Taking on the role of a professional Game Master might seem like a daunting task. Some of the best make it look like you need to be a rules expert, dynamic combat designer, and show-stopping performer all in one. And while it does pay to up your skills, you don’t need to be Matthew Mercer right from the get-go. Instead, you’re better off focusing on building a solid foundation. For today’s slice of GM advice, that means providing the best audio and video output possible.
Prioritize Audio Over Everything Else
If you’ve ever dabbled in podcasting, you’ve heard this one before. Sound quality is what makes or breaks a new show. And by “sound quality” I don’t mean epic soundboards for spell effects or immersive music. Those help, but the beginning and end of a great TTRPG session is the GM’s storytelling. Your voice is the one players will hear for 3-4 hours, so you better make sure it comes out loud and clear.
Most of us came out of 2020 with a decent microphone for Zoom calls. This will come in handy as most StartPlaying users sign up for online games where playing remote is the only option. Something like a Blue Yeti or Roccat Torch will work and both are very easy to use. I’d also recommend a wireless headset that connects to your computer through Bluetooth, especially if you have pets (my kittens love to sit on my lap and chew at my headset cable mid-session).
USB microphones have been around long enough that they provide decent sound right out of the box. Still, you might want to download a free software like Audacity and spend a half hour or so just recording yourself. Try adjusting the gain knob on your mic or the input in your PC settings with the goal of eliminating any kind of echo or feedback sound. Be sure to keep your gain as low as you can so that your players aren’t getting background noise like kids screaming or police sirens passing by your window.
Finally, if you really want to be a full-time pro GM, try to rearrange your living space to give yourself privacy while running sessions. Having an isolated room will help cut down on distracting background noise. You can even buy some soundproofing wall panels that reduce echo and add some flair to your GM space.
You Might Not Be Aiming For Critical Role, But Put Effort Into Video Presentation
With video calls now such a prevalent part of our society, we’ve all gotten used to cutting each other some slack. You slept until five minutes before the call and didn’t have time to do your hair? That’s fine, I did too. Cat wanders in front of the camera while you were just getting to the major point of your presentation? Great, everyone loves to see a cute cat. Yet if you’re aiming to become a pro GM, you should hold yourself to a higher standard.
That’s not to say that I’m advocating for full professional attire–ain’t nobody got time for that. What I do recommend is that you start a video call and take the time to just look at yourself for a minute. Are you at the center of the frame so that the focus is on your facial expressions? If you talk with your hands, is there room for people to see that? How’s your lighting? Ideally, you want a good amount of light behind your computer monitor shining directly on you. And once you’ve set up the ideal camera and lighting situation, how do you feel about how you look? You want to be as comfortable as possible as you guide others into a realm of fantasy and adventure.
After you’ve looked at yourself, take a look at what’s behind you. Is there a plain white wall? An unmade bed with dirty clothes piled on it? Again, I’m not here to be your micromanaging boss. I only want to point out that anything too eye-catching can be distracting for viewers. If you can, try to set up a nice little corner for yourself with maybe a shelf full of RPG books or minis if you have them. Perhaps you can hang a poster or sheet on the wall behind you with muted-yet-interesting colors. If all else fails, there are options in Zoom and Discord to blur out your background or replace it with a static image you upload yourself.
Best On-Camera Practices
Now that you’ve got quality audio and a nice shot set up, the last thing to do is become proficient at being on camera. What does that mean? For starters, where are you looking when you talk? Chances are you’re looking at the Zoom window where your players are or at the virtual tabletop you have set up. Where you want to be looking is directly at the camera. This will create the impression that you’re talking to the players, which goes a long way towards achieving that in-person feel.
Good on-camera etiquette will take practice. Set some simple goals to start with. Try to talk directly to the camera when you’re narrating the boxed text or speaking as an NPC. You can work your way up to more complex scenarios like combat later. Also think about your body language. Do your important NPCs have certain gestures or facial expressions that set them apart? You are working with a small area while sitting at your desk, but you can try to add some emoting here and there.
Achieving good acting technique on camera will be a challenge, especially as you can’t see what you’re doing. It would behoove you to record some of your sessions (with your players’ consent!) and watch how you come across on camera. This will help you pinpoint any awkward habits you have and address them in future sessions. Be easy on yourself, though, your players booked your games for fun first and foremost! These on-camera tips are just here to help enhance the experience.
One last tip: don’t eat on camera! Save the snacks for a break partway through the session.