tabletop games

Watching Tape

I spend a lot of time preparing for my Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) games. Not only do I plan the adventures themselves, but I also watch, read, and listen to advice about being a better Dungeon Master (DM). And for fun, I watch streams of other D&D games, which is also preparation because I am studying what the DM is doing in their game. Some DMs are amazing, and some are only okay. I can tell by watching them, and that made me wonder: which one am I?

During a game, I can’t spare the mental effort to observe myself, but I could tape the session. Listening to that recording would feel like listening to a D&D podcast, and maybe I could fairly evaluate myself.

After I finishing cringing at the sound of my own voice, I mainly found myself boring. Unless I try otherwise, I tend to talk in a monotone voice that could make the appearance of a dragon sound mundane. When exciting things happened liked someone rolling a 20, the room didn’t cheer: the recording was quiet. And the cadence of my descriptions of a new scene rapidly switched between talking too quickly and long uhs.

Having run D&D games for a few years, I have certainly learned many ways to make my game better from all of those articles and streams. I even learned from myself by keeping a DM diary to review how a session went in hindsight. But I got way more insight into how to improve my DMing in 2 hours by actually listening to myself play.

Both athletes and performing arts depend on tape as part of deliberate practice. In high school marching band, we would huddle around an old CRT TV in the orchestra room at 10PM on Friday nights to watch our half-time marching show from the football game earlier that evening. I always tried to get there first to get a front row seat. My private lesson teacher Jake insisted that I get a tape recorder for my personal tuba practice.

Even and especially professional athletes spend time watching video footage to figure out what went right or wrong, like one of my favorite clips of Andrew Luck reviewing Spider 3 Y Banana

I like to think that I hadn’t taped myself DMing before because I hadn’t thought about it, though I probably had put it out of my mind because I was scared to listen. I once heard that people fear public speaking more than they fear death. Maybe it’s true, but I anecdotally believe that people fear watching a tape of their own speaking more than speaking itself, which means that the Grim Reaper should consider adding a candid camera into his act.

Maybe people today are more comfortable with tape thanks to selfies and vines, but I found it very painful to listening to myself play. It validated all of my worries and revealed new problems I hadn’t even considered. It reminded me of college again, where my papers and exams always seemed to go pretty well up until I got my grade back. Except for the greatest pessimists among us, the best emotion I usually had was relief that the number on top wasn’t worse.

Given my experience with D&D , I have wondered how useful it would be in other, non-performance parts of my life. For example, what would it be like to see myself work? How often am I distracted reading reddit or checking facebook during the day? I could see how efficient I am with keyboard shortcuts. Maybe I would read something in my body language about my mood.

Although I’m not quite committed to taping myself work, I did tape myself practicing different voices for characters in my D&D game. I often practice voices while I’m biking to work, only interrupting myself when pedestrians or vehicles get close enough to witness my lack of sanity. The voices all sounded different in my head, but on tape, I mostly just heard myself. I realized that the characters aren’t just enunciation and accent: I also needed to vary my word choice, pacing, and emphasis to make them different.

I’ll practice, and then I’ll tape again, and hopefully one day, it won’t be so painful to listen.

2 replies on “Watching Tape”

The fact that you are putting this much effort into improving is already admirable and you are probably better than you think because of it. When it comes to performing arts I think the fastest way to improve is with live feedback. This is from my experience of doing things like dance, improv comedy, public speaking. If you could attend some type of workshop or event that would be like Toastmasters but for DMing e.g. each person practices DMing each other for 30 min, then rotate and gives each other feedback that would probably accelerate learning. Not sure if anything like that exists.

I love it when I’m doing a scene on stage and then my instructor stops me and is like “hold on Ryan, do that line again but say it like this…” Then I do it, the audience laughs, and I have immediate improvement. It’s like creating a feedback loop that only takes 5 seconds.

You may be able to create feedback loops like that with your players by showing them two options for campaigns or ideas and then asking them “which do you like more?” It’s probably best to ask your players for feedback indirectly rather than directly, otherwise it may change the dynamic of the relationship

“After I finishing cringing at the sound of my own voice”… lol found that part funny. Can definitely relate

Good luck man hope to play with you one day!!

That’s a great idea! Now that you mention it, workshop, studio, and peer or instructional feedback is definitely an important method of improvement that I completely forgot about because I never heard of it for DMing. Thinking back to music, I only started taping myself because my private lesson teacher told me to do it, and really, most of my improvement was thanks to him and his live feedback.

I started taping myself DMing because I had asked but not received useful feedback from players. And I don’t blame them because a game is the performance, not the practice. Like your example from improv, you wouldn’t expect to get honest feedback after a show: everyone is there just to have fun and be supportive. That’s why you also separately have classes where you intend to practice and get feedback.

I definitely will look into workshopping because it’s the right context for honest feedback. Thanks!

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