Make Your RPG Epic with the Power of Sound and Music
A scream shatters the midnight quiet. The distant peel of thunder forebodes a coming rainstorm, welcome among the red rocks of the desert. Cloth rustles against leather, metal occasional clinking as the merchant shuffles through her pack. These present scenarios, each evocative and distinct from the next. Whether it’s Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder or any other tabletop roleplaying game each session is just as much improv theater of the mind as it is a codified game. Fans of live plays like those found on Critical Role, Nerdarchy Live and any number of other streams know the value of evocative descriptions and setting the scene. And when it comes to immersing players few senses are as captivating as the sense of sound.
Music to your RPG ears
As a caveat we understand many deaf and hard of hearing people also enjoy RPGs and I can confirm I have experience with Deaf communities around the United States. We intend to address issues surrounding those communities in a future post, talking about visual aids in your RPGs. For now we understand there are varying degrees of application when it comes to this post.
Much like an author of a book every Game Master has to set their scene through descriptions. However, unlike a book — a verbal medium restricted to words — RPGs possess myriad additional resources for evoking an image in the players’ and audience’s minds. Not the least of these come in the form of auditory aids.
Please don’t stop the music!
First, and likely most obviously, let’s discuss music. Music is used in television, movies and video games to convey a specific mood or tone. Music can clue us into whether we should feel anxious or silly, defeated or victorious. Even if events surrounding a scene feel sad an optimistic tune and some somber introspection can really shift the mood.
Many GMs cultivate special playlists for their campaigns, with some even going so far as to find themes for each character. Little details of attention like this can speak volumes to your players and really make them feel special.
Playing a specific song when a certain spell is cast or a certain character critically hits can swell the thrill of the moment. A few years ago I played in a Storm King’s Thunder campaign and we had a dwarf sorcerer whose player pulled up Fireball by Pitbull every time she cast the spell by the same name. It thrilled the table when she cast it and everyone would dance as she made a show of shaking her two hands full of d6’s in rhythm to the song. It was absolutely cinematic and because we only did it with that one spell since it was her signature everyone had a good time even if the target succeeded their saving throw.
Syrinscape, Spotify and YouTube are all excellent resources for music though if you’re streaming you’ll need to make sure you have the rights to use whatever you play. If you’re especially gifted you might try your hand at writing music for each player’s character. Programs like MuseScore are completely free and will synthesize anything you can notate.
Call the ambiance!Ambient sound effects like those of a rowdy tavern, a murky bog or a creaking ship on the high seas can all set a mood, sometimes even more effectively than music. By pairing the two you get a truly special experience.
There’s nothing like a long riff of pouring rain and hooves clacking on cobblestone to put me in the mood for a steampunk campaign. When writing novels or adventures I frequently pull up hourslong riffs of ambiance to really set me in the moment and the mood. Coupled with some mood matching music there are few things that inspire me more pointedly.
Many virtual tabletops allow integration of ambiance and other soundtracks. In our current renaissance of cyber roleplaying these are an absolute godsend and can really take your game to the next level. While much more difficult to incorporate while streaming a live game to the interwebs I firmly believe doing this is a key component of why Critical Role succeeds so much at what they do. Ambient riffs can be incredibly effective at immersing your players in a scene.
Penny words vs. five dollar words
I’m not sure if this is a thing with my late grandfather but he often used the phrase “penny word” to refer to a word that was simple, easy to come by or generally unimpressive. However, with my extensive vocabulary as a young child he would comment on my “five dollar words.”
A key to effectively using sound to your advantage has nothing to do with actually having access to the sound itself. Sometimes describing a sound and leaving it up to the players’ imaginations is more powerful than actually playing a sound effect.
When describing sounds, breaking up your cadence and restructuring your sentences are key. A short, shocking sound should be described abruptly and with fewer syllables while a broader pan out scene would warrant more flowery and lengthy description. Break out your five dollar words here even for the short sounds. They do wonders in setting the mood!
Sound of silence
Sometimes silence is a powerful tone shifter. I remember watching a video from XP to Level 3, where Jacob talked about playing a riff of white noise on loop, starting out softly and slowly amping up the volume during a Curse of Strahd game. He mentioned he would occasionally turn off the noise altogether when he wanted the players to feel like something was off or if he wanted to freak them out. This is because the white noise was unnoticed then filtered by the players’ brains and the sudden lack of what the brain no longer had to filter left a deep, abiding sense something was missing and wasn’t quite right.
Key moments of silence can evoke feelings of dread as mentioned or they can evoke sorrow or relief, all depending on context. Silence is, in itself, a potent sound tool at every GM’s disposal.
Make that s*** accessible!
One of the best aspects of using these tips in your games is the contribution it makes to your players but it goes beyond mere entertainment. Some people’s brains actually process sound more potently than others or rely on it heavier than others.
In my own games I often play with my housemate who is legally blind. Sounds help him process events and really invest him in a game where minis and terrain just don’t do it for him. By keeping my players’ specific real world limitations in mind I’m able to make my game that much more accessible and enjoyable.
What do you think?
How do you use sound and music in your RPG experiences? Do you prefer a specific method for conveying sounds in your games? Tell us about it in the comments!