Silhouette Zero Podcast

Small Heroes. Big Adventure.

SILHOUETTE ZERO: A Star Wars story powered by the Star Wars RPG game. It's about short aliens!

How to make an Actual Play Podcast: Gear

Welcome back to my blog series on starting your own RPG Podcast. Today we tackle the most common question: what gear do I need to start?

But before we can answer that, we need to remember:  THE PURPOSE OF AUDIO QUALITY

The purpose of audio quality is to not be distracting.

That’s it. If it’s good enough to not be noticeable, then it’s good enough.

Remember, most people are going to listen to an MP3 version of your recording over white earbuds while at the gym or through their car speakers on the freeway. All of that super high fidelity input is going to be lost, so don’t spend money you don’t need to spend.

RECORDING IN PERSON OR ONLINE?

ONLINE

You need four things: computer, internet connection, microphone, and a program to record your audio.

COMPUTER: Needs to be fast enough to run a VOIP program and a recording program at the same time. You may also need to have a browser open for dice rollers or maps or something like Roll 20. You don’t need the fastest computer in the world to do that, but you definitely want to test it out before you get started.

VOIP: Stands for Voice Over IP, which is how you talk to people online. I use Discord for both SilZero and Heroes of the Hydian Way. For SilZero season 1, we used Google Hangouts. We switched because Hangouts became less stable when I moved. The most important feature of a VOIP is stability, so try them out and find what works best for you. 

RECORDING: Use Audacity. It’s low resource, free, and does a great job. The only thing you’ll need to do when you install Audacity is install the mp3 encoder. It’s a little bit of work, but you only have to do it once.  I do all my recording in Audacity, even though I don’t edit in it.

ZENCASTR: Zencastr is a free web app that records for you and automatically syncs between the users. We use it for Heroes of the Hydian Way, though we also run Audacity back ups. It was recently updated to be more stable and functional, but your experience may vary. You should try the free version out a few times to see if it works for you. If it does, there’s also a paid version with more features.

Zencastr is also great if you’re having guests or interviews with people who don’t have their own recording software set up.

MICROPHONE

There’s three ways to set up a microphone:

The "Line-in" on the soundcard: If you look at your computer, you can probably find a microphone 3.5 mm jack. You can plug a microphone straight into that. This is the cheapest way to get started, as most of those microphones cost around 20 USD.  The sound quality, however, is usually not very good if you’re only using the default sound card. Feel free to give it a shot, though, you might be surprised!

In the earliest days, I tried recording with the Apple headphone mic. It was bad. 

USB: The most common way to record is to buy a USB microphone. The most popular brand is Blue, with the Blue Snowball being the usual “starter” microphone for podcasters, as it only costs about 70 USD. This is a great microphone, and it honestly can last you as long as you want it to. Ben, Lesile, and Brent all use Snowballs on Heroes of the Hydian Way.

One step up from that is the Blue Yeti, which season 1 for Sil Zero was recorded on. It’s a good mic, but I think it’s a little bit too sensitive.

USB/XLR Interface: To get very fancy, you can get a USB powered interface, sometimes called a Pre-Amp. This is a device that you plug into the computer, and then you plug in the standard XLR microphone into the device. This gives you a lot of control on your sound input, but it’s also the most expensive.

SilZero is currently recorded on Excelvan BM-800 microphones that are run through the Shure MVi Digital Audio Interface. I got both of them on sale, but  it was still over two hundred dollars to get set ups for both of us. I love the quality on these microphones, but it’s a personal preference.

There are other, cheaper preamps and audio interfaces, but I like the Shure because it has presets specifically for podcasting. The cheaper ones might work fine, but you need to know what you’re doing for the settings.

RECORDING ONLINE is easier because each person can record their own personal track, and then it can be combined together in a multitrack. There can be problems with synching if some people have slower computers or sketchier internet connections.

THE BIGGEST PROBLEM I hear is inconsistent microphone qualities across the voices. A little inconsistency is okay, but when one has a very good mic and one has a very bad one, it’s too distracting. Try to get everyone on the same level as much as possible.

Remember, the purpose of AUDIO QUALITY is to not be distracting.

IN PERSON

While playing a game in person might be easier and more natural to the RPG experience, it’s actually much more difficult to record.

MIC AT THE TABLE

You could just set up a microphone at the table with one computer, hit record, and go. That’s fine, there are some podcasts that do that. But, doing that makes it impossible to do any vocal or sound effects, because everyone’s voice is on a single waveform. Also, if someone talks over each other or if there’s a motorcycle passing by during a dramatic moment, there’s no way to scrub that out of the audio without some extremely expensive software.

This is probably the absolute cheapest way to make a podcast, but it is going to be the one you have the least control over the sound quality. That said, if you’re just doing it for fun and to express yourself and you’re not about sound quality, then you can get a Blue Snowball or Yeti, plug it into your laptop with Audacity, and just go for it.

There are a few early episodes of SilZero that are recorded with this method. Editing it was a nightmare and I swore to never do it again.

MULTI-TRACK USB INPUT AND XLR MICS

If you want a more professional sound, you need a multi-track USB input and XLR microphones. You’re going to easily spend over a 100 dollars on the sound board, and then you’ll need to spend more on each individual microphone, mic stand, and XLR cable. It can get worse if you start adding popfilters and windscreens, etc.

I do not know enough about this to speak more to the process. I do know you’ll need to learn basic leveling and mixing skills in order to get clean audio. But if you’re willing to do it, you can get some great sound! Podcasts like OneShot, DiceForBrains, and Godsfall all record in this way.

“DO I NEED…?”

Pop Filter – Not really. I used to use one, now I don’t. One way you can protect yourself from plosives is to speak across your mic rather than straight into it.

Windscreens – Again, not really. I use one, but only cause it’s there.

Headphones – Yes! My recommendation is Sony MDR7506 – they’re mixing headphones. I got my first pair around 2005 and I’m on my third pair.

Shock Mount – Depends. I’ve used one, but I switched to a standard microphone stand and I’m perfectly happy with that. It’s more of an issue of how much desk vs floor space you have. I would recommend making sure it’s being held somewhat near your face so that you don’t have to bend over, and make sure it’s not on the same surface as your keyboard, because it makes typing sounds outright thunderous.

Hard Drive Space – YES. Audio files are huge.

Editing Software – Yes! But that’s another blogpost!

So join us next time for the continuing blog series of How to make an Actual Play Podcast! If you have specific questions, email us, or tweet at us @SilZeroChris. Thanks for reading! 

How to make an Actual Play Podcast: Planning the Plot

I get a lot of emails asking for advice on how to start an actual play podcast. So instead of answering a million emails, I thought I would write up some of the most common advice I give in the blog for you and future podcasters!

To keep the examples as concrete as possible, I will be referring to actual episodes of the show, sometimes others. Consider this your SPOILER WARNING.

This question is part GM question, part Actual Play podcast question: how much of the story is planned out ahead? How much do you allow your player to change it?

The short answer: the big points are set, the details are not.

Here’s the long answer.

“Why not?”

Silhouette Zero REBELLION: Episode 3. Click and the crew head to FARNACOR STATION to follow a lead with their first mission with the Rebel Alliance. I mention, offhandedly, that there’s a special casino where patrons can bet on literally anything.

I had that much information written in my notes, and that’s it. No side plot, no face character for the casino, no rules on how the actual gambling would work. Click went there immediately.

In general, when Matt makes a decision that I wasn’t counting on, I ask one question: why not? If I don’t have an answer for why he shouldn’t be allowed to do it within 1-2 seconds, I let him do it.

If a choice contradicted an important plot point, then I would know immediately. If I can’t think of a reason within a couple of seconds, then whatever predictions or plans I made aren’t that important. It’s more important for Matt to be engaged with what’s going on, because it makes it more enjoyable for him. The audience can hear how much fun he’s having, so it’s a benefit for everyone for him to have a good time.

I like “why not?” better than “yes, and…” because “yes, and…” assumes comes from the improv world where ideas are supposed to exist without being judged. Silhouette Zero isn’t improv, it’s a serialized story, and therefore some ideas should be judged and removed. “Why not?” allows me the option of removing something because it doesn’t serve the story.

Driving Question

If I really want Matt to do something, I have to make it interesting enough for him to look for it. Matt doesn’t make contrarian decisions just to make them, he does whatever is the most interesting to him and the character at the moment. If I’ve created a whole sidequest or plotline that he doesn’t follow, then I failed to make it interesting.

In education, we call this concept a “driving question,” and it works well here, too. For your overarching plot, what question are you asking the players and characters to answer? For Silhouette Zero REBELLION the question is “where’s Reyna?” Matt wants to answer that question, so even if the way he goes about answering it changes from moment to moment, he’s still moving in the general direction I want him to go.

He also trusts that what I’m going to do is interesting and fun, which is key.  

SO IN SUMMARY:

  • I develop the “driving question” to the campaign.
  • I think of some big plot points.
  • I present the question and plot points and a few objectives. Matt pursues them the way he sees fit.
  • When he does something unpredictable, I ask “why not?” If I can’t think of a reason, I let him do it.

“But how do you think of all that stuff on the fly?” That sounds like a new question! You’ll need a new blog post for that!

If you have more questions on how to start your own Actual Play Podcast, whether it be technical or story-based, send them to silzeropodcast@gmail.com or tweet me @SilZeroChris!

Until next time, May the Force be with you.

The Last Jedi - Predictions

Since Episode II, I – like most fans – have tried to figure out the story of what will happen in each new Star Wars movie based on the trailers.

In fact, this is something I do with most movies I’m interested in. I’m usually wrong. I don’t have one of those uncanny prediction minds that some people do. But sometimes I find myself thinking that the story I came up with was either better or at least as interesting as the one that was presented.

I usually regret not writing down my take.

So this time, I’m having the foresight to actually write down my predictions! That way if (when) I’m wrong, I can use these ideas for myself.

 

STAR WARS EPISODE VIII: THE LAST JEDI

Rey has gone to the birthplace of the Jedi, the original Jedi temple, where Luke Skywalker lives in exile. He labors over what he should do, because he’s no doubt felt the death of Han Solo and the destruction of Hosnian Prime – perhaps more guilt to the pile of failures in his life. Then appears this strange girl.

Holding his father’s lightsaber.

He doesn’t want to train her, he doesn’t want to train anyone. But there is meaning in the discovery of this lightsaber. Why would it come now? Was it not this same lightsaber that set him on his own journey against darkness so many years ago? Is this girl his redemption?

Or is he going to make the same mistakes Obi-Wan did? Is he going to doom her to be nothing more than the savior of Jedi pride, just as Luke was?

Luke knows one truth: the Jedi must end. But she cannot be left untrained to be tempted by the dark side, by Snoke and Kylo Ren to be used as a tool of darkness. So he will train her, just a little, and see what happens.

In the meantime, the rest of the Galaxy is reeling from the destruction of Hosnian Prime. The Resistance is not large, and doesn’t have the firepower to maintain peace by itself. The First Order, on the other hand, does have the numbers, so they know they must strike down the First Order to allow the Republic to rebuild. The First Order has already launched an Empire Strikes Back-like counterattack, so Poe, Finn, and the new character (the Asian girl, I don’t know her character name) have to do a covert-op. This done by using Poe’s piloting, Finn’s knowledge of the First Order, and the new character’s skill in sabotage.

Meanwhile, Kylo Ren regroups with Snoke, who continues to push him “away from the light” to find the true power of the dark side. Snoke explains to Kylo some twisting of the Jedi rule of “no attachments,” explaining that Vader went back and removed all of his past (the “kill the past” line) when he destroyed the Jedi order and killed his wife. Vader’s only “mistake” was not killing Luke, which ended up being the cause of his “fall to the light.”

Kylo kills Leia in the counter-attack battle (originally maybe he didn’t, but with Carrie Fisher’s death, they may alter that, since it is confirmed she will not appear in IX.)

Luke’s training with Rey is progressing, but she has considerable more power than Luke realized. As he says, “I wasn’t scared enough last time,” so he knows that she has power similar to Kylo in raw strength, and he’s not confident enough that his teachings are enough to contain it. He shows Rey the weird platform chamber hidden in the island, explaining that it’s nexus point in the Force, but she’s not ready to use it yet – Luke himself was barely ready to see it. But they examine old writings and discuss that before Jedi and Sith the Force existed, and that the Force is in constant search of a balance within itself.

Poe, Finn, and new character’s mission take them to a weird white planet with red crystals beneath its surface (thus the red dust, and the scene of the Falcon flying underground). This location is critical to the First Order (perhaps more kyber crystals? Or some kyber crystal variant), and even though Poe, Finn, and new character do a lot of damage to it, they are caught (as a result of Finn losing his duel with Phasma.) Their pain ripples through the Force to Rey, who says she must leave to save her friends, echoing Luke’s leaving of Yoda in the Empire Strikes Back. Luke, however, goes with her. 

On the red crystal planet, Snoke and Kylo are waiting to confront the Last Jedi and to take Rey for themselves. The confrontation is fierce, and Rey loses despite all of her extra training. Kylo and Luke battle, with Kylo trying to kill the last major figure in his life, but he is unable to. Rey is injured and Luke takes her back to the Jedi planet.

Unbeknownst to everyone, Kylo has placed a tracker on the Falcon, and he follows them to the Jedi planet. He and Rey are both led to the Force nexus (drawn in similarly to Rey’s pull to the lightsaber in VII), where they offer hands to each other and step in.

(I realize that the trailer is cut to make it look like Rey and Kylo are in the same room at the same moment, but it’s probably not – it’s probably meant to fake us into thinking a moment doesn’t exist. But it’s all I got so I’m going with it.)

In the Force nexus, they see ghosts of the past Jedi. Rey speaks to Yoda and Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor version), and they lay out their perspective of why the Jedi did what they did and why their beliefs did, or did not, work. They leave her with a message that even though the Jedi were not perfect, that some sort of New Order must rise to be caretakers of the Force and to keep the Galaxy in balance.

Kylo, in the meantime, meets with Anakin. Anakin speaks about the truth of his past, the lessons he learned during his tumultuous life. Kylo refuses to believe them, infuriated at the prospect that he’s been lied to and killed his parents for nothing. He rejects this as a “Jedi trick” and exits the nexus.

Having both exited, Rey and Kylo battle one more time, but neither have the heart to do what needs to be done. Rey lets Kylo go, and Luke looks on, resolving to next time end the dark side.

-- 

Even looking at my version, there are flaws and missed opportunities. It seems like the relationship between Kylo and Rey are going to be deepend and explored, but the relationship between Rey and Finn and Poe need to be deepened as well, though that might be a good thing to delay until the third movie. Finn and Rey could both learn more about their new identity outside of what they were and then bring those lessons together in the third movie, during their reunion.

This also puts a lot of reliance on the past Jedi and figures (Obi-Wan, Yoda, etc.) which is something they probably should avoid. Episode VII had a very forward-thinking direction to the story, and putting so many anchors to the past might ruin that momentum. My sense is that as cool as it would be for them to go visit Force ghosts, they probably won’t in any major, direct fashion. In order for Luke to take on the role of Master, most of that expository/perspective stuff has to come from him.

Still, it’s fun to imagine.

 

-Chris