If you’ve ever wondered what it takes to start, grow, or monetize an actual play podcast, Ron Murphy and Zach Burrell of the Severed Sons D&D Podcast are here to help!
Since launching their first episode in October of 2020, they’ve built a Twitter community nearly 2,500 strong, have hosted a celebrity guest, landed a major product sponsorship, and caught the eye of the one and only Freddy Prinze Jr.! We’ll talk about all of that and more in this week’s episode.
Watch the interview above (or on YouTube), or keep reading for the text transcription*:
*Text has been edited for readability. Check out the full video for all of the candid, uncensored banter!
Q: I would love to learn a little bit more about you both! Where you’re from, your hobbies, your interests. Who are you as people?
Ron: I’ll go first! I’m Ron Murphy. I was going to be a concert pianist growing up. I was always a music person, and I ended up becoming a music director for theater. So, I work full-time as a music director right now for professional theater in Tennessee. I’m playing piano, conducting the orchestra, and the whole nine yards. I’ve always had those creative genes, but I’ve been playing D&D since high school, and I’m 52, so, since the red box days. I’ve been around for a while, and I’ve played every edition except 4th edition.
About six years ago, a friend of mine who was the costume designer at the theater said, “Hey, my boyfriend plays D&D. Do you know anything about D&D?” I was like, “Oh, I do! But it’s been a while.” Then 5th edition came out like months later, and I just dove right into it headfirst. The rest is history.
Q: What about you, Zach?
Zach: My name is Zach Burrell. I do theater as well. I’m an actor. There’s another guy in our podcast, Blake, and his fiancee was doing a show at the same time as me, at the same theater. She comes up to me, and she says, “Zach, you’re a nerd, right?” I’m all, “Yeeaaah…” She says, “Well, my fiance’s moving up. He plays D&D and wants to meet some other D&D people up here.” And from that, I got swept up into this group. We started a year and a half ago playing together. It’s all about how long we’ve known each other.
I’ve been playing D&D since probably 1998, back in 3rd edition. I played half a campaign 2nd edition, and that was when 3rd edition was just coming out. My buddy’s dad was running the game, so we switched over because he got all the new books.
Q: How are you liking 5th edition?
Zach: I like it! I think it lets people feel like superheroes because it’s simplified everything.
Ron: It’s very easy to pick up on the story and make that story really roll.
Zach: And that’s what I enjoy the most. I know some people really like the combat aspect, and getting into the math of like, hitting certain parts of people and yada yada, but I’m more into “punch people so I can get on with the story.”
Ron: I think 5th edition is crunchy enough. You can do the min-max, have the multi-class perfection where this ability affects that ability, and it’s really awesome. But it still allows freedom, where you can come up with stuff on the fly and not worry about a whole lot of background math happening while you’re trying to play.
Zach: You know, the more people we can bring into this hobby, the better.
Ron: The more people involved, the more voices you’re going to have, and the more variety you’re going to have. That makes it amazing and so much fun.
Q: Did you guys start playing together specifically for the podcast?
Ron: We actually did a full run-through of Descent into Avernus. I didn’t know Zach in person, but I knew Blake, Ross, Paul, and Josh. I had a game going at the Playhouse, but I wanted to get a smaller group where we could focus on story and make it a really tight game. So, Blake said, “I’ve got this guy I know up there” (Zach), so we got together and started.
We played the entire thing over Skype, at first, then switched to Zoom because I could get everybody on screen at once. I think it took almost exactly a year. We ran the entire module, and it was just the most intense personal experience. They had wonderful character beats and wonderful characters. I was able to take their backstories and weave them into the module. It just was a wonderful time.
So, we decided at the end of that, “Maybe we could do a podcast.” Because everybody was like, “We should have recorded Descent into Avernus because there were so many wonderful moments.”
I don’t care if anybody else listens to it, but it’d be nice to be able to go back and listen to those moments. Once they happen, they’re gone if you’re not recording.
So we decided to do the podcast!
Zach: And we all decided to somehow play the polar opposite character of who we played in our previous campaign. Blake, who plays a shifty rogue ninja, was like the paladin champion-of-justice. My character was a goliath barbarian, but he’s super polite and well-mannered. So, I said, “I’m gonna go tiny and mean for this one.”
Q: Since we’re talking about that, I’d love to hear more about your character. What’s Trax like?
Zach: At the beginning of the first episode of our podcast, I think everyone was kind of like, “Oh my God, he’s going to be like this the entire time?” Because I’m seeing the whole picture, and I want his whole arc to be that he starts as bratty, rude, and selfish. Then, by the end, I want him to be the opposite.
We just recorded Episode 22, so I still get to pepper in some butthole moments, but it’s getting a little bit better.
But yeah, I have a lot of fun playing him because I don’t think he’s like me at all.
I end up playing a lot of villains in theater, for some reason. I think it’s because I have dark hair, I’m tall, I don’t know. The directors are just like, “You. You’re the mean guy. You’re the jerk.” I just slip into that old habit of “Just be mean enough, but where people still kind of like you a little bit.”
Q: What drew you to doing a podcast as opposed to something like a Twitch stream or a YouTube channel?
Ron: This is just me personally. I love Twitch streams, but also, I’m naturally really shy, which is weird because I’m in a performing profession. But being able to go into and edit the podcast, make things flow, and add music to it, are things that I couldn’t do in the moment.
During a Twitch stream, there’s probably somebody else running the Syrinscape soundboard. But being able to go back and edit it and shape it and get that story flowing the way I like it is really why I prefer podcasts over streams.
I do love streams, and we’re doing more and more of that now that we have a partnership with Gegghead. We do some stuff for them where we record and send it to them, but I think we’re going to do some live stuff for them soon.
Q: On a similar note, I’ve listened to a few episodes, and they’re all very polished. What goes on behind the scenes? What does it take to get an episode out?
Ron: When we first started doing the podcast, we just used Zoom to record. Zoom’s nice because you get the individual tracks [for each person speaking], and you can go through and erase all the silences. It cuts down a lot of floor noise. But Zoom has an audio processing thing where it tries to improve the sound so it can sound a little weird.
So, what we started doing for Severed Sons is that everybody opens up Audacity and selects the same mic that they have for Zoom. I record on Zoom for the backup, and then everybody records on Audacity, so it’s sound that’s right there with them. It’s really polished, really nice, clear sound. I can just drag it all into logic pro and start editing from there.
I think that helps elevate our sound. You can hear the difference as we go along. In our early episodes, you’re kind of like “Oh…” but later on, it’s like, “Okay, okay. It’s sounding good now.”
Q: Zach, were you already set up for that, or did you have to get a mic?
Zach: Oh, I had to get a mic. You can kind of see now; I have like the whole setup. The first episode was with the webcam mic, and it was awful. It sounded like I was in the next room.
Ron: Everybody listened to the [first recording], and they’d be like, “I sound horrible. I’m gonna go buy a mic.”
Zach: We’re actually our own worst critics. I still listen to the podcast today and think, “Oh, I need to warm up more. I’m not as crisp in that episode.”
Ron: No matter what [the players] send me, there may be some bobbles or something, but I can do a good job of making somebody sound good no matter what. If there’s like a section where there’s a lot of static or something, I can go to the Zoom recording and pull that in. I had to do that for this last episode that we just released.
Q: And for your sound effects and music, you’re using Syrinscape?
Ron: I used Syrinscape because they have a Frostmaiden set, so I use a lot of that for the module part. Then I found this on Facebook; they advertised this organization called Monument Studios that releases fantasy music that you can use for free as long as you credit them. Then, I found a Humble Bundle that had a copyright-free fantasy music sound bundle.
So, I’m pulling in from different places. I’m always on the lookout for new music, and I have my favorites of the music that I use.
They just released on Syrinscape, like, cleric spells and bard spells and wizard spells. So, I try to put those in too for spell effects.
It took me about 3-4 hours to add the music to the last episode, just this morning. Because a battle is going to be 20 minutes long, so I have to find the right position, get the right volume, and then I hit record on my computer. I make it into an mp3 file so that I can pull it into my audio editing software. It just takes time, but it’s so much fun.
I wrote the theme song myself, actually. I used Apple Loops. For the second season, I want to adjust it and maybe make some changes. Maybe get somebody to record some music for me or something.
Zach: We joked about having someone get a band together on Fiverr or something.
Ron: Yeah, that’s what I’m thinking. I mean, I know enough musicians. I think I could just buy them beer or something.
But yeah, it’s a lot of fun. I’m a musician, so I love that aspect of it—the drama of adding the sound effects and music.
Q: Since you had a background in music already, was there anything to producing a podcast that you had to teach yourself along the way, or were you drawing on skills that you already had?
Ron: Well, I wasn’t an audio engineer. I’m learning things every day when I’m editing, and this is kind of what I did when all the theaters shut down during 2020, and we were not working. You couldn’t have an audience, so I started teaching myself how to edit audio, especially podcast audio.
I was actually doing a podcast for the theater and editing that too. That’s how I got a little bit of a paycheck, and I was able to work for them while we got our PPP loan.
Learning that audio engineering was a whole other skill set because I was classically trained. I could read music. I know music. But being able to take music, the sound, and change it and listen to it and make it clearer and crisper…
There was the whole thing with compression and clipping, like making sure that things don’t clip. There’s just a whole other side of it that I did not know before, and I’m learning stuff every day.
Q: How are you teaching yourself?
Ron: YouTube videos, actually.
Zach: YouTube’s great.
Ron: All you have to do is type in “I need to do this.” You Google it and then click the Videos tab, and it just pops.
Zach: Yeah, I’ve edited a few of our one-shots, our side quests. If you have any issue, like if someone’s cat is meowing in the back, I’ll type “Remove cat meow from audio,” and there are like five videos.
Ron: There’s also, on Audacity, there’s a tab. I can’t remember what it’s called. I think “Effects.” But there’s a noise reduction [filter]. Like, if your air conditioner is running, you can select a bit of silence where it just records the room noise, and you get a sound profile. You can apply that over the whole audio file, and it reduces the floor noise, so you get silences in between things, and it helps crisp up the actual audio of this person talking.
All of that stuff is just built into Audacity. You just have to find out where it is.
Q: Zach, you mentioned you played D&D for a long time before this. Did you have to adapt the way that you played or acted to fit the podcast?
Zach: No, I’ve always been really roleplay-focused with my characters. That’s my favorite aspect at all times. Even while playing a more martial class, I still like hitting things with swords second to creating moments not just for myself but between other characters. I love doing that.
But I’ve played with actors on and off since 2002, I think.
Ron: Actors love D&D.
Zach: I was just going to bring up something about Gegghead real quick.
Ami: Please, go ahead!
Zach: So, we had Anthony Rapp come on and play with us. He was in the original Broadway cast of Rent. He’s on Star Trek: Discovery. I just asked him on Twitter. He was talking about D&D, and I said, “Hey, when are you gonna come play with us?” kind of as a joke. He said, “Name the time.”
So, we had him on when we had like 200 Twitter followers. It was incredible. So then, we were kind of like, “Let’s try that again. Let’s just find someone else that plays D&D.” So, Blake’s like, “I know Freddie Prinze Jr. plays role-playing games.”
I messaged him to say, “Hey, you want to play with us?” and he said, “I’m too busy. I’ve got too much on my plate, yada yada.” But we started talking were just kind of like shooting the sh*t for a while, and then he says, “Hey, what do you think about being under [the Gegghead] umbrella for a couple of your streams? We’ll put your stuff on our channel on YouTube and give you guys a little bit of a boost.”
So he and Jon Lee Brody started this group called Gegghead. We only have two on there right now, but we’re talking about doing a live one. He was talking about helping us with a charity stream. We’re super excited about that partnership. It could make some big stuff happen soon.
Q: So it sounds like the moral of the story is it you’re never too small to make big connections.
Zach: Yeah! I mean, it’s kind of wild. Twitter’s fantastic because the trick is I think you just talk to people like they’re a normal person, and they will talk back to you like you’re a normal person. Then you can just talk to them. Maybe something comes from it later down the line, maybe not, but it’s cool to have these connections.
So yeah, shoot your shot!
Q: I do want to talk more about sponsorships, but first things first. One thing that makes that a lot easier is building your audience, and I know that you have a pretty loyal following so far.
Ron: Well, people are really enjoying our content. They’re listening and excited when things happen. They talk about the characters on Twitter. I’m like, “Who could imagine?” Because we started out thinking, “If no one listens to us, it’s fine. We’ve got a recording of our D&D session.”
We started just posting it. I could probably look at the stats, but it took a good few months before anybody really started [listening]. You can just see the graph going up gradually, but I think what really helped us was that we’re just being ourselves.
We’re trusting in our content, trusting our story, trusting in our roleplay. We’re enjoying and having fun, and I’m working hard to make sure it sounds good, so somebody doesn’t “turn the channel” to something where it’s like, “I can’t listen to that.”
But then Zach took over Twitter, and he’s been doing this pun thing where he posts all these puns all the time, and they’re horrible and awful, and people love them. But the thing about it is that when Zach, or whoever’s logged into the account, is in there, we’re actually responding when somebody responds to us. We try to respond most of the time, and so we’re making a connection with our audience, which I think is important. I think that’s how we build.
There’s this woman named Jess who started doing fan art. When you get your first piece of fan art, it is the best feeling in the entire world. (Jess, we love you. I don’t know if you’re gonna watch this or not, but Jess, you’re amazing.) She’s been doing drawings of all the characters in all these wonderful moments.
So, when [our followers] do stuff, we tell them, “Oh, that’s amazing! This is so wonderful!” It’s back and forth. We’re not some faceless entity. There’s not a wall between the people who are listening and us. I think that’s a way to grow your audience, is to talk and communicate.
Q: It sounds like [your growth] has been pretty largely organic.
Ron: Yeah, it definitely is organic. We didn’t really plan for it to happen. I think Zach had a tweet go viral, which has something like several hundred thousand likes. That kind of jumped us a little bit. Then, when we did the one-shot with Anthony Rapp, that jumped us a little bit more.
If you think mathematically, the more people who listen, the more people who retweet stuff, their followers see it, and then it just spreads like a web, further and further.
Q: So it sounds like Twitter is your primary channel.
Ron: Yeah. I have a Facebook, but I think it’s just my friends and family following us on that. We started an Instagram, and I can’t figure out how to do Instagram well. I wish I could just take a post and copy the content directly into Instagram for a story or something, but it’s hard to do without taking a picture and reformatting. It just takes time.
Q: Let’s talk monetization. How are you making money with the podcast so far?
Ron: There’s this website called Podcorn where you can sign up for doing pre-roll ads and sponsorships, and we were able to get one with Liquid Death, which is the water that Joe Manganiello loves. He was connected to them.
But you basically go onto the website and sign up. You see something that you think will fit your podcast, and then you send them a letter and say, “This is who we are. This is what we do. I think you’d be a good fit for us. Can we do some ads for you?”
They’ll respond yes or no (or they won’t respond at all), but we got a four-week promotion where we could do pre-rolls. I had the guys do some recordings. It’s a minute-long ad just talking about Liquid Death water. So, we put that in, and it was like $15 a week.
We’re not making a whole lot of money, but if I can get the podcast hosting fees paid, that’s my ultimate goal right there.
About a month and a half ago, we started a TeePublic store. TeePublic is easy because you just come up with your artwork, upload it, and they will put it on whatever. T-shirt, mouse pad, mug. I need to put something behind me to control the sound bouncing around, so I got a big banner with the characters on it.
So, those are free to set up. You can go in and apply to be on it if you have an organization or a podcast. I was able to go in and apply, and they accepted. We just uploaded our artwork, and mostly the first month was just us buying t-shirts for ourselves, but since then, we’ve had people buying t-shirts with the guys on it. It feels really good to have somebody buy Severed Sons merch.
And again, it doesn’t cost anything to set up. You just have to provide the artwork. Noelia Rey (@N_Reym) drew this. We commissioned her to draw the guys, and it’s just an awesome portrait of all the characters. So we uploaded that.
And, you can actually put other people’s TeePublic designs on your storefront, and you get a small cut if somebody buys it from you. So, you can put some other cool things on there that people can buy.
Every little bit helps, so that’s what we’re aiming for. It’s slow but steady.
Q: Do you have any plans to build on that?
Ron: Of course! I think anything that we can do. I would love to do more sponsorships. I’m finding a lot of the sponsorships on Podcorn are British, and their ads don’t really apply to what we’re doing here. But I would love to keep doing sponsorships. It’s just a matter of finding out where we can do that.
Any sponsorships we do, I want to be able to make it mesh with our content so it’s a perfect fit. For the people that sponsor us, we want to be able to say, “Your stuff is amazing. We are proud to help you guys out.” It’s working together, and that’s what I would love to see more of in the future.
Q: Back to talking about the podcast a little bit. What has been your favorite thing about running this podcast?
Ron: I’m the DM, so I get to see everything kind of come together and those magic moments. In the last couple of episodes, some secrets got revealed about the characters. I don’t want to spoil anything, but a general DM favorite moment is just being able to set up these moments. Then, the characters have these wonderful roleplay moments or wonderful combat moments where something epic happens. It’s just so wonderful to sit back and see it happen in person.
Then, you edit it together and see your audience’s reaction to what happened, which happened in our Episode 16. There were people that emailed us or messaged us. It felt really good.
Somebody, I think their name’s Seth. He was in a night-time college class where he was supposed to be listening to the instructor, and he did a video of himself saying, “You guys should be watching Severed Sons!” and he was listening to the podcast instead of watching the instructor. Just seeing those reactions feels good.
Q: I wouldn’t have guessed that. Usually, it feels like stuff goes out into the ether, and you hope people enjoy it.
Ron: The first several episodes, I would say the first nine episodes, that was what it felt like. I’m putting out an episode, and I know people are listening because I see the number of downloads in BuzzSprout (which is our host).
Then, you can see that number rising and rising. We’re gonna hit 5000 downloads next week, I think, which is awesome and amazing. We’d never thought that would be possible. Before, we were like, “Oh god, are people listening?” But people are listening and enjoying it, and that makes us so happy. I’m so happy for all of our listeners to be able to enjoy it.
Q: On the tail of those good feels, what has been the most challenging thing about the podcast?
Ron: That’s the hard part because I’m kind of a positive person. I always try to look at things positively. If something bad happens, it’s kind of like, “How do I fix this, move on, and just put that behind me?”
The most challenging has been learning to edit, honestly. We uploaded episode 17 today, and there was a part where one of the players’ audio had this really bad floor noise. I had to take it out separately and edit it to get rid of that buzzing noise. Then I went and finished the rest of the podcast, and I went back, and the first 15 minutes of that person’s audio was gone. Completely gone. I had taken the old one out and deleted it, so it just deleted all the information that I had in the file.
So, I had to go back and pull in the source recording and then fix it. Everybody else’s was edited, so it’s all pushed together and I couldn’t just drag it in and drop it.
I always keep the video from our Zoom recording, so I had to watch along and listen for “Okay, this person’s saying something, then the person who I lost the audio says something here.” Then I have to find it, cut it, and move it into and edit the audio to sound good.
I thought it was done, and that added another two and a half hours of editing time. It’s nervous little things like that. My last name is Murphy, but I try to avoid Murphy’s Law if at all possible.
So, that’s challenging. I want it to sound good, and things happen.
Q: I’m trying to do the math on the total time investment for each episode. How much time does it take, including recording and editing?
Ron: I want to say a total of like 8 hours. I saw a video where it said that for every minute of audio you record, count on spending five minutes editing. So, three hours [of gameplay] times five. 15 hours editing. But I’m getting faster. I’m figuring out tricks and hotkeys.
One trick in editing is that you can set it so that [the audio] Like in a podcast app, you can change the speed, so it goes faster. You can do that in Logic Pro, so the parts that are easy to edit can play at 1.5 times speed, which saves some time.
Q: Let’s say you’re talking to someone who would love to start their own actual play D&D podcast. What would be your number one piece of advice to them?
Ron: #1 piece of advice: Realize that this is a team effort. It’s not just you DMing and coming up with the story and then recording and editing. You have to talk. We talked a lot. We have a Facebook chat where all the players are in it, and we just talk all the time.
Before we even decided to make the podcast, we talked about “How is this going to work? What kind of mood are we wanting?” Almost like a session zero. You apply everything that you’re gonna do and talk about it. The guys sent me backgrounds for each of their characters, like really extensive backgrounds, that I have to weave into everything.
It is knowing that your players are part of everything, and they can help you. It’s not just one person doing a podcast. It’s all six of us doing a podcast. So, let your players help you.
Q: So, what’s coming up for the cast and creators in the future?
Ron: Well, we’re trying to do 20 episode seasons. So, 20 will be our season finale, and then we probably won’t take a break, but Season 2 will start with episode 21.
We want to do a Ghostbusters stream. There’s a Ghostbusters RPG from the late 80s – early 90s, and I think I’m gonna try to run either a stream or a one-shot. That’s what I’m going to work on for the next couple of days.
And, we’re doing a few streams. We did Fiasco, and we did a few where we played Jack Box Games. We did that with Lauren Hottinger (https://twitter.com/HottingerLauren) and Roleplaying and Rollplaying (https://twitter.com/rrollplaying) so that was a lot of fun.
We’re trying to find things where we can cross over with other people and all work together like a tabletop family, you know?
Another big thanks to Ron and Zach for sharing their tips for success in running an actual play podcast!
If you’d like to follow the adventures of the Severed Sons, both in and out of the podcast, you can follow them here:
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/SeveredSonsDnD
- Podcast: http://severedstudios.buzzsprout.com
- Merch: https://www.teepublic.com/stores/severed-studios
- SS on Gegghead: https://youtu.be/kbOnt45fCQY
You can also check out some of Ron’s favorite resources, mentioned in the interview:
- How to start a merch store on TeePublic: https://www.teepublic.com/blog/7-best-tips
- Monument Studios: https://www.monumentstudios.net/
If you enjoyed this interview, please leave me a comment below and let me know what you loved most! Your feedback helps me create better content and turn this little blog into something you’ll really love. So, thank you in advance!