Of all of our senses, hearing is the one that most actively engages our imagination. A growl coming from the bushes or the sound of a twig snapping behind you is sure to send your mind racing. Sound is integral to our experience of the world around us. It drifts in and out of our consciousness from one moment to the next, coloring our perception. As game masters, we can harness the subtle power of sound to increase the level of immersion in our world.
Sound is common in gaming. Many gamers play background music to get them in the mood. I’m going to go over some tips and techniques for bringing sound to the next level at the game table. Sound should complement your story, but not intrude on the gaming experience. If you are constantly being distracted by clicking buttons and adjusting knobs, you won’t be able to focus on running the game. I’ll show you how to put together some looping “soundscapes” that won’t take you out of the moment.
To begin, you will need a laptop and speakers. Make sure your laptop has a line/headphone out jack. Netbooks work great if you have one. I also recommend getting an inexpensive 2.1 speaker system. The oomph of the subwoofer adds visceral punch to your scene.
Once you have assembled a laptop and speakers, you’ll need a program to control your sound effects. There are several programs that have been designed specifically for use in tabletop gaming. They allow you to put together atmospheric sound loops and play them back with the click of a mouse or the press of a key. I’ve compiled and reviewed some of the best gaming sound programs in the table below. Browse through the list below and pick an application.
If you are short on time, I’ll make the selection easier for you. Do you like programing and spending time building sound loops from scratch? Go with RPG Sound Mixer. Do you prefer to have soundscapes preconfigured for you? Pick RPGAtmosphere. Are you broke? Then, grab Softrope or SceneSound.
You will also need a media player to manage your background music. Any media player that supports playlists will work, such as Windows Media Player, WinAmp or even iTunes.
The choice of music is very important. Soundtracks are your friends. Search for original soundtracks by Randy Edelman (Dragonheart, The Last of the Mohicans, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor) or Hans Zimmer (The Dark Knight, Batman Begins, Backdraft). However, there are drawbacks to using sound tracks from popular films. If your players are movie buffs, they may recognize the songs and ask you endless questions like, “Is this from Gladiator?” In my last game, I had to completely scrap my playlists because everyone knew all the songs. My secret weapon soundtrack now is the “Icewind Dale” video game soundtrack by Jeremy Soule. It’s been out of print for years, but you can pick up copies on ebay.
No discussion of game music would be complete without mentioning the “Dungeons & Dragons Official Roleplaying Soundtrack” by Midnight Syndicate. This album is a classic. I have to roll a d20 every time I hear Skirmish. The only downside is the music sounds computer generated. It just doesn’t have the emotional impact that orchestral pieces do.
Building Dynamic Soundscapes
Creating sound loops is different in every program. I’ve learned some tricks that are generally applicable across all sound programs. Here is the method I use to create dynamic soundscapes with spatial depth. When you are creating a new sound scene, start with two base sounds that loop cleanly. Never leave your stereo sounds perfectly balanced between the let and right channels. Adjust one of your base loops slightly to the left and one slightly to the right. This is an old sound engineer’s trick to add spatial depth to audio. Next, you want to layer a handful of random sounds on top of the loop. If you have already created some soundscapes, go back and try adjusting the left/right balance. I think you’ll be happy with the results.
Organzing Your Sounds
Sound is there to enhance the game – not get in the way of it. Don’t spend all your time fiddling with sounds during the game. Most of the sound mixer programs above allow you to create sound scenes and trigger them with a single key or mouse click. Take the time to configure your sounds before your game. After awhile, you’ll have built up a decent library of soundscapes that you can use over and over.
To make it easier to reuse sound loops, I recommend layering. Separate your sound scene into a foreground and background. For example, you have a fight scene in a tavern. Make two loops. A tavern sound loop and a fight sound loop. Next week when you are in a dungeon, you only have to create a dungeon sounds loop and layer the fight sound loop on top.
Tips & Tricks
• A common mistake GMs make is to turn up the speakers too loud. Try to balance out the volume of music and sound effects so they don’t drown out conversation at the table. Position your speakers behind you. It makes it easier to determine the proper volume. If your speakers are in front of you pointed at your players, you might accidentally have the volume too loud.
• I like to use different programs to playback music and sound effects during my game. This allows me to independantly adjust the volume to match the pace of the game.
• Observe how music is used in your favorite films. Music isn’t played in a continuous loop at a constant volume through the entire movie. Emulate that pacing in your game.
• Match music to the action. Trigger a playlist of fast songs for battle and dreamy, ephemeral music during exploration. For example, my players were travelling by wagon on a country road. I turned down the music all the way and left the sound of the wagon wheels turning and birds chirping. When the PCs are ambushed by tribal goblins, I kicked off a battle sound effect loop and a fight playlist and turn up the volume to both. When the battle is over turn the music down again. Give your players time to relax before the next pulse-pounding scene.