needed and learned as I went. It was important to us that we didn’t compromise the experience of the first could of episodes by front-loading all the information and game mechanics. Eric is a teacher, so he knows that in order to get a concept, you have to see the concept applied.

Eric:  We recorded those first two episodes like three times. We re-listened to it, and I realized that we did a lot of the basics, and talked about role-playing. So as we listened, I made notes of all of that and went back to the player’s handbook. I tried to take all of the rules and set it up in a way that is here is everything that you will ever need to know. It’s like a tutorial for a video game. Here are all of your buttons, here’s how you string buttons together, and now you need to use those buttons to attack this one minion. It’s a working tutorial, and we retrofitted into episodes one and two. Amanda and I spent a lot of time going over everything. She would ask me to explain this and that.

Amanda: It was Eric telling me the curriculum, and then both of us putting it into words that people without knowledge would understand it.

Eric: I’m proud of it. It made me a better dm and made me a better teacher.

How do you create the challenges, like Chopped?

Eric: I was watching a ton of Food Network at the time, and I wanted to put it in the game. There’s a wealth of knowledge online about how to add things to your game. What happened is that our heroes go into an alchemy room and these two teenage Dragonborn challenge them to a game. It turns out that the game is called Chopped, so strange how that happened. But you take ingredients with other ingredients, and you make a potion. I had to tell them how to play, but I didn’t have to tell them all the mechanics behind it. A lot of it is existing mechanics that are then configured to whatever we are doing.

How do you market Join the Party?

Eric: Growing a podcast is really, really difficult. There’s no definitive podcast growth hack, just some ways to give it a shot. So we have a really responsive and kind social media presence, something genuine that resonates with people. And… that’s it? Is anything else really sustainable? We tried a MaxFun Jumbotron to mixed success, same with Facebook ads. But we’re just trying to let everyone know!

Amanda: We also optimized the show for discoverability. If someone’s looking for a queer D&D podcast, or an accessible one, or something to help teach beginners D&D, they’ll find us. That looks like our clear episode titling structure, to our beautiful website, to the fact that we include a short blurb about the show in every episode description.

So what advice would you give to someone wanting to make an actual play podcast?

Amanda: Don’t. Don’t make an actual play podcast unless you have a really, really good reason to make one. If you think that you and your friends are funny, that’s not a good enough reason. I will be the voice of reality and warning in the podcast world. It is a full landscape, and there may be a perspective that you want to bring or people with skills that you want to showcase. But you should like the genre, and you should do research. Listen to as many podcasts as you can get your ears on, and with all the resources and apps out there, there is no excuse to just listening to The Adventure Zone and thinking that you and your friends can do that. If you just want to enjoy how funny your friends are when playing, there is nothing wrong with lettering your hobbies be your hobbies, and not turning them into a piece of art for the internet.

Eric: I would say that’s it, don’t start an actual play podcast unless you have a really good reason to do so. It’s like — I don’t want to listen to more straight white dudes talking to each other with a mic in the middle of the table and running a game. Just do something different, but if you are just playing another D&D game, then don’t do it.

Amanda: It’s also important to not uphold the status quo and not make something that is actively harmful and perpetuating stereotypes that show that RPGs are just for cis, straight, white, able-bodied men. Do better, learn more, and start dedicating your platform and your resources to lifting others up. If you’re going to make a podcast that costs you time, money, and emotional energy then it’s important to know why you’re doing it.

Now, my favorite part, the fun question. The party is always missing out on breakfast, so what’s your ideal breakfast meal? Amanda, I want Inara and Oatcake’s breakfast meal too.

Eric: GIMME THAT BREAKFAST. For me, it’s a really good bagel with fresh lox, cream cheese, and tomato, OJ, a Bloody Maria (bloody maria with tequila) and many, many friends.

Amanda: Mine is a classic diner breakfast with at least four beverages. Beverages are the BEST PART OF BRUNCH, COME AT ME. Over-easy eggs, home fries, bacon, sausage, challah toast, fruit salad, apple juice, mimosa, coffee, water… Mmm. Inara and Oatcake would do a big one-skillet campfire breakfast: eggs, potatoes, sausage, all mixed in with a whole lotta hot sauce, and some nice crusty bread to scrape it all up.

If you haven’t started listening to Join the Party already, enjoy episode 1: Wedding Party.

You can follow Join the Party on Twitter at @JoinThePartyPod and visit their website Support them on Patreon, and don’t forget to listen and subscribe to them wherever you listen.

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Do you have a moment where you knew that D&D was for everyone? Or a favorite breakfast food? Comment with them below