The End of Time & Other Bothers is an improvised role-playing game set in the fantasy universe of popular medieval fantasy podcast Alba Salix, Royal Physician. Launching the same day as this article’s publication, this role-playing game podcast is far closer to a traditional audio-drama at the DNA level than your bog-standard tabletop RPG podcast, and that is a fantastic thing.
Before I dive in, a quick disclaimer: This will probably be one of the more unique takes on The End of Time & Other Bothers. Why? I’m one of the few people left alive who love quality audio dramas, have a soft spot for sword ‘n sorcery, and dig a diverse cast who hasn’t heard a single second of Alba Salix or either of its spin-off shows.
As of this publication I’ve listened to a set-up “episode 0” and the first installment of the game. The story of what I will refer to as EoT from here on out opens with a pre-written scene featuring talking woodland creatures with no sense of personal boundaries that is so loaded with wit and clever dialog it would feel right at home as an aside in a Terry Pratchett novel.
EoT seems almost custom-made to destroy the cynical expectations I had lurking in the back of my head the second I found their promo art on Twitter. Gamemaster Sean Howard is so open and honest with the motivations and creative process behind creating EoT (including literal months spent creating maps and lore for the world outside of the pre-existing podcast canon) I can’t help but be instantly charmed. EoT uses a Powered by the Apocalypse game called Dungeon World because he fell in love with the Apocalypse game structure while listening to The Adventure Zone: Amnesty as a mini-arc.
The story opens with the three player characters being individually introduced in the world of Alba Salix… but it’s 12,000 years later. Yup, they’ve pulled a reverse-Knights of the Old Republic to avoid stepping on the toes of Alba Salix‘s existing canon while still staying in the world. Things are the same… but different according to the narration. All of the usual fantasy creatures and races exist, it’s just that they’re living in a post-industrial revolution world.
This show isn’t about people trying to play a game and win something, a pitfall of many a D&D game (let alone D&D podcasts). From the beginning it’s incredibly clear — regardless of whether one has listened to episode 0 — storytelling is the core concept at play in EoT. The rules of the game work for the story, not the other way around. The outcome of a scene can hinge on a die roll, but they happen so infrequently my immersion allowed me to forget the show even had a game element. By my memory there are 2-3 rolls in the entire first episode. The players are also as equally important to the story as the gamemaster. They’re all damned good role-players (and astonishing improvisers, which I’ll get to in a couple paragraphs) who are trying to build a world for the listener. Consider the following mission statement in the EoT press kit:
Listen fully is such a crucial ideal that is missing from far too many roleplaying game podcasts. The fastest way to get this reviewer to roll their eyes and unsubscribe in seconds is to sit a bunch of people with no real intention of engaging in-world for the betterment of the scene down and expect a quality product. Life is too short to listen to real-life friends inject memes and puns into a scenario that doesn’t call for it in a constant game of oneupmanship.
Haha. Yes, Chad, you did indeed catch that one of the NPCs accidentally quoted the Shia Lebouf greenscreen video. How hilarious. This is exactly the kind of quality audio people tune in for.
While they have yet to share a scene, the player trio of King, Howie, and Siddall work so well with Howard’s NPCs and narrative set-ups that I positively can’t wait to hear their interactions when all three characters are in a scene together. I won’t go into spoiler territory beyond discussing one scene that jumped out at me.
Eggerton, a flightless fairy with a penchant for indulging in his own fairy cakes, is busily preparing a slideshow in a board room to discuss the after-effects of a horrific explosion that happened somewhere in the city a week before (a seemingly major plot event created entirely by an improvised phone conversation character Blat had moments prior). Unfortunately just as he’s ready the office suck-up enters to announce he has eight minutes to re-tool the speech to be about how they’re going to spin things so the explosion didn’t actually happen. What follows is transcript selection of Eggerton’s conversation with his boss as the presentation begins.
SEAN (AS KAREN)
Eggerton, I’m very excited to see what you’ve come up with to take this tragic event and make it a celebration for the people.
MIKE (AS EGGERTON)
Yes! A celebration. That is exactly what I had planned on doing… and I have done that. So let’s get started with the presentation. It’s good. It’s good! Uh… could someone pass me one of the cakes, please. OK, thank you. Thank you for that.
(he resumes talking, with his mouth full)
SEAN (AS KAREN)
We can’t understand you, Eggerton. Can you do that last part again, please?
MIKE (AS EGGERTON)
Yes yes. So, we need to say that this Extremely Devastating Explosion was in fact a good thing.
SEAN (AS KAREN)
Well, yes. So I thought I established that. So yes, so if you could go from there, Eggerton, and just sort of… yes, go on.
Eggerton tries to be positive at all times, stress eats, and rambles when nervous. These are all character traits that can be found on hundreds of RPG character sheets but Howie is one of a rare crowd of roleplayers/actors who keeps those ideas in mind when playing a scene. The scene isn’t about “isn’t it funny fantasy characters are having a board meeting like real people?!” A canon is being built from the ground-up while also establishing a character.
I can’t say enough nice things about all three character actors or Howard’s NPCs for how immersive and believable they can be, but as far as episode one is concerned Eggerton takes the fairy cake for funniest moments and best interactions. He walks the razor-thin line between playing a character that’s annoyingly nervous and one that’s too scatterbrained to continue a scene, delivering a flawed and genuinely likable portly flightless fairy that I can’t wait to hear more of.
Of course, that’s not even scratching the surface of the file-sorting half-demon named Blat or the curious human who rocks clothing built for other creatures (including 1/2 a pair of centaur pants) named Darcy.
All of this wonderful acting and world-building is backed up with excellent use of sound effects and post-production work that can only come from a crew that has cut their teeth in audio drama.
The End of Time and Other Bothers could easily have been an exercise in narcissim, letting actors of a critically-acclaimed audio drama wallow in their existing canon spouting running gags and fan-service . Instead it’s a genuine new story told using exciting roleplay techniques told with passion and enthusiasm.