The Boys from the Baltic Star: An ‘Actual Play’ review
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2023 issue.
Editor’s Note: Due to an error on my part, this review should have been run in the May/June 2023 issue. The reader should note that “My Confession elsewhere in this issue” actually refers to Confession #62, “Actual Play”, which appeared in that issue.
My Confession elsewhere in this issue is really by way of introduction to my feelings on Actual Play sessions or recordings. The glacial speed, the cliqueyness, the difficulty hearing, the overwhelming desire to be playing rather than observing.
The Boys from the Baltic Star didn’t start so much as ’10 points’ down, but nearer 100. I just happened to come across them at about the same time as I was checking out Critical Role. There was a mention on Twitter I think it was because they’d be including some material from my very own There May Be Troubles Ahead. Well, I couldn’t resist that, could I? Al though I started with all the trepidation that the above brought on. The fact that several months later, when they’re long past any ‘bits’ that I might have written, I’m still following them is a testament to how much I’ve fallen in love with their story, their style, and yes, I’ll admit it, the Boys themselves. (Though like any ‘celebrity’, I’m aware that however many hours I spend with them and feel I’ve got to know them, they don’t know me from Adam and I’m only seeing the carefully curated personae they present in the stream. This may be very different to real life although they seem very genuine.)
The Boys from the Baltic Star consist of Ben Slythe who is the referee. He of the wonderful voice – just made for this kind of thing – and the patience of a saint. Luke Morris who I think looks after the technical broadcast side of things and plays Soraya and Kara. Ewan Martin who plays Agnar and Stefan and seems to fulfil the role of cuddly bunny of the group. All three come from the same neck of the woods in Kent, down in the south of England, and across a weekend put out a huge amount of gaming content as they role play other games as well. They also do ‘extras’ to the BftBS by having from ‘Tales from…’ presenting some PC/NPC back story, and they have even had an interview with some Traveller author/bibliographer/collector they’ve stumbled across. I can’t comment on these other broadcasts as I’ve struggled to keep up with the main Baltic Star shenanigans much less fit in more. (And no, I can’t bear to hear myself recorded so I’ve not even listened to that.) I have no idea how they fit in any life with all that they do, for the length they do it and for the lateness at which it seems to take place.
But Friday night is Traveller and from 2300 UK time – way past my bedtime so I can only watch on Video on Demand (VoD) from the recordings on Twitch – for about three hours give or take, we get the ongoing adventures of the crew of the Baltic Star currently in the vicinity of Dilub Rou [Corridor 3208 A420573-F]. They play Traveller using Mongoose 2nd Edition rules although if I ever thought I ran ‘rules lite’ game, they take this to new extremes so it’s hardly worth mentioning and Traveller fans of any rule set will feel right at home. But however little we see of the rules, it is still very much Traveller. The three played for some time together before they started streaming so they know each well. At some point during various pandemic lockdowns (by my calculations around February 2021?) they decided to start streaming their play. This was for the benefit of others in a similar situation and who were looking for entertainment. And so, the first 40 episodes – or nearly a year of play – became ‘Season 1’. I’ve not watched that as yet but can feel myself getting sucked into doing so. Perhaps when I retire…
While Ben referees each session, Ewan and Luke each play two PCs. In no particular order, Agnar is a retired Vargr general whose strength may not be up to much but who more than makes up for it in his floofiness. Ewan doesn’t quite play him as bumbling but he does have his moments and certainly spends an adequate amount of time making sure his fur is in tip top condition. He does shine, however, when any tactics or medical skills are required and he’s recently pulled one of the beloved NPCs through a traumatic incident which might have killed her. Ewan’s other alter ego is the human Stefan who is something of a rogue and a chancer and at a guess is Ewan’s favourite of the two. He’s certainly a lot of fun – particularly when the chat brigade pay points for him to have to steal something in game.
Luke in contrast, plays the ladies of the crew. Or at least the PC ones – there are a number of NPCs that tag along and give Ben a chance to get involved occasionally or more usually act as a foil for the PCs. Kara is a human artist who may be the last into any fight the crew get into but can charm with a stunning PowerPoint presentation. She and Stefan get on well with each other and are the party animals. Luke also plays Soraya who I recently discovered would have been played in the film version by Claudia Black of Farscape fame which is both a great choice and gives me an even clearer picture of her. She’s a pilot/astrogator-cum-Jack-of-all-Trades and rather handy with gauss weapons. In a favourite incident recently, she’s defending the party from a knife attacker, whips out her gauss pistol and, with a terrific combat/dexterity roll, sticks it under the assailant’s chin. He decides that perhaps he doesn’t want a fight after all.
The Boys from the Baltic Star are now well into Season 2 and have just had a ‘mid-season’ catch up of the first half so that latecomers can join in without having to listen to all the episodes. The action started on Dilub Rou where the crew had arrived after leaving their ship, the Baltic Star, back on Giikur. The ship itself is a subsidized liner although it is, currently, never seen. It’s undergoing renovation and upgrades if I recall correctly. Indeed, so many sessions were spent getting from there to Dilub Rou via an action packed (I hear) journey on the Seamstress – a large sport orientated liner – that there are some of those who join the chat who’ve been watching for a year and have never seen the crew on their ship. I’m in the same position but haven’t been watching for so long. On Dilub Rou, the crew were based in Azure Port, a desert town and got involved with helping Telon Rak recover some property taken over by some rather nasty squatters, encounter Garbis “Garo” Kevarian recovering from an industrial injury in the Priory of Panunzio (my contribution to proceedings), and set up a tourist business with the help of various locals they’ve rescued from nasty predicaments or persuaded it’s a venture worth getting involved with. That’s half a season; in a sentence.
From that you may be able to determine that the Boys don’t play at the ‘glacial’ pace I mentioned at the start. They are probably outrun by tectonic plate movement. Fans of slow television, the kind of thing where a programme spends three hours following a reindeer herd across the tundra without commentary beyond a few sentences of orientation, or shows the view from a train driver’s cab for the whole of a long route, or follows a group of monks in their day-to-day business without a word, will find the Boys right up their street. In fact, those programmes may feel positively busy if I watch them now. But there’s a gentleness to this Twitch stream and a relaxed charm that, once you adjust to it, is part of the attraction. It does take some getting used to however. I now realize that the 39 sessions it took for my group to get through The Traveller Adventure, which I had thought was slow, was simply burning through the material as if there were no tomorrow. The Boys have spent an entire evening chatting with an explorer in a bar about a ship he once found which isn’t even germane to the ongoing campaign. They’ve spent a whole session setting up a mortgage for their brand-new business premises. Yes, really. It must be a first for role playing anywhere. They’ve even spent an evening or two – in an absolutely wonderful satire of what seems to be the raison d’Ítre of Twitch – wallowing in hot tubs. A year ago I might have been told about this kind of thing and not been able to think of anything worse. Such is the subtle and mesmerizing draw of the Boys from the Baltic Star that I now actively look forward to the next episode. Though I still long to join in rather than watch from afar.
There are a host of things I like about the stream so I trust they’ll forgive me if I forget something. First up must be Ben, running proceedings. It’s not so much his voice which seems to drip honey, although there is that. It’s not so much admiring the splendid curtains he has as a backdrop to the room he sits in (and which form part of an ongoing introductory joke), although there are those. It’s not even the grasp he has on Traveller rules and setting although of course that’s vital. It’s more the ability he has to set up scenes and characters of interest that allow the players to know where they are, who they’re meeting, what they’re doing and to simply run with it. Ben will then sit back and just let them get on with it. Not saying anything for as much as half an hour at a stretch. For someone who’s all too keen to jump in and drive things forward, or make sure carefully written material doesn’t get missed or skipped over, it’s awe inspiring. Of course, that’s also down to Luke and Ewan who are quite willing and very able to take their four characters and simply inhabit the universe around them. I have refereed with just one or two players before and found it much more intense and might have doubted it could ever be this relaxed. The Boys give the lie to that and show how it should be done. Of course, it helps that they know each well and they’ve played together, a lot, for a long time – not just in their Traveller stream.
Another great feature of the stream are the graphics. I think these are produced by Luke and they range from the fun episode title screens or the character cards for each of the PCs (made with HeroForge, I believe) to the utterly brilliant tourist posters for the various planets in the vicinity of their adventures (Dilub Rou and Azure Port, Ossin, Giikur, Twophur, Brytsee etc). They look simple but are very effective and evocative and definitely worth checking out even if you’re not interested in the stream itself. (Twitch allows you to scroll quickly through a recording with a thumbnail visible, so they should be possible to find at speed. I’m not aware of any ‘collection’ of them on the web which would be fun to see). I wish I could create things like this. One very subtle but helpful ‘feature’ is that if one of the PCs is rolling a task check, Luke presumably, gets the relevant character’s card up so you can see some of their stats and skills and work out what’s going on mechanically if you’re interested. Although they’re not ‘proper’ character sheets, they’re usually enough to work out what the DMs are for if they’re not mentioned in speech.
If there’s any downside to the graphics, they’re given a lot of screen real estate on the stream such that the cameras showing the trio playing are very small boxes and it’s rather hard to see the Boys and to lip read when necessary. Watching on a phone this becomes virtually impossible. Some very early recordings have them bigger but no longer, alas. On the other hand, it should be noted as a huge plus point that they do have cameras on. I’ve played enough online Traveller games now to know that I absolutely hate the ‘cameras off’ nature of some gaming. Indeed, an entire convention worth of it on one occasion. It’s much less engaging, much less interesting and again makes it very hard to lip read as well as connect with the other players. I appreciate that some, very few I suspect, people have bandwidth issues still and there may be one or two others for who it’s absolutely necessary for some reason, but in general it just seems to be either a reverse vanity or disrespect to the others involved. In particular I suspect it’s so players can do other things without appearing to not be paying attention. I know you think you can multitask but I can assure you it’s often obvious and just plain rude. Sorry, rant over. But I really like being able to see the Boys’ faces and just wish they were a little larger. On a phone, it might as well be a podcast. If I had one other complaint about the graphics, it’s that they use a faux Cyrillic script to lean into the ‘comrades’ together theme of the crew of the working classes. I know it’s trendy and I suppose it’s thought to look cool but for those who read the alphabet it makes no sense whatsoever and is something of a distraction. Given that it plays no part in proceedings (not in Season 2 at least) it is purely a style thing. I’ve no doubt the majority of the audience care not a hoot.
Probably a positive, but I don’t watch them live so I don’t really know, is the ability of those in chat to interact. Not just with each other but with the players and referee as well. Usually one of the players will be leading the interaction with Ben and the other will then respond to comments in the chat. The stream is set up so that viewers can earn points and those points can be spent on a variety of things. Some silly; some serious. Some just for fun; some impacting on the game itself. As I can’t watch it live, I can’t say how the points are earned nor see how much various items ‘cost’ (none of this is apparent in the VoD except by virtue of occasional comments by the Boys or the chat stream – which does remain visible after the live broadcast). So, for example, you have options such as putting a virtual beard on Ben’s face in the video stream, replacing the standard graphics with a photo of Ewan pasted into a cute bunny onesie (no, I have no idea either, although it has introduced me to the verb ‘stanning’ but with no clue as to what it actually means), or making either Ben or Luke pose for a second or two. Ben as Grehil Bast (more of whom later) and Luke showing off his, admittedly impressive, ‘guns’. I can kind of see the fun in this kind of thing – or at least might be able to if I were watching live – but one of the snags with the last two options is that they cause a stab of music to play over the stream. Which is all very well but only Luke can hear it so Ben and Ewan, who can’t, will talk through it and become inaudible. OK, so not a huge amount of content is lost but there are moments when it’s frustrating. Also, when the sound quality is poor, and that may be a function of my hearing or some poor acoustic environments I’m listening in, and the volume is up full, these stabs are rather painfully loud. If I could vote for one change in the stream it would be to jettison these or at least to feed the music to all the participants so they know to either stop speaking or to repeat the last sentence or two.I should add however, that these are not so frequent as to put me off entirely1. Perhaps two or three in an episode; maybe one or two more and I’ve just become inured to them.
Other points can be spent on actually interacting with the ongoing plot. You can, for example, get Stefan to steal something – he is after all a rogue – or you can buy a PC a boon for use in that session. Slightly meta, slightly in game, you can have one of the characters deliver a Minute of Wisdom – al though you have to provide the topic – and they will, in the midst of whatever else they’re doing at some appropriate moment, stop to deliver a timed lecture in character for 60 seconds. A lot of what the stream does is improvisational but these can on occasion be really excellent and show off the quick thinking of Ewan and Luke.
On the chat, there seem to be two or three ‘regulars’ that drop in to watch some or all of a stream and perhaps another half dozen who pop up occasionally. (Hi Socks, Kelly, Sperrow and Mr Lenno the lurker. I don’t get to say hello normally but the number of times I have reached for a keyboard to join in with you before I’ve remembered I’m in Jump and can’t communicate!) What happens to the ‘intrusions’ should the audience grow, I’ve no idea. It may be that this review won’t be welcomed by the Boys if it makes the atmosphere less family-like. On the other hand, perhaps they make money at this and they do have (a very wide range of) merchandise you can buy so I might as well mention that while I’m here. Another feature of the chat is the NightBot – an automated process which generates some text whenever certain words or phrases come up – most particularly, the PCs’ names.
Speaking of getting used to things, another thing I’m very appreciative of is the lack of swearing. Having revisited Critical Role for twenty minutes or so, rather randomly, just to remind myself what it was like, I immediately noticed just how much bad language was being used. Critical Role. YMMV.Now I appreciate that some may not care about this at all but come on guys, there are half a million words in the English language2. Do we really need to keep using the same half dozen? Or less? It gets tedious fast. I might like to keep pigs but I don’t need to roll around in the mud with them. I’m not saying you’ll never hear a word out of place on the BftBS stream, but it’s really not what they’re about. For that I’m thankful. I’m also very thankful that they don’t play background music which just makes things harder to hear and doesn’t so much add atmosphere as tedium – which it does on
On the subject of the aural experience, I’ve hinted above at another feature of the stream. Due to the very small nature of the camera boxes and the fact that the use of maps and the like are vanishingly rare, the stream could almost as easily be a podcast. I’m glad it’s not, but I can only think of one occasion in the first half of season two when a map was used (the assault on Morse’s Pit) and just now another occasion in the second half (a computer intrusion). Neither was absolutely critical but it puts me to shame with my constantly throwing stuff at players. Mainly as a security blanket I suspect. The Boys are much more in the theatre of the mind school of role playing. This is not a bad thing. It does mean that if I’m forced to for various reasons it’s possible to listen to them when walking or in the middle of the night when I don’t want a light on but for reasons given above I personally find this less engaging and means I miss content and end up rewinding or listening again later. Others’ mileage may vary.
A feature of Twitch which is hardly the Boys’ fault but may be worth mentioning, is that it can be really hard to find episodes further back in time. Especially on a phone. It’s partly the Twitch interface limiting the arrangement of material, it’s partly because of the sheer amount of material the Boys put out, it’s partly because at least at the start Twitch was an entirely new platform to me and I’ve still not really got used to it as I access nothing else on the site except for the BftBS. One ‘Amouranth’ was recommended to me as apparently she’s a big thing in the Twitch streams. I’m sure she’s lovely but I managed even less time with her than with Critical Role. I mean it’s not that I’m not partial to an attractive woman in a hot tub – indeed my summer holiday this year consisted of that exclusively3 – but I struggle to see the point of the unobtainable at a great distance. Says he playing Traveller… Of course, it may be that no one else has any interest in going back through older episodes to find certain bits of information as I do. It’s notoriously hard to do with video anyway and means I now tend to take better notes than I did when I started out.
I’ve got this far and entirely failed to mention the ‘structure’ of each episode which is worth mentioning. There’s a lead in reel for 3 to 10 minutes or so, so you know you’ve got the channel up and running and the Boys are fetching drinks etc. Some of the graphics cycle round at this point including one of Yana Tique (see transcript). Ben seems to be rather a fan. Then there are introductions which consist of Luke introducing himself, Ewan and Ben as well as welcoming the chat participants and encouraging them to, well, participate. This can take several minutes so it may be 20 minutes or more before the actual Traveller starts. But it’s part of the charm and I’ve learned it’s more fun not to race past this. Eventually they get going with a brief recap of the previous session from Ben. These are scripted and definitely worth the price of admission as his writing here is excellent. Following that, it’s into the game itself picking up wherever they left off.
Ben referees with a very relaxed hand and allows the players free rein to take matters where they will. It’s not a pure sandbox as Ben definitely has Ideas. Even if, as he freely admits, he’s borrowed them. Which is where I came in. Occasionally he’ll ask for a task check and what I like here is that he’s always very clear what it’s about, what skill to use and what characteristic he wants. I’ve played in games where the referee might call for dice rolls and you’ve no idea why or what for or what the risk is or what you’re aiming for. I like that here it’s very clear – and if I’m not doing that already am inspired to do better – and that the relevant characteristic might vary, even in a similar skill roll, depending on the exact situation. The players can even negotiate where they see a way of applying either a particular situational thing or a feature of their character or an actual skill in an even more relevant way. Again, I think I do this, but this encourages me to keep at it or do it better. Sometimes the task will be time dependent and as per Mongoose 2nd Edition rules, the referee will ask for a 1D time roll. One thing that always tickles me is that every single time Luke seems caught out by this and what it’s for, so he’s unsure if he wants to roll high or low and prays for a 3 or a 4. Perhaps it’s part of his schtick (but see ‘personae’ above) however it appears to be a source of genuine bemusement.
Around halfway through the three hours (give or take half an hour) there will be a break. This is touted as five minutes but is invariably at least ten and sometimes more. VoD viewers can fast forward through this without missing anything. Following the break is a long running tradition where the Boys toast one Grehil Bast. He was a bartender the Baltic Star crew encountered who met an untimely end apparently – in the days before the BftBS were even streaming – and now a drink is raised to him following some form of poetry or eulogy from Ewan usually. These can vary in length and in quality but it’s nice to see Tims being remembered. Ah yes. Tims. Almost any Traveller game will have a host of bit part players from bartenders to shopkeepers. For reasons I’m not clear on, the BftBS call them ‘Tim’. Whoever they are. Whatever gender they are. Presumably whatever race they are. A part of me loves almost feeling included; a part of me hates it. Mainly because I’ve never loved the name Tim4. It's an example of the ‘in jokes’ of Actual Plays that may or may not grab you. In any case, Grehil can also be seen in some of the imagery that surrounds the Boys from the Baltic Star branding. The heavily muscled worker with the chiselled chin.
Once the toast is over, it’s back to the game until Ben calls it a night at, often, a bit of a cliffhanger if one is available. Almost invariably someone in chat will have redeemed some points to have a Rose’s Cat story. This is Ben storytelling at his best and in just two or three minutes at a time he tells the tale of Caboodle back on the Baltic Star (or the surrounding port) and the adventures the kitten gets up to. This is the nearest you get to seeing the Baltic Star and they are gems that are well worth waiting for or even seeking out by themselves. One can only hope they’re collected somewhere at some point – both in video form and text. Finally, the broadcast will wrap up with pointers to the other games the Boys are playing over the weekend and they’ll wrap up the session and say goodnight to those in chat.
If you do want to get in touch with the Boys, you can always try @BoysBaltic over on Twitter. The other two don’t bother much with the social media platform as far as I can tell, but this is Luke and he’s very responsive on the subject of the stream. I should take this opportunity to thank him for all his patience with all my ignorance, questions, enthusiasm and fannishness (stanning?). (Editor’s note: since this review was originally published, Twitter has closed their users’ tweets to non-members.)
This may not be everyone’s cup of tea but I don’t think you’ll find a more charming corner of the internet. Certainly not in Actual Play streams – al though I’ll be the first to admit my experience is limited. (I did try a Lord of the Rings stream for a bit too but slowness, opacity of rules I wasn’t familiar with and the overwhelming desire to walk Middle Earth myself rather than watch – together with shortages of time – meant I didn’t get very far.) The Boys from the Baltic Star show off Traveller at its best – exploring new worlds, exploring the dynamics between the player characters, exploring just what it means to be able to do anything. Ben referees with a terrific voice and a terrific relaxedness; Luke and Ewan, under his gentle guidance, put on a show that is definitely worth checking out and maybe even worth staying with for a while. It’s not absolutely necessary to watch all the previous episodes – there are ‘catch up’ sessions in the middle of and at the end of each season, but you might just find yourself wanting to. I’m off to tackle Season 1 from the start right now as the Traveller game I was supposed to be playing this evening has been postponed. I think it’s safe to say that the Boys from the Baltic Star have well and truly drawn me into the vortex of their light-hearted style and heavy gravity of being. Recommended.