Backer Blog

Making a Monster

Kole here.

The most recent addition to the network, Monster in My Podcast, has been a success. People seem to really dig it, even though it's a strange beast. On a network noteworthy for 3+ hour long episodes, it's almost vanishingly slight. It claims to be about D&D monsters, but it's mostly an improv comedy show about horrifying biology and adventure hooks. We've camped out in an antiquated book and system, even when tabletop gaming is more popular and vibrant, arguably, than it's ever been.

Now that the show has had time to settle and get its footing, I want to give a mid-mortem on its development and production. Monster in My Podcast (or as we call it, MIMP), is the first new show starring Gary and myself that has hit the network since early 2013, and the process of launching it has been informed by a lot of experience and mature systems. One huge caveat: This is only from my perspective. I haven't consulted with Gary, and he may have different feelings on this stuff. So take this with the usual grains of salt.


Dungeons and Dragons, and the Monster Manual, underpin a lot of what we do on the network. D&D is the cited influence of any kind of systems-based fantasy game, from Final Fantasy to Dark Souls, all of which crib aesthetically from Gygax's work. We both have a history of playing D&D, but anyone who has a history with tabletop role playing knows that the majority of a person's engagement with D&D is spent alone, propped up on a bed reading the source books, poring over tables, and reading the flavor text.

The topic of monster manuals has come up on our shows before, infrequently and in passing. It happens whenever we gush about an enemy design in Dark Souls on Bonfireside Chat. But the real origin of Monster in My Podcast happened late in the summer of 2015, when we were recording our episode on Doom 2. We hit the topic of Cacodemons, and both started gushing over their design and their resemblance to Beholders. This tangent evolved into a pitch for a possible show, a chronological entry-by-entry examination of the Monster Manuals. I have a strong recollection of hitting the end of that conversation, when we both said that it was a good idea, and dropping a marker. We had to edit that portion of the show out.

We'll normally let pitches for possible shows hit the air, because they're often fun jokes, and they're so implausible that it's hard to believe we'd ever get the chance to act on them. But this pitch felt different, because we could actually do it.

The topic laid dormant for a few months. At the Portland Retro Games Expo that year, we talked about doing it as a video show. I threw out the name "Today's Monster", which Gary didn't care for. We were originally going to do a short episode every day. Over time, as we became overwhelmed with other tasks, it slowly percolated in the background.

When my recent shift in employment occurred, we decided to round up all of our most promising show ideas and make them Patreon milestone goals. We settled on 3 days a week, MWF, as a more reasonable pace, because we could record a whole month's worth of episodes in about an hour. We decided on the 2nd Edition because the collected Monstrous Compendiums span the widest number of campaign settings. The possible names winnowed down to "Monster in My Podcast" and "Some Kind of Monster Manual". We know which one won. We published the goal, and we met it immediately.

We were so excited about the idea, that we recorded the first month of shows before we even knew the goal was in sight, just so we'd be ready to publish them right away.


Our initial plan was to record the episodes in huge batches, once a month. We'll still hold to that in some instances, but part of the beauty of doing a short show like this is that we can tack it on anywhere. We've done 6-episode bursts as warmup for other shows during the recent craziness of vacations and getting ready for our Austin live show. We know exactly the size and shape of this commitment, along with our others, and have designed the show to be as modular and "achievable" as possible.

To prepare for an episode, I read from the same text in two different sources. In the few days leading up to a recording session, I'll idly read my hard copy of the Monster Manual before bed, or when I need to rest my eyes from looking at a screen. But when it's time to refresh my memory and pick out the choicest bits, I'll read a PDF version of the MM that I got off the back of a truck. The nice thing about this is that Preview on Mac OS X gives you the ability to highlight text within image scans. If I hit a juicy nugget of monstrous biology, I'll make a note so I can remember to bring it up. This is what I have in front of me when we record, for quick reference so I can (hopefully) effortlessly keep the goof train going.

The process of recording MIMP is second only to Abject Suffering in terms of lightness and enjoyment. There's something great about the 5 minute time limit for motivating you to stay quick on your feet and always try to up the laugh density... or failing that, information density. Something I've been very pleased to see is that Gary and I have similar sensibilities. He will have honed in on the exact passage that I thought was the crux of the entry. We'll both pursue adventure hooks, or express similar bafflement at how anyone would fit certain creatures into their campaigns. It shouldn't surprise me that we're in sync after 5 years of being creative partners, but it feels great. The best MIMP episodes are a constant 5 minute acceleration toward a laugh line. And what's amazing is, we both know when it's happened. One of us will slam out something we're proud of, and the other will go "Okay, that's good." And we know it's done.

Editing the shows is pretty simple, too. As always, I'm liberal with markers, but the process usually entails finding the break after our standardized introduction, finding the ending, and cleaning up any awkward bits in between. The most difficult portion of the show is file and information management... Naming each file, bouncing it separately, putting together the "collected digest" of a week's shows for Early Release, and creating each individual post on the various websites we host the show on... All of that is the toughest part. Actually laying the tape down is almost effortless. And that's how I know the show is worth doing.

MIMP fills an important role on the network, just like Abject Suffering did. Most of our shows fit into a few different length categories. WOFF is 2+ hours. BSC and LVL are 1.5+ hours. AS, COM, and TDB are in the 30+ minute category. But I wanted to see what we could do with a super-frequent micro show. I'd say the experiment is a success. People like it, it's growing despite its relative lack of promotion, and it's a great first shot in this next wave of network expansion and growth.

The Art

A quick word on the art. The banner that you see above is the rough sketch of the Beholder that I drew a few weeks before the show debuted. My goal with this cover art was to use the simplest shapes I could to create a scene, and the Beholder I sketched on the white board was about the 6th or 7th simplification of the idea that I could find. The whole cover art is meant to evoke a "cut-out" style, right down to the various paper textures I used, to signal the fast and light tone of the show. I'm really proud of the art, and I'd love to get it on some merchandise soon.


Thanks for reading this, and I'm sorry I disappeared for a while. I have a dearth of inspiration for article topics. I had the idea for this article a while back, but I wanted to let the show mature to make sure it would stick around and, y'know, actually be good. The best thing you can do, if you liked this behind-the-scenes peek and you like Monster in My Podcast, is to tell your friends about it. We say that all the time, but this show is engineered to be as sharable as possible. So please go forth. Thank you so much for your support.

A Good Fan is Hard to Find

Not every piece of gear needs to relate directly to the signal chain. There are all kinds of objects that will make a big difference for the quality of a show. A comfortable, non-squeaky chair. A soft coaster so you don't make a loud "CLUNK" when you put your drink down. Or, a fan.

I live in Cincinnati. I like this city for several reasons, but the weather is not one of them. One could accurately say that it's pleasant here for a total of one month out of the year: two weeks in spring, and two weeks in fall. Other than that, we get the worst of each season. Our coldest winters will involve weeks at a time of ~15 degree weather, and in summer the temperature always hovers around 90 degrees.

It's those summers that kill. Sitting in a closed room with still air and the sun pounding through the window, you start to work up a sweat. It gets hard to concentrate sometimes. You can't really dress for that, unless you strip bare... which I prefer not to do.

Even if you're lucky enough to have central air conditioning, it's likely that the blower's cycling will be picked up in your recording. Window unit air conditioners are just plain noisy. In either case, the best you can do is blast the air until it's time to record and how that it stays chilly for the duration of your session.

Obviously fans are out of the question. They oscillate and rattle and they get of balance and start creaking. Or do they?

Earlier this year, the heat was out of control, so I endeavored to find the best possible fan for my needs. My search ended up being very short, because The Wirecutter exists. This site provides a very valuable service: they ask "what's the best X?", and then they rigorously test examples of X until they find the best X. They also have a sister site called The Sweet Home that helps you shop for home goods. I love these sites and I wholeheartedly recommend their reviews.

The Wirecutter's choice for the best fan is the Vornado 660 Whole Room Air Circulator. Their review goes into much more detail than I can, but I will explain exactly why it's perfect for me, and why I don't regret a single penny of the staggering $100 price tag.

First, foremost, and above all else, it's quiet. I've tried to get a recording of what it sounds like, and you can't do it. By the time you get the microphone close enough to it, you're hearing the "whoosh" of the passing air instead of the mechanics of the fan itself. It sounds like a ghost sighing. This means I can run it constantly while I'm recording and it will never show up on my track. That's a huge deal. This is, of course, on the fan's lowest setting, but even there, it...

It moves a ton of air. This is also key. There's something about the design of the blades that means it doesn't have to spin very fast in order to circulate the air around you (which is how fans work). The Vornado 660 on its lowest setting cools me off more effectively than my old fan running at its highest (an loudest!) setting. This is surprising, since...

It's very, very small. The diameter of the unit is around 13". By comparison, it has roughly the same footprint as a banker's box. This means it will work in a variety of rooms, big and small.

If this sounds like a sales pitch, I assure you that I am not accepting money from the Vornado corporation. I just happen to think this fan was one of my best buying decisions in a long time. $99 is a lot of money for a fan, but amortized over hundreds of hours of recording and editing, it's more than paid for itself in terms of quality of life. The side perk is that I run my AC less, so my power bills wind up being lower too.

I realize it's absurd that I'm writing this in the dead of winter. Instead of admitting that this is poor timing, look at it this way: I'm giving you plenty of time to save up for this baby before the heat rolls in this summer.

Watch Out for Notes!

Click for an exclusive look inside Kole's apartment.

Click for an exclusive look inside Kole's apartment.

I've considered streaming the games I play for Watch Out for Fireballs!, but it would be unwatchable. Not strictly because I'm bad at games -- which I am -- but because I constantly stop to take notes... and that's bad television.

The banner image you see above is a photograph of the notes I took for our recent episode on Killer7. In total, I filled eight 7.5" x 10" pages in a leather-bound pretentious artist's notebook (gridded, obvs).

Writing things down is a habit I've nursed for a long time. Getting information out of my head calms me down. Turns out, this is incredibly useful when you're playing a 20 hour game, and then talking about it for 3 hours.

Watch Out for Fireballs! was always supposed to be a book club for games. Excepting the tweet that started this endeavor (my proposal that we do a 30 minute podcast about retro games), the show has stayed true to that initial pitch. We want to talk about the experience of playing these games, good or bad, and draw broader conclusions from the tiny details. For that to happen, the tiny details need to be captured.

I play each game with my notebook at my side. Whenever something happens that I want to remember, I write that down. This can be events in a cut scene, something weird about the play of a particular area, or a comparison or summary that pops to mind. This is also useful in adventure games for puzzle notes, and such.

I do all of my writing in BBEdit with Markdown.

I do all of my writing in BBEdit with Markdown.

This doesn't sound so spectacular, but these notes aren't the ones we directly refer to on the show. Prior to each recording, I transcribe my handwritten notes into a Markdown outline for reference on the show. The process of poring back over the notes, discarding the irrelevant ones, and putting everything into a structure that reflects the experience of play (in a way that's easy to talk about) helps me prepare to talk about the game in an extemporaneous way.

Wha? Yep. The notes work best when we don't have to use them at all. I write it down so I don't have to read it back. For as much time as we spend in the weeds, it might be surprising to find out that we spend very little time referring to these exhaustive bullet points.

The final outline is a great safety net, always open in front of us if we need a quick refresher on what happens when, or if we need to pull the ripcord and find a new topic. Exhaustive notes and conversational tone aren't mutually exclusive. In my experience, they support each other.

Other things make their way into the notes during this process. I do the research for the opening paragraphs of each episode during the note-taking time, looking for facts and relevant pieces of information. I also write up the plot summaries, where applicable, and collect/edit all of the responses for a particular episode.

Pre-production and preparation are important to our process and format, and it feels good to capture all of these thoughts and file them away in my journals and on the show. It's time consuming, but absolutely worth it when an episode goes well.