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The Listen Back

Sound and Fury

Have you ever listened to how you run games?

That small pause was for all of the “oh gods, I hate the sound of my own voice” reactions that no doubt rippled through the Gnome Stew readership. The basic makeup of how we hear what we say in our own heads means that we sound different on recordings than we expect. It can be hard.

I’ll tell you this, though: nothing has improved my GMing skills more than recording the audio of my sessions and listening back to it.

Enter TheOtherCast

[1] Back in September, when I started writing my article series about how to use Powered by the Apocalypse-type techniques to improve my Edge of the Empire game, I also started recording the audio of those sessions. I’d done that before, and even posted the audio online. However, back in January, I launched a podcast with those recordings: TheOtherCast. (Soundcloud [2] || iTunes [3])

As part of getting this podcast ready I had to listen back through the entire campaign, to-date. I’d never really done that before. When I’d posted my audio before I did no editing. I leveled the voices out and threw the files up online. I wanted TheOtherCast to be different, so I took the time to work with the audio and to take out the stuff that’s not interesting to listen to.

 Listening to yourself run or play in a game can be even more weird. It’s really easy to become self-conscious. 

At first, it was hard. I winced at every um, uh, “okay so,” and all of the other stuff that I found awkward. It felt kind of like passing through a crucible of my own making, and I did it pretty much all at once. I edited about 9 hours of audio during the weekend that I started. When I got done, though, I was really excited to get back to the table and play our next session.

What Doesn’t Kill You…

When I started the Rogue Trader campaign, I didn’t have any grand designs for it. Yeah, I used it as the basis for testing out how I could take my favorite GMing techniques and apply them to a game that didn’t have that tech baked in. But there was no plan for it, really. As I kept running the campaign and recording sessions, I did get more focused. I developed the short arc that the players are neck-deep in (in real time), and are just about to get into in the chronology of the podcast.

That agenda was a fine one, but listening to the entire game helped me in a bunch of really strong, tangible ways. Let’s dive into some of those.

Details

It is so, so easy to forget the little details of a game session, especially when you play every other week. With this campaign, it’s been even worse. We’ve had multiple gaps of 4 weeks or more. One was almost 8 weeks long. Having an audio record of those games let me go back and refresh myself in a way that I couldn’t pull off without the recordings. I can barely take good notes as a player, let alone as a GM. The recorder didn’t miss anything. It literally became my planning wingman.

Characters

It’s easy to forget characters, too. There are so many off-the-cuff moments that happen in games. NPCs that you made up for a moment that could become so much more if they had the chance. Going back through the audio brought all of those characters (and the voices I did for them) back to me. Even if I weren’t working to put out a podcast that other people would enjoy, those things make the game better for my players, which is the real point of all of this anyway.

Plot Threads

It can be very easy for my group to lose sight of the big picture. Yeah, I’ve got my notes, but we really enjoy diving deep into the weird little interactions and character-driven side plots that come up. Having a record of the continuity means that there have to be fewer reminders of what’s going on, even if there’s a large gap. It helps that my players listen to the podcast, too. Makes start-of-session recaps a breeze.

Flat-Out Better GMing

If you never take time to look at how you’re doing what you’re doing at the game table, it can be a lot harder to improve. Not impossible, by any means. In my recent experience, though, going through the recorded audio means that I have specific, actionable things to work on. It’s a lot more than the vague sense of how a game went, or working on the obvious mistakes. On those recordings I heard myself stammer, stumble, make jokes in poor taste, be unfocused, a whole pile of stuff. Since listening back, I’ve been able to really tighten up how I run games. It’s like I’ve got a mental checklist of what not to do, or what to do better. It has been incredibly helpful.

It also has helped me retain better what my players really engage with at the table. It can be very easy to get caught up in my own expectations for the time we’re gaming together. When my players really light up at a character or sequence of events, I can plan to aim in those directions again. And since I can’t take notes, the audio is my guide.

Easy? No. Worth it? Yes.

Like I said at the top, listening to your own voice can be weird. Listening to yourself run or play in a game can be even more weird. It’s really easy to become self-conscious. I think that kind of self-reflection is super important, though. This verges into a wider set of issues, like self-esteem. It’s difficult to accept things that are relatively immutable about ourselves, like how our voices sound. It might even seem to be a contradictory thing: games are escapism. Why would you want to analyze that?

For me, games are how I’ve come to know myself the best. I can experience things at the game table that I’ll never experience in real life. They’re not real-real, but they’re no less impactful. Sometimes they’re more impactful because the persona of a character puts a buffer up and lets me feel without having to deal with the repercussions of events like I would in real life.

As a GM, I always want to be at my best. Literally hearing where I’ve made mistakes so I can correct course is a hugely valuable tool for me. Since September, I feel like I’ve become a more capable, confident GM than I ever have been before. The analysis of my own successes and shortcomings through the audio files has been a vital part of that improvement.

As a final note, you don’t need much to make these recording happen, either. I bought an Olympus digital recorder and that’s what I’ve been using for the audio in TheOtherCast. It picks up the sound well and didn’t cost too much.

So what do you think? If you’ve recorded your own games, think you might want to, or want to bury that idea under 10 feet of concrete, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. And in another shameless plug, I hope you check out TheOtherCast. It shows the results of those planning techniques I outlined before and I’m pretty proud of it.

 

16 Comments (Open | Close)

16 Comments To "The Listen Back"

#1 Comment By Doc Eon On March 27, 2017 @ 2:53 am

Great idea!

I’ve managed to overcome the initial cringe at hearing my own voice at all, through a couple of means.
I have a YouTube channel, so I’ve heard myself a lot talking on a prepared subject. Also I’ve on occasion recorded lessons I’ve given, but of course that’s also prepared, or at least much less improvised than a RPG session.

Recording a gaming session is a horse of a different color, and now I think I have to challenge myself to do that next campaign I run.

#2 Comment By Tracy Barnett On March 28, 2017 @ 6:56 am

It’s a great challenge. Since game sessions aren’t scripted, you hear *everything*. It’s super-useful.

#3 Comment By irinarempt On March 27, 2017 @ 2:58 am

When I know there’s a recording being made I shut down completely, whether I’m playing or GMing. It’s not just “cringe at hearing my own voice” (though that’s part of it: after hearing my recorded voice it takes me hours, sometimes days, until I dare speak again without self-consciousness).

If I hear afterwards that a recording was made and I wasn’t told, I’m out of that group and there’s nothing they can do to get me back. (Not record any more isn’t enough: they’ve betrayed my trust.)

#4 Comment By Tracy Barnett On March 28, 2017 @ 6:57 am

100%, all of the time, no exceptions, recordings need to be made with consent. I’m sorry that’s happened to you before. And if I had a player in my group who had the same reaction as you, I would not record at all.

#5 Comment By Roxysteve On March 28, 2017 @ 2:33 pm

*Not* gaining consent may even open the recorder up to criminal prosecution if someone at table finds out and gets seriously out of shape over it. Obviously depends on local laws, but it is only good manners to get everyone’s permission before hitting the red button.

#6 Comment By Jerry Weis On March 27, 2017 @ 6:44 am

I agree completely. I don’t record myself on a regular basis, but once in a while as a litmus test to see whether I’ve fallen back into certain ruts (clarity of speech, rambling on, you know; the usual suspects).

#7 Comment By Tracy Barnett On March 28, 2017 @ 7:04 am

It’s a nice gut-check, even if you’re not doing the recording for any purpose besides keeping track of things.

#8 Comment By Courtney13 On March 27, 2017 @ 9:15 am

I have been recording every session I run for over three years. I am also the note taker in a campaign I play in and they allow me to record as well. As a person with memory issues from a physical illness, ADHD and medications, continuity can be challenging for me. The ability to review and take notes has enabled me to move from being challenged to being empowered.

I would highly recommend this to players as well as game masters. Games are, at their best, a collaborative effort. You have the ability to develop your character by listening to what and how you reacted when. Take your own notes about an npc who intrigues you and bring them up in character. Help build continuity by playing into the last session. It is a great tool for everyone.

#9 Comment By Tracy Barnett On March 28, 2017 @ 7:02 am

It’s great to hear how different people have used recording to help themselves be better at gaming. And from the player’s perspective, I can imagine it’s useful, too. We’re looking at adding other games we play to the show, so I’ll be recording those, too. In one, I’m a player rather than GMing, so I’ll get it from that side, too.

#10 Comment By RodRedline On March 27, 2017 @ 10:08 am

Great idea, and one I’m looking at myself if I get player buy-in.

What equipment setup do you use to record?

#11 Comment By Tracy Barnett On March 28, 2017 @ 6:58 am

Like I said in the post, just a little Olympus digital voice recorder. One of the VN series. Make sure the model number ends in PC, though, so you can export to a computer if you like.

#12 Comment By Ghostbreaker On March 27, 2017 @ 11:32 am

I’ve been recording my games for about two years now, using just my Samsung Galaxy S7 and the Smart Voice Recorder app. I upload them to my Google Drive when I’m done so it doesn’t swamp my phone with big files.

[8]

I tend to hide my phone in front of my GM screen, so I barely remember it’s there and to help the mic pick up all voices at the table. Works like a charm and helps me (and my players) review the previous game when I’m prepping for the next one.

#13 Comment By Tracy Barnett On March 28, 2017 @ 7:00 am

Yeah, phones can work really well, also. I’ve taken to placing my recorder in the middle of the table, in a little glass with a napkin in it for padding and to mute ambient sounds. We’re working on upgrading the quality, though. One of the players has a Yeti mic that he brought last session and we tried that. The initial test went well, and I’d like to keep using it going forward, I think.

#14 Comment By Silveressa On March 28, 2017 @ 1:40 am

This is one nice upside to text based gaming on R20, or other platforms, (One of the primary players at our table is mute, so text only is a must for us to game with her.) At the end of every session you have a perfect log of what happened for everyone at the table with no additional effort on the GM’s part. A little ctrl+f searching lets you easily find key points in the campaign where you referenced a particular NPC by name, or key location as well.

#15 Comment By Tracy Barnett On March 28, 2017 @ 7:00 am

That’s really cool! It’s a different beast than hearing stuff, but sounds useful.

#16 Comment By Michael O’Connor On March 30, 2017 @ 6:45 am

Literally just started doing this a few sessions back with the new campaign I started.
Have to say this isn’t easy to do. Mostly having to adjust to how I actually sound. Also, microphone placement to get all players.