Russ is the DM for Prism Pals, an all queer, all nonbinary/genderqueer, actual play podcast about trying not to be murdered by a creepy guy and also babysitting the children you’ve accidentally adopted just because you were all arrested at the same time. Russ is an absolute sweetheart and one of my favourite people in the podcasting community, so this interview was a lot of fun. Russ uses he/they pronouns.
Where do you draw inspiration for the world of Prism Pals?
Well it depends. A lot of the initial world building inspiration came from music. I love listening to music when I write and I find that it shapes my world in strange and mysterious ways. Newer parts of it have come from movies or books. But the best place I have drawn inspiration from is from stories that disappointed me or let me down.
What made you want to DM this game rather than being a quote-unquote “player”? (DMs are 100% still players)
I was okay with either role, but quite frankly, I was more worried about DMing than I was about playing. I feel like the DM for a “public” game faces a lot more criticism than players face, over things like whether a ruling was unfair, or they messed up a monster rule, or if there are plot holes etc. etc. I wasn’t super confident in my DMing and I’m still not. There are certain days where planning for the game feels like it’s weighing down on me, and after games I deal with what I call a “DM Hangover”. But honestly, I was the only one who could. Sam didn’t feel comfortable with DMing. Kyle and Ollie had never DMed, and Ben was terminal. In the end, I tried to swallow my fear and went for it.
I think a big part of it was how much I wanted the show to exist. I think that’s why I choose to DM. Because without a DM, the show couldn’t really exist, and if I was the only option then gosh dang it I don’t care if I’m horrible because this show could mean something important to someone.
Prism Pals does have an overarching plot, but as a DM you’re known for leaving a lot of events up to chance. How do you balance those two sides of the game?
That depends. When it comes to main story beats, such as the Arrival of Malachi or the Trials of The Platinum Ambitions, those aren’t chance. I have decided on those moments beforehand. But a lot of that was just setup for the story. Since then I’ve been relying more and more on chance because everything is tee’d up already! I think a lot of the worry about chance when it comes to TTRPGs is the question of “well what happens if they do this??”, and I think the best answer to that question is just “Figure it out if they do it”. I like improvising and honestly I don’t do a ton of balancing. I trust my players and they know there’s a larger story. So I have to trust them to play the game and see what they do, just like they have to trust me to not throw a TPK at them! [Editing Note: A TPK is a total party kill.]
Not all of the players are in the same room when you record. Do you find there’s a difference between how you play when you’re in the same room vs over video call?
Oh totally! When I’m in a room with people, I am much more emotive and my physical actions are bigger and bolder. When I’m playing online and I can’t see my players faces because I have all of my notes up, I am a little more reserved. It’s something I struggle with when it comes to character voices and things because often times movements help me get into a character.
A lot of people question the appeal of actual play podcasts. What interests you about this genre of podcasting, and what led to you deciding to make one of your own?
I cannot emphasize this enough… I. Love. TTRPGs. So that was enough to get me interested in AP podcasts.
And then I started listening to shows along with friends, such as Sam! Sam and I are co-creators of Prism Pals, and we decided to make our own podcast when we were listening to other shows and realized, “Oh hey, we could do this!”. The barrier of entry to podcasting, (while not super accessible), is much lower than things like streams and other methods of entertainment.
What drew you to create the guild masters that you did?
Well, I made the active decision that I wanted a very diverse group. So I went through and designed all the guildmasters over the course of several months. The party only reached Mal’ra and the Guildmasters in episode 14. I started planning for them around episode 4 (which was our second recording session). The Guildmasters were incredibly important because the Platinum Ambitions is a global organization in the world and I wanted it to be clear that this is a world where traditionally marginalized groups have power. These are some of the best battlers/thinkers/inventors etc. in the world of Tahim’Ka. Every single one of them got where they were because they fought for it and they proved themselves.
Creating a fantasy world with marginalized characters can sometimes be difficult, as you try to balance not wanting to make that world have the same problems as our world (colonialism, racism, homophobia, etc.), but also not wanting to dismiss those problems as trivial. Did you find that you struggled with that at all?
I did struggle with it. I did a lot of reading and research for the story and looked at ways that other stories had failed. I looked at those mistakes and have tried my best to avoid them. In addition, I did make a very active choice to include racism in the world located within the country of Hashar, and that was a choice I made for the specific reason of my own personal intersectionalities. I have dealt with so much racism within my life from areas of the queer community, and it was important to me to show that as it is part of my own experience.
The party has met multiple gods/children of gods over the course of the campaign. How did you choose which gods/god children you wanted to feature?
So far (as of the time of this interview) the party has met one god and four god children. Forge and Galvana were always going to be a part of the story, just because of Holland and Vayu and how those characters were built. When it comes to the others, such as the unnamed child of Dust, Mistress Aqualis, and Scaldron, they were all chosen based on where we were in the story/how the plot was moving. I really want to feature more of the gods because of how much I love the system I built for the gods. It’s meant to be an amorphous entity with a lot more flexibility and the meaning of “Worship One, Worship All” is something that I really want to come through in the story.
Do you have any DM role models?
Of course! Mark Hulmes and Griffin McElroy are my two biggest DM role models!
If you could do a crossover episode with any other actual play show, who would you want the pals to meet?
The gang from Titans of All’Terra! Gibs would absolutely explode with excitement about the Stone Golems and Holland would have some people to help babysit the kids for a minute, and Vayu would get to chill with another super relaxed monk. It would be a good time (and Gibs would 100% try to drive a golem).
Do you have any advice for fledgling DMs?
Rules are great and all, but they mean nearly nothing if you aren’t having fun. Don’t be afraid to try a bunch of new systems! D&D is great for some people, but if you have trouble with Planning, something that is Powered by the Apocalypse is much better. I personally adore Dungeon World. If you can’t remember a rule, make it up! You are the DM and you get to make that call. ALWAYS HOLD A SESSION 0 TO MAKE SURE YOU AND YOUR PLAYERS ARE ON THE SAME PAGE!! WITH NOT ONLY YOU BUT ALSO EACH OTHER
If you lived in the world of DND, what race/class would you want to be?
Dragonborn Wizard. I wanna be able to cast spells, and also breath weapons are cool af.
Last few questions! What are your favourite audio fiction shows that include marginalized characters?
Wolf359, Godsfall, The Bright Sessions, and The White Vault
What would you like to see more of when it comes to representation in audio fiction? What would you like to see less of?
MORE FAT LEADS. MORE DISABLED LEADS. MORE NEURODIVERGENT LEADS. MORE TRANS LEADS.
LESS RACISM. LESS TROPES. LESS BURY YOUR GAYS. LESS “MARGINALIZED PEOPLE ARE THE VILLAIN” STORIES
What is your absolute dream story?
Dream Story – A lot of queer folx. Oodles of found family and diversity. A delicate slice of life story showing their lives and the beauty and struggle of queer lives. Takes place over a year and as the lives of the main cast changes so do the seasons, very visibly. Each season of the show (which corresponds to the actual season changing) contains a huge event. Whether that be a funeral, someone moving, a birth, a wedding etc. Each season contains a big event which changes the following events. Each season shows the lives of this queer family who found one another and loves each other no matter how many arguments or petty fights they get into. Start in summer, end in spring.