Caught on Tape: Recording Tabletop Games

The following article originally appeared in an earlier iteration of See Page XX in April 2008. It discusses several technical details about podcasting, which the reader should bear in mind are now over 12 years old.

By Paul MacLean

[Editor] Paul, also known as Paul of Cthulhu is the head honcho over at Yog-Sothoth, and is reponsible for Yog Radio, the long-running Lovecraftian podcast. Here, we harness his expertise as a podcaster to offer you suggestions on why and how you might record your own sessions.

What?

A little over five years ago an incidental thing happened that has since gone on to spur an increasingly popular genre, that of recording and broadcasting roleplaying game sessions over the internet.

Back at the start of 2003 during a session of Dungeons & Dragons being held at the Bradford University Roleplaying Society (BURPS), I was given a small boundary microphone by a friend to use with my MiniDisc recorder. To test out the little mic I set it to record, did a few “Speaking 1,2,3” tests, and then pretty much forgot about it (and left it running). Going home that evening, before wiping the disc I found a rather clear recording of a 30+ minute segment of our gaming activities. Since I had a web site with a downloads

section I expected it might make a nice little curio tucked away in the archives.

What I didn’t expect was the reaction to it.

Within a few days the low quality MP3 audio file had been downloaded over a thousand times (still a point in time when most people possessed dial-up connections). The response was quite striking. For the first time, people could hear other roleplayers in their native habitat, playing, regardless of geographical or temporal boundaries. It would seem that people often wonder what other groups are like and this was a new way to find out, directly. The consensus of course was that they were like virtually any other group. Even this small recording exposed some universal similarities in gamerdom (language, behaviour, food).

Indeed, so popular was this novel form of audio that it was followed by more, and not just D&DCall of Cthulhu got a look in too. It reached a point where there was sufficient interest that an entire site was dedicated to this n

ew form, which is still going strong today (RPGMP3 – OK, I couldn’t think of a better name). So why the popularity?

Why?

It is difficult to say for certain why audio recordings of roleplaying games should be popular, but over the proceeding years and a with range of feedback from those who listen, it would seem the following are key points:

1) The games remind lapsed or infrequent players of what they miss. In a way, recordings can act as a surrogate game and help maintain an interest and enthusiasm n RPGs. Anywhere from highly active listening to its use as audio wallpaper.

2) Recordings can be a good way to assess how new games can play. There is often a difference between reading a roleplaying book and actually playing the roleplaying game. Audio provides an example of the latter.

3) People who are curious about roleplaying, but never quite sure what it is can actually listen to games being played. This is a far more powerful introduction than the typical “What is roleplaying?” section at the start of many RPG rule books, especially if you’ve got no-one else to introduce you.

4) Sometimes they are listened to purely for entertainment as part documentary (of the players’ lives) and part radio-play, by people who may never anticipate playing RPGs, but who find the stories and banter engaging.

Often the reasons can be a mix of the above, as such, recordings of roleplaying sessions have grown tremendously over the past half-decade, especially with the introduction of widely available broadband access, which leads me onto some of the technical issues of production.

How?

As mentioned, at the start the majority of net users were still on dial-up connections with typical speeds of 3-4 Kilobytes per second (35-45 Kilobits per second [kbps]) which meant that for audio to stream in realtime over the internet very low quality MP3s (with bit rates of 32 Kbps) were needed. Given the excellent compression of the MP3 format and the recording equipment we had to hand, it was enough.

After using the MiniDisc to record games, our group progressed onto larger capacity devices such as the iRiver IFP 700 series MP3 Player/Recorders which meant we could record entire games sessions with ease, limited only by the quality of the internal mic and the file size we could deliver over the net. It is with such straightforward devices (often simply hanging from light fittings) that 40 sessions of the World’s Largest Dungeon were recorded. Even with poor quality audio, content is king.

In more recent times our own game recordings have moved on to much higher MP3 bit-rates (64, 96, 128 Kbps) and better quality equipment as people’s connections speeds have improved and our budgets have grown. Today in our Call of Cthulhu games for example, we use the Binaural (dummy head/kunstkopf) recording technique to help give the sensation that listeners are actually at the table; due to recording in 3D Surround Sound. Details of how we go about recording and processing our particular games can be found via the link at the bottom of this article (Game Audio Recording (Methodology)). Originally, the files were simply available as straight downloads from the web site, but since October 2004 we’ve also made use of Podcasting, a very convenient way to deliver episodic content, automatically.

It’s not necessary to do all this of course, people record on all varieties of equipment at rates suitable to them, but what people are doing is helping to capture and promote the tremendous fun to be had with tabletop roleplaying games in a way unthought of a few years ago.

The Future

There now exist a plethora of ‘actual play’ recordings featuring many different games and playing styles offered by a wide range of groups across the world, and of course there’s not much to stop you doing the same with an inexpensive recorder, some free web hosting and podcasting software.

There have also been examples of video recordings of games on the net, and while novel in and of themselves, RPGs seem best suited to audio, due to their inherent nature of being a descriptive and imagination-based medium.

No one says you have to record and put your audio on the net either. Sometimes it’s just nice to have an archive, for reference or future nostalgia, perhaps one day as a document of a quite particular social pastime.

This relatively new form of entertainment seems set to carry on; even now the original recording from 2003 seems of another age, a snapshot of a game, frozen in time. If you’ve never listened to such recordings before, give it a go, you (or your friends) may just like it. ;)

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