One thing I’m keen to do more of (and which we have a Patreon goal to help us achieve) is to open Loot The Room up to more guest writers. I think it’s really important to get a diverse range of voices and experiences writing about RPGs – I’m just one white guy from England, and that’s a limited well to draw from.
I’m very pleased to say that my good friend Yubi has agreed to grace us with a guest post about their experience in planning and running a game intended for an audience, rather than a game just for you and your friends (which is the only kind of game I have experience of running). Running public games (either at cons, on Twitch, or for podcasts) is something I’m keen to get into, so this was a fascinating read for me. I hope it will be just as interesting for you!
Now, without any further ado, I’ll hand you over to Yubi.
Dungeons & Audiences
It’s February 2017 and I’m on Tumblr. Someone I follow is into some sort of TV show starring a green or maybe blue skinned wizard with an umbrella, a dwarf in tropical shirts, and some big bearded human with an axe. It’s very weird, and kind of intriguing. After a bit of digging I discover it’s a podcast called The Adventure Zone, and it’s about D&D.
Interesting. A few years ago a very good friend of mine had begun to introduce me to D&D, but we were too busy and life was too turbulent for me to get it. There certainly wasn’t time nor space for any regular game to really take off. The whole thing was overwhelming and confusing. I had no idea where to start. I had no idea what the point was.
I have a few free hours on this freezing, miserable afternoon. I load up episode 1 of The Adventure Zone and open Stardew Valley.
Two weeks later I have devoured every available episode of The Adventure Zone, started watching Critical Role, begun writing my first homebrew campaign, and have convinced a group of friends to start a weekly evening game.
I’ve been hooked ever since – so much so I now DM an actual play 5th edition podcast called The Mortal Path. Ironically, one of my players is the same good friend who’d tried to introduce me to D&D years ago. I’ve played and DM’d online and round actual tables and now even DM professionally at my FLGS, and while each game is different, what struck me is how much my game changes when there’s an audience – especially when prepping and running The Mortal Path.
“How so?” I hear you ask. Well…
1) The Mortal Path Is Meant To Be Listened To
This is the fundamental difference between my home games and recorded sessions. Every bit of narration or NPC dialogue has an extra layer of performance. Our goal is for each episode, after editing, to sound like an hour or so of a radio drama. It should be smooth and entertaining, a mix of bonafide voice-acting work and four friends having an absolute blast playing a game together. Too smooth and it’ll sound scripted and ingenuine, too rough and it’ll be difficult to stay engrossed in the episode.
A lot of this balance comes down to the editing. The thud of dice rolls are in; long gaps while people think what to say are out. Silly is balanced with serious, and episodes (try) to end on a cliffhanger. Rules debates get cut unless funny or necessary for in-game reasons, but the glee or frustration at the fate of the dice remain. It’s D&D, but it’s polished and nicely packaged.
2) Retakes and Edits
We are in no way, shape, or form a scripted show. It is entirely improv, except for my DM notes and all the “normal” planning one does for a D&D session. But if someone flubs what they’re trying to say, or mis-reads their character sheet, or just needs a moment to come up with an answer, we have the power of editing on our side.
Occasionally this includes re-telling a whole passage because of a verbal error, or cutting out a whole section because someone misunderstood what was happening. (Not that I always do edit out the mistakes. They’re often hilarious, and add so much to the show. But every edit is a deliberate choice, meant to enhance the audience’s experience.)
3 )What’s Fun To Play Might Not Be Fun To Listen To
Personally I love fighting. I love DM’ing fights and playing through fights. But do I like to listen to big battles? Hell, no. Even in streamed games where I can see the battlemap and so on, I often zone out during fight scenes. While editing can greatly cut down the drag of war, the one word I try and keep in mind during recorded fights is ‘dynamic’. It’s got to be more than just an encounter for an encounter’s sake. What does this monster or person do that’s interesting? What’s the story behind this fight? Why is it important enough to take place? This is where I deviate from a more classic approach to D&D. In 20+ episodes of The Mortal Path, there have been 3 battles, and I try to make every encounter avoidable either through diplomacy or other means, if the players so choose.
This also applies to puzzles that hinge on visual elements. The audience has to rely on the “theatre of the mind” and so any visual supplements I give my players must either translate into audio format, or not be crucial to understanding what’s happening currently.
4) Player Suspense vs Audience Enjoyment
This is the biggest difference between my recorded games and home games. Beyond editing out rule discussions or re-describing rooms, sometimes we make the choice to sacrifice player immersion and suspense for the enjoyment of the audience.
For example, in a home game I’m happy for the characters to have long planning discussions, going round and round until they decide on a course of action. In the podcast, not so much. We only have an hour, so if there’s a big choice to be made between episodes, I’ll ask my players to decide out of the game, and then RP it out during the recording. No player agency is lost, but the process is streamlined.
Alternatively, I might give additional information outside the game, or explain how a certain mechanic is working. I trust my players to bring things up organically, and because of their excellent acting skills, we end up with some really, really cool moments.
As the DM my main goal is making sure my players are having fun, but when I’m DM’ing a recorded game, that “fun” space is shared by a hypothetical audience. Though it brings challenging aspects and different approaches to gameplay and story-telling, it’s an incredible feeling to have people listening and reacting and reaching out, telling us their reactions to the story.
If you’re looking to start a podcast or a stream, I have only one bit of advice: do it. There are so many stories to tell, and so much room for more to be told.
Yubi is a professional DM and podcaster based in Manchester, UK. They have a Twitter, and post original D&D content on their Patreon. You can catch them DMing The Mortal Path every fortnight on Podbean, iTunes, Spotify, and most pod-catcher apps.