Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Session Taping: Trial and Observations

A couple of months back I read a GM’s blog post where he suggested that recording and listening to his sessions had become one of his best tools (might have been Gnome Stew...). I’m always looking for new ways to improve what I do. I run a lot which means that I’m working hard trying to figure out how to make work with less- reducing prep time, minimizing rules, developing clear story structures. But this approach would allow me to analyze how those things played out at the table. As with most GMs I typically try to think about what worked and didn’t work after a session- and like most I tend to focus on the negative in that assessment. Actually listening to a full session offered a slightly more objective approach to that. I think good gamesmastering is an art- and while some people do have raw talent, practice and reflection really makes a good or solid GM into a great one. And I want to be a great GM- because that’s the part of the hobby I enjoy most.


Oddly, I’d never thought seriously about recording a session before. I used to teach and self-recording and watching one’s classroom performance is common technique there, but one I’d shied away from. Last year I had the chance to watch a video recording of my dad teaching a class of freshmen, and that was pretty eye-opening. It was interesting to see some of his tricks for conveying information. As well, I got to see where I got some of my own verbal tics from. In any case, I bought a small digital recorder with a decent recording capacity. I’m amazed at the low-cost of these things now. I made sure that it could record as mp3 or WAV files so I could output it. I played a little bit with doing some dictation to see the relative distance of recording, which seemed ok. I opted to not play with any of the default settings for the first attempt, I figured I’d see what it sounded like and then try other settings later.

So for the first session of our new campaign, Treasure Hunters, I asked the group if they would object to being recorded. I made sure to make clear this would be for my benefit- not for general posting. I do have a couple of players among the groups who might object to recordings, so I want to be certain to ask. While I won’t post the session, I will offer the players a copy as an mp3 if they want to listen to it. They may find something useful there as well. I set the taping going at a little after 7pm and we wrapped up at about 12:15am. We had a brief non-recording break for the pizza arriving, but otherwise I left it going continuously. I listened to it the following day with Sherri, who is not playing but has been helping me with the general plotting.

1. The game was fantasy, the first session of 7-8, based in a world the group had built here using Microscope. The previous session had been exclusively character creation and a brief set up of the direction. We were using our Action Cards homebrew, with a few significant rules experiments. One, we would be using the concept of Aspects and Tags from other systems (notably FATE). Two, the class system had been built to player requests. Three, the magic system would be new- combining a "base effect + modifiers= difficulty" system with two ideas from Greg Christopher’s Novarium work (his ideas of methods and mediums & the idea that casting magic causes self-wounds). While all of the players had done Action Cards in one form or another, none had seen this version or had worked with Aspects seriously before.

2. The default setting for recording works pretty well. I was able to pick up everyone’s voice and the background noise didn’t get in the way. It obviously registered my voice most clearly, and those of the next closest player. It also picked up the background music I put on very quietly at the table. That’s like a strange soft soundtrack running behind the scenes for the session.

3. I don’t talk as fast or as 'mush-mouthed' as I imagined. I’ve always pictured that I talk too rapidly at the table. I’d assumed I would hear that in listening, but instead I talk at a fairly deliberate pace. I also enunciate more clearly than I thought. I grew up being corrected for poor enunciation constantly, so I always worry about that. Now, it may be that some of my style hear came unconsciously from knowing that I was being recorded and some of it from running for a couple of players I hadn’t run for before (or for a long time). We’ll have to see how that style actually plays out at multiple different sessions.

4. Related to that. I thought I could get over it, but my voice still sounds stupid to me. I hate the way it sounds in recordings. I love the way it sounds in my head- but it has a completely different quality played back to me. I have to get over that. Also, jokes told at the game table and then played back fall flat. That’s not a game critique, but something that I had to get past in listening. Your experience may vary.

5. I have a tendency to editorialize and color player’s actions. Generally when a player states their action and then tests for resolution, I’ll describe the results. Some players I can count on to take the lead and add to that description, using it to add an impression about their character. If I’m not as confident or I want to emphasize a character and try to make their moment bigger- I’ll add in other details, about their reaction, what they say, what their attitude is. Sometimes I can get carried away with that- in a sense I’m imposing my vision of what their character’s like. This early on, that’s not a good idea. Later, once I’ve seen what the characters are like I can craft details based on previous play. Especially with players getting settled into their roles, I need to be more clinical and objective in my description- and then ask questions to give them room to show their response, their attitude and their character. I have had a couple of players (past and present) who reacted badly to any kind of assumptions on the part of the GM about their character’s choices- even thoughts and reactions, feeling that to be a removal of autonomy rather than adding to the narrative. I will have to watch that carefully in future recordings.

6. The toughest part of the new system was the magic, as I expected it to be. The three least-experienced players all chose to play full magic users. Still, that being said I think it went off remarkably well- with different players coming up with different effects and taking on distinct roles. I really need to make up a super-simple spell casting cheat sheet. The process is easy, but has some pretty broad options. I want to see how the system stands up to players once they figure out how to wring the most from it.

7. The biggest new thing at the table was the use of Aspects and Tags. Players got those quickly, they enjoyed the point economy, and they quickly figured out how to use the environment. One side-effect of the aspect system is to make me as a GM offer some concrete details about the setting and the bad guys. It provides solid hooks for the players visually- beyond the mechanical effect.

8. I have to stop saying "things" and "stuff" when I can actually use a concrete word.

We had two "conflicts" in the session, the first a jail-break with some guard complications and the second, an ambush. This second combat I’d intended as a big fight for the night, and a chance to really see how the system worked. I pulled out the battle-mat, laid out ruins and put out a large number of adversaries. We had five PCs- Ninja, Wizard, Warlock, Barbarian, and Druid- against the Garresh, a race of intelligent gorilla people. I finally got to use the apes in Roman legion figures I’d bought at Gen Con many years ago. They’re about twice as tall as a normal figure. I had seven of these- one commander, four sub-commanders, and two mages. Added to this I had another ten 'mook' Garresh. That’s about eighteen figures against five. The PCs have about 20 wounds each, the commander had 18, the subcommanders 15, the mages 12, and the mooks 10. So it was going to be a pretty heavy fight.

I was able to use the digital recording to time the fight and the turns (rendering the stopwatch I’d bought to do that redundant). The whole fight lasted 1h 41m, which seems long, but it was a big fight with heavy opposition and the first night playing with the system. The timing of the turns broke down like this:
  • Player Turn 1: 0:00 Enemy Turn 1: 0:08
  • Player Turn 2: 0:11 Enemy Turn 2: 0:22
  • Player Turn 3: 0:32 Enemy Turn 3: 0:46
  • Player Turn 4: 0:54 Enemy Turn 4: 1:02
  • Player Turn 5: 1:08 Enemy Turn 5: 1:20
  • Player Turn 6: 1:26 Enemy Turn 6: 1:34
  • Player Turn 7: 1:37 Fight Over: 1:41
I found the experience worth it and I will be doing this again with the different campaigns. I figure if I can pick up a few new things to work on with each session, then the time will be worth it. I'd be curious what other GMs who have done this have discovered.