It all started with a box of toy plastic spiders.
Today Critical Bits, an actual play podcast using the Masks system, celebrates its one-year anniversary. 12 months of the three unlikely teen heros Gene (Paul Byron), Kim (Shannon Strucci), and Ace (Shelby Lee) blundering their way across Heavendale in an attempt to thwart evil. Things go well… sometimes.
Other times? Well, the words “body horror” get thrown around a lot. Critical Bits’ gamemaster Joel Ruiz unleashes some of the most fucked-up scenarios on his players with childlike glee. Between Ruiz’ penchant for bizzare NPCs and the three players’ phenomenally bad luck with rolls, Critical Bits goes places. For good spoiler-free sell of Critical Bits I highly recommend Sarah Zedig’s thread.
Also, there’s Herbie.
Critical Bits is messed up, hilarious, aggressively anti-fascist, and full of heart. It’s also packed to the gills with memorable riffs, one of which went a bit further than most. Today I talk to Joel Ruiz about a seemingly one-off joke spiraled out into the fundraising movement that is The Story of Spider Day.
Lending a Hand
Riffs about corn dogs and fast food chains have woven themselves deep into the lore of superpower-laden city Heavendale. One special riff managed to set off a chain of events that would bring together 33 people in a massive 228 minute podcast special and three-day charity stream event.
Spider Day stems from a seemingly innocent joke in episode nine of Critical Bits (“Lending a Hand”). The player characters (known as the Fun Bunch) are sitting in Gerry’s father’s car discussing how to approach a potential trap. Byron recalls “the only actionable piece of information” the players have against said trap is the character lying in wait has arachnaphobia.
After the idea of driving to a pet store to purchase a spider is floated, Ruiz suggests Gerry remembers there’s a box of “old, shitty plastic spiders” his dad left in the trunk of the car.
Byron: We got these from our… spider party.Critical Bits, episode 9, Lending a Hand
Ruiz: April 17th, spider-party day.
Byron: Spider Day!
By the end of this short conversation Byron and Ruiz establish April 17th is the anniversary of when a giant spider attacked Heavendale, which was only saved when it was defeated by an even larger spider.
Unbeknowsnst to Critical Bits listeners, this one gag that randomly picked a date had set wheels in motion. Spider Day was coming, and on that day nine teams of ridiculous superpowered guest stars would attempt (and fail) to kill the giant spider over 228 minutes of podcast. The Story of Spider Day is as massive in scope as, well, the second spider.
The following interview is mostly spoiler-free, despite our discussion of many character’s deaths. You’ll quickly find out why that’s not a big deal.
Gavin: How long after the original Spider Day gag did the idea “we could do something with this” begin to percolate?
Joel Ruiz: Literally as soon as we were done recording that episode. We had that riff and… I’m a long-time comedy fan, always been interested in writing and storytelling. I also really like to go against tropes and what people expect. Not necessarily like a Game of Thrones kind of way, I don’t think that being surprising like the only thing you need to do, but every once in a while, you can just have some fun with it. Instead of just explaining “Oh yeah, you have plastic spiders from like a Halloween haunted house,” I was like, screw it. You know, this town is weird. It’s, it’s for Spider Day.
We usually have a little post-episode chat, ‘cus we record it in person and we all like each other so we’re not trying to run away.
I start cracking up and I was like, “Oh man, I can’t believe we just fucking came up with Spider Day. Like that’s a real holiday.” We recorded that in February and by the time that episode dropped we’d have like a month and a half until April 17th. We could do a bonus Patreon episode about Spider Day.
The original plan was simple: players Shannon, Shelby, and Paul would come up with multiple squads of disposable superheros with wacky powers. They’d then roleplay as said heroes attacking the spider and dying in true gonzo Critical Bits fashion.
Joel Ruiz: [The idea was] “We’ll just fucking record a session where you guys fight the giant spider and die. And then another group comes and they fight and they die. And like, we’ll just have this stupid Patreon exclusive episode and it’ll be like a real fun, silly thing.”
I’m just terrible at small things. I’ve always self-produced a lot of projects. I ran a standup comedy show in my hometown of Chattanooga, TN for eight years. When I moved to Atlanta I ran a live comedy show where we produced three short films a month. Me and two other guys produce over a hundred shorts in three years. I love trying to take an idea and go to the fullest with it.
So we’re coming up with the ideas for what their characters in this one-shot can do and I thought “There are so many good actual play podcasts out there. I’d love to like work with some of them. This would be kind of funny.”
At this point the project snowballs, with 12 people signing up to play characters. Strucci suggests the project has grown so big it would be better to not paywall it on the Patreon. Then the number of players nearly triples.
Joel Ruiz: What was supposed to be my three player characters playing multiple characters in one session evolved into 33 different people playing 33 PCs split across nine different sessions for fighting the giant spider.
Finding the Framework
Gavin: The mechanics of organizing 33 players over nine sessions makes my brain hurt. At multiple points in Spider Day characters make moves that have an impact on other characters across the session. Were any legs recorded in multiple sessions or was this purely editing?
Joel Ruiz: I did not know what I was doing any point. I’m not trying to, you know, get 33 people to tell me, you know, w hen they could be there, I just recorded it in the order of people’s availability. Then, every time I recorded a session, if I could find something that somebody did that would like, push something outside of their session, I made a note of it to bring that back into another session.
And so that kind of is like how I cheated my way into forcing a timeline between the groups. The very first thing they were recorded was The Roaring Trainers’ leg and one of their characters, who was called Spider Guy, he had a spider museum and Heavendale-
Gavin, laughing: Spider Guy gets it the worst of that whole deal.
Joel Ruiz: Yeah, he dies on top of his spider museum and then the next session we recorded was.. it’s not like nine but “leg nine the skies.” Two fighter pilots played by two people named Tom [Tom and Thom of Head to Table]. Their planes crash and they’re on top of a building as they slowly die, and as I’m doing this with them I’m like “Oh, holy shit, Spider Guy just died on top of a building… Fuck it, this is this is the same building.”
I was like, “Oh crap, I can just make all this connected.” And so the Toms shot flaming bombs that the spider’s egg sacks, and that then led to the spider shooting off flaming spiderlings to fight people. Stuff like that. All it really was was me trying to find ways to tie everything in together, hoping that it fucking stuck.
Straight up: I did not know what the edit was going to sound like, or how I was going to put everything together. I figured, worst case scenario, I’ll have nine 30-minute sessions I can put out as content of just like, “Hey, here’s a bunch of people dying, it’s all supposed to be one fight.” But it wasn’t until like maybe halfway or two thirds into the actual editing process that like I saw a roadmap.
The narrative glue holding together Spider Day’s nine concurrent chronologies came in the form of a framing narrative voice by podcaster and fan of the show Jonah Jackson.
Joel Ruiz: We have a character named Jonah Jackson named after Jonah, who’s the mayor of Heavendale, and Jonah Jackson himself is a very funny actor, and just hilarious overall. And he’ll just go with any bit you ask him to do. I got him to record all the narration for the episode as if the mayor was reading the story of Spider Day to a third grade class of the local elementary school. That allowed us to be able to switch back and forth and be like “all right, well, now we’re back to leg five.” [A way] to keep the audience like up to date on where they’re going. I couldn’t have done it without that narration.
I love to pre-call myself out for things like that in the show. Like, I know an audience member is going to be like, “Why the hell would he say this to anybody? It’s all incriminating.”
It was just seriously a shot in the dark that I had no clue what I was doing. And like, I’m not ever worried about people knowing I cry and I’m in touch with emotions like once I because the episode was supposed to come on
The episode was supposed to come out on April 17th, which was a Wednesday. I finished it the Monday before. After I finished and exported it I just sat at my desk and cried. I did something I didn’t know I could do and it turned out way better than expected. I was just so overwhelmed with the idea of what I just fucking did. [Spider Day] really was a terrifying project that I thought was going to fail for most of it.
Gavin: Speaking of failing: literally everyone dies (except Jonah). Critical Bits is beautiful in the amount of fuckups characters encounter. Did anyone in Spider Day roll for anything?
Joel Ruiz: It was a free-form no-rolls roleplay. The game we play in Critical Bits proper is the Masks system. I thought about getting people to roll up characters [in Masks for Spider Day], but I didn’t want to make people do all that for a 30 to 45-minute session where they’re literally just going to die. The prompt we sent to people was was so fucking good because it just it just told them straight up, “you’re gonna die.”
The Comedic Freedom of Impending Doom
Joel Ruiz: The idea was, “You all can do cool shit. So all you have to do to come up with a character is your name, and what kind of powers you have. You don’t have to justify anything that you do, necessarily. Just tell me what you’re going to do. The results will be get progressively worse until all of you die.”
I’d say 75% of the actual characters people made I did not know who or what they did until like, literally one minute before recording. I’d be like, “Cool, who are you? What do you play, I’m gonna take a note.” I didn’t even go in knowing what people’s power sets were or their weaknesses or anything like that.
This lack of restrictions created a cauldron of buck-wild ideas, including the hero Bone Daddy, played by Branson Reese. Bone Daddy’s superpower is he can control bones with his mind, “but only his own.”
Gavin: I think I almost died at that line from laughing while driving.
Joel Ruiz: Branson Reese is just… he’s a fucking sniper. That whole session is Reese, Olly Thorne (PhilosophyTube), and Harry (HBomberguy). Olly and Harry are big YouTube Leftist-tube people and they’re rapid-firing jokes throughout the whole session. Branson says so little that session, but everything he says is like a fucking kill shot for jokes.
The concept of Bone Daddy is he has the power to control his own bones, but to everyone else it looks like he’s just moving normally. There’s a line where he’s like “I use my bone control to wrap my fingers around my gun and shoot it.” I’ve watched a lot of comedy documentaries and people being like “when I was coming up back in the day, Bill Murray was the funniest person. You’d sit there and realize you’re witnessing something great.” That one moment was burned into my head. “This is the funniest fucking thing that’s ever going to come out of Spider Day.” There’s so many great moments and so much hilarity in it, but just the simple idea of a character that their superpower is they can control their own bones.
Even further than that, everyone knows they’re gonna die and I tried to give everyone a good chance to say how, like “What’s your end line, what’s your cool last move?” Everyone did a pretty good job at making it either dramatic or sad at the end, and then Branson just goes like “Oh, I want to make it very clear: Bone Daddy was a terrible person, when he dies he is going to hell.”
That was was I think was so fun, and why I didn’t really push anybody on what characters they were going to make or give them any limitations. I wanted everybody to just fucking enjoy what they were doing, especially in a project like this. When I’m trying to get other people to come work with me I don’t I just don’t really want people to feel like it’s a hassle. I want it to be fun. “You get to do whatever you want and go full bore on it.” Especially since I don’t think a lot of people get to play in a comedic space as much where they don’t really have to worry about, you know, character depth and creation. You really can just be like “Make make a one trope character.” That’s it.
Harnessing the Spider for Good
Gavin: So you’ve got 33 players, and you have this set deadline of April 17. When did when the livestream start to come into it?
Joel Ruiz: Well, once again, I’m terrible at sitting still. Maybe like a month beforehand, because I think that I had already had everybody scheduled and maybe half of the recordings done, I just started to realize “like, shit, we have 33 people.” When this gets launched we’ll definitely get a good amount of shares and retweets, people will be looking at it. Then I realized “Oh, if we’re going to have a bunch of people looking at us already, we could do a livestream and raise money for charity.” I’m a huge huge fan of charitable events and fundraising [in the] the roleplaying game/actual play community. It’s very giving, very progressive and inclusive.
There’s a local homeless youth shelter in Atlanta called Covenant House Georgia. They’re part of like a nonprofit of homeless youth shelters all around America and a few other countries. I like their mission, really enjoyed that they have like a focus on LGBTQ youth, and I liked the idea of doing a live stream but didn’t want to do it just to pat myself on the back.
So while trying to finish up recording and editing Spider Day I then took it upon myself to schedule [four days of livestream]. We did effectively like three days plus of live shows. We ran over 12 one shots and raised $2,000 for Covenant House Georgia.
It was just really like a good opportunity to come together for not just an enjoyment of playing stupid games, but you know, the idea of 33 people played characters to die. Let’s use that to maybe help some people that need help in real life. And, I don’t know, it’s a real fun like juxtaposition of the stupidest, silliest thing I could think of while also pairing it with a real message of good.
The collaborative spirit (and Ruiz taking on large organizational tasks) of Spider Day lives on in a new miniseries in a new Actual Play miniseries called Seasons, which launches to the public November 21st.
Joel Ruiz: We’re using [the system] Monster of the Week, and I’m going to take four groups four players (16 players in total), running three sessions for each. Then it’s all going to be edited into a six episode miniseries. It’s a smaller player scale than Spider Day, but far more in-depth sessions. We’re doing dice rolls, everyone has characters. Chronologically will do each group for the first session and then the same thing for sessions two and three. This is kind of like me taking everything I didn’t know going into Spider Day and using that to do a more honed-in project
If you’d like to see more of my conversation with Joel, be sure to check keep an eye on my Patreon where tomorrow I’ll be posting the bits of our interview that stray from Spider Day, including Joel’s favorite (and least favorite) RPG systems, body horror, and corn dogs.
Spider Day lives on in Seasons and in a homebrew system created by Spider Day player Tori Sheldon called The Story of Spider Day. If you’re reading this on the day of release, Joel and the Critical Bits cast will be live on Twitch tomorrow night running a session with special guest Jack Packard.