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Experiments in Criticism

Reviews and other essays on Actual Play performances, games, and media cultures past, present, and future.

Shut Up and Sit Down, "Amazing Star Wars Adventures" (2014)

Updated: Feb 3

It may feel counter-intuitive to start a series of Actual Play reviews with a collective best known for reviewing board games, but it's my weird project and Shut Up and Sit Down was among my earliest introductions to the tabletop reviewing space, alongside Wil Wheaton's Tabletop (2012-17).



Shut Up & Sit Down (SUSD) began in 2011 as a YouTube channel (and joined by a 2012 podcast) founded by Paul Dean and Quinton "Quinns" Smith that reviewed board games in a style that combined trustworthy analysis with surreal visual gags and bits. The team now includes Matt Lees, Tom Brewster, Ava Foxfort, Philippa Warr, Emily of Emily and Things, and Brendan Caldwell. It's hard to overstate SUSD's impact in this nerdy niche, at least in the Anglophone world: more than one game has sold out or seen significant sales or traffic boosts following positive reviews, even games that didn't earn a coveted pear of approval. In a similar fashion to Penny Arcade's launch of Penny Arcade Expo (now known as PAX) conventions, SUSD has SHUX, a Vancouver-based convention that has met more-or-less annually since 2017.


When adding a podcast in 2012, rather than simply shift its video content into an audio-only feed, the podcast tackled material that was better suited to the new form. These days, the podcast has a fairly regular schedule, primarily featuring initial impressions of games that might have a fuller video review later, or that might not make the cut. In the early years, updates were far more sporadic (six episodes in the first year, 10 in the next, and 21 in the third) as the team experimented with different ideas. By 2014, that included some examples of documentation of gameplay on both the video and audio channels.


It's important to remember where we were around 2014: Penny Arcade had run a podcast from 2008-13 as a collaboration with Wizards of the Coast for the release of 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons and D&D Next (later 5th edition), and had begun running live shows at their PAX conventions in 2010. Community creator Dan Harmon had begun playing D&D as a segment on his podcast Harmontown (2012-19), but the spinoff television series HarmonQuest (2016-19) would not appear until 2016. Felicia Day's Geek & Sundry, which would go on to be a major incubator of Actual Play, was a year away from the launch of Wheaton's Titansgrave (2015) and Critical Role (2015-). Jeff Stormer's indie-focused anthology show Party of One also appeared in 2015. Wizards of the Coast released a Starter Set for Dungeons & Dragons new 5th edition in the summer of 2014, with the core rulebooks following later that year. The McElroys, preparing for paternity leaves, used that starter adventure for the first season of what would become The Adventure Zone. While Actual Plays had been online since the late 2000s, they were about to proliferate far more rapidly... but not quite yet.


Meanwhile, some of the structures for analyzing gameplay and sharing knowledge in TTRPG were in transition: I think it's fair to say (and if not someone will surely correct me) that The Forge, which defined a generation of game design, was all but dead by 2012. Google+ communities rose to take its place as a site of community until it too was sunsetted in 2019.


I digress. The point here is that while there had been years of play-performances we would now understand as Actual Play, in the early half of 2014 most of what we now think of when we think of the form was not fully solidified. And as Evan Torner reminds us, in the period leading up to this, "actual play" was primarily a term used for recorded play sessions used for analysis or testing, as well as written play reports for gaming groups to document their activities.


It's in this transitional sense of Actual Play -- when recorded play could be used for analysis, but increasingly also was created to entertain an imagined audience -- that we can look at SHUD's  "Amazing Star Wars Adventures," a three-episode play-through of the then-recently-released Star Wars: Edge of Empire RPG (2013).


The miniseries was described as "something different" for the group, but it wasn't too far out of their wheelhouse. While board games were (and are) SUSD's primary focus, anything analog and played in-person was fair game. And though reviews were (and are) the vast majority of their output, Let's Plays (play-throughs of board or video games) would also become part of SUSD's portfolio. And Actual Play-like experiences were also on the table by 2014: that spring they documented their experience playing a megagame, a LARP-like roleplaying scenario, that summer Leigh Alexander recounted the weeks she and Smith participated in Street Wars, "a live action assassination tournament", and in October they played a variant of Grant Howitt's Goblin Quest written by the designer, "Sean Bean Quest". Similar coverage continues to this day: Smith's games journalism channel with Chris Blatt People Make Games recently covered post-apocalyptic desert LARP Wasteland Weekend.


You'll notice I use "documented" and "covered" repeatedly when describing what SUSD does with play footage. With the exception of Let's Plays livestreamed on Twitch, SUSD generally edits its recorded play, and does so more with an eye for analysis and evaluation. You can listen to all of "Star Wars Adventures" in less than an hour and a half. As GM for this adventure, Paul Dean is unobtrusive — Smith is as likely to roll unprompted as to be asked to roll. Rolls are either minimal or have been edited out (from remaining context, it seems more the latter). There has seemingly been aggressive trimming, though not necessarily of funny off-topic riffs. At the open and close of each episode, and as a transition between scenes, Matt Lees tries his hand at some delightfully-dumb a cappella versions of Star Wars riffs with echo effect and hand-drumming on a table.


The first episode opens with Lees giving us the Star Wars contextual scroll: while this game is set on the titular edges of the Empire, "many space-miles away" something that looks rather like a "chocolate orange with lasers" has blown up. We then cut to GM Paul Dean explaining that the events that dominated the first (or middle) trilogy of films don't much concern those on the outer rim, where "financial ambitions" have much greater sway than the high-minded ideals of the Rebel Alliance.


As if to distance ourselves still further from the tone of the films, Matt Lees introduces his "kind of a fish man" character Fuse, a demolitions expert outcast from his homeworld ("it's hard being a fish in the outer worlds"). As we get a phhbbty example of Fuse's home language, we cut to Leigh Alexander's Beatrice, or Beetle, born in the slums and devoted to her late brother, incurring shady debts she now seeks to untangle herself from via plucky heroine-ing and "become the glamorous femme fatale bounty hunter that I've always dreamed of being" -- which is absolutely unlikely, as Alexander notes. Quinton Smith plays her cobbled-together traveler droid ZB-33, mostly corrupted but afraid of being wiped & losing his sense of self. Asides abound during these introductions, quipping at parallels to social issues, mentioning possible later character pathways, etc. The first episode is described as a "prologue," since half of the runtime is described as "mostly character creation and puzzling over rules" though much of the work did seem to either have been done before recording or edited out of the final episode. It's not as didactic/instructional as you might expect from SUSD's scope, though there's definitely a through-line of commentary about the nature of the game present.


From there, the new crew manages to get off-planet on their way to a casino on a nearby space station for a heist -- "dramatic caper of the Crap Plastic Artifact, " Much of the second and third episodes move into retrospective recap of a scene, punctuated by Lees' interstitials. The resulting effect is mildly trippy: Alexander's Beetle is such a vivid, blustery delightful naif that it's generally clear the difference between in-character and out-of-character speech, but Lees and Smith are far more slippery (and this is only slightly a joke about Lee's "grumpy fish" character). Increasingly, there's more and more out of character discussion of motivations, along with digressions and commentary about game structure. Each episode softly transitions in the end into discussion of the game in "above the table" fashion.


GM Dean introduces his own player character midway through the second episode, and Smith explains that they plan on swapping GMing duties for future adventures -- adventures that never were (or at least, were not recorded or released). Those roads (or star systems) untraveled are a reminder that not every Actual Play ends neatly -- many hoped for more episodes than they got, or tried out performed play and decided it wasn't where they could do their best work.


We can see in this miniseries the ways in which expectations around the form have not yet solidified. For me, that feels kind of warm and friendly, and I suspect I'm not alone: many folks still seek out Actual Plays that feel "real" (and we'll be thinking more about what that means as we go on). On the other hand, it is so incredibly concisely cut that we actually don't actually get large stretches of gameplay, but instead drift into the kind of game reporting that happens when your friends tell you what happened last night. That may or may not be your jam.


On the whole, this is a fascinating example of Actual Play that would not describe itself as Actual Play. Instead, I suspect it's best understood as part of a portfolio of experiments by a team trying out different forms of what we now call "content" to see which best work for their goals -- which is the origin story of many Actual Plays even now. Ultimately, SUSD in all its forms is at its best either when riffing live (as they later would on Twitch and at SHUX panels) or when working retrospectively, thinking through past play experiences to assess and explain the games they play (if my next class includes Blood on the Clocktower, it will be because of SUSD's review).


And so I thought it was an interesting place for us to start these experiments: with a wildly talented, funny group whose work ushered me into the wide world of analog games online, who tried out Actual Play in different forms as part of finding their voice. That they ultimately chose to focus their energies elsewhere was far from a failure. It's an important reminder as we begin of the value of experimentation, of being willing to be a bit rough -- lessons I'm certainly taking to heart right now.


Next up: we'll jump ahead to more recent Actual Plays -- including one that made me so angry I'm forcing myself to listen for the purposes of this project.




Original Release: Podcast June 12-August 13, 2014.

Format: Three episode edited miniseries, 24-34 minutes each

System: Star Wars: Edge of Empire Roleplaying Game (2013) by Dave Allen, Shawn Carman, and Jay Little

Production Team: Shut Up and Sit Down

Cast:

Leigh Alexander as Beetle, wannabe bounty hunter

Quinton "Quinns" Smith as ZB-33, her jury-rigged protocol droid

Matt Lees as Fuse, a grumpy fish with lots of bomb

GM: Paul Dean (Smith intended as later GM)


Bonus silliness: "Sean Bean Quest" playing a variant of Grant Howitt's Goblin Quest (October 2014)



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