Years ago, I decided that an audio recording of a game session might be a cool thing to have.
Game sessions are incredibly ephemeral events -- 6 hours pass with a lot of action, role playing, and laughter, and at the end of the day it's hard to remember everything that happened. And trying to take notes while DMing or playing is incredibly distracting.
Crap Plans Poorly Executed
I started out with an MP3 player that would record -- I hung it from a light cord over our game table and tried to record the game session. This system broke down almost instantly -- the battery life wasn't good enough, the audio was tough to slog through to review things, and so on. Jumping around inside the recording was just a matter of guesswork with no signposts or bookmarks or any way to return to a good moment without having to spend hours re-listening and indexing the content.
The Vaults of Zzzzzzzz
Lets be clear -- I don't see this as a trying to produce entertainment-quality audio. This is a reference and memory aid.
I've listed to a lot of the available "Actual play" podcasts, and I find them mostly tedious. No offense if you're the creators of one of those podcasts -- you're putting a lot of work into it, but very few manage to transcend the limitations of audio-only delivery, and it's very difficult to find the right balance between editing out the dull crap and keeping enough narrative through-line to make the story comprehensible -- never mind relying on verbal descriptions rather than visual aids to convey the story (map, minis, etc).
My favorite "actual play" podcast that I've discovered so far is a bit on Dan Harmon's Harmontown podcast. Contrast what they're doing against other actual play podcasts. They're genuinely exceptionally funny improvisational comics, they're playing the game without visual aids (theater of the mind) so the game translates perfectly to the audio presentation, and they only play in one 15-20 minute segment per episode -- not a 4-6 hour session. They're playing it to provide entertainment for others, not themselves. (Beware if you check it out - Harmontown is NSFW or Grandmothers)
But, I'm not really trying to record the session to be entertainment -- I'm trying to have a better record of what happened in a given session, to not miss key details and have something better than my scribbled notes for remembering what has happened in previous game sessions.
Enter the Echo
I've got a Livescribe Echo that I've been using for a little more than a year now. It's probably the single most important gadget in my entire gimmicky arsenal. And that's saying something.
The Echo creates a digital version of what you write and can also record audio to go along with what you're writing. It's great for students taking notes during a lecture; I use it at work for meetings and anything else I can think of. The digital notes are handy on their own, but the audio+notes functionality is amazing for gaming.
When you playback the recorded session, you can touch any point in your notes, and the audio playback will jump to what was going on at the moment you wrote that note.
An important additional feature is the ability to add notes to the audio flow while you're listening to the playback -- anything you write while listening to playback is also associated with that specific moment in the audio.
Once you've uploaded these sessions to your computer, you can watch the playback of the session through your notes, and even share them as PDFs (with the audio embedded).
How It Works
The pen uses a camera in the body of the pen and special paper covered with a complex pattern of microdots to track the location of the pen tip about 70 times/second -- and syncing that with the audio recording at the same time. So the entire system requires the special pen AND the special microdot paper.
It's possible to print your own microdot paper -- it requires a color printer capable of 600dpi, but that's not hard to come by these days. You'll print the microdot pattern across the entire page, which seems like it must use a lot of ink, and which turns that nice sheet of white printer paper gray.
Livescribe sells a variety of notebook sales. It's also possible to print your own dot paper, but I've never been thrilled with those results. Still, with grid paper, lined moleskin-style journals, unlined journals, spiral notebooks, and a bunch of other options, there's certainly a style of notebook to fit your tastes.
The notebooks are more expensive than a $.99 spiral notebook from Walmart -- but you're using them with your $150 digital pen, suck it up and pay a little more for the magic paper, too.
How I'm Using It
I record every game session I run, and most of those I play in. I use the pen rather than any other writing implement to make notes and track damage, in most cases. This gives me good running notes to go along with my recording. I can click on a spot where I was subtracting a particularly large number of hit points from a target and jump right to what was going on in combat at the time.
With some practice, I've gotten better at dropping signposts and bookmarks and other notes to help me use the audio later -- marking the end of encounters or particularly good fart jokes.
I've created a demonstration "pencast" -- a recording with writing and audio (here's a link to a downloadable PDF version) -- to demonstrate the functionality, audio quality, and so on. It's important to notice that you can write on the page before starting to record, after recording, while you record, and during playback, all to good different effect. Users creating their first pencasts for use as an Audio/Visual demonstration or entertainment often do so only recording while writing, and this can be pretty tedious. But by combining prewriting, writing while recording, and writing while listening to playback, you can create a very active, interesting presentation.
Pens come in 2, 4, and 8 gig varieties; a 6 hour game session requires something like 60-70 Meg of space, so you'll be able to store a lot of sessions on your pen before you have to worry about cleaning some off to make room -- even if you've got the smallest variety.
Without The Audio
Even without audio, I use the Livescribe pen & notebooks a lot -- for work and for gaming. I find a lot of value in being able to access my notes digitally rather than having to carry all my notebooks around with me, etc. There are even more advantages if you're an Evernote user (and I am), so look for future GameHackery columns for tips about combining the two.
In the Livescribe Desktop utility, used to manage the content you've created with your pen, it's possible to pull individual pages out of their specific notebooks and create themed bundles. So you can use a single notebook for shopping lists, work meetings, and game notes, then create separated versions later.
Echo for Mapping
I've only done this a little, but it was an interesting experiment, and I might do it again.
One of the variations on notebooks you can get for your Livescribe pen is a "grid" notebook -- graph paper. If you grew up on AD&D like me, in the 70's an dearly 80's, there was nothing quite so magical as a sheet of graph paper. With a grid notebook and your live scribe pen, you can get the same feel.
It's basically the same as drawing out a map for yourself on graph paper, but then you have the advantage of the digitized version. Export it as a PDF, grab the map as an image and import it into Maptools or whatever other resource, and you've got your quick map. (attach map). If you're using a projector or TV or some other way to use a computer image for your play surface, think of how quickly you could create the map. The down side is it's very old school -- you don't get different colors of pen, etc.
Okay, it's gimmicky -- and it's both gimmicky enough to drive away the old school grognards, and lo-fi looking enough to annoy the gadget heads, so clearly I'm going to be about the only person who thinks this is cool. But I do. It's cool.
Livescribe's Newest Product: Sky
Livescribe just released their newest smartpen, the Sky. I got myself one, and I'm not sure yet if it's going to replace my Echo at the game table. I've only started using it, so the jury is still out. I worry about the battery life -- my Echo barely makes it through a 6 hour session; will the Sky be able to make it the whole way?
For now, it looks like through the Livescribe store the only versions of Echo are the 2g new, and refurbished versions of the 4g and 8g versions. Amazon has new 4g and 8g Echo pens available, so try there, too.
Put This On Your Christmas List Now
Tell your spouses or parents or friends that you need the [ame="http://www.amazon.com/Livescribe-4-GB-Echo-Smartpen/dp/B003RAE19Q/ref=sr_1_5?ie=UTF8&qid=1352560803&sr=8-5&keywords=livescribe"]Echo[/ame] for work, or school, or to take better notes of your drug deals. It'll be our little secret that you're really getting it so you won't have to worry about forgetting a key detail you made up in a game session two months ago.
Anyone else using Livescribe, or another smartpen? Share your thoughts in the thread below.