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The SFF Content That Got Me Through 2020 – YouTube & Podcasts

[Editor’s Note: As the author relays below. Last year was A YEAR. Turns out this year has also been A YEAR. Which is why this article is going out in March instead of January. (Completely my fault.)

Someday reality will return to a semblance of normalcy. Until then thank all that is good in the world for fantasy. – JI]

YouTube and Podcasts by Barbara Jackson and PublicDomainPictures (detail)

Yeah, it’s been a year. I’m glad you’re all still here to read this.

I’ve been relatively lucky so far. Still alive, no close relatives or friends lost. So far. But living with anxiety isn’t helped by a deadly global pandemic. You know what did help?

SFF creators.

This article is not about books, TV shows, or films. I’ve struggled to have the attention span for those recently, beyond the books I’ve reviewed for this site. This article is about celebrating the content my lockdown-brain could cope with: podcasts and streaming channels.

Fictoplasm (Podcast)

Fictoplasm (logo)This is now one of my all-time favourite podcasts. I have distinct memories of walking to work along a bright, sunlit street, with trees on one side, and letting the theme music chase away a bit of the fear the pandemic had awakened in me.

Ralph Lovegrove dissects novels, and sometimes other media, to get roleplaying inspiration. He ranges across space opera, cyberpunk, and post-apocalyptic fiction, through noir and horror to classic fantasy, urban fantasy, and weird tales.

Fictoplasm is an absolute goldmine of ideas for new campaigns, settings, roleplaying mechanics and entire games. Even if you’re an SFF reader who’s made it through all the lockdowns so far without succumbing to the siren call of tabletop RPGs (join us, we have online socialising and elves), you’ll still find much to enjoy in this voyage through old classics and obscure examples of sci-fi and fantasy.

What would it be like to manage, protect or visit a shopping centre so vast and powerful it functions as a sovereign state? What is the deal with the Eternal Champion? How do modern RPGs get vampires so wrong? How can the weird mysticism of Mary Gentle’s novel, Rats and Gargoyles, be turned toward your creative advantage? In what way could an urban revolution be like a game of chess? Would the end of the world make a good LARP? How much do dystopian authors like Orwell have to teach us about the modern day? (A lot, they have a lot to teach us.)

I don’t think Lovegrove always reaches the same conclusions I would or latches onto the same ideas I would. (We definitely have different takes on vampires.) But the journey is truly wonderful, and I’ve had no end of inspiration from following along with his thoughts and those of his family and friends.

Bonus Experience (Podcast)

Bonus Experience (logo)Rai Witter Cole and Monica Speca describe their podcast as ‘queer women speaking with authority about roleplaying games’. Bonus Experience is a great resource for breaking down how RPGs are made and played and how to get the most out of both processes. It’s required listening for RPG makers.

And it’s fun!

Topics include: What’s in a Name? Mechanics are Inevitable. Fantasy Heartbreakers. (Never mind RPGs, listen to that one if you’re planning to write a fantasy novel as well, it could save your heart.)

Both women are writers for Onyx Path, amongst other projects, and Monica is the developer on Exalted. So, they know of what they speak and are often a good source of RPG news. (Exalted is a broadly East-Asian inspired super-powered martial arts high fantasy setting. That really isn’t a proper explanation of it, but a full explanation would be longer than this entire article.)

Cole and Speca would also like you to know they swear in their podcast and they invite you to ‘die mad about it’. I guess this is an American thing? In the UK we have a different system—some people swear in podcasts and everyone else just sort of gets on with their lives.

Monster Man (Podcast)

Monster Man (logo)I only discovered this podcast at the tail end of the year, but I burned through the back catalogue in a week or so. It reminded me a bit of Fictoplasm. James Holloway approaches the relationship between roleplaying and the rest of SFF from a different angle though—he starts with entries in early D&D Monster Manuals, then discusses their use in games: the influences they might have had, what made them popular or unpopular and whether they make sense in terms of theme and ecology.

Expounding on his subject with earnest enthusiasm, Holloway draws on folklore, mythology, films, games, cartoons and more to paint a broad and fascinating picture of our relationship with monsters. All of this is packed into short episodes, from around 8 to 20 minutes long.

Most interesting are his special episodes, where he takes on such lofty subjects as Monsters of the Id, Monsters of the Icelandic Sagas, and Monsters of the Fen. He even discusses the mysterious clay seals created by an ancient artist known to archaeologists as the Zakro Master. This person, who lived in Bronze Age Crete, created depictions of curious animal-human hybrids that were unique in the ancient world. Now that is a fine pedigree for any fantastical monster!

How to Drink (YouTube Channel)

Called ‘The Binging with Babish of Booze’ (by me, in this article), How to Drink is all about making cocktails. It’s drink-porn, to be honest, complete with slow-motion shots of liquid being poured and drops of expensive alcohol flying up from the point of impact. There’s an odd pleasure to watching a slice of lemon peel getting twisted by strong masculine fingers until a fine mist of citrus essence explodes from its overwrought surface. Or seeing an oversized ice cube being shattered by a few strokes of a thin metal spoon.

How to Drink (logo)

And yes, this is SFF content. While the presenter, Greg, is not above making real world cocktails, he has a great line in drinks from video games, sci-fi and fantasy TV, anime, and films. The Cosmo Canyon from Final Fantasy, the Black Yukon Sucker Punch from Twin Peaks, Sunset Sarsaparilla and the Sierra Madre Martini from Fallout, Blue Milk from Star Wars, alchemical potions from The Witcher. Concentrated Distillate, Slurm, Klingon Bloodwine, Dornish Sour, the Screaming Viking, you get the idea. I haven’t even attempted to make any of these exotic drinks but that’s not the point of this channel for me.

It’s a small gripe compared to the vast amount of loss and hardship this pandemic has brought. But I miss bars. I miss ordering something interesting in my local or travelling up to London to spend painful amounts of money on some elaborate concoction I’ve never heard of before, then sipping it while soaking up the atmosphere of a rooftop pop-up bar or artfully distressed speak-easy.

How to Drink offers a little bit of that magic. Exotic ingredients, the art of the pour, the feeling that drinks which only ever existed in your imagination are now being made real. And detailed, if eccentric, tasting notes.

(If you haven’t heard of Binging with Babish by the way, check that out too. It chronicles a heroic man’s attempts to make food from movies and TV, no matter how ridiculous the portions or flavour combinations might be. And it’s stuffed full of practical cooking tips as well.)

A Trio of Paranormal Podcasts

These three podcasts all explore paranormal events, modern and historical. Hauntings. Witchcraft. Strange places. Dog Man. Bigfoot. Lake Monsters. Alien abductions.

GraveYard Tales

GraveYard Tales (logo)Adam and Matt, two fine neighbourly gents from the Southern US, gather weird tales from across the world including: apparitions, the haunted necropolis of Glasgow, the Min Min Lights of Australia, Kings Tavern in Mississippi, mine-dwelling Tommyknockers, and the terrifying Chindi of Navajo myth. They’re great friends with a good line of banter and plenty of dad humour. They present all the major theories on a particular phenomenon and work hard to be fair to them all. It’s clear though that their hearts lie with the more paranormal explanations.

Into the Portal: ‘Your Gateway to the Bizarre’

Into The Portal (sm logo)Amber Rae and Andrew McKay are a nice young Canadian couple who like to dig up legends and weird events. Episodes include: The Fairy Coffins. Rasputin, the ‘Mad Monk’. Kongamoto, Devastator of Boats, a creature that resembles a pterodactyl and is said to hunt along the rivers of Zambia, Angola, and the Congo. Castle Houska, a structure that stands far from any natural water-source, is poorly designed for defence and was built around a pit which is said to lead straight to Hell.

I must thank Rae and McKay for introducing me to the delicious term ‘high strangeness’.

Death by Monsters

Death by Monsters (logo)The most comedic of the three paranormal podcasts presented here. Wild Englishman and Bigfoot advocate Matthew Jude usually presents a weird story or legend to his co-hosts, complete with purposefully bad jokes and loud exclamations of ‘I believe!’. Reining him in are Americans Paula Deming and Nick Murphy. Deming is almost always cynical, playing the Scully to Jude’s Mulder. Murphy tends to agree but has been known to drift towards a more neutral position.

Every other episode is a retelling of a strange encounter sent in by a listener. Highlights of the show include episodes about werewolves, number stations, the Philadelphia Experiment, the Gardner Heist, American goblins, and Haunted Sacramento. Lowlights include ‘the pickle song’ and a surprisingly long debate about the number of demon-children a grown man could fight off.

RagnaRox (YouTube Channel)

Focusing on horror and storytelling, this is the most philosophical, thought-provoking channel about video games I’ve ever found. Ragnar managed to turn a retrospective on Majora’s Mask into a Humanist rallying cry, calling on his viewers to go and help others in a last-ditch attempt to salvage something positive from the wreck of 2020.

RagnarRox (logo)

Zelda aside, Ragnar has a particular love for horror games and explores themes of mental illness, body horror, shifting morality, and societal dysfunction. Watching his videos is a bleak and beautiful experience. A key series is ‘Forgotten Gems’, exploring games that were masterpieces of their type, from the Shakespearean vampire epic Soul Reaver: Legacy of Kain to the grungy time-looping bizarrity of Orion Burger.

One episode explores how games like The Void setup certain expectations and then subvert them, leaving us to clutch desperately at any sort of meaning. Another delves into the history of puzzle games and what made them so compelling.

Check this channel out. Get to know your horror. Find out about some of the strangest and most artistic gaming experiences the world has ever known. Or just enjoy some horror gaming from a nice safe distance, its sharp edges smoothed out by Ragnar’s mellow tones, to the point that it won’t freak out your pandemic-battered brain.

“The Calyx” (Twitch/YouTube Show)

Created by Becca Scott, who is still mainly known for demonstrating board games, “The Calyx” is a tabletop RPG series that showcases female players and GMs. (Very welcome, particularly since Misscliks ended.) A couple of members of the L. A. by Night cast have already turned up in different sessions.

The Calyx (logo)

It’s mostly one-shots of different systems and features a diverse and rotating cast, so it’s easy to dip in and out of. Call of Cthulhu is particularly prominent, with a scream of ‘No! Becca!!!’ being a standard response to any particularly horrific encounters. (Don’t blame the players, Becca Scott is very good at doing a certain, wide-eyed, toothy-grinned villain face that’s truly uncomfortable to look at.)

I particularly recommend the Crimson Letters three-shot, with its trio of new investigators: the hard-boiled drink-slinger, the dulcet-toned French seductress, and the deranged yet unstoppable teenage girl who has somehow convinced everyone she is not only a grown-up but a private eye.

Fair warning, if you’re attracted to women, you probably won’t get through this show without picking up a celebrity crush or two.

Imaginary Worlds (Podcast)

Imaginary Worlds (logo)Created by Eric Molinsky, Imaginary Worlds is ‘a show about how we create them and why we suspend our disbelief’. It’s a well-researched and thoughtful look at a hugely eclectic selection of topics drawn from geek and SFF culture, taking in everything from books to films to live performances. Topics include: the grown-up appeal of Cowboy Bebop, the making of physical monster effects for films and TV, translating fantasy novels into different languages, solarpunk, inverting Lovecraft, why the Borg are so frightening, the cultural impact of Betty Boop, and the life of the man who created Conan the Barbarian.

A former radio professional, Eric typically brings in at least a couple of experts in whatever topic he’s looking into, creating the feeling of a professional documentary, complete with talking heads. He’s gotten notice and acclaim from a range of publications, including The Guardian.

Hearty Dice Friends (Podcast)

Hearty Dice Friends (logo)Grant Howitt and Chris Taylor are best friends. They also work together making RPGs. The superbly inventive Spire RPG, being my personal favourite. Howitt is also responsible for such one-page RPG delights as Beautiful Space Pirates, Pride and Extreme Prejudice, and the world-famous Honey Heist.

In Hearty Dice Friends, Howitt and Taylor initially worked together to answer your RPG questions, whether you wanted them to or not. A surprising number of these questions were to do with dating owlbears and other monsters. These days though, their main focus is designing a huge variety of different games ‘on air’, most of which they will probably never make. While there are some great tips for RPG design to be gleaned from their conversations, it’s mainly just fun to listen to two friends being very silly together.

Howitt and Taylor will sometimes also talk, in a light-hearted but candid way, about their own anxieties and the mental illnesses they struggle with on a daily basis. And, honestly, I found it quite therapeutic to listen to other people acknowledging and normalising their fears of climate change, the pandemic, and so on.

Ain’t Slayed Nobody (Podcast)

Ain’t Slayed Nobody (logo)A relatively new Call of Cthulhu actual play podcast, which mainly focuses on a campaign set in the Wild West. A vengeful sheriff’s deputy leads her posse to chase down a gang of outlaws, encountering ghouls, ghosts, hideous dreams, corrupt judges, and growing madness along the way. It’s a very well put together production with some truly memorable performances and characters. Including a grumpy old prospector, a mysterious hobo, a reformed (yet still dangerous) Irish outlaw, and a pastor who loves to party and wears shirts less often than is proper. This rough-and-tumble band of unlikely heroes will soon slay their way into your heart.

Episodes only drop about once a month though, so savour them!

Pookie UK (YouTube Channel)

Pookie UK (sm logo)Famously prolific RPG reviewer and editor, Pookie, has started supplementing his blog, Reviews from R’lyeh, with videos of himself unboxing RPG products in the ‘reading nook’ in his garden. Watching these videos is a pleasantly chill way to while away a few minutes and learn a bit more about RPGs old and new.

That’s the new stuff. Let’s round off with shout outs to some of the channels and shows I’ve mentioned in previous articles, that also got me through 2020.

The Good Friends of Jackson Elias (Podcast)

The Good Friends of Jackson Elias (logo)Three RPG writers talk about the Call of Cthulhu RPG, horror films, and horror gaming in general. With a big focus on drawing on horror novels and weird fiction to fuel gaming.

Listening to these guys was a highlight of my year. As was their impromptu fan-made online convention. I don’t do Patreon, as a rule, but I made an exception for the Good Friends, and enjoyed a ton of bonus episodes they released during UK lockdown #1.

I’d definitely recommend throwing a dollar or two their way, just to get those episodes. And, if you stick around, you get a nice zine as a Christmas present at the end of the year.

Bud’s RPG Review (YouTube Channel)

Bud’s RPG Review (logo)This channel does what it says on the tin and is slowly starting to get the attention it deserves.

Ranging from sci-fi horror to gritty fantasy and OSR games, Bud takes you through books chapter by chapter and sometimes page by page, giving his considered opinion at the end.

(I will add a small disclaimer here, Bud has reviewed and was very complimentary about one of my books, but I swear I was a fan of his channel before that!)

Check out Bud’s most recent video for information on one of the most confusing and complicated topics in RPG history: the mythology of Glorantha. (If you thought I was going to say ‘grappling rules’, then congratulations, you are a grognard. Otherwise, don’t worry; you’re better off not knowing.)

Infinite Deer (Podcast)

Infinite Deer (logo)GMed by a friend of mine, this actual play comedy D&D podcast is anarchic, fun, and quintessentially, filthily British. Since I last mentioned it, Infinite Deer has returned for a triumphant and hysterical third season. (Still ongoing at the time of writing.) Featuring: accidental kidnapping (don’t worry officer, he’s my boyfriend, he likes being tied up, we have pet names for each other), cannibal monsters, a highly untrustworthy triton who won’t stop conspiring with fish, a team leader who really isn’t in control of anything, an orc with a dream of becoming assistant manager, and an emotional support goblin undergoing a crisis of conscience. Also, a literal cat in a hat who can switch from ruthless intrigue to adorable playfulness at a moment’s notice.

Daria Cohen (YouTube Channel)

Daria Cohen (logo)Since I last wrote about her, Israeli animator Daria Cohen has released a couple more videos for her gorgeous ‘Vampair’ series, alongside a number of livestreams and drawing videos. Most recent was ‘The Showdown’, a vicious vampire dance-off set to a deceptively chilled out swing number.

Vampair began as a fan animation of a song by a performer called Voltaire, but has since far eclipsed him in popularity, at least on YouTube.

Last time I mentioned Cohen’s BFF, Admin-Chan, I’ve since learned her real name, Mina Rose. Rose has her own burgeoning career as a singer-songwriter, cosplayer, and author. Her first book, Mermicide, is about a young woman who lives in a fantastical land and falls in love with a mermaid. Unfortunately, mermaids in this world are as unpopular as sharks, and for much the same reasons.

Maven of the Eventide (YouTube Channel)

Speaking of vampires. Elisa Hansen, AKA the Maven of the Eventide, is still determined to review every item of vampire media in existence. Recently she’s looked at Vampire Hunter D, the Bram Stoker Papers, and the classic gothic novel Carmilla, among other blood-drenched delights.

Maven of the Eventide (logo)

The Maven has also started a vampire book club AND teamed up with her husband to play through a series of vampire video games, starting with the notoriously broken, yet beloved, epic, Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines. Not to mention she’s working on a sequel to her first novel, The Company of Death. Something about vampires just makes people creative, I guess.

Fandible (Podcast)

A great group of American roleplayers take on all sorts of different systems, from the horrific to the fantastical to the completely ridiculous.

Fandible (logo)

I started following Fandible for the one-shots, particularly Nitrate City. But in 2020, I spent a lot of time catching up with their very long-running Numenera campaign, firmly recommended to any RPG or fantasy lover who’s stuck at home without enough to entertain them. (Numenera is a weird, far-future, science-fantasy setting where anything can happen, and frequently does. This campaign includes time-travel, godlike AIs, enslaved super-whales, carb-avoiding pirates, corrupt religions, the Tomb of the Mother of Hammers, and a were-hedgehog who will sing the song that ends the world, and that’s just scratching the surface.)

Red Dice Diaries (YouTube Channel and Podcast)

Red Dice Diaries (logo)John Large has continued to make great RPG Let’s Play videos. Most notably a campaign that draws on Colonial Gothic and chronicles a group of hard-bitten settlers as they try to turn an inhospitable, frozen wilderness into a home. But also such diverse systems as Forged in the Dark and Call of Cthulhu. He does still do the occasional review and (disclaimer) was also kind about one of my books a few months back. (Again, I loved his channel before then.)

Large has also created a podcast with his wife Hannah, where they discuss an assortment of roleplaying topics: giving tips, musing about current campaigns, and occasionally having a good-natured rant about RPG annoyances. Similar to Monster Man, they often talk about D&D monsters and delve into the pop culture and folklore around them. From puny goblins to the mighty Cat Lord. It’s a great slice of SFF entertainment.

Onyx Pathcast (Podcast)

Onyx Pathcast (logo)More interviews, rambling chats, RPG pitches, and general nonsense from the three main game developers of Onyx Path Publishing. I’ve never made a secret of my Onyx Path fandom and it was a lot of fun to enjoy listening to actual plays on their podcast, along with all the news and RPG writing tips. (Onyx Path’s current projects include a game about campy 1970s horror films, a Scion supplement where you play a secret dragon, and another Scion supplement developed by the superb Chris Spivey, where you can play a child of Cthulhu or Azathoth. Just don’t talk to the Pathcasters about The Battle of the Five Armies film. And definitely don’t ask them about their taste in wind instruments.

– – –

That’s it for now! I hope you find something to keep you entertained and happy while we wait for a return to some sort of normal.

I’m off to listen to more shows. Moving into 2021 I’ve discovered some fun Mörk Borg Let’s Plays from two different channels on YouTube, Mystic Midway and The Initiative Order, both come complete with elaborate costumes and corpse paint, to match the over-the-top doom metal aesthetic of that gloomiest and most artpunk of RPGs. And a podcast called Femsplained, where two queer femme humans describe and debate all things geeky, from the Muppets to Nerdlesque.

Be safe.

Title image includes photos by Barbara Jackson & PublicDomainPictures.

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