Lately, I’ve been arguing with people online (no surprise there) about the quality of D&D “actual play” podcasts and videos. There’s much to say about them but little that ties them all together. One will have poor sound quality, another is in bad need of editing; but these are technical details that frustrate the one podcast because the producer hasn’t taken the time to overcome the issue. In other words, not all D&D podcasts are created equal and some are certainly better than others, in these terms.
This is not my main critique. It’s that the vast majority of these games don’t represent the hobby ~ the way the game plays out on a podcast is not how a real game unfolds at your table. Part of my argument can be found here and is summarized by the title. Part of it stems from my belief that role-playing, in the conventional sense, is something that we can’t account for because we can’t rely on it happening in every session. (You can also get a sense for this by simply reading the one-line tags written for these podcasts.)
Mostly, though, my gripe is that these people aren’t playing a game. They’re doing this collective story-telling thing which isn’t necessarily a bad form of media ~ I don’t think it’s my cup of tea but I can understand the appeal for other listeners ~ but it certainly doesn’t resemble anything close to what the game is all about.
So far, I haven’t been asked outright what I think a good D&D podcast would look like. I think this illuminates more about the people I’m arguing with than anything else; but I don’t think I could answer the question, even if anyone was willing to engage in the discussion.
Doesn’t mean I won’t give it a shot, obviously…
A good “actual play” D&D podcast or video ~ where the participants are playing the game and being filmed while doing it ~ would look like a documentary.
There would be several cameras, with carefully placed lights to provide the best image of the players at all times. It probably wouldn’t be possible to capture all angles, all the time, so that the players would be warned about wandering into those blind areas of the room. Each player would have a personal microphone so that we could capture the best audio. Since I know next to nothing about audio recording for film, I’d guess there would also have to be several free-standing (“boom”) microphones.
In other words, we’d only have one chance to get the video and audio we need to create a final clip. If anything is missed ~ if there’s a ten-second period of conversation between the DM and a player who’s getting a drink from the fridge, and no one thinks to repeat those particular details ~ we risk losing something important for the audience. We’d probably want someone taking notes during the game, a transcriber or something, someone who can help with the editing process by confirming certain details.
And editing is where the film would be made. The game would be played like any other game session, which means there’d be a lot of bookkeeping and planning and looking rules up and deliberation ~ the sort of thing that keeps players engaged because they have a purpose, where they’re contributing to the success or failure against whatever challenge face them, but are ultimately boring to an audience. Yes, we understand that the difference between a light and a medium load means the fighter has fewer action points and can’t do as much during the battle, which means he has to lose his backpack and forego access to its contents or risk not being able to maneuver and protect his allies ~ but this is a detail that players will belabor, while the audience only needs to know the final answer: can Ragnar move far enough this round to get between Sindal and the ogre?
I imagine the final cut would have a lot of back and forth shots, from the DM to the players to the map, back to the players and back to the map as pieces move around. Which means we’d need recording software for the computer screens ~ because there’s at least two in every session ~ and I could see the whole process taking literally hours upon hours to complete.
And it would be a documentary because the story isn’t about the characters. The action within the game, the things the characters do and want and all that jazz, is important to the players. For this podcast/film/documentary/story/whatever, we’re not concerned with the successes or failures of the characters. We’re concerned with the players. The characters’ story is secondary ~ so if the party gets into a minor fight with some goblins, because they took a side quest that has nothing to do with anything else happening in the world, and they get absolutely smoked because of some bad rolls and bad tactics, and character dies as a result ~ the audience shouldn’t care that a character died, they should care that that character’s player is suffering because he fucked up the game, he made a bad decision, he rolled some bad numbers and his party might die as a result.
Of course, the level of detail we allow into the final cut would depend on the overall story we’re trying to tell with the documentary. How much would the director want to focus on technical details of the game as opposed to the game’s story? And what kind of audience does the director imagine will enjoy this film? For myself, I’d want to create a connection between the game details and the emerging story. I’d want to draw a picture of how playing the game ~ with a group of serious, dedicated players, and an engaging DM ~ would blur those harsh technical details into a smooth, colorful tapestry.
A D&D “actual play” documentary would show the process of transforming an artist’s materials and resources into the final work of art.
That’s the kind of story we want to tell that because that’s what really happens when we play this game.