18 July 2015

Dammit. I like Happy Jack's Podcast. And I cannot stop myself no matter how hard I try

The logo for the Happy Jacks podcast.
Digression alert: This is a kind of long introduction with little to do with the main topic. For the actual review scroll down to the next heading.

Podcasts are everywhere on every topic, and role play gaming is no exception. There are a lot of them, but one has my constant attention AND IT KILLS ME.

Let me explain. I prefer being a fan of something I know is cool but most people do not. Some would call this a simple character flaw; some might say I am narcissistic preferring to be in a minority group to feel bigger about myself. While I do not know the cause, I know it has gone on a long time.

Back in 1978 I found a new TV show running on my local PBS station (WPBT, Miami), Monday through Friday at six. It was called Doctor Who, and featured Tom Baker as The Doctor, who I would son learn was the fourth in the series. Later, they ran the fifth Doctor and Third Doctor episodes. Watching these, and reading imported novelizations from Target Books in the UK, made me a pretty knowledgeable fan for a Yank. In fact, I was the only fan I knew. I was aware of other fans; often they would appear during pledge drives to beg for money for the station in exchange for those dreamy PBS tote bags.

By high school I had actual met a few fans (some of them I had introduced to the show), but we were outnumbered by the Star Trek and Star Wars fans. In 1986 I went to my first sci-fi con and met a bunch of other Whovians, but  it was still a handful of geeks in the whole fandom thing.

You never forget your first Doctor Who logo.
Flash forward to 2005. The BBC brings the show back from the dead. I was jazzed! It got great viewership in England, but it didn't even air in America during the first series. I had to download them via torrent (which was new back then). It was as awesome as I imagined: Doctor Who was back and I was still a fan in a select crowd of American Whovians.

Flash forward again: It is 2015. Doctor Who fandom is off the roof. Merchandise is in bookstores and chain stores. It is in constant repeat on the TV. People who's parents weren't born yet when the series premiered were cosplaying, making podcasts, and writing the fan fic (BTW: fan writers, I know Amy Pond was hot but there are NO THREEWAYS in the time vortex, okay?). It seems everyone knows who the Doctor is. My special club is not so special anymore.

That is how I am about bands, other TV shows, movies, and so on. The more others are into it, the less I want to be. Heck, I was so thrilled that I hated Star Wars Episode I when I saw it. I thought, "I must be in the minority here... goody." That was ruined for me when everyone was in my anti-prequel club.

This attitude is probably the root of my rejection of D&D/Pathfinder/OSR I am going through these days.

Then there is Happy Jack's podcast. As their motto says, they are "pursuing the RPG hobby with reckless abandon... and beer." They do: no false advertising here. The fact is that it is my favorite RPG podcast for the past few years, and no one else comes close. Of course, they have a lot of fans who feel the same so here I am: I want to hate their popularity and seek out something no one listens to, but frankly, the show is too good.


Stu Venable hard at work.
Happy Jacks started off as a podcast, but over the past few years they have added some very popular Actual Play shows (these are game sessions recorded and released as a podcast, a very hot brand of pod and videocasting these days). Started by Stu Venable, an RPG'er back in the early 80s who left the hobby and then returned in the mid-2000s. While it was D&D that brought him back (4th edition, of all things; at least it was good for something), he has a love of all sorts of games, especially GURPS!

The show is (mostly) weekly, with a few breaks here and there. Each podcast has a bunch of contributors who appear as a panel. The panel rotates its participants, and some are more heard from than others.  Mr. Venable is the rock, always anchoring the show. They usually cover a topic at the start of the show and go into depth on it covering just about all angles of the subject with opinions and observations from the panel. The topics can be just about any including running games or getting the most out of being a player. These topics originate from Stu, members of the panel, listener e-mails, and from the show's forum. With all these sources they always have something to debate.

After the topic section they spend the rest of the show dealing with listener e-mails. These are usually questions, but can have some variety of other subjects. A popular theme is examples of RPG horror stories: when players or GMs put each other through hell. They are pretty funny because if you have played for a while you have your own tales and can appreciate others who tell theirs.

While the banter has a lot of humor (yeah, some childish, some bad language, so what?), you quickly realize the panel is really good at breaking down what makes a game good and fun, and calls out the bullshit that players and GMs can bring to the table. They are all about RPG's being a shared experience, giving the players and GM tools to improve cooperation between all involved with the game. This is, IMHO, a very healthy attitude not seen enough in gaming groups.

That is the whole show, really, but with all the different topics and e-mails it moves fast, which is good because the episodes have been known to rival the length of Major League Baseball extra innings games. Of course, if you listen on your way to and from work, it could last you the whole week, and that can be hellacool. Heck, I have been disappointed to hear Stu call the show after a mere two hours after getting used to longer shows.

Two things they do not cover is industry news and product reviews. However, the show is so rich in material as it is, it isn't needed. Besides, they have a great archive of shows with topics that are pretty timeless; news ages fast and would make the older shows seem a kind of out of date.

As for the actual plays, I have not listened to any of them. To me they are like porn movies: yeah, they can be fun, but frankly I would rather be having sex than watching. Same with these types of shows. I'd rather play than listen. My wife does listen to them gives Happy Jacks high marks, along with Role Play Public Radio.


Yeah, they do. In fact, I got to see Stu Venable in action at Gateway 2013 in Los Angles and he practices what he preaches. I played in his GURPS one shot. We players had spotlight moments and always felt like our choices had an impact on the story. He even had to think on his feet when the group decided a plan of action 180-degrees from what he anticipated. He handled it excellently, kept the play moving forward, and there was fun for all.

I have to say I have been a GM for a long time myself and I have learned much through trial and error, and wished I had a show like Happy Jacks to listen to back then to help explore concepts (this was the dark ages of the early 90s, when I got serious about telling good stories, USENET was the big way to discuss topics and MP3's were unheard of). Even now, they have taught me some new things I am integrating into my games.

Moment of Truth Pre-Release Cover. GROIN SHOT!
I am excited that Mr. Venable and his crew are playtesting their own game engine, called the "Moment of Truth." Because of their knowledge of what makes a game session good, and hope it will imbue the product, I am looking forward to its release. I have not read it yet, nor have I listened to the actual play episodes of the play sessions of it (as I mentioned above, homey don't play that), but I intend to catch up with it soon.


Another thing that I like about the show is Stu's devotion to making the show sound good. He has a pretty neat setup in their studio: everyone has their own mic, and the quality is pretty pro. He is always trying to improve quality with new equipment, and adds new features to the shows and the website, such as video versions of the show filmed multi-camera via Google Plus (see them on YouTube), and streaming the podcast recording session live with listeners able to join a chat that the panel can see! They also have the ability to go portable and have recorded shows at the Strategicon conventions in front of live audiences.

Digression alert: This will not mean much to many people, but Stu is a kindred spirit to me as he is a fellow user of a digital audio workstation called Reaper. It was created by the guy who designed WinAmp (it whips the llama's ass), and is nto only feature rich, it is affordable, especially for home use. I have done several movie soundtrack projects and personal music on that platform and I am not going back to any other, even after experiencing ProTools HD when my partner and I owned a project recording/video production company in Hollywood, Florida. Sure, Pro-Tools had the DSP chips for the  cards, but I bought a new 8-core computer and I really don't have problems with running out of processing power, even with the fact I exclusively use VST instruments for all my composing so I always have a ton of plugins going. Also, TDM was overpriced compared to VST for the same plug in. It was a bit of a rip. Digression over.


Stu has a band and writes music. Several of his songs can be heard in the show, especially the ones about the RPG hobby. He has a band that plays at Ren Fairs in a kind of Celtic vibe. His productions for the show vary in genre (though his techno-rapping can use a bit o' work).

Also, I have written the show a few times with questions and have been un-mercifully poked fun of because my career moniker is N. Eric Phillips and it comes up on my e-mail. They have a real problem with the N. I finally let them in on what the "N" stands for: "None of your damn business." (I am not really complaining, its all in fun. I hope).


Life is short. Listen to the podcast, dammit.

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