Thursday, February 19, 2015


For those who have never successfully integrated computers into your gaming - who might wonder how I do it or how it works.  This really deserves a video - but my attempts to video me running my game end up disappointing for technical reasons.

It is really very hard to effectively tape a D&D session.

So much of a D&D session is spontaneous, the game being unscripted.  If you try to fix this by scripting the game, the players are NOT actors and it looks awful and phony.  On the other hand, capturing that spontaneity on film, properly, would require four or five cameras, all of them running for four to six hours. A single camera simply fails 100%, as the game is not found in the DM's face alone, but in that of the players. requiring a very lengthy effort at editing the session - presuming that this was even a session worth filming!  Not all sessions are.

I have seen lately that filmmakers have finally realized that every individual person needs to be miked, too - but this properly needs to be a boom mike.  I've seen examples where the table is loaded up with mikes, like a set up found on public radio.  This looks absolutely nothing like a game session - and of course spoils the very feel of a proper game.  I wrote in my advanced guide that the DM's screen needs to be ditched because it ruins interaction and cohesion of play.  Technical apparatus between the players only reminds them that they are being miked, destroying any sense of capturing an actual game.

I need a very capable filmmaker to solve these problems - but I haven't yet been able to entice anyone into the project without a promise of money.  In the meantime I see videos put out by the WOTC of games held in public and I shake my head in disgust.  Here are people with real money, who ought to know better how to set up a proper film . . . and obviously they don't care.

I remember episodes of I Hit It With My Axe, which I showed around to my players and other artists.  These were films supposedly made by people in film - but they were cluttered, ugly, poorly miked, disastrous writing, filled with the backs of people's heads and with chatter that was either hopelessly garbled or meaningless in the context of a game.  My amateur attempts to do better have proven that I cannot - that is why there are no films of my playing a session.

But I will continue to look for someone capable who would be willing.  At this point, to get talent I need it to be a documentary made with real money - perhaps to show it on Netflix.

In the meantime, I am a writer.  So I will stick with writing out the details of my game play as best I can.  This much is free.

Earlier today, Scott Driver left a comment that can be found here, written below the DFD Introduction pose.  In it he makes a very reasonable point:

"I've never successfully integrated computers either for gaming or my profession.  Professionally, it adds complexity to an already chaotic situation and it's not easily stress-tested. Back when I tried cases before juries, I was almost always alone, and I stuck with legal pads and binders because they're simple and there's no risk of looking like a fumblefuck. I can execute on the fly without even thinking about the underlying tech."

I can really relate to this - but not in terms of computers.  See, I have never learned to drive.  I do not even possess a learner's license - and I never have.  If you are a long-time reader of this blog, you may remember once or twice where I described something to do with me driving a car.  I have driven a car, I know how to drive a car, but I've only done it for twenty minutes at a time and therefore always illegally.  This is also, incidentally, the reason why none of the pictures I've taken this last month feature me driving a car.  The one I added today (which will be gone in the morning) is of me sitting in the passenger seat.

So for me, driving through the city would be an exercise in panic.  I once was a bike commuter - the kind that rode in winter as well as in summer, in circumstances probably more dangerous than driving a car - so I know the streets.  But when I rode a bike, I didn't really have to look at signs.  Most of them don't affect bicyclists.

Were I to get a license, it would be a completely chaotic situation.  I would be terrifically stressed.  'Fumblefuck' would be my middle name.  And that is the reason I have kept putting off getting a license all these years.  I don't want to kill anyone.

Computers, however, are different.

I began on manual typewriters at age 8.  I moved on to an electric typewriter at age 13 when my grandmother passed away and left my parents hers (she was a schoolteacher and a writer). Computers followed soon after.

In grade 10, I took a typing class - and failed (I have a 7 dexterity).  But I kept the book and worked on the exercises continuously.  Today I type 65-75 words a minute.  I type fast enough that I can create content for the players to read, if it is something with detail that they need to remember, without breaking the pace of the session.  Part of the reason why these blog posts have so many words in them is that I type and think at the same pace (I've trained myself to slow my thinking to match my typing speed when I write, so writing is just like talking).  In effect, when I write, the screen and the computer disappear . . . I stare through the screen in a sort of zen-like state.  Thus, during a session, if I need to send a message by computer (or type a note in the middle of combat), I can listen to a player talk and write the note at the same time - sometimes I can talk and write a completely different note.

After hundreds of hours using a mouse to build newspaper pages, a skill I learned in university while volunteering for the paper there, I applied that skill to other projects.  I went on building pages for magazines that I helped build or start, while learning from professionals how to build ads or graphically design images.  These last eleven years, of course, I have been building more than 80 maps that are huge in scale (maybe you've seen a few), while using the computer to run my sessions as well.  This has meant that drawing with a mouse is as comfortable and normal to me as drawing with a pencil used to be.  I don't even think about it while I'm doing it.  In fact, I use map-making as a relation tool to manage my stress, enable meditation or to keep me busy while I listen to lectures or follow audio books and podcasts.  During a game, then, the players don't have to wait a bunch of time while I interface with the computer - I can draw and design while talking to them, or listening to them make plans for their character's next actions.

This may sound impressive - but if you think about it, you can tell me all of this right back by describing what you're able to do while driving a car.  There you are, sitting behind the wheel of a potential weapon, a projectile of metal, fibreglass and rubber, riding along at speeds above 100 km/hour, along with hundreds of other cars doing the same thing . . . and still you can argue with me about why you think Aerosmith deserves the attention they've received these last four decades.  Vehemently.  Because the car is an extension of your body and your mind that you don't think about.

Computers are no scarier than a car.  The difference between me and you driving is that you were once agreeable to being educated in that - whereas I was not, for reasons I won't go into.  The computer keyboard and the programs that enable me to design only happened to me because I took the courses and pestered experts for answers.  You can do this too.  I only began graphic design about 12 years before I began creating the maps you see - and I did tons with that design long before I stumbled across my map-making method.

You CAN do anything.  Get educated.  Learn.  I am perfectly capable of driving a car.  I even kind of like it . . . until there are other cars around.  But trust me - your learning how to use a computer like a pen isn't going to kill anyone.


Scott Driver said...

To clarify, I'm not a technophobe ... I paid my law school tuition as a grad assistant in my university's IT department. (Before that seems like pecker-waving, I just maintained the knowledge base and did/trained tier 1 tech support, and I still had to work shit jobs on the side, so that's about 2" of pecker by my count.)

That said. In my professional context, assuming I had *everything* lined out on my end - which I might not, given the opacity and caprices of Windows, along with my fallibility - I still had to deal with the courthouse end. Courthouse IT guys don't generally show up as early as I did on trial day and are not always top-flight talents. I couldn't rely on their attendance and competence with someone's liberty on the line. (We don't have a death penalty, which is one of our few indicia of enlightenment.) I didn't get practice runs. At this point in my jurisdiction's technological development, it's safest to go analog.

(That's all past tense. I'm now on the porch and may never again wave sugarcubes at the 12-headed jackass.)

Anyway, just clarifying that I don't distrust computers on principle. I'm honestly interested in practical details, or even just examples, of your implementation, which I'm sure has been honed through trial, error, and repetition. I know the tech, but *practically* I feel like I'm poking and fumbling for very little benefit over working from a binder. I'd like to hear how you do it and what for.

I.e., what can you do with a computer than you can't do with a few properly indexed binders? (For one, I suspect your use of spreadsheets and their formula functions are an order of magnitude beyond mine, but I'm not asking me, so.)

Alexis Smolensk said...

My apologies Scott,

I certainly didn't mean to suggest that you were. I wanted the post to talk about dealing with things as second nature - I very much doubt anyone reading this or your original quote saw you as a technophobe.

The benefit I get is beauty and speed. Whereas, yes, it takes time to create a single map, modifying that map after its creation takes very little time. Thus I can start with an elevation map, then change it to a vegetation map, a climate map, a political map and so on, while retaining the original map appearance. The same thing can be done with many other creative features.

Your indexed binder takes space up on your table, takes time to find a specific page and can be seen only by you. My wiki, on the other hand, takes no extra space, has rules that can be searched in a few seconds - by ANYONE at the table - can be adjusted and changed on the fly during the game and is still in everyone's pocket when we're not playing. As well, everything else that isn't on the wiki, but is on my flashdrive, can also be searched instantly - and copied, sent by email to my players and other DMs for their campaign, etc.

Quick, send me your binder so I can learn from you.

Your point about practical details hits home with me. I had thought that's what I had been doing with the blog, but perhaps I need to get more technical? Anyone - as well as Scott - want to weigh in on what technical details you'd like to see.

Obviously, except for the trade table videos which I admit I've put on hold - those are coming.

Scott Driver said...

I'd like to know how you use the computer at the table during a session. That's where I have problems.

EDIT: Your authentication just made me identify bread. This is new.

Jhandar said...

I am a massive proponent of the use of a laptop while gaming. But I was very against it up until about two years ago preferring the nostalgia of a handful of dice and a campaign notebook.

The Tao has had a massive impact on this change especially as I began wanting to integrate maps and trade tables akin to what has been presented here. However now I game without dice and do everything on my laptop (although I can't see a transition as a GM to a tablet, but that is due to my preference for a full keyboard and 10 key).

one of the largest adoptions has been the use of Excel. I use it for trade tables and commerce, weather charts and generators, name generators based on ethnicities, mass dice rollers that I use to resolve combats quickly with the touch of F9, as well as a host of other information I can randomly generate via an Excel formula. This with keepin Word open on half the screen and Excel on the other I can keep records going smoothly, make notes, and run a vastly more complex world simply by investing some up front time to create tables. I echo Alexis' comment of being able to grow my data pool nearly mindlessly while listening to podcasts or let my mind day dream and chew on other aspects on the game.

It was a struggle at first but is second nature and just having one program up seems garish and overly large to my eyes now. I should also point out that I do not use either program professionally and while I have always had a functional understanding of them nearly all of my growth has simple come from searching how to accomplish tasks or watching instructional videos. While this task may seem daunting, with some dedication, creativity, and practice it is more than managble.

Alexis Smolensk said...

I keep thinking that what I'm using the computer for during a session is obvious. But I suppose it isn't.

So here is a list. By the end of the night, I will usually have about 10-18 windows open.

1) I attach a second monitor to my laptop. Under the computer's control panel, there is an option that allows duplication of displays. The laptop is then pointed at me while the second monitor (with the exact same display as the lap top) is pointed at the players, so they can see everything I'm seeing.

2) If the player is rolling up a character, I pull up my character generator on the computer and add the character's new data; the players then see me use the generator to produce the results. The players also see me pull up tables for birthplace, spells and equipment lists; I will email these lists to the player if the player has a laptop, or send it to another computer in the living room to allow the player to browse at their leisure.

3) Maps. I put up maps of the lands they're in so the players can see where they are; if the players travel, I show the travel on the map during play, typically drawing a dotted line of the players moving through the hexes.

4) Combat. I pull up a hex map - say, of an outdoor road - and then proceed to draw in relevant features, plant trees, put in rocks and so on. The characters are represented by top down figures which can be moved freely around on the map. The characters then explain what they want to do or where they want to go, while all the movement is done in front of them while they watch.

When damage is done or taken, I update an experience table; the players see this experience table being updated, so they can check to make sure I'm accurate about how much damage they've done or taken. They can see the numbers change as the battle goes on, so they can see how well they're doing, how much experience they are getting with every throw that affects them or others.

5) Dividing treasure. I can use excel to help the party split their treasure between themselves, their henches and their followers. They typically have a complicated share system, with the players receiving 10 shares, their henches receiving various lesser shares (depending on who is a henchman of whom) and followers receiving even less. Thus, say, they want to divide 8,291 g.p. into 61 shares. On excel, I can do this, produce numbers and have them displayed so the party can copy them down (without my having to read them off) in a couple of minutes. Saves much time.

If the party needs to separate special treasure, like gems, jewelry, magic, etc., they can see each item listed by description and tell who has been awarded what item thus far.

6) The wiki. When I look at a page on the wiki, the players look at the same page; if there's something missing in a spell description or a sage ability, we can discuss it and change the rule on the wiki as we play, so that in the future the edit for the house rule is public - and thus REMEMBERED.

7) I keep a running account of the game's important moments in a worksheet, where I write out the date, what's happened, the names of people, details about the party's journey and so on, again while the party is watching, so that we can all see that same information the next time we play.

8) If the players ask a question about my world, when I pull up the design work I've done, they can plainly see the tables I'm basing my judgement from, they can discuss the table and ask for more details if they need it. This makes the players INVOLVED in the world I've created. It isn't a set of hidden details they're not allowed to see.

(more to follow)

Alexis Smolensk said...

(continued) If there is something the players shouldn't see, I turn off the monitor facing them, look at the description or image I'm keeping hidden, refresh my memory - then close that image from my computer and turn the monitor back on. Sometimes, for a dungeon, the section the party hasn't travelled to will have a big black square covering what's behind the door or further up the hall, which is possible in publisher and other graphics programs. When I remove the black square (because a door has been opened, say), the drawn section of the dungeon beneath it is revealed and can be seen.

The important thing in all this is the MASS of information I can have at my fingertips during the game and the information I can update during the game, while the players watch! It is boring to watch the DM scratch details onto a piece of paper in a book or behind a screen - but watching the DM type something that is visible encourages the players to EDIT me as I write, make suggestions about further notes or otherwise just be interested in what I'm writing down.

Say, you want to write down that the players have just met with the local law enforcement, who is giving them these five people to help out. Typically, it is assumed that you need to create these people ahead of time, because otherwise you're sitting there rolling them up and writing them down on your notebook, while the party is bored and waiting.

While I can invent these people on the spot, right in front of the party's eyes, rolling their stats on excel in a matter of moments - and all the time the party is equally fascinated to see what these new people can do, how strong they are, etc - because they are a PART of the process of creating the character. The party is therefore NOT bored, they're excited because these new five guys are going to be important to the party.

Thus I can create a group of followers mid-game, in a few minutes, with the party's involvement, and I don't have to waste my off-game time pre-determining that the party will meet anyone. If I am inspired or the party acts in a particular way so that these five people are needed, I don't have to lament that I didn't have the list ahead of time.

There are thousands of ways this works in making my world far, far more flexible and immediate, and the players more INVOLVED and therefore interested, than would be possible with old pen-and-paper DMing.

William Jones said...

Regarding videoing sessions, I have some ideas that you may or may not have already considered:

1) If your players move around, your camera needs to follow them - this either means a lot more than one camera per person or it means a camera operator, possibly two. If they remain seated, relatively stationary, a 4k camera can be cropped into several FHD streams thus one 4k camera can record two or more players.

2) I would put money on nearly every single one of your players arriving at your place with a HD camera and minimum quality mic in their pockets. Pressgang their phones into action - you will need to plug them in and probably find an app which allows for long recording times depending on the model of phone, as well as ensuring that they have enough free memory on arrival. These can make for fine b-cams, for those odd angles which probably won't be important, but just may be

3) You are absolutely correct in wanting boom mics, there are super focused ones which can be placed a reasonable distance away - again assuming your players don't move about much. Regular boom mics though - there's a reason they are notorious for getting into shot, they do need to be close. Another alternative is lav mics, this will require a radio mic setup which the players will need to wear, and I cannot reccomend the rode invisiLav more as a way to discretely and easily mount a lav while shielding it from clothing noise. Don't forget, phones often come with a set of headphones with a "lav" mice built into the cord, some of them are surprisingly OK.

4) Still on sound, one of the best improvements you can make is to absorb echos, use sound baffling, carpets, egg boxes glued onto a board, anything that deadens sound. You don't have to cover every wall, a few cleverly placed pieces can make the world of difference.

5) Rent any gear you need. A lot of brick and mortar rentals will be happy to pull some older gear out of the back and give you a huge discount on it - I rented 5 sony nex5n's, which would be a great camera for this, for 20p a day ($0.3 per day) each because they were out of rotation and up for sale on my last video project. A couple of years ago this was a camera that was being used for broadcast, it's more than capable of surpassing the best quality youtube can muster:

Don't forget that when you rent from a bricks and mortar place, experience and advice is imparted for free.

6) Post production for big projects like this is an absolute pig. Plan for it being a pig and don't expect to be able to sling it together in anything less than a week. Work in a methodical, organised way!

7) Practice practice and practice. I still learn loads every time I do a project, and don't dive straight into it. Make a really simple project to begin with - I'm talking on the level of recording a 5 second clip of a dice roll, but treat it as is it's a full on production. Yes you could whack it up on youtube in 20 seconds flat, but don't. Run through your plans for the full production just for this. Do it in the time scale you are planning for. If you thing video editing will take a week, save the clip then come back to it in a week to edit it. Next time, take a 5 minute clip then the time after, introduce a second camera, then add sound from one mic etc etc etc. Build slowly but treat every clip as if it was a full project. You will be amazed at how much you learn this way, even if it seems a pain to do.

Mujadaddy said...

Recording: I've come to the conclusion that an AV recording of our game sessions wouldn't be anywhere near as useful as a transcription thereof, especially as the session is occurring, allowing me to see exactly what was said, discussed and decided.

I have not found the optimal solution for long-form speech-to-text yet, though.

Ray Doraisamy said...

William's idea for smartphone use seems sound. Admittedly, the memory issue is huge. Cheap GoPRO knockoffs may work. They would cost about 60 dollars a piece, with a decently sized microSD card.

I would probably have to rely on loci and other memory techniques if I didn't have constant access to Evernote on my phone. In addition, dice rollers function well as dice calculators in any RPG system that requires a multitude of rolls.