So you want to explore the podcast world beyond short-form comfort listens—really immerse yourself in an hours-long fictional narrative that will transport you in the fashion of a doorstopper fantasy or binge-watch thriller. Lucky for you, fiction podcasting is years ahead of your needs, with independent creators crafting science fiction, fantasy, and horror universes in which to set their heartening, action-packed, funny, disturbing, thought-provoking series. In fact, there are so many that it was difficult to narrow down; but we’ve curated a list of 10 audio dramas and actual play D&D podcasts to get you started.
Here you’ll find a mix of anthology and serialized podcasts, plus at least one that splits the difference with self-contained seasons. Some have wrapped up after five years and dozens of episodes, while others are still ongoing (which means you might as well start catching up). Because of production schedules and access to resources, “long-running” means different things to different series; some have been posting monthly episodes for five or ten years, while others cram dozens of episodes into a shorter timeframe. What they all share is a delight in storytelling and especially in innovating the audio medium, challenging their listeners and themselves to expand the boundaries of the form. Happy listening.
Jonathan Mitchell’s anthology series The Truth has been telling its brand of darkly funny short stories since 2011, with a piece inspired by the real-life contingency speech planned for if Apollo 11 had crashed. While early installments riff on history or mash up movie quotes, the series has found its footing with bite-size yet transporting pieces of speculative fiction. Steal the Stars writer Mac Rogers has two standout pieces: “Your Ears Are Burning,” in which one man is presented with the ultimate temptation to call into a phone line that tells you what everyone’s been saying about you; and “The Unremarkables,” a quieter noir about moving through the world when no one’s paying attention to you. If you want a bit more hard-SF, The Truth has you covered with teleportation troubles (“Three Seconds to Nowhere”), AI as tech disruptor (“Self-Made Man”), or a subway busker who can rapture people (“Poofed”)… all with a Twilight Zone-esque intro from Mitchell himself.
This mashup of Golden Age radio drama and space sitcom starts out seemingly low-stakes, documenting the dysfunctional crew of the U.S.S. Hephaestus space station orbiting the titular red dwarf star. Especially the early episodes, filtered through the irreverent voice of Communications Officer Doug Eiffel as he slacks on his job of searching for alien life, give the initial impression that a workplace 7.8 light-years from Earth is just as mundane as one on terra firma. But over the course of five years and sixty-plus episodes, Eiffel becomes one voice among the larger, complex crew, and petty office squabbles give way to actual moments of human connection, from Eiffel opening up about trying to be a better person than he was on Earth to Hephaestus’ operating system Hera suffering panic attacks that endanger her crew. By its close, Wolf 359 more comes to resemble dramedies of the 2000s, that carve away the comedy for the pathos beneath.
I debated about including “actual play” podcasts, in which participants play through an RPG or Dungeons & Dragons campaign, as fiction podcasts. But for the purposes of this list, an improvised story is still a story, with dice rolls providing enough structure to guide the McElroy brothers and their dad as they stumble through their first D&D session with DM (and brother) Griffin. Initially a spinoff of their popular podcast My Brother, My Brother, and Me in 2014, The Adventure Zone has been going strong since, inspiring epic fanart and spinning off into graphic novel adaptations. You can start with the first campaign arc, “Here There Be Gerblins,” or jump into later arcs that riff on everything from Murder on the Orient Express to Mad Max: Fury Road. Or you can meet a new trio in the latest campaign, The Adventure Zone: Graduation!, set at a school for heroism and villainy. As TAZ keeps exploring the boundaries of its own world, recontextualizing a fantasy D&D setting within a space story or trying on new character dynamics, it demonstrates how there need be no limits to sheer imagination.
The juggernaut, the creepy OG that has been in our ears for nearly a decade (but really longer, because Night Vale has always existed long before we started listening in) and is still turning out new episodes. If the idea of 150 episodes (not even counting the various tie-in novels nor the live-show recordings) thrills you, then you’re set. If that feels a bit intimidating, the folks at Night Vale have anticipated that you might need help easing into your binge-listen: Their starter’s guide has curated a handful of standalone episodes that are bonafide fan favorites and easy entry points into this eerie world. What’s especially great about these single episodes is that more than one demonstrates how Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor innovate and challenge the short-fiction podcast form, from a story about you (yes, you) to an episode told entirely through an automated phone tree. There is no one way to get into Night Vale, and you have the time to discover the path that best fits your listening needs.
Lauren Shippen’s series about “Atypicals” in therapy is the MCU of the audio drama world: Dr. Joan Bright’s sessions with a handful of special-powered patients have spawned multiple sequels and even something of a sidequel series. The best part is, you can start wherever you like, either by listening in on Dr. Bright’s other patients in The Bright Sides bonus episodes; joining Dr. Bright and Sam in reforming their former antagonists in The AM Archives; or jumping ahead to Caleb and Adam’s cozy undergrad adventures in The College Tapes (coming this fall via podcast platform Luminary).
Another actual play D&D podcast, The Broadswords has the distinction of being all-women and non-binary. While lacking the name recognition or resources of the other actual play entries on this list, the creators lean into that indie feel, focusing on a core trio with a bevy of rich backstories: escaped tiefling slave Mépris, illegitimate half-elf noble daughter Yllairies, and high-elf bard Keilah. Starting en media res (though you can look up the character sheets if you so desire), The Broadswords is about how different female characters move through a D&D world, especially once they find themselves embroiled in a divine prophecy.
The Whisperforge’s mindbending time travel podcast, a self-described “love letter to physics, fiction, and the future,” examines what happens when the archetypal time-traveling outsider winds up in the seemingly perfect place and time. During a pivotal experiment in 20[redacted], theoretical physicist Dr. Sally Grissom is flung backwards in time to 1943—and right into ODAR, or the U.S. government’s clandestine Office of Developed Anomalous Resources. As Sally struggles to repair her Timepiece, she must take care not to change the future—while working on or in proximity to some of the most horrific tools of war. If you want a dense, Fringe-esque period piece that will reward you for keeping up with its own delightful paradoxes, this series (which has since concluded) makes for a great aural wormhole.
Another Night Vale Presents production, Within the Wires starts a new story each season, challenging itself both to innovate the podcast form and to explore different narrative corners of the alternate universe within which it exists. To say too much about story will be to ruin Jeffrey Cranor and Janina Matthewson’s slow burn of a series, but let these teases about the format this intrigue you: Season 1 exists as a collection of relaxation tapes delivered to you, an inmate at the Institute (with some truly exceptional second-person storytelling). Season 2 takes the form of audio guides for a number of international museums, interrogating whether art is political and especially so in this parallel world. Season 3 trades in the cassettes for reels, as a Chicago politician’s dictated notes to his secretary form the backbone of a political thriller. Most recently, season 4 pares things down some more, with the cassettes serving as letters from a mother to her daughter but also sermons from a leader to her anti-government commune. These collections of found audio, subtle in their storytelling, will reward you for paying the utmost attention.
Where The Adventure Zone is a bit more off-the-cuff, Critical Role is more of a well-oiled machine when it comes to actual play podcasts. Veteran voice actor Matthew Mercer DMs and leads his friends and fellow voice actors in funny, rich, epically long (we’re talking three hours a pop) D&D sessions. With the first campaign clocking in at over 100 episodes (they’re currently in their second), there’s lots of room for deep character development thanks to the roster of professional actors going beyond simple improv. Better yet, episodes are both livestreamed on Twitch and available as podcasts, depending how you like your D&D epics. And if that’s not enough, there’s tons of fan art and even an aftershow, Talks Machina.
If your anthology tastes lean more horror, then enjoy getting lost in the Magnus Institute’s collection of eerie statements concerning potential paranormal happenings. Each week, newly-appointed Head Archivist Jonathan Sims sorts through the disorganized backlog to investigate stories with names like “Arachnophobia,” “The Boneturner’s Tale,” “Killing Floor,” and only getting more ominous as time goes on. Four seasons in and still going strong, the story expands beyond the scope of just the Institute and may provide a welcome distraction from other present terrors.
What are your favorite long-running fiction and/or actual play podcasts?