This week, we move our Dungeon Masters’ spotlight to the next ‘willing volunteer’, the one and only Sean Howard. I personally didn’t know all that much about Sean when I started this, but then a little bit of research and BAM I realized I had seen his work all over the place. Yeah, including THE BOOK HE WROTE!!!!
Dude is eclectic in his professional career and a busy man in the podcasting world, with 4 podcasts that I could find, a book I’ve been peripherally aware of and a bawler photographer to boot.
Alright adventurers, Round Two. Ding.
Volonda: Hello Sean!
First of all, yowzers. You’re like the guy I didn’t know I’ve heard of. Alba Salix and Creator 2.0 have been on my radar and I never knew that was you. You’re prolific and I love it.
Ok, let’s get down to this. For those who don’t know you here in the group (like me before I started my research on you 😀 ) who are you, from what podcast, and what role, or roles do you have within your podcast?
Sean: I am so blushing right now. Thank you. Who am I? This is a question I have struggled with my whole life. I’ve been a marketing strategist, a professional juggler, a dog trainer, a business coach, a producer and so much more. Lately, I am a photographer, marketer, comedy improviser and podcast creator. I have play a producer role in a few of our podcasts, namely: Alba Salix, Royal Physician and The Axe & Crown. And I am the Game Master in our improvised, fantasy live-play podcast set in the world of Alba Salix – The End of Time and Other Bothers.
Volonda: I’m not going to lie, I already have questions based on your eclectic career; mostly the juggling. But that’s future Sean’s question to answer.
And yeah, “who are you” is such a bloody broad question, difficult to answer and ever changing.
But professional juggler…
Anyway, back to the Actual Play. Well, I say that, but #otherbothers is so intrinsically linked with the audio drama, I feel like we should start with that first! Alba Salix, how did that come about? What was the inspiration?
Sean: That’s all Eli, my creative and life partner. He has spent his life working on the fringes of audio. And then he turned to writing. Originally I think it was going to be a book, and he had a few ideas he was exploring, but none of them stuck. I don’t recall what made Alba happen, per se. But one day he showed a rough script of a cantankerous and older witch in a fairy kingdom and I was hooked. I couldn’t get enough of her and her inept assistant Magnus. We recorded Alba back in the early days of Audio Drama. A bunch of friends from theatre were standing in our dining room with blankets and pillows shoved into every nook and cranny.
It was a few years later when we launched the spin-off, The Axe & Crown because we realized an insane number of people were downloading and listening to Alba and we needed to get something new in the feed. And then we set about to working on season 2 of Alba Salix, Royal Physician. I have a special place in my heart for The Axe & Crown. I love that it’s a pub run by a gay troll on the “wrong side of the tracks” in our fairy-tale kingdom. We explore some awesome issues so close to Eli’s heart like gentrification and capitalism.
Volonda: Awww that’s amazing. Supporting loved ones is really important, and the fact that you two are supporting, creating and sharing this amazing thing together? Relationship goals right there – I’m sure we’re all very jealous!
Also… I LOVE EXPANDED UNIVERSES! Projects that take on lives of their own, stories within stories… UH – LOVE IT. What made you decide to expand the Alba Salix setting into an actual play podcast?
Sean: My first thought was that it would be easier. We have a bunch of the world already built for Alba Salix. I wish I had paused to consider my second thought which was, “THIS IS AN INSANE IDEA!” Suddenly we have to worry about inconsistencies that are introduced by our table of comedy improvisers. Things that could directly impact the Alba Salix storyline.
So while the world building for The End of Time and Other Bothers has forced me to bend over backwards in a few places to make it fit, I am glad we did it in the end. If for no other reason than the crossover opportunities. I won’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t listened yet, but we did finally manage to bring one of the beloved characters from Alba Salix into the table of Other Bothers.
Volonda: Oh that’s bawler!
It’s difficult enough to keep homebrew or module world’s straight, but in cannon with the AD.
I applaud this.
I’m going to 100% pick your brains over juggling scripted and actual play within the same canonical world. But that’s a future picking of brains.
You know I have to ask this, for the interview. Cough. (Read instead: because Hem wants to know and is ever fascinated on the topic). How did you get into role playing, and more specifically into DM-ing?
Sean: I am always down for a brain-picking!
I got into roleplaying at a pretty young age. Like pretty much the original D&D. But it wasn’t until college that I got into it seriously. There was a friend of a friend who was one of the best GMs I have ever played with, even to this day. And he dazzled me with how he could create a game that was such a powerful and emotional journey for each of us.
After college I got into playing with some dear friends and I took to being the GM pretty quickly. I love the pressure to think fast in the moment to try and make sense of a home-brew world that is ever changing and adapting. I’ve never been one to do modules as I have a pretty severe anti-authority-complex.
Most of my GM’ing was with AD&D 2nd Edition, to date myself. And then I stopped. It’s sort of sad, but I got into the world of marketing and business and I moved a few times and lost touch with all my RPG friends. I suppose I put all that in a box. It was for less serious folk. Or some other bollucks. But I walked away from it all for many years.
And then I got into Audio Drama through my partner and Alba Salix. And I didn’t know anything about what was happening in the live play world or on Twitch. And then I found The Adventure Zone at PodCon in 2017. And it was like being hit with a train. And after listening to live plays NON STOP FOR MONTHS ON END… I had to stop and ask myself, “Why had I stopped playing RPGs?”
Volonda: So is OtherBothers your first foray back into roleplaying and GM-ing?!
Sean: No. I started up a couple campaigns just to get playing again and also to learn 5e. And then I started a campaign as a test to pull my table together for #OtherBothers. And I now play in a few campaigns, one of which is still somewhat secret (but you know the one).
Through playing D&D 5e and the live plays I was listening to, I quickly realized that I wanted a different RPG system for this show. I knew that I wanted the new live play show to be more improvisation and less dice rolling. And I’ve heard some pretty amazing GMs now in the live plays I listen to and I still find battle gets boring in D&D 5e, no matter how one tries to fast track it. Hell, its boring at the table sometimes. And while conflict is not a primary motivation for The End of Time and Other Bothers, I wanted to find a system that would be more story-based even for conflict. But the problem is I only knew a handful of RPG systems from when I was a teenager. And none of them very well. GURPS or Champions, anyone?
Volonda: (And I cannot wait for people to find out!) I used to have a home group with player numbers averaging from 5-7 per week, not including the DM. I have had my fill of long tedious fights.
I think it is the mark of a good DM that combat is considered as more than just numbers to be crunched. And keeping it from being a snore fest, a difficult challenge. I salute the forethought Sean
Played many systems myself – but GURPS… never had the opportunity. Nor champions. (*adds to the “To Play List”, marked “Sean” 🙂 )
Now you have a system, the players, the world, what, in this crazy story telling game that you’ve created, has been that ‘holy crapola my players are awesome’ moment? That really good proud DM moment.
Sean: They have surprised me so many times. The long live Boltius game. The welcome to the Academy presentation. Eggerton and Darcy carrying the entire Jaclyn and Jill story arc. But my favourite is probably an episode where I wanted to begin it out of order. I started them at the end and then we backed up to figure out how they got to that ending. And the way they all supported each other as improvisers really just floored me. I think it was the first story mission.
Volonda: Oh that’s a rad AF idea! Guess I’ll have to binge Other Bothers once I’m all caught up on Dumbgeons. (as should everyone).
Ok… I’ve held myself back long enough. I need to know about …. The juggling. Professional juggling. I need to know everything Sean! How did this come about? What’s life as a professional juggler like?
Sean: Good news is we only have 19 episodes. But yeah. It took me months to catch up on Dumgeons and Dragons but I’m so glad I did as it is so wonderful! Juggling. That was a very strange part of my life. I had juggled as a kid, off and on. After I got kicked out of college for hacking, my father negotiated with the college to not press charges if I joined the military to “grow up”.
So while in the military I became a unicycle riding and fire and pins juggler. So much for their plans for me. And there were some incidents with me riding a unicycle on base.
When I got out after a lovely (not!) four years, I spent three years or so living on people’s sofas and juggling professionally as a two person troupe with the name of Dangerously Stupid. It’s less glamorous than it sounds. Okay, it doesn’t even sound glamorous.
It’s hard to make a living as a comedy juggling team (that only has one real act) so I would have to become a clown at festivals. I really didn’t enjoy that. But that’s how I paid my bills. Sofas aren’t cheap, ya know. Oh wait, they really are.
Volonda: Wowzers. Hacking. Military to ‘grow up’. Fire, pins and unicycles, I feel like I have a tonne more questions from that alone. Oh my gods.
I’m just gonna go with holy crap, that’s cool despite the hardships. You’ve done good and your eclectic skill set… WOW. I’m just going to leave that there.
And that little tour through your life hasn’t even touched photography, or your other podcast, OR YOUR BOOK. Damn so much to ask and so little time. Ok. Let’s do the book. Because it’s one thing to say you’re going to write one, in the process of one, or waiting for it to get published, it’s another to actually do it. Dude, how did that came about! What’s it about? How did it feel to see it actually in a format that the world can see it and buy it?
(I read the blurb… I should probably get it.)
Sean: Oh boy. The book. Lol. It’s basically that song, Oh no, I swallowed a fly. What’s it called? The one where the person keeps swallowing things to eat the previous thing they swallowed?
I wanted to sell something at the time, probably my photography on wood pieces or what-have-you. So first I had to build a mailing list. And that wasn’t going so great. So then I had to make an offer to build the mailing list. And you have to give something away to get people to sign up to said mailing list. And so I decided to write a book to give away so people would sign up to the mailing list that I would then write tons of free content for, in order to sell something I know longer recall.
Not my smartest moment. But it was fun to write a book. I wanted to explore ways for people to start new things. I had a podcast at the time called Taking the Leap. I started that to swallow the list which was there to swallow the unknown thing I wanted to sell. Lol.
Anyway, I interviewed people like me that keep starting new things. Or people who had found a way to make their dreams real. Etc. The book was me exploring tools and techniques to find our purpose and shift into creating around that purpose.
It has my rant on talent in it. Which I am still proud of.
But the book sort of falls apart at the midway point. I like it up until then. Well, I did love it.
Funny and embarrassing story. It was about two months ago now when I saw people signing up for my book again. I haven’t looked at that thing for over three years or longer. And so I went to just take a peek at it. I couldn’t even find it on my computer. So I had to sign up for it like everyone else.
Cut to me in a panic at 4am trying to use Adobe Acrobat to edit my fully designed PDF book.
I had completely forgotten that going on five years or longer ago I had been introduced to this psychology professor who taught at UofT and I had an entire section on how to use his approach to find the breaks in your own model of reality. His name, for those who haven’t guessed, was Jordan Peterson.
So here I am, a total left wing nut job and I have been sending a book to artists for the past who-knows-how-many years that espouses what an amazing man Jordan is. Because I had breakfast with him and he seemed so amazing to my naive self. Yup. For those who don’t know, he is an alt-right icon now and I won’t even get into the views he espouses. They are sick and awful.
So there ya go. Naive me decided to write some flowery words. I don’t know if anyone at the time had any idea who Jordan would go on to become but that’s no excuse. So now of he’s in my book. Oy. At least now I’ve hacked out some of what I wrote and put in a warning for readers.
Volonda: We all live and learn. At least you’re taking steps to go forth and make right. Takes a lot of gumption to do that, especially when doing nothing about it cause it’s ‘already done’ is so easy.
Mostly, I’m chuckling over the author not having a copy of his own book. Sending virtual hugs over that, even if I’m giggling a little.
I was going to ask about the photography actually! You mention (on your website) that you like to display your work in unusual ways. What has been the most interesting process your photography/art has gone though?
Sean: Hmmm. I do a lot of prints on wood like this one: http://www.seanhoward.ca/store/tofino-beach-sunrise-one-of-a-kind-woodprint-2
But the most interesting would be my series of Peggy Baker. I took normal portraits of each dancer and then did another portrait of them listening to their favourite music play on ear buds. And I just let them move and feel the music. It fit with the show which was “stereoscopic” and then we printed them out side by side but on really cool Japanese paper and we hung them all over this cute little theatre foyer.
It was like a cottage but with all my work up on every wall. It was quite the experience. Plus Peggy Baker is just amazing. One of the most renowned modern dancers and choreographers up here in Canada.
Volonda: Oh my goodness they’re beautiful (really, go check them out folks). I just adore The Gate. That’s so freaking cool.
Alright onto my last two rather leftfield questions, which might become tradition… maybe?
I’m seeing a trend among at least ¾ Reckless Play DMs (you, me and Russ – I’ve still to interview Travis and see if this is 4 / 4 😀 )… the Adventure Zone, am I right? Do you have an arc of choice?
Sean: Hahahaha. Yup. I would have said balance. The way Griffin weaved that back story in was just stunning and pure evil genius magic. But I’m now an Amnesty concert. The boys just brought such amazing characters to bear.
Volonda: I wanna build a real good backlog before I start listening to Amnesty
…and now, my last random question before we unleash the adventurers of the Facebook Group… Anything good on your podcast app or tv watching device you’d recommend?
Sean: Yes! Live play podcasts I am currently mainlining are: Fate and the Fablemaidens and Spout Lore. For audio fiction, I can’t get enough of 1994, The Amelia Project and Marsfall. And for TV it is The Umbrella Academy and The Dragon Prince.
Volonda: Sean, this has been an intense interview! So very enlightening and fascinating and I can’t wait to do this again with you and delve more into your experiences! But it’s that time of the interview where I can put my feet up: Audience Participation!!!
I’m going to roll these two questions together because I think answering one will partially answer the other so….
Michael Howie: How does it feel to have spent weeks and months world building to have your ragtag team of improvisers bring it all down?
Russ More: What are the most stressful and rewarding parts of running a game where the notes you make pre-game can quickly become completely irrelevant based on character actions?
Sean: Thank you for doing this!!
I love sitting down at the Other Bothers table. The fact that they will lean so heavily into ANY offer is a delight. It also keeps me on my toes. I groan a lot, but it’s my favourite thing in the world when they find a more interesting story to tell. Or when they make the tiny offer and I manage to notice and lean into it back at them. The most frustrating part is not having my notes thrown away, it’s when I listen back and I catch myself blocking their offers. It’s so hard, because so much of how I learned to GM, and I think many people learn, is that the GM is in control. Only it doesn’t have to be that way. But it’s really easy to stop improvising and start controlling. And we have a lot of variables in the air as a GM. So it can make it hard to pay attention.
Russ More: What, if any process went into picking the PbtA game system you use for the show? Were there others in the running?
Sean: Once I realized that D&D wasn’t going to work for what I wanted, I was faced with quite the daunting task. I haven’t been active in gaming in way too many years and one visit to a game store made me realize just how much the landscape has changed. There is an ENDLESS stream of game systems to choose from. And so I turned to our friend Stephen Smith, our game consultant. He set about bringing me more story-based game systems.
And I have to thank Stephen because it was an endless stream of me shouting and ranting. I was feeling the pressure of wanting to enter this space sooner than later. But finding a system that would tell the type of story I wanted to tell was super challenging. Most were way too complex with way too many mechanisms designed to aid players around a table with little to no storytelling and improv experience. I wanted a system that could be leveraged by improvisers and not get in the way of the story.
So PbtA [Powered by the Apocalpyse] was definitely one of the early front runners. As was 7th Sea. I even ran a short little trial with just myself as the GM and player of 7th Sea. But in the end, I found that having to declare consequences really undermined the drama of the story. It is fun at the table, but I didn’t think it would play so well from an audience storytelling POV. But again, I wasn’t building a standard live play. I wanted to create something that non-RPG players would enjoy listening to without any intention of ever playing themselves.
Stephen was bringing me a bunch of PbtA games and then one day he dropped the tome that is Dungeon World in my hands. And I will admit… the idea that I didn’t have to learn EVERYTHING and could leverage a lot of my D&D knowledge was a BIG benefit because we had a lot of pieces already in play and I was attempting to launch a product using a system I had little experience in.
Volonda: I love non D&D systems. Great to see more of these popping up across Actual Plays!
Kayla Bilyeu: What surprise or plot twist are you most proud of pulling on your players?
Sean: The players walked away from everything and found themselves in a new world and trusting all that they were being told. I truly loved the moment they realized that their current “boss” may not be all that they thought she was. I’m afraid of giving away too much because spoilers. That said, it’s been so gratifying to watch them start to question the very ground and missions they have been sent out on.
Michael Howie: Is it hard to manage the game/show when the players are friends instead of actors/random players?
Sean: Not really. It does require different sensitivities perhaps. But we’ve always only created shows with people in our network that we adore. So I don’t really know what it would be like to not have friends at the table.
Volonda: Same same. I think people become friends because of D&D too. Might not start out knowing a person, but you go save a town from a horde of undead with me, BFFs!!!! (usually)
Amy More: How do you deal with your intense stardom and how do you stay such a normal and down to earth guy?
Sean: Save a town and lose a magic user. All great bonding moments!
Dear lordsies, Amy!!!
I’m as lost, if not more so, than anyone else around these parts. I try to share and be kind because I know that if I don’t, I will go insane. Seriously. It’s so hard sometimes to not lose heart. To not question myself when Critical Role can raise enough money to buy a small country in a single day. And we barely clear 450/month.
I feel like an imposter every minute of every day. And then I have emergency drinks in an airport with two amazing people like Russ and Amy and I just walk away beaming. It’s only in the human connections with the people around us that we can find the laughter and kindness we need sometimes to remember to love ourselves.
Volonda: <3 You’re a solid gold person Sean.
Michael Howie: How do you feel about perception checks?
Sean: Lol. He knows my tendency to rant about perception checks. I find them to be the most ridiculous and misused mechanism in the history of gaming. They are annoying for GMs, Players and possibly listeners as well.
Colour and detail is how we tell stories. So I don’t understand most perception roles I witness. And worse they just become the entire party rolling to see if one of them can overcome a failed roll of another party member.
I hate perception roles.
Volonda: Not going to lie, I have no idea what this question is about but…
Michael Howie: Why????
Sean: Because everyone deserves a bad trip singing kitchen scene.
Volonda: Hmmm. I… Yes I’m going to ask.
Sean: I can say no more. Michael may be a little scarred from the experience.
Volonda: Fair. We don’t need a guild of scarred adventurers…
Russ More: What’s your favourite word?
Sean: Roll for fairy cakes.
Volonda: And on that sweet note, I’m going to let you go. This has been a really fascinating interview and I think I have even more questions I want to ask, but alas time has gotten the better of us.
Thank you so much for agreeing to do this Sean, and I am looking forward to starting my adventures listening to Other Bothers!
If you’re ready to start your adventurers with “The End of All Time and Other Bothers”, “The Axe and Crown” and “Alba Salix: Royal Physician”, then check out their podcasts here
And if you wanna get involved with the Reckless Play Guild and ask questions of the next interviewee, then, follow this link to the Facebook group!