Sammy Madafiglio is the Game Master for Queer Dungeoneers, an all queer actual play podcast about trying to stop the apocalypse and not getting killed by a demon for bringing your girlfriend back to life. It is one of my favourite shows, and interviewing Sammy was so much fun. Sammy uses they/them pronouns.
What drew you towards using the Dungeon World system for Queer Dungeoneers?
Like a lot of people, my first tabletop RPG was Dungeons and Dragons. It’ll always be my first love, but as a DM, I found it so cumbersome to plan sessions knowing there were so many details I had to have nailed down ahead of time, or otherwise I’d be fishing through a bunch of sourcebooks trying to bring things together. I first experienced Dungeon World through Friends at the Table, and the collaborative way they played just seemed a lot more keyed in to what I was interested in. You don’t have to make everything up front; make what’s interesting, and dive deeper into that. Having my friends to draw on as a resource is also such a boon, since they’re funny and smart and all have their own experiences, and that style is at the core of a Powered by the Apocalypse game like Dungeon World.
What made you choose to tell a more humorous story rather than a more serious one?
I wouldn’t say I chose it; it chose me. The way we play is very improv heavy, and I think as a group we lean towards the boisterous and extravagant. I guess I never really consider being funny in my prep, or in my play; a lot of the stuff that people find humourous is unexpected, or jarring, or strange. But those are all qualities of the kinds of fantasy worlds I’m interested in!
I guess the humour is a lens that makes absorbing our world enjoyable. I hope what’s left once the jokes wear off can resonate with people.
How do you balance the serious parts of characters’ backstories and the plot with the humour that Queer Dungeoneers is known for?
I often don’t! There are certainly times that we make jokes during the serious moments. I think it helps integrate those moments into the rest of the show, and gives that authentic feeling that we’re five people experiencing something new together. In the same way as a serious moment doesn’t mean there can’t be humour, there’s rarely times where we’re just making jokes without underlying stakes. Even if it’s funny, those kinds of moments often don’t make the cut.
Had you played with any other members of the party prior to Queer Dungeoneers?
We’d all been playing RPGs together for over a year when we started! It’s really how we became friends. The full group for our other games is larger, but I had to set a limit for this because I didn’t want to DM for like 7 people (Hi MASKS group!!!! I know you’re reading this). I think that experience is why we have the trust and the confidence to bounce things off each other, knowing that the other person will “yes and” you.
I think it’s also helped me understand everyone’s specific strengths, so I know what kinds of moments to throw to each of them.
Do you find there’s a difference between playing TTRPGs when you’re recording them versus not recording?
In our setup we try to minimise the difference. We have one mic in the middle of the room, and we’re all spread out around it. Because of the level of editing I do, I’d rather that everyone just stays in the moment and enjoys the game, and lets me handle whipping the recording into shape. Having said that, there are times I have to break that feeling by telling someone to stop making some noise, or by doing retakes. I also think the nature of releasing episodes of the podcast each week changes the way we conceptualise the game, since the players listen back to the sessions and are much more primed on what happened on whatever point we’re up to in the released episodes. Also, since the episodes are so edited, their memory of past sessions becomes shaped by what I chose to include. A handy (if ominous) trick for keeping things on course!
Do you have a favourite NPC to play?
Oof. My two favourite genres are oblivious, sweethearted characters who just want everyone to get along, like Boulder the halfing oresperson, or Brumpo the dog, and catty characters who stir everyone up, but still have their vulnerabilities, like Samira the wind elemental. I think I like that second kind because it lets me embrace a side of stereotypical femininity that I’d really rather not test out on my friends. A lot of my PCs end up falling into that trope, and it’s a lot of fun to rile people up! (I don’t end up very popular when I play those characters though :P)
Which Queer Dungeoneers PC is your favourite?
Is this question even legal???? I would say probably Nim or Kremora, but they all find ways to surprise and delight me.
What is the most rewarding part of making Queer Dungeoneers?
Having a growing library of now 30 episodes that have helped bring my friends closer and make them more confident in their own abilities, with great goofs and a storyline that gets deeper and more interesting and could literally go anywhere, with a small community who get to find some joy in this weird world by listening to us. What’s not to love?
You clearly have an idea for the plot and where you want the story to go. How do you plan for sessions knowing that the party could decide to just completely ignore those plans but you still have to deliver a satisfying conclusion for listeners?
In the beginning I had no idea where this was going – no plot, no worldbuilding, nothing. Through the player’s actions, a kind of trajectory has emerged, and I’ve started building up world details and future events around that trajectory. At this point, I certainly know a lot more about what’s going on than the players, including their task after this arc is complete – but I have no idea how this story will end, or if they’ll reject their task and find another way to resolve their current situation (which is something they’ve discussed). How will I wrap it up in a satisfying conclusion? By continuing to ratchet up the stakes, and trusting my friends to work with me.
Increasingly, I realise my role as a game master is largely to introduce problems. The players have the toolset and the creativity to come up with solutions (and they have every time so far).
Has there ever been a time that a player completely threw your plans out the window?
I don’t know how to answer this question without spoilers, so here’s a list of episode numbers where the players completely flummoxed me: 8, 10, 12, 15, 20, 22, 25, 29. And they sure rattled me plenty of times in between. My plans are always short-term, and these moments help cement what comes next, so I’m grateful for them.
Queer Dungeoneers has a set timeline for saving the world. How do you keep them on track, particularly since so much of their travel is randomized?
That’s up to them! A lot of the tension I’ve tried to build in is around that time limit, and their management of it, especially now they have optional secondary goals and very little time to achieve them. I think the way I’ve tried to do things, is they’ll have enough time if they stay on task, but I try to introduce temptations along the way to get them to squander time. I think in the second mission, we’ll see a much more open setting where they’ll have a lot more freedom (but also responsibility) in how they use their time.
Where do you draw your inspiration?
This is always a hard question because I think the brain is just a melting pot of everything you’ve consumed, but I’ll call out some stuff that I love. Steven Universe is heart-filled fantasy with fantastic representation, a strong set of beliefs that resonate through the entire show, and great pacing in the way episode-long plots build up details of something much bigger.
I also love Final Fantasy, especially Final Fantasy X. I believe the FF games are fundamentally broken, but there’s something about the combination of splashy, inspired graphics and stilted writing that reveals an actually quite interesting story that makes certain entries in the series really sit with me in a very deep way. Right now I’m playing all the Kingdom Hearts games, which have a very similar vibe, and I find myself getting genuinely invested in the characters despite – or because of – the numerous flaws. If I ever make something that creates that feeling that Final Fantasy does without being saddled with all the baggage, my job will be complete.
If you could do a crossover episode with any other actual play podcast, who would you want your characters to meet?
I think Jacque and Charlene from Heartbeats could use a bit more chaos in their life. Let the QD crew loose in Heartbeats, I don’t think there’d be much left afterwards.
Do you have any advice for fledgling GMs?
*gets out megaphone*
*Unfurls banner I already had prepared*
MAKE 👏 SURE 👏 YOU 👏 HAVE 👏 FUN 👏 TOO 👏
You’re doing great and it’s a game and please just enjoy it!
Queer Dungeoneers is an explicitly queer show. Do you ever feel any extra pressure to deliver good queer representation because people come to the show expecting it rather than having it be a pleasant surprise?
Occasionally. One difficulty is that non-player relationships aren’t really at the forefront of what I’m doing, and so when relationships are portrayed, they’re generally fraught with disaster. On the gender side of things, we have a lot of characters that use they pronouns, but no big exploration of the trans experience (despite the fact 3/5 of us are trans). I think that’s fine, though – the guarantee we offer is that we’ll look beyond the default social lens, and generally be accountable for what we’re portraying in our fiction. We’re not trying to narrow what we do to just exploring queer issues. I’m sure over time and over seasons, we’ll touch on a lot of issues, and provide different examples and perspectives – but we’re in no rush.
Some of the Queer Buccaneers that the party meet are in a polyamorous relationship. The relationship itself is very complex, and the characters involved have a complicated history. Polyamory is rarely represented in fiction. Were you worried about the reception of your portrayal of a bit of a messier dynamic?
As I mentioned before, one of the struggles with representation in this story is that for a relationship to be relevant to the players, it generally has to be dysfunctional in some way. There have been two polyamorous triads in the show so far, one which is fairly fraught but ultimately seems to resolve happily once the members start communicating, and one which is tragic. I think these are two messy representations of an underrepresented group, but they’re messy in different ways. In the future, we’ll keep introducing polycules, and they’ll likely be messy in different ways again! So, I was worried, but I think the path to representation lies in layering lots of different perspectives on the same issue.
Of course, this gets trickier because I’m not poly myself, and my experience with polycules is mainly with triads where the partners are exclusive with each other. I hope I can keep growing and learning and stay open to feedback and the experiences of others to portray polyamory thoughtfully.
What are your favourite audio fiction shows that include marginalized characters?
Flyest Fables does a great job of touching on different marginal identities in an uplifting way. Of course I’ll always love The Adventure Zone too, and while I hesitate to hold up work by successful cis white men as touchstones of diversity, I still love Lup, so too bad. Oh shoot, and of course Friends at the Table!
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: #ownvoices, effortless diversity, looking beyond social norms and breaking apart the assumptions of your world instead of just slotting diverse characters into a world that still considers them different.
LESS: Making a “big deal” of diverse characters in texts. Not in the sense that it doesn’t matter, but in the way that it can actually be really othering to have the existence of someone like you treated as astonishing. That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t show your excitement over a character that represents you – more that people from outside that experience shouldn’t be putting so much focus on the representation that it leaves no room for the character to just be a person.
What is your absolute dream story?
It’s a fantasy story, in a world that doesn’t behave like our own. Details are dripped to us slowly and satisfyingly. Halfway through, something happens that casts everything in a different light, and makes it worth revisiting the whole first half of the text. The main character is trans as hell, and a lot of cute girls smooch (there’s lots of other good representation I promise but THIS IS MY STORY LET ME HAVE THIS). The ending is satisfying, conclusive, but leaves your brain running on what the world would look like in the future. You think of the story often, and feel warm inside.