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. ;)

“He placed me in a comfortable chair, and arranged the phonograph so that I could touch it without getting up, and showed me how to stop it in case I should want to pause. Then he very thoughtfully took a chair, with his back to me, so that I might be as free as possible, and began to read. I put the forked metal to my ears and listened.”

— Mina Harker’s Journal

The Gates of Roscoe Village, 2016 (Not Pictured: Dracula)

The Gates of Roscoe Village, 2014. (Not Pictured: Dracula)

Way back in the palmy days of the Dracula Dossier Kickstarter, it was decreed by the archons and by the people (i.e., by Cat) that I should spend every waking minute on every podcast that would have me, talking up The Dracula Dossier and generally being publicitous. One such podcast was the wonderful and widely-enjoyed One Shot podcast, which not coincidentally is based right here in Chicago, much like all the most wonderful and widely-enjoyed podcasts are at least so semi-based.

At any rate, One Shot is one of those Actual Play podcasts that the kids are into these days, and so in October 2014 or thereabouts, genial host James D’Amato turned his GMing microphone over to me to run a session of Night’s Black Agents from a necessarily fictive Dracula Dossier campaign.

Joining me and James at the palatial One Shot studios in the glamorous Roscoe Village neighborhood of Chicago for what we later dubbed Session One (oooh foreshadowing) were Grant Greene a.k.a. “General Ironicus” of the Six Feats Under podcast (which has a 13th Age Actual Play you might also be interested in), super-designer Nathan D. Paoletta of the Design Games podcast (co-hosted with fellow super-designer Will “Eternal Lies” Hindmarch), and Zach Weber who doesn’t have a podcast apparently but give him fifteen minutes. (And give him my apologies, at this late date, for spelling his name wrong in the playtest credits.)

Here’s me explaining the rules for Night’s Black Agents in about ten or fifteen minutes to the assembled group: Night’s Black Agents Rules Expo

And here is Session One in all its terrifying majesty:

Session One Part One: Welcome to Belgrade

Session One Part Two: Never Get On the Boat

Session One Part Three: And Quiet Flows the Danube

Session One Part Four: Fear Death By Water

The game ran long, because we wanted to hit a good climax in the adventure, and because all the players were really bringing it. Then we went and got Thai food and went on with our lives.

Well, the Kickstarter delayed itself a little bit, but eventually launched while the Session One recordings were still running on One Shot, and I heard from quite a few people that hearing me run the game was not just great fun but, even better, impelled them to go ahead and back the Kickstarter. So, mission accomplished!

Until … time flowed on as is its wont and Dracula Dossier got itself five ENnie Award nominations and Cat started to think maybe we could stand to have a little more of that One Shot love during the voting window. Fortunately, James had been swamped* with emails importuning him to bring me back on and run the conclusion of the adventure we left so very climactically suspended.

And so, in June of 2016, we gathered again in the dark heart of Roscoe Village to run Session Two. Zach Weber has the misfortune to not actually live in Chicago, so in place of Zach we brought in Darcy Ross, who may very well have a podcast by the time I hit “Publish” on this post but is part of the Gnome Stew bloggoth and of the ConTessa nobility.

And here is Session Two in all its grim glory:

Session Two Part One: New Friends For Old

Session Two Part Two: Art in the Blood or Vice Versa

Session Two Part Three: White City, Black Castle, Red Death

I think there’s something in here for new and old fans alike of the Dracula Dossier universe, and for fans of my game style, and for fans of any or all of the excellent players in their own personae.

* “Swamped” is not a term with legal or mathematical meanings. Some settling of contents may have occurred during shipping. Stunt driver on closed course. Do not attempt.

 

The Belgrade Betrayal: What It Is And How It Came To Be

The Siege of Belgrade, 1456. (Not Pictured: Dracula)

The Siege of Belgrade, 1456. (Not Pictured: Dracula)

SPOILERS FOLLOW

This section contains spoilers for the podcast adventure above. Don’t read it unless you are cool with knowing things while you enjoy closely related things.

ENTER FREELY AND AT YOUR OWN RISK

I wrote the first version of The Belgrade Betrayal (as I silently named the scenario) to run at Queen City Con in Buffalo in September 2014. I picked Belgrade because I’d already done the research for that city for (S)Entries, the introductory scenario included in the Night’s Black Agents corebook. For a convention scenario intended to not-so-subtly advertise The Dracula Dossier, I knew it needed to include an on-stage role for both Edom and Dracula, so the player Agents could get caught in the cross-fire, so to speak. So I needed a sample Edom-Dracula op (kill an AQIR cell in Belgrade) and something to go wrong: Dracula double-crosses Edom. (Otherwise Edom just sets Dracula on the players and everyone dies.) That leads to a series of questions I asked myself; their answers built the scenario spine:

What should the double-cross look like? Dracula kills the Edom cut-outs, forcing Edom into the foreground.

Why? In this first version, just to be a jerk and to demonstrate that Edom doesn’t really control him.

How does Edom control Dracula in the field then? By providing his Kevlar-sealed and guarded coffin.

So how does Dracula plan to sleep by day in Belgrade? Dracula already has a place in Belgrade he can hide out and sleep by day, one that Edom doesn’t know about.

What place is that then? Belgrade Castle, where a young Vlad Dracula (unbeknownst to history) accompanied Janos Hunyadi’s relieving army during the Siege of Belgrade in 1456. (Of course he’s hiding in the Castle. He’s Dracula.) Vlad turned while inside the castle, so he can always find rest there. Since I knew Hunyadi had died of “plague” right after the siege, that gave me a nice historical death-ball to roll Dracula-as-vampire up in. Dracula kills Hunyadi and lots of other Hungarian soldiers as the blood-thirst comes upon him — which is why Hunyadi’s son, Matthias Corvinus, imprisoned Vlad in 1462. Ta-daa!

I then came up with the improv-style “name a thing you’ll encounter during this adventure” intro to make up for the lack of proper Dracula Dossier-style improvisation and collaboration and hit the dice. The die, rather.

In that first Buffalo run, the players tracked Edom to the safe-house, rumbled the hospital madman and the party boat rendezvous, and then sensibly refused to follow a coffin delivery onto the boat, watching a confusion of blood and mist and weird cold spots in the IR lenses from the shore. They then doubled back to the AQIR cell, watched Dracula massacre a whole building full of people, and tracked him to the zoo (wolves howling, and I think maybe some drone imagery) and thence to the Castle, where they fought through track-suited Novi Svar Renfield thugs (“Trackulas” they called them), and if I remember correctly one of Dracula’s Brides, to Dracula’s resting place and staked him at dawn. Great fun, everyone had a good time, I forget how many player characters died but it was more than zero.

Changing it up for the podcast, I removed the Trackulas (because I knew that would go viral and not in a good way) and settled in. The improv-style answers fed the play somewhat — I never got to the chess-playing fixer, sadly — especially the bank vault. That meant there was a treasure involved. Time for more questions:

Who are Dracula’s minions if not the Novi Svar? Slovakian river pirates, of course.

What’s in the bank vault? A treasure, obviously, one so important to Dracula that he’ll betray Edom for it. (This answer gave Dracula a proper motive, which strengthened the scenario immensely. If I had been writing it for publication, I probably would have come up with it earlier.)

How do I bring it onstage? Dracula has arranged through cut-outs to buy the treasure, so there’s a seller who can show up wherever the Agents are and look sweaty.

What is the treasure? Proof that Dracula was in Belgrade during the Siege, which means a chronicle of some kind.

In Session One, the podcast players really leaned into the adventure, and to my delight boarded the party boat. I inserted the sweaty Hungarian art dealer, Arpad, but the boat fight took long enough that the rest of the scenario was moot. Or so I thought.

In Session Two, I had to tighten up the explanations somewhat, since Darcy decided to play Hound instead of just another combat monster. (Who would have been introduced by a chess-playing fixer in the park, of course.) Thus the meet between her and the Exposition-Dropping Slovak. Minions monologue about the Master, so that worked just fine. I also knew I needed to tie off that meddlesome priest and prevent the players from reloading the Tranq Gun of Christ. Between the meet with Hound, bombing the priest, and undoing the garlic on Josip the Mad Commando, Dracula’s Conspiracy had a full day in Belgrade, and I knew I could drop echoes of their actions to the pro-active players as the game went along.

Before we started Session Two, I had a bit of time to kill while James printed out the character sheets. So, I decided to punch up the chronicle a little bit, since I knew it would have to come onstage now. So I popped onto Wikipedia and looked up Siege of Belgrade (1456) and discovered this tidbit:

“Taken by surprise at this strange turn of events and, as some chroniclers say, seemingly paralyzed by some inexplicable fear, the Ottomans took flight.”

So that gave me a great line to drop into the chronicle, and narrowed down Dracula’s turning to before the final rout of the Ottomans. So he turned during the worst of the siege, while the Ottomans were infiltrating Janissaries into the lines — hey, what if the Turks were infiltrating one of the feral vampires from Tokat Castle, as seen on p. 251 of  The Dracula Dossier Director’s Handbook? That vampire bites Vlad, he kills it, and becomes a vampire.

Damn, James is really wrestling with those character sheets. Guess I’ll see what else Wikipedia can bring me. Let’s Wiki up the Belgrade Castle:

“Legend says that Attila’s grave lies at the confluence of the Sava and the Danube (under the fortress).”

The players heard my gasp all the way across the room.

Now that gave me a climax worthy of One Shot. And it also conveniently explained why, if Dracula is a Wallachian warlord, he asks Harker (in Chapter II): “What devil or what witch was ever so great as Attila, whose blood is in these veins?” And but me no buts about Attila not having been killed (or put in a suspended-animation sarcophagus) by Church vampire hunters — Michael A. Babcock’s The Night Attila Died: Solving the Murder of Attila the Hun presents a sound-enough-for-gaming case that the chronicler’s version of Attila’s death was a pious legend, and the Scourge of God was killed by assassins working for the Emperor Marcian. Assassins, slayers, it’s basically the same thing.

Fortified with the best possible reveal, I just had to let the players get there, which of course they did because, hey, great players. Listen to them. What gaming they make. Twice.

Update Nov. 2015: It appears the Nyerd website is no more, and the Actual Play audio is no longer available online. Alas.

I’ve had a lost of requests for an actual play series to introduce people to Hillfolk and DramaSystem and have kicked around various ways of making this happen. Turns out all I had to was to wait for the NYERD Podcast to take care of it for me. And they found a great twist, too—rounding up a player group made up of experienced actors who have never roleplayed before. The series kicks off with a fab character creation session that really captures the creative process that emerges as a group finds their concepts and builds a web of relationships. The group’s actorly training kicks in as they zero in on strong choices providing plenty of grist for drama.

Also, kudos to the team for a well-recorded show, not an easy thing in Actual Play.

Robin appears as the guest in this week’s exciting episode of Jennisodes, where, in addition to explaining your dreams to you, he talks Hillfolk, Ashen Stars, Dreamhounds of Paris and more.

Color me honored to appear as a guest on the landmark 50th episode of the G*M*S Podcast. Join ace interviewer Paco Jaen as he grills me on Stone Skin Press, Hillfolk, and how we coerced Simon into greenlighting Dreamhounds of Paris.

Regarding the post-interview discussion, I hate to ruin a thrilling mental picture but have to say that working with Chuck Wendig in no way entailed a clash of the titans. When you commission a piece from Chuck, it’s not his delightfully gonzo online persona that shows up to play, but a skilled and thoroughly professional talent. He delivers great work and, when asked for adjustments, responds to them in a way that further plumbs the emotional depth of his story.

In the same discussion, Paco wonders, re: Hillfolk, how much politics and drama can arise from a tribal raiding culture. Clearly Paco has never been an iron age raider. From deposing the chieftain to making alliances and feuds, grist for intrigue always abounds in a Hillfolk game. The relative isolation of the tribal setting provides the emotional hothouse that requires the main characters to continue to deal with one another. Most compelling dramas confine their main casts in some way, within a family, sub-culture, or power structure. The raider band conceit does that in a very clear and simple way, helping players to quickly find and remain in the game’s essential rhythm.

Episode 90 of Ron and Veronica Blessing’s The Game’s the Thing podcast focuses on Ashen Stars, with your humble game designer as the guest. Join us as we talk about the game’s premise, genesis, development process and additions to the GUMSHOE toolkit. Also up for discussion are Hamlet’s Hit Points, why players only think they want their characters to be irresponsible, and teasers for two of the three reveals of Gen Con. Put it in your ears!

Site link.  / iTunes link.

Robin Laws discusses Ashen Stars here, at about 27.15.

Robin discusses Skulduggery on The Game’s the Thing podcast.