How to Stream Tabletop Games Like a Pro, Part 4
Welcome back to our interview series, How to Stream Tabletop Games Like a Pro, where we interview tabletop gaming streamers so we can share their experience with new and aspiring streamers, or maybe just give you a peek behind the scenes at your favorite stream. This is Part 4 of the series overall and Part 2 of our interview with Monty Martin of the Dungeons of Drakkenheim stream and the Dungeon Dudes YouTube Channel.
CGT: I want to talk a little bit about the technical aspects because I feel that, for some people, that’s the more intimidating part. What stuff do you need and what decisions do you need to make?
Monty: The first really big decision you have to make if you’re going to do an in person stream, or stream in general, is “How many players are you going to have?” I think that’s where a lot of the creative and technical bump up against each other.
In our pool of players, between Kelly and I, we have about a dozen other people that we play D&D with on a regular basis. There are three players in Drakkenheim. We had to tell a bunch of our friends that they were not going to be streaming with us. And that was a really hard conversation to have, because we had friends that were excited about it, but we had friends that we knew were not the right people to involve in a stream – we love playing D&D with them, they are a lot of fun, they are some of our best friends, but they are people who are not comfortable being on screen, or do not know how to keep their mouth shut and not say something bad on camera, so we made the choice to have just three.
That was ultimately one of the best calls that we ever made. It was something that came out of conversations about both technology and practicality. I think that, for any streamer, the number of people you involve in your stream and who they are is really significant. I think this is an utterly non-negotiable thing: you have to have a microphone for every single player. If you’re going to put a microphone in the middle of the table, it just doesn’t work. It sounds bad. The hundred dollar Yeti snowball microphone does not do the job; people bump it, people hit it. It picks up the sound in an imbalanced way. From my experience on YouTube and streaming: audio is the thing that will make people shut your stream off.
The other hard truth about it is if there are pets barking or children playing or people walking into the stream environment and interrupting it; all those distractions have to get pulled out. So that’s where it all comes back to the number of people involved. If you have a tight group of people, not only does it improve the overall flow of the stream, each person is contributing more to the overall thing.
It’s also cheaper to mic each individual person, so you can go and get a decent mixer and a microphone for each individual person and be good to go. You can have an SM 58 microphone, which is what we use now and will do the job. I wish I knew a lot more about audio engineering. We had to remaster things from our first couple episodes for the podcast version, but I’m glad that we mic’d everyone individually from the get go. It’s one of the most important things we could do. We also got mic stands that we could put in unobtrusively. It’s expensive to do, but I’ve always wanted to get wireless mics for everyone to wear or get some sort of rig, people talk about getting shotgun mics, boom mics, stuff like that. Unfortunately, that wouldn’t work for us because of the height of my ceilings.
Three or four players plus a DM is the sweet spot for streaming, because again, the issue that you run into when you have six, seven, eight people involved in the stream, you just get this cavalcade of people talking over each other. As a group of performers, streamers have to learn to take turns with each other in person. And that’s something that D&D players have a really hard time with – not talking over each other. Fortunately, Jill, Kelly, Joe, and myself all worked together at the same computer shop for many years, so we already had worked together professionally in a different context. We knew how to take turns and “pass that conch” along subconsciously.
CGT: I know you and Kelly are theater people – are your cast members, your players also in theater?
Monty: Joe does stand up comedy and Jill is a trainer and a teacher, so all of us come from social group interaction sort of backgrounds, so it does help. I wouldn’t consider us actors – Joe has the most experience with improv professionally. Me, I’m a designer and a technician, but certainly now all of us have reconnected with with that side of ourselves.
When you get cross talk at the table during a stream, it’s just the worst technical problem that you will run into. And being able to get a good dynamic microphone on every single person will help that, but you can fix a lot of your audio problems – and your expense problems – by not having all six of your friends in the stream.
Having watched some first time streamers, I have given feedback where my first part of the feedback was “these three players are awesome and focusing on the stronger performers can help.” It’s not a fun conversation to have, especially if you have a bunch of friends, but it’s something to consider.
Beyond that, we still use Logitech C920 Webcams – we’re so scraping the bottom of the barrel when it comes to cameras. Just before COVID happened, we were planning on upgrading more of our equipment. I would not recommend these upgrades if you don’t yet have an audience. Be really conservative with your budget. I’ve watched people streaming using thousands of dollars of equipment. People aren’t too worried about your camera quality – a Logitech C920 is just fine, but now even those are super expensive because of COVID. A couple of those and maybe a stream deck, is really all you need. We did invest in LED light panels as well.
The most important thing, though, is audio, audio, audio. One of the best investments we made was in a Zoom Livetrak L-12 Mixer – a $800 or $900 mixer – but it has its own onboard SD card slot, so we’re able to record the audio mix directly to an SD card as we’re streaming and then we have that plus what goes to Twitch. That and buy some hard drives. Back everything up. Those are the sorts of things that people don’t think about, but we have filled up several multi-Terabyte drives and those things are more important than a nice camera. I think the camera is the least important part of the streaming setup.
I think unless your stream is getting thousands of viewers, you don’t need to go beyond the Logitech C920 for cameras, but microphones would be the first thing. The SM 58 is $100 bucks, so that’s a really good starting point. The SM 58 is the standard of live performance microphones, it’s a fantastic microphone.
Test, test, test – do practice streams. We did several private test streams where we were just hanging out. Give yourself time – I would say it took us 30 game sessions easily before I was happy with our technical setup and production experience. The video quality on our first episode is super bad, but I’ll say – episode one and episode fifty two are using the same microphones, the same cameras, and the exact same lights, but if you watch episode one and episode fifty two, that’s the difference that knowledge brings.
CGT: What was it that changed? Was it just little tweaks in the lighting setup or how you were editing things or what?
Monty: We learned a lot more about how to make the most of the equipment we had. We learned the Logitech C920s had this software that you could use to alter the exposure and brightness and other things in the camera and it took us a while to dial in the ideal settings, plus the lighting setup. With the audio, setting the audio filters in OBS – knowing how to better use those was something that we just learned over time.
Overall, we spent about $1000 on lighting and about $1000 on cameras, microphones, and mixers, so our whole setup was about $2000 Canadian, not including the computer. I think the only thing you could save money on in the setup is you could probably find cheaper lights. Maybe you could do it all for about $1500.
Because we have the benefit of sponsorships, we have things that allow us to invest in the channel a bit more. But I think geeks like us have no problem investing in our hobbies – people spend thousands of dollars on the D&D books and their gaming tables and all those things. And I’ll say, streaming is the most fun that I have had playing D&D.
If you go spending $1,000 on equipment, expecting that you’re going to be making tons of money on Twitch right away, maybe not, but if you keep at it and are consistent . . . That’s the other thing, scheduling with your people. We stream every week. We announce when we’re taking breaks. If you want to grow, if you want to build an audience, put out content every week on a consistent basis. Put out content every week, same time, consistently, and it will build over time.
CGT: How are things different during COVID-19? Both in terms of your viewership and how you guys are actually running things right now.
Monty: Obviously, we can’t get together. So now we’re using Zoom. It’s very simple. I have three monitors in front of me right now and my dm notes on one, I have my virtual tabletop on another, and then one monitor full screen with cameras. We were able to do is get the players each their own microphone and their own Logitech C920 camera. We all have at our homes a second dedicated monitor that just has everyone’s video feeds full screen so we can see each other face to face, because body language is so important in D&D. That’s lets us continue to play D&D at a really nice level.
Right now we’ve been doing the Untold Tales of Drakkenheim to get used to playing virtually. We’ve put a hiatus on our main content until we can get together. But meanwhile we have all the infrastructure so that if we wanted to have guests from elsewhere in the world come in and play with us, we could do that. We’re thinking about “Could we do a second stream that was set up like this?” And it’s been working well so far.
We never let the streaming get in the way of us playing an awesome game of D&D. If streaming your game is getting in the way of you enjoying the game, that’s the biggest challenge. Streaming should be adding something to your game, to your enjoyment of the hobby. As long as it’s doing that, do anything you want. As soon as it feels like it is taking something and not giving back, that’s when it’s time to rethink things.
Beyond that, show appreciation for everyone involved. One of the first things that we did was make sure that Jill and Joe get a portion of the money we make from Twitch. If you are going into it with other people, you need to have a conversation – if you are generating money, you should have a very serious conversation about what that means and get it in writing. I never expected I would be having a conversation with my friends about who owns the copyright to our setting. Our short answer to it was that the players own the copyright to their characters and I own the copyright to the setting. Now we have viewers asking if we’re going to make a book. I never anticipated those sort of conversations. We try to take really good care of our cast and we’re able to compensate them like creative talent, because we have a Patreon and an amazing audience that loves our work.
It’s really not easy to build an audience on Twitch right now. So it can be beneficial to think about ways that you can bring in audiences from other platforms. It’s really important that you have a YouTube channel to upload your streams to, like we do. I wish that we had done the podcast of Dungeons of Drakkenheim [sooner], because it brings in more people, as well as different ways to enjoy it.
CGT: What’s going to be next for the Dungeon Dudes and Dungeons of Drakkenheim?
Monty: We want to keep making great stuff on YouTube and we’re interested in doing books or contributing to RPG content in actual print material. [Editor’s Note: Monty and Kelly did contribute the Madness Domain Cleric subclass stretch goal to the Grim Hollow Kickstarter].
Now that we have our audience and our community, we’ve thought about ways that we can give back to other creators and audiences and just build those connections.
CGT: You can consider this part of giving back, because you’re giving very helpful advice for new streamers and YouTubers.
Monty: I think the coolest thing for me has been the fan art the people have sent us. I’ve had fans who are running their own Drakkenheim campaigns. Some of the people on our Patreon are like “I need to know answers to all these things.” The bad news is, I don’t know the answer to all those questions or I haven’t decided that yet. We have one person on Discord who is trying to make a 3D model of the entire city of Drakkenheim and has been asking me “What are the exact dimensions of the walls and the distances?” And I’m like “I don’t know.”
CGT: J Michael Straczynski, the creator of Babylon 5, once had a fan ask him what the maximum speed of the starfighters was. His response was “The speed of plot.”
Monty: It’s a superb answer and an accurate one. So many people have asked me “What are all the monsters that are in Drakkenheim?” I’m like “All the monsters I need.” It’s literally meant to be magic space rocks guys.
The effect of playing on a stream is, once we’re streaming, we’re focused on the game. One of the cool things that does happen with streaming is that the role playing itself gets to be really focused for a couple hours. It’s like there’s gold going through the water, but when you sift it out and you just have the pure gold there on its own, there’s something really special about it. It distills the game down.
We have two episodes in the series where not a single die was rolled, because the role playing was so intense and it was cool to do that. I think anybody who streams could possibly touch that nugget of amazingness, because that’s what’s happening at the table between you and your friends.
CGT: Thank you, Monty, I think we’ve covered everything in real depth. You gave a lot of great answers for the people who are interested in streaming – the creative and technical aspects and how they intersect.
Monty: One last tip – turn off your phones during recording!
Thank you again, Monty.
If you’d like more of the technical details, Monty kindly shared with us a One-Sheet for Dungeons of Drakkenheim with their setup.
[Editor’s Note: just after publication of this interview, the Dungeon Dudes announced they will be Kickstarting a Dungeons of Drakkenheim book.]
Watch this space for more interviews with other streamers. You can also go back and read our first interview with Ryan Thompson of Fantasy Flight Games or our interview with Dom Zook of the Saving Throw Show.
And don’t forget, we have the perfect table for aspiring streamers – our Streamer Game Table is shaped and set up for ideal camera angles while hiding wires and providing ample space for four players and a DM to all be in the same shot. If you’d like to learn more, email [email protected] to schedule a consultation.