Ready for a different kind of story? Any regular readers will know that I have fallen deeply for the emerging entertainment genre of Actual Play. In Actual Play shows, cast members play Tabletop Roleplaying Games (TTRPGs) for the purposes of telling a story and entertaining an audience. The Backwater Bastards have been one of my most recent discoveries. They specialize in improvised sci-fi comedy podcasts set in their own original game of Orbital Refuse.
I was lucky enough to meet up with Taylor van Biljon and Daniel Matthews of the Backwater Bastards at MCM Comic Con London last month. I talked with them all about their amazing show and what it’s like working in the world of Actual Play.
Who Are the Backwater Bastards?
Taylor and Dan are 2 thirds of the core team of Backwater Bastards. Their third Bastard is Richard ‘DM Dick Dynamite” Kember-Bell. As his nickname suggests, he is the one who runs the games and created Orbital Refuse. In the fiction of the show, the Backwater Bastards are a group of misfits who dwell in the Neutral Zone between 3 galactic empires trying to earn credits and find their next meal. Taylor plays Cleo, a bipedal bear with a penchant for explosives. Dan, meanwhile, plays Dr. Ze, a jellyfish-like alien piloting a mechanical body.
Together, and alongside guest stars, they engage in zany and, often times, dangerous misadventures. With the odds stacked against them, the world at large not seeming to care for them, they find strength in each other even though they drive each other crazy sometimes. There is something very cathartic about the many times they literally laugh in the face of danger, as the characters and cast have tremendous fun even in the most dire circumstances!
The group started with Dick and Dan playing Dungeons & Dragons together and deciding to record their sessions. Dan later recruited Taylor to the show when and his partner met her at a party in Reykjavik, Iceland. From then, they recorded shows online as they played D&D together. As time went on, they discovered they wanted to do things outside the bounds of D&D and so decided to make a new system of their own. That’s how Orbital Refuse and Backwater Bastards in its current form came about.
They chose the name, Backwater Bastards, to emphasize that the characters weren’t heroes or villains, but rather forgotten outsiders boldly trying to make their way their way in the world.
One thing you might notice when you start listening to Backwater Bastards is that the plot’s not in any kind of hurry. It’s a show that focuses less on finding and defeating the big bad boss, but more on hanging out and having a good time with friends. Taylor and Dan explained that that was very intentional. They started recording the first season of Backwater Bastards in 2020, during the height of the pandemic. Back then, everyone was missing the simple pleasures of meeting up with people, going out for a meal and travelling. Recording Backwater Bastards allowed them to do just that. As Taylor puts it:
“Some of our favorite episodes have been, you know, just, they’re at a cafe and they’re just having an unwind.”
A lot of the inspiration also came from real life experiences of being immigrants. Taylor is originally from the United States and now lives in Iceland, whilst Dan was originally from New Zealand and now lives in Germany. The experiences of their characters struggling to belong in strange world oftentimes come out of their experiences of finding belonging in the real world. According to Taylor:
“[We’re] immigrants in our lives, and so like, getting through customs is the big, bad evil guy fight that we’ve all actually had to [face].”
The main Backwater Bastards series spans over 80 episodes on public podcast spaces with even more episodes available on their Patreon. As well as that they also have Short Stories set between the main action, SideArm episodes featuring content not included in the final cut and Lore Dives that delve into the world the series is set in.
The shows also feature incredible sound design with an original retro sci-fi score and sound effects. Getting to hear everything that’s happening from keys turning in locks to shields scraping against asteroids to a ship’s thrusters coming to life and propelling them across the cosmos!
As all the core crew are concept artists, there is also incredible artwork that accompanies the show! This includes vibrant drawings of the main characters and even incredible 3D dioramas. Here’s a few gems for you to check out below:
This Is Everyone’s Story
Taylor and Dan were very clear how important their listeners are to them and how important it is they feel involved in the story. Their intent with the ambient improvisational feel of their shows is that as a listener you feel involved in what’s going on as if you were at the table with them.
They also actively encourage their listeners to give feedback to make it feel like everyone’s story. Their Short Stories are still a relatively new feature designed to keep fans engaged as they wait for new seasons. With this and anything else they do, they’re keen to know what their listeners think and keep them involved in the story. As Taylor puts it:
“We don’t make this in a vacuum like we want to know how it felt like because in the way that it’s collaborative for us like it’s kind of bigger than that it’s collaborative now outside of us. Because we’re really not just making it for us anymore.”
What It’s Like Producing Your Own Actual Play
Taylor and Dan had a lot to say about starting your own Actual Play. It was clear that Backwater Bastards meant a lot to them. They spoke a lot about their love of making stories together and of spending time together. They still seemed to be in a state of disbelief of how much the podcast had grown and how many people were tuning in and enjoying it. Taylor even spoke about how working on Backwater Bastards had made her a better person:
“I think there’s a lot of like social emotional learning that you have to do to do this kind of play. [It] made me a better communicator. I’m a better person, like I am more empathetic. Everything that we do together. It’s kind of like levelling me up.”
That said, it has also come with a lot of difficulties. Both Taylor and Dan have full time jobs that they need to work around in order to do this. Rather than this being something they are earning money from, it is something that is costing them money to do. Even with their Patreon, they are just about able to fund their productions rather than turn a profit.
The main piece of advice they had was to be patient and support each other. Dan spoke about how easy it is to get discouraged by comparing your early work with other peoples’ established work. But having Taylor as a personal cheerleader certainly seemed to help:
“I want to share it, but I feel bad because it’s not good. You know, and like and then I’ll show it to like Taylor or something and Taylor will be like, holy heck, this is great. When did you learn the skill?”
Dan also said that it’s important to be realistic with yourself about how much time this is going to take. He reckoned each episode takes him about 25 hours to produce, including doing all the editing and SFX.
All in all, creating a show with this level of care and attention requires a lot of time and effort. It’s unlikely to be a success overnight, but if you love doing it half as much as Taylor and Dan do, that hopefully it’s something you stick with gives you great joy.
How to Find the Bastards!
Backwater Bastards can be found wherever you get your podcasts as well as on their YouTube. If you would like to support them further, you can join their Patreon for a range of monthly installments, including for free! Paid tiers earn you all sorts of great perks like ad-free listening, bonus soundtracks and having characters in the show named after you! You can also go on their website and join up to their Discord and connect with their vibrant and supportive community!
For more on up and coming Actual Play productions, keep an eye out for future articles from KeenGamer!