“Immersion” feels like a worn out word in the modern sphere of nerd culture. Video games belabor it as a tagline as often as they use “visceral” to describe combat or “realistic” to describe environments or “Dark Souls-like” to describe difficulty. We’re beset on all sides by virtual reality headsets claiming to be as immersive as real life, story-oriented video games touting their immersive open world experiences, and all manner of other advertising exploits of the word.
Immersion has a home with the RPG
But one place where immersion feels like it belongs is in the tabletop roleplaying game hobby. At its core, I think of the tabletop RPG experience as a contract between players and Game Master. Players agree to suspend their disbelief about the world and the way things should operate so that there is some level of verisimilitude that occurs. In return, the GM provides a compelling narrative and a world in which you can literally do anything (or at least attempt to – the dice always have something to say about these things).
In some ways, it’s best for us to think of the RPG hobby like this. We think about problems in the game world from a realistic perspective as if we were embedded in the setting, as opposed to metagaming – thinking about the problems based on what you know about the game as a real life thing. Too much of the dreaded metagaming can makes it wholly unfun for the GM and players alike and remove that immersion we often strive to obtain.
Notice I didn’t say to get rid of metagaming entirely; in some instances metagaming can be hilarious or add to the experience.
But there’s also a finer point here: the onus falls to the GM to create the atmosphere for immersion. The players suspend their disbelief in the hopes the GM will replace it with a believable setting. If the GM fails to do so, there’s something of a disconnect that occurs. Because we failed our side of the bargain.
Aid for the ailing Game Master
Luckily there are strategies and tools available for GMs who find it difficult to create the immersion RPG players may crave. Of course your group might not. And that’s okay! But one thing you can do if you find yourself unable to craft an enthralling table environment is to use audio.
We’re humans. We have an innate connection to sound and we have the unique ability to translate audio cues into images and scenes extracted from our imagination.
The sound of embers popping in a fire and wildlife conversing in the distance evokes a scene at a campfire in the wilderness. The sound of drinks being poured and laughter and conversation resonating amid a small band playing more or less in tune evokes a scene in a tavern. The sound of swords clanking, blows landing, wounds forming and cries of pain and triumph ascending to the heavens above evokes a scene of battle.
Music is also a useful tool for immersion in an RPG. We can say a lot with a few bars of music, be they sorrowful, angry, jovial, or otherwise. Recently, I used a piece of music to set a scene taking place hundreds of miles away from the players, unbeknownst to their characters. Without the music, it would have just been me telling them information that they wouldn’t know what to do with.
Their characters didn’t know this was happening, so why would they care? But with the music, the atmosphere shifted in intensity. Two of my players closed their eyes, picturing the scene taking place. The other two looked at me through the whole spiel, focused on what I was saying. It’s amazing what music, or other instances of sound at the table, can do.
Even in the earlier days of Dungeons & Dragons there was an attempt to incorporate audio aids into play. Ravenloft got an accompanying set of cassette tapes that had music and sound effects on them. There was a whole set of adventures in the Mystara setting that were explicitly marketed as “audio CD adventures.” They had encounter tracks, event tracks, background tracks, etc. All for use while the players were adventuring and progressing through the content.
Plate Mail Games, audio and you
About a month ago, Nerdarchy interviewed Wes Otis, founder of Plate Mail Games, on a live chat. Wes is a sound designer by trade and he’s produced some amazing material for use at the gaming table. Recently, Plate Mail Games did a Kickstarter for sound aids related to the Midgard campaign setting that’s soon to be released from Kobold Press. But they’ve tackled plenty of other games as well, like Numenara, Dungeon World, and many others.
I interviewed Wes regarding his opinions on auditory aids in games and it was a real pleasure to get his perspective.
What’s the appeal for using music or other audio in a tabletop RPG in your opinion? How does it enhance the overall experience?
“Ambient audio helps greatly to set mood. When a party reaches a location and the GM can then play a track of what that location sounds like, it puts the players deeper in the story. Being in a pub and hearing people talking, the fire crackling and glass clinking puts you there. Same thing with a deck of a starship, so no matter the genre, great audio can make the story better.”
What kinds of sources do you draw on for your own inspiration when you’re creating your products?
“There are many places I draw inspiration from. Sometimes I hear something while out and about, maybe a machine, birds, group of people talking or even just the wind will give me ideas for tracks. I’ve worked in post production here in LA for 19 years and so movies, TV and video games are great because I understand how those locations are created and draw from that to create new locations. But really the biggest inspiration is my own game because there are many times I’m running and think, ‘I need audio for this situation. How would this location sound?’ and that leads to me creating a lot of new tracks.”
What kinds of campaigns do you think most benefit from the use of music or other audio? i.e. more narratively focused ones, more action heavy ones, etc.
I think sound helps all games to be honest. When I started, I didn’t want to focus on one genre or type of game because I run so many different ones.There is audio out there for every story.
If you, yourself, run a home game (games) what do your players say in terms of feedback about your use of such tools? How does that inform your development of more products as you keep working?
“If there is something that takes them out of the scene, they will tell me. Maybe a bird is to shrill or loud, or something else sticks out that they noticed and I missed. I’ll go back and tweak the mix or take out that one sound effect. Most of the time though, I notice things they never do. I’m used to designing audio for major studio producers who will let you know fast if they hate something, so I understand what will fly and what won’t. I look for my players’ reaction as well. They may not say anything, but how they react to a track will spur me to change it. The goal with any gaming audio for me is to enhance the story, not to distract from it.”
Overall, Wes is doing amazing work and I encourage everyone who’s inclined to check out his creations and consider using them, or those of others, in your own games to create that extra layer of immersion. You can find more information on Plate Mail Game’s website.
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