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Music and Sound in RPGs
by John Stephens

In Episode 123 there was a discussion about music in games. It struck a chord (pardon the dreadful pun, but I am a gamer and quite unable to resist the temptation) with me because our gaming group loves music during play and even sound effects in a few cases.

In order to make this work, you have to get past the idea that slapping your favorite CD in the player and letting it run will produce the desired effect. It won’t and it will become a distraction in my experience. While the first track you play may represent the mood of the scene, after a few minutes, you’ll be on to the next which may not be a good fit at all.

At this point, it might seem that looping the proper track is the answer. It’s not. I’ve tried it, and the players love to begin making déjà-vu jokes as soon as the music repeats. Everyone at the table then begins to listen intently to the music waiting for it to start over. The soundtrack is now at the forefront of everyone’s attention when it should be in the background.

The way to make this work is with the computer or mp3 player. With the advent of these devices music and sound in games becomes plausible. I use my laptop to organize my music collection for play. I love movie soundtracks and have collected quite a few over the years. I almost exclusively use film scores in my games. I’ve found that anything with lyrics in generally not well suited for playing at the table.

I organize my music into playlists based on types of role-playing scenes. Some of the common ones I use are, “Battle”, “Intrigue”, “Travel”, “Mystery”, and “Chase”. I try to put together enough music in a playlist to last about 15 minutes. When I have a chase scene, I fire up the “Chase” playlist. I do set it to repeat in case we go over 15 minutes, but it seems to be long enough that the loop isn’t noticed nearly as much.

I try not to mix genres, so for fantasy games, I might use soundtracks like Lord of the Rings, The 13th Warrior, or Dragonslayer. In my recurring Legend of the Five Rings games I’ll use Memoirs of a Geisha, The Last Samurai, or several traditional Japanese music CDs.

I also use sound effects, especially in horror games like Call of Cthulhu. I don’t use specific sounds like individual gunshots or screams, I try to use ambient sounds. In order to do this effectively, you’ll need an audio editing program like Audacity. For instance, one of my Call of Cthulhu games, set in the 1920’s, had some travelling in it. I downloaded a sound clip of a Model T and looped it using Audacity. When the players hopped in their car, I played the loop quietly in the background as they discussed their current investigation. I did the same thing with a ship that they sailed on. I found a clip of a large ship’s engine. Played quietly in the background, it really set the mood.

With a program like Audacity, you can mix tracks together as well. For fantasy games, I mixed together the sounds of crickets, owls, and a crackling fire, to be played during camping scenes. I also mixed together the sounds of a bar crowd and medieval music for scenes in an inn. This idea can be expanded into many possibilities.

To wrap this up, here are the points to remember when using music and sound in your games…

  • Don’t just put in a CD and let it run.

  • Don’t play a CD track and hit repeat.

  • Use your laptop or mp3 player

  • Organize your music into “scene-based” playlists

  • Sound effects should be ambient, not “specific-instance” sounds

  • Mix tracks to get a multi-layered effect

  • Play music and sounds quietly.

Give this a try. Start out small with a couple of “scene-based” playlist and build on it if it works for you. It’s made a big difference in our group.

Comments (6)

AkiDecember 8th, 2008 at 7:43 am

My humble additions:

Use instrumental music or music with nonsense or heavily distorted lyrics. Someone singing along to a song won’t make the scene any better (unless it’s really, really creepy).

Don’t use anything the players can get into easily. Too poppy music or something they recognize will destroy immersion.

Don’t use too much time with the playlist. Changing a song suddenly will not work.

A tip: At times I have worked out a playlist beforehand to give the players a sort of countdown to something. For example, recently the players were trying to fortify a really small monastery while they knew the bad guys were going to be along shortly. So, I set up the playlist in such a way that I gave them about 45 minutes of music where the tension was rising (bands like F*** Buttons worked marvelously). There was a point when they first saw some scouts and when the playlist finally hit the correct song, the attack begun. Of course, you can’t use this too often, but it was a nice change of pace and I could see that the players were getting more agitated as their time was running out, even though they didn’t really know when it was going to happen. On the other hand, this is of course quite unrealistic, as the players themselves are not ripping out sheds to use the wood for reinforcing the gate and making hazards outside of the monastery, but who cares about realism when you are having fun.

Some bands for fantasy games: Mediaeval Baebes, Dead Can Dance, Miranda Sex Garden, St. George’s Canzona

Also Conan the Barbarian Soundtrack is awesome.

DonnovanDecember 8th, 2008 at 12:13 pm

Excellent recommendations, thanks.

I found a program designed specifically for GMs to run soundtracks and the occasional sound effect during RPG sessions.

RPG Deck was made for Call of Cthulhu GMs, but it’s not restricted to any specific genre. It will allow background music sets to be created as well as sound effects when appropriate with a single click.

http://www.yog-sothoth.com/modules.php?name=Downloads&d_op=viewdownloaddetails&lid=509&ttitle=RPG_Deck_Audio_Player

RDecember 8th, 2008 at 4:22 pm

Some music is extremely effective at getting the players in a certain mood. I had my players go through a desolate forest while Ulver’s Svidd Neger was playing and it wasn’t long before all of them looked like they had never known happiness.

One of my favorite thing to do when running a game set in modern times was to play with sound settings while the players where in different locations. When they were inside a nightclub, I would turn the music loud enough that they would have to raise their voice to be heard, and often they would decide to take characters outside if they wanted to talk to them. When they were outside the nightclub, I would switch to a setting that made the music sound really muffled. It was a simple trick, but for some players just the fact that it wasn’t just a continuous soundtrack that followed them everywhere helped a lot with immersion.

GrungydanDecember 8th, 2008 at 4:28 pm

Good article. The content since the addition of the front page blogs has been impressive so far. Keep it up guys.

hanselDecember 8th, 2008 at 11:44 pm

Wow. Sounds like you put a lot of work into that, but it pays off. Very cool.

MarcOctober 3rd, 2013 at 12:39 am

Checkout Ambient Realms.

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