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.