Occasionally I come across certain podcasts worthy of discussion and critique, but the show in question doesn’t have enough published content produced to justify a fully-scored review. Early Impressions fills this gap.
Magic Folk is a Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition tabletop actual-play podcast, much in the same vein as the D&D monolith that is The Adventure Zone*. The party consists of human druid (with an adorable owl friend), Claire the dragon-born wizard, humanoid bird barbarian Kiss, and human accordion-sporting bard Bernan. There’s also a human paladin NPC named Gomec, but we’ll get back to him.
In the beginning…
The first episode sets the show’s tone with a delightfully 80’s synth beat. One could attribute the music as a precedent set by TAZ but this tune is so delightfully its own thing. It owes more to the inherent 1980s association with D&D than TAZ in my mind.
Then we’re hit with an infodump from the dungeonmaster, Curtis. According to him Magic Folk is a continuation of a campaign that died after only two play sessions sometime in early 2017, with Curtis deciding to pick up the mantle of DM. This opening monologue is one of the few rough spots of the show. So much information is delivered at such a speed and with occasional odd inflections (such as mention of a bone dragon named “Puppet” with a sly grin, though it’s never mentioned again) I found it hard to find my footing in the show.
Without dropping spoilers, I can say Curtis uses a common D&D storytelling trick to quickly switch locations which makes one wonder: why bother setting up Ossul as this pre-existing world instead of spoon-feeding that existing information in later?
That being said, this somewhat clunky introduction is leagues better than the often sleep-inducing trope of starting off a show as characters are being rolled up. To return to TAZ as an example: I loved hearing Travis tell us how he’d built Magnus, the half-hour or so of hearing him and Griffin bounce back and forth over how to build said character was not fun. And that’s coming from someone who loves DM-ing.
From this beginning the show branches out, quickly introducing the two player characters new to the setting (Kiss and Bernan) and making some strides to introduce Claire (dragonborn druid) and Sindre (human wizard). The group has good chemistry with meshing senses of humor. As with most role-play characters the initial sessions rely heavily on meme culture and archetypes to jump-start the interactions. Kiss the barbarian is basically a carbon copy of Birdperson of Rick and Morty fame, the druid has a cute animal familiar that basically has a giant “I’m impervious to harm” sign over their head, and similarly Gomec might as well have “DM mouthpiece” tattooed on his forehead.
What elevates these rough spots is the authentic interactions of the characters. Yes, Kiss is an anthropomorphic bird who speaks in a monotone voice, but his player leans into these character identities. One scene in particular highlights this perfectly:
The simple mission is to enter Yard Sard cave — based off a dank tumblr meme — and get some loot. The first true puzzle of the game is a riff on the “one always lies, one always tells the truth” chestnut every D&D game has to have in it by law. After much debate on which tunnel to choose the more headstrong characters make the decision to go down one.
Soon the party bumps into the final PC character, Kiss the barbarian bird-person. A short fight is broken up by Sindre soothing Kiss out of a frantic state with a big bear hug and speaking softly.
Bernan Leadsetter, a new character with little to no motivation to actually do this (to the point where the player seems to be making a meta-commentary on being strong-armed into joining the party), begins to have a panic attack and threatens to leave. The hulking druid gets fed up and picks up Bernan, carrying the nerdy accordion-sporting bard over his shoulder as they walk down the tunnel. Bernan throws a fit until Bird runs up and hugs his lower half.
It could be a throwaway callback joke if not for Kiss’s player making a comment that he did it because it makes sense. Kiss wouldn’t know how to interact with humans except for the hug with Sindre so perhaps he interprets the act of hugging as something that can quickly calm down a panicked person.
Three things are quickly established in what could otherwise be a fluff scene:
- Bernan is prone to panic attacks/is easily scared.
- Sindre begrudgingly takes up the task of being Bernan’s rock.
- Kiss is more caring than the class distinction of “barbarian” originally implies.
Moments like this come thick and fast as the gang gets to know each other, much to my delight.
One of the best compliments I can give this show is the fact that nat 20s aren’t sacred. Pop culture has a way of smearing the definition of something to the point where a popular idea can be twisted to become a parody of itself. Your average person on the street has this god-like interpretation of rolling a natural D20 to hit 20. By pop culture’s definition, rolling a 20 allows a character brief godlike powers over the world they inhabit. Let’s invent a hypothetical for just a moment and say I’m playing as Scooter, a gnome alchemist with next to no strength.
DM: Before you is a steel door.
Scooter: I run up and kick it! *Dice roll sound* “Nat 20!”
In this moment, according to memes and whatnot, Scooter is owed brief godlike powers that basically steal the responsibilities from the DM for a moment because a piece of plastic says so. A bad DM who sees themselves as an improv comic genius will do just that. It’s hilarious to think of a little gnome kicking a door and it falling down, right?
Boom, he kicks it, the door falls down, Doritos dust is snorted across the table as the players who were only half listening choke on their snacks. Now whatever the DM had planned for that trapped room situation is thrown out the window. Consider a more reasonable approach:
DM: With a 20 you run up and kick the door, causing a resounding metal clang. From somewhere on the other side you hear a gruff, annoyed voice call out “‘ello? Who’ssat?”
A 20 doesn’t have to shatter the setting while still doing awesome things. Now Scooter can have a conversation with this other person. Perhaps it’s a weak-minded guard who could be persuaded to open the door, or a prisoner who happened to be making his escape as he passed your door and heard the clang.
Magic Folk falls neatly into the latter category of game. Characters can (and do) roll 20s that feel satisfactory in their outcome, but Curtis massages the rules and actions just enough to keep the game rolling along smoothly without making any jarring changes to pace.
To round out this beast of a first “real” blog post I want to touch on a couple of things worth mentioning but not demanding entire sections:
Magic Folk is obviously recorded over Skype with the players recording their own mic feeds independently, with one of the players’ mics being significantly different-sounding than their compatriots. There are also the occasional awkward moments as a person will gear up to say something and step on another person’s attempt to start and we get the verbal version of two people repeatedly bumping into each other while trying to go opposite directions.
Sometimes a player (or all of the players) will become obsessed with continuing a joke or moment they like that Curtis has to do his damnedest to actually move them along, one time going as far as to actually say “We’re not going to waste precious moments of our D&D podcast on cleaning bird poop off a skull.” The party works together but sometimes loses sight of the fact Curtis exists to transition them from scene to scene and will fight him to continue improv comedy that stretches time out even more.
It would be quite easy to mark this show as a TAZ copy to anyone not taking time to dig deeper (there will be an article specifically about fanbase bleed-over in the next couple of days that will use Magic Folk as the prime example, stay tuned!). A combination of Curtis’ voice being in the same ballpark as Griffin’s and his favoring a similar style of narration can initially be interpreted as him tying to be like a McElroy. Take the introduction to episode three, for instance. The pacing, the music, the word choices. It’s not necessarily a fair comparison to make, especially after investing three hours into the show, but the initial knee-jerk is “Oh, he’s imitating Griffin McElroy.”
I wish I had some grand, Jerry Springer-esque ending to bring it all back together but…
No really, I got nothing.
For its rough edges I don’t hear anything particularly grievous issues with the show. The three short items mentioned above aren’t necessarily game-breakers, just things I notice enough to keep an eye on as more episodes are produced.
I can’t recommend Magic Folk more for someone looking to get into an easy-to-consume D&D game. I find actual-play podcasts to be somewhat impervious as it seems all of the good ones are so old and have years worth of episodes with — by today’s standards — garbage audio that have important information. I can’t be bothered to dig through years of garbage or jump into a campaign mid-run, so jumping in on the ground floor with a podcast playing my favorite version of D&D is just the ticket.
Check out Magic Folk on Twitter!
*Full disclosure: I came across this podcast after joining a Facebook group dedicated to podcast producers who like the Maximum Fun program My Brother, My Brother, and Me (as well as other McElroy-produced content). I bring this up as I will be touching on the The Adventure Zone a few times in this post and a related one going up soon.