Music can provide an iconic trigger that instantly transports the listener into an associated memory.
Soundtracks and scores for Film and TV have long recognized this effect and played on it. You might not know it, but every major character in a movie or TV show has their own “theme”, a handful of notes, usually at most a bar or two, that is played whenever they first appear after being off-screen for any length of time. Sometimes there will also be a group or ensemble theme.
Although not consciously aware of this slight change in the background music being played under the scene and sound effects, it aids recognition of the characters and – through the occasional variation – can nuance the emotional perception we have of the characters. The theme for the shark in Jaws is the instantly-recognizable “Da-Dum”. The orchestra only has to play it once and you immediately know that the shark (nicknamed “Bruce” during production) is out there somewhere.
On a larger scale, theme music can provide a deeper association. Star Wars is held together by two instantly-recognizable themes – the Star Wars Main Title Theme and the Imperial Theme.
A number of DVD-extras over the years have made the power of the soundtrack clear to audiences. It only makes sense that GMs would like to tap into that power for their campaigns. And that’s where today’s Ask-the-GMs question comes in.
This is the fifth of these Ask-The-GMs that I’m tackling without recourse to my usual allies and fellow-GMs. I asked, but none of them have any experience with incorporating music or sound effects in their campaigns – though their comments as to why that was the case will find a venue within this article.
“How do [you] incorporate music [into] your campaign?
I have been very interested in this idea for quite some time now, I have thought about using different styles and songs to convey ideas, feelings and moods.
Everyone in my DnD group (including me) is either a musician or a music fanatic (no joke, we once had a conversation entirely about what [each] different race’s music would sound like).
Would it be a little too much to put musical puzzles in the game for them to figure out?
I need your help, you did a great job with a previous question about art and I have incorporated that into my own campaign.” (edited for clarity)
(For the record, I don’t recall there ever being an Ask-The-GMs question about art, though it has been mentioned and discussed in a number of articles here over the years. If I knew which article he was referring to, I’d have linked to it.)
It first has to said that MC’s group is relatively unusual in its makeup, and what might work for them might not work for everyone. So I’ll be looking at the question both in general and as it might apply to his group specifically.
It also seems reasonably irrelevant that his group is/was playing D&D. While the content might change with genre, the basic parameters of the question would be reasonably unchanged in a Pulp campaign, a sci-fi campaign, superheroes, or a western campaign. That said, picking the wrong musical genre to accompany your game genre could have interestingly comedic or monumentally cataclysmic impacts on the mood at the table. I don’t care if it’s a chase scene, punching up the Benny Hill theme just kills all gravitas, turning the music into the delivery vehicle for a quick joke, and belittling the significance of what the PCs are doing (regardless of whether they are the chasers or the chased).
There’s a lot to cover in this subject, so let’s tune up, and tune in…
Credentials, and the lack thereof
Let me start by saying that I have never used music directly in my campaigns. I have composed music for them, and inspired by them; and I have attempted (in a very limited way) to incorporate a sound effect or two into my campaign. I’ll tell those stories if there’s time and when they become relevant.
That’s not to say that I haven’t thought about it, even before the question was asked to prompt deeper reflection; I have. I have simply concluded that the technology that was available to me, in combination with the environment, made it inviable.
So I have limited practical experience upon which to base my response. This reply will necessarily draw on all of it, but will, of necessity, mostly be written from first principles and theory. And there is almost always a vast chasm-like gulf between theory and reality. So your mileage might vary, and take everything below with a grain of salt.
When you’re talking about music in a game, you need to first think about the hardware and software that will be used to play and control the music.
Hardware & Software
In olden times, when I first considered the problem, the only solution was to pump the music through a sound system of some kind. Unless your gaming space is already wired for sound, that meant that it would be coming from a different room – hardly a high-fidelity solution. The alternative was to record the soundtrack to cassette and play it through a ghettoblaster. That hardly permitted any sort of control over what was being played, when.
The advent of the CD made it possible to program in a set track list, and at the end of each section (if you were quick enough), you might be able to hit pause, or repeat, until you were ready for the next programmed item. Assuming that you had some powered portable speakers, which were fairly uncommon at the time. But you would end up spending half your time paying attention to what the player was doing, and waiting for your next cue to fiddle with the controls. I’ve done multiple things at once, and that’s fine so long as you only have to pay close attention to one of them at a time – this isn’t that situation. I find it inconceivable that your GMing wouldn’t suffer, and I am completely convinced that at least once in most game sessions, you would get distracted by the gameplay and fail to manipulate the controls properly, causing something entirely inappropriate to be heard.
Then came the desktop computer. Hardly portable, but the capability of running software that did exactly what you wanted it do do – even if you had to write it yourself – at least started to solve the control issue, While I never found Cd-player software that automatically paused the playback at the end of a track, lots of them let you set a track to infinite repeat. But unless you were actually using your PC to GM from – not something that I have ever done – it took away a lot of table space and imposed an even more formidable barrier between you and the players, one that could easily muffle what you were saying. So we’re still not at the point of having a viable solution.
But PCs got better. And the MP3 format came along, enabling a playlist of infinite capacity. And remote, powered, speakers of – well, let’s be charitable – at least medium fidelity came along at an affordable price. It didn’t solve the control issues, but it did away with the capacity and reproduction problems once and for all – or did they? I’ll come back to that in a minute.
Because that was followed by the laptop, and the MP3 player, and the tools were suddenly portable. It was suddenly viable to replace the big, bulky desktop PC with a portable solution in place of the GM screen. You could even run your entire adventure from notes on the laptop itself. And word processors got better – you could now embed links to music files in the adventure itself, to be manually triggered when the time was right. And some player-software came along that auto-closed at the end of playing a selection, or that auto-faded or cross-faded when you were moving from one piece of music to another, and the whole thing started to look extremely viable.
On my Windows-98 PC I had a wonderful piece of software called ACDSee. Designed for image display and the bulk handling of images, it could show a slide-show, or freeze on a single image, advancing to the next with a click. And – in the case of some music files – it would play them as soon as you clicked on them. You could set it to show or hide non-image files in a folder. Of course, as soon as you clicked on an image, the music would stop. But it has the virtue of responding instantaneously. Or you could double-click and it would launch in whatever the defined application was for that type of file, but that might take a second or two to load – if it weren’t already running in the background. I immediately contemplated adding sound effects to my game – a combat sequence that would play until I told it to stop. And soundtracks. And editing the two to blend them into a single file. And then I found that I could have two instances of ACDSee running at the same time, so I could use one for images and one for sound and they wouldn’t get in each other’s way.
If I had a laptop at that point in time, it probably would have happened. Since I didn’t, I shelved the notion.
Control – without the need to pay constant attention to it – is absolutely essential to any serious attempt to infuse your campaign with music, or sounds of any sort. You want things to play the instant you tell them to play, for as long as you want them to play, and then be quiet – until the next time. And you want the hardware required to be unobtrusive – or there anyway.
I’ve run adventures on one laptop, splitting the screen to show images on one side and the adventure on the other. It works, but it’s not ideal – you can’t look at your notes while showing the players an image. On the other hand, you have the convenience of a single device.
For the Adventurer’s Club campaign, we use two PCs – one to show the images, and the other to show the adventure. Because there are two of us co-GMing, having a second laptop at the table isn’t a huge issue. It’s inconvenient, but it works far better. I’ve tried doing it for the Zenith-3 campaign, of which I am the sole GM, and found that I was using up too much table space (and I have a BIG table, designed to seat up to 14 people in a dining situation). Five players and one GM should fit, no problem. With two laptops, we didn’t. Of course, I could always forgo the adventure notes – but that never seems to work out well for me. Others, with a different GMing style, might be able to manage just fine.
Operating System and Responsiveness
I recently acquired a new laptop – about 6 months ago – because my primary machine has been dying by degrees for a long time now, This meant getting used to Windows 8.
I absolutely hate it in a lot of ways. It’s slow, it makes me hunt around for the things that I want it to do. It won’t run the software that I had accumulated for earlier versions of Windows. It won’t recognize my USB modem, insisting on using the built-in wireless modem. It decides for itself what I want it to do, and leaves me with the feeling that it’s in control more often than I am. I use it, because it works when it gets moved, and because it has a nice display, but once I can get it connected to the internet, there is a LOT of “help” that I want to rip out of it. Right now, so long as I’m not switching from window to window, or trying to write something, it’s workable, but annoying.
Nevertheless, I use it as one of the two for the Adventurer’s Club, and to run my other campaigns, including the “Lovecraft’s Legacies” Dr Who campaign.
There came a time in that campaign where the Doctor (the sole PC) was to encounter the Daleks, and for dramatic purposes, and because I could, I wanted him to hear their famous “Ext-er-min-ate” before he saw them. After a bit of a web-search, I found a wav file that was good enough for the purpose. At the proper moment, I double-clicked the sound file to play it – after spending 30 seconds trying to get Windows 8 to display the folder. And waited. And waited. And waited. And then, with all the dramatic tension irretrievably lost, it played. Biggest anticlimax in ten years or more of GMing.
Responsiveness is everything (except control and portability) when it comes to incorporating sound into your RPG. This was as responsive as a concrete wall. It didn’t ruin the adventure, but it ruined what was supposed to be the climax of that part of the adventure – the introduction, intended to set the tone for everything that followed.
I don’t care what your preferences are for an operating system. I don’t care how much you like your operating system to assist you. Those are personal choices that are irrelevant to the problem at hand. At the end of the day, for music to work as an assist to your game, you need to have instant and immediate control over it. Zero delay in launching the app. Zero delay in getting to the controls. One second of delay is too long. If you don’t have that level of responsiveness, control and portability of hardware don’t matter; it’s not going to work.
The final consideration in terms of the mechanics of incorporating sounds into your campaign is one that’s also been touched on a time or two in the preceding discussion: the distraction factor. You don’t want the music to distract your players from what you are saying, and you don’t want to be distracted by sound management issues.
But, let’s assume – for the moment – that these are all problems that have solutions – there is some software that claims to do so, and that sounds quite promising, which I’ll look at later in the article, and move on to looking at technique.
The simple soundtrack
The very simplest approach to incorporating music into a campaign is to cue up some appropriate playlist and just let it play in the background. If nothing else, this should establish and help maintain an appropriate mood and tone.
If the game is Star Wars, cue up the soundtracks to the different movies and go! If D&D, maybe the Lord Of The Rings soundtrack should be your choice. I’ll get into content, in general terms, a little later.
Why it doesn’t work
In terms of setting the mood, this works perfectly. You can’t hear the theme from Indiana Jones without getting into the swashbuckling mood. You can’t hear the theme from Star wars without being mentally conditioned to a universe that’s a long time ago and far far away. The music triggers an association in the listener’s mind and that association does all the work.
From that point on, though, the whole thing collapses in a heap. You’re trying to barter for parts when the Imperial Death March blasts out. You’re in the middle of combat when a love theme begins to serenade the table. A goblin enters the room as the Ents begin to march. The music, as sequenced in the soundtrack, simply doesn’t match what’s happening in the game. Rather than sustaining the immersion, it gets in the way.
That’s why you need absolute control over what starts playing, and when.
When we used to have Fumanor game sessions at Steven Tunnicliff’s place, he would have the radio playing because the family pets were so accustomed to something being on – radio, TV, movies – that they would howl the place down otherwise. There were times when whatever was playing was wildly inappropriate and distracting; there were rare occasions when it bolstered and reinforced the tone at the table; but, for the most part, we simply tuned it out.
That’s fine when it’s essentially background noise – but when you have a carefully crafted and chosen soundtrack, and you have solved the control problems, tuning out defeats the purpose.
For that reason, movies and TV shows control the musical background very carefully, using it for emphasis where useful and submerging it when its’ not. But they have the luxury of going over each screen minute over and over again until they get it right. You don’t have that luxury.
For me, there is an episode of The West Wing that is very informative on the subject: Season 7, Episode 7 (“The Debate”), which was performed live-to-air. The entire ambience of the show is affected, purely because the use of music is limited and was not tweaked in this way (it’s also evident in other ways that this was performed ‘live’ as the actors stumble from time to time, and were given some license to ad-lib lines, which occasionally trips one or the other up – something that adds the veracity of the “live debate” experience). But, just as musical background would be inappropriate during a real (unscripted) Presidential debate, so it would be inappropriate here – but its absence is definitely noticed, even though in most TV episodes, aside from the opening and closing themes, you are hardly aware of the music.
All-in-all, the “Simple” solution leaves so much to be desired that it’s counterproductive.
The Limited-Immersion Solution
But the first bit worked, so why not take that principle and run with it? At the start of each game session, cue up the main title theme of your chosen soundtrack, and after each break in play, play that or some other selection from the same soundtrack? Just to set, or re-establish, the mood?
I see no reasons why this can’t work perfectly well, and it avoids almost all the problems that have been described in the course of this article so far. Control: there’s nothing to control. You start the music, you fade the music, and then you start/restart gameplay. You have time for the hardware and operating system to be balky. All you have to do is remember to turn the volume back up. It poses no distraction to the GM, because it requires minimal concentration.
If you really study the content of a DVD, you will find that most of them use music in exactly the same way – at the start of a Chapter, they will emphasize the music while any establishing shots are presented and then get into the dialogue as the music recedes into the background. Try it – get out a movie that is known for having a strong soundtrack, and that you know well, and use the “next chapter” button on your remote. That’s why commercial TV versions, which often stick ad breaks in the middle of chapters, can sometimes be so jarring – we are used to the ad breaks occurring between chapters, so that the soundtrack reestablishes the mood after the disruption.
The By-Proxy Solution
I have also found that playing appropriate music in the background while doing game prep and writing an adventure helps imbue the adventure with the pacing and “feel” of the source material. It’s an indirect, by-proxy technique for imbuing your adventure with music, but it works. It also has the advantage of giving you a far broader musical palette to choose from. Personally, I find that up-tempo rockers help in combat scenes, that mid-tempo and softer music works for dialogue, and that more progressive and varied music works best for sections of player-GM interaction. I also use something very classical to set the initial tone for fantasy, something that’s a bit more jazz or with lots of horns for pulp, something more techno for sci-fi, and something that builds dramatically for superheroes. But my tastes are eclectic and a lot of people will find different solutions.
I have noticed that adventures tend to be quite different in tone if I vary these choices. That’s how I discovered “The Proxy Solution” in the first place. So play around with your audio environment while writing and see what happens for you.
More complex solutions
If you want to move beyond these simple, relatively brute-force solutions, you will need all those things that were discussed earlier – control, responsiveness, and portability. The exact software tools that you use will need to be chosen carefully, and probably only after a fair amount of trial and error. It will always help to set up a shopping list of the things that you want to be able to do with the music that you are playing. Things like programmable pauses in playlists, auto-fade when stopping play, minimal screen real estate, simple and responsive controls, dynamic compression (I’ll talk about that and why it’s desirable a little later), automatic gain adjustment (ditto), and so on.
In terms of technique specifics, it will depend so much on what your chosen software can do that it’s impossible for me to offer much guidance. For the most part, you will need to put the cart before the horse – discover what your software can do and then work out how to use that to your benefit in the gaming context, rather than planning what you want to do and then working out how to do it. Remember, though, that a key requirement will be to have as little need to supervise what the software is doing as possible.
Choices Of Content
Having taken the question of technique as far as I can, let’s move on to some general guidelines in terms of content.
Vocals add a whole new layer of depth to the musical experience because words can contain context, narrative, and information content beyond that of the music. Vocals increase the odds of a clash between one or more of those elements of the music and your intended purposes.
On top of that, vocals add another voice at the table, one that constantly interrupts and ‘speaks’ over the top of the players and yourself. Having gamed in a crowded room in the past, I can tell you that the worst sort of ambient noise is the human voice; at quite moderate volume levels, it can make it almost impossible to make out what someone else is saying, even if the noise-maker is much farther away. I’ll have more to say on this front a little later.
Unless you know exactly what you are doing, I strongly suggest keeping any music that contains discernible vocals off your in-game playlist (something like Pink Floyd’s The Great Gig In The Sky would be absolutely fine. And so would Annie Lennox’s vocals on the Two Towers soundtrack – I can’t make out what she’s actually singing most of the time in that song, the vocals are too quiet and submerged; the song seems to be more about the ‘feel’ of the music than the lyrical content. In fact, it was thinking of those two examples that led me to be so careful in specifying “discernible” vocals).
That leaves instrumentals, and with all of classical music and a reasonable selection of modern stuff available, that should still leave plenty of choice. but it’s not all good news.
Even when vocals are present, two people can listen to a piece of music and get something completely different out of it. “Every Breath You Take” is revered by many as a love song – it keeps getting played at weddings and anniversaries – but it’s actually about stalking. Take vocals out, and the ambiguity of a piece of music shoots way up. One of the things that I learned early on as a composer was that a song title profoundly influenced the perception of what a piece of music was about; on one notable piece, I went through over a dozen titles before being satisfied that my choice combined with the music to choose the subject matter that I wanted it to address (While I also wrote lyrics, my music was all instrumental in nature). (I don’t have my notes on such matters to hand, so I can’t give you the exact name at the moment, not that it’s relevant).
What one person hears as “wistful”, another hears as “mournful” and a third simply as “sad” – they are all reading different things into the music. These terms are all related, but the whole point of going further than the simple methods suggested earlier is to be able to finely nuance the feeling of the game situation. Without context to make it clear that is delivered in advance of the music, players will read something else into it, and then have to overcome that presupposition of meaning to get back onto the “same page” as the GM.
This is an example of how delicate you would have to be in infusing music into a campaign.
Not all available instrumental music will be suitable. A lot of music has quiet passages and loud passages, especially classical music. The same is true of some modern music, especially in the age of FM radio, CDs, and MP3s. When music had to be recorded to LP, and was mixed to be heard over static on AM radio, there was a lot less scope for such dynamism in composition; music was more nearly constant in volume.
That doesn’t work very well in a gaming environment. Either you have the volume turned up so that the quiet passages can be heard clearly (and the loud passages are too loud) or the loud passages are at a comfortable “background” level and the Quiet sections will be lost beneath the table chatter and ambient noise.
Or you use software to make the quiet sections louder and the loud sections softer, compressing the dynamic range of the music. This used to be done as a means of noise suppression – still is, for some applications – but rather than compromising your original files, I would prefer software that did it ‘on the fly’. Of course, there are limits to how far you can go without it becoming completely obvious and ridiculous, ruining the music – but some compression can be a godsend.
The other dynamic consideration to contemplate is gain adjustment.
No two pieces of music from different albums is recorded to exactly the same volume level. This is especially noticeable when it comes to vocals, but it happens all the time. What you want, ideally, is for everything to be at the same perceived maximum volume because that produces a playlist that can be listened to comfortably without continual volume adjustments.
I used to use software called MP3Gain to handle the problem. You could turn it loose on a pack of songs from the same album and it would measure their overall peak volume to set a benchmark; then use that benchmark on another album or group of songs to tweak their volumes to match. You could make manual adjustments of how much increase or reduction to perform (so that a quiet album of acoustic songs wasn’t made unnaturally loud). Or you could set your own benchmark and adjust a whole range of songs relative to that peak volume, or use a single song as your benchmark. It took time to master, but it amply repaid that effort – just make a copy of your files before you play around with them, some changes can’t be undone! You can always delete the copies when you are satisfied.
But if you want to be able to simply listen to your music most of the time, you don’t want to make permanent alterations to the files just to make them compatible with an application to gaming, and keeping two copies around – one modified and one not – is wasteful and potentially confusing. Once again, the better choice is to have your playback software make the necessary changes, in an intelligent fashion, on the fly. Some players used to do it, I’m sure that some still do.
That’s why I put both these tricks on the shopping list of software requirements that I listed earlier. Yes, you could probably live without them – but they can make life so much easier that you definitely want them if you can find them.
Of course, the ultimate solution is to compose and record your own music, building up a library of unique performances and compositions that perfectly suit your campaign. If you are fast enough, and sufficiently skilled enough, this might be a practical solution. My own experience suggests that few would be capable of it, but I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade – if you think you’re up for it, I wish you the very best of luck!
I was considered a fast composer – I could, when on creative fire, create three or four pieces of music in a single evening. Most pieces took a week of little bits of spare time here and there. Quite often I would load an incomplete piece, spend five or ten minutes noodling around with it, improving it or adding another two-to-four bars, then save it and move on to the next incomplete piece. But it would be a very good week in which I achieved more than, say, eight minutes of completed music. And that’s not enough to be a soundtrack to an RPG.
Again, of course, there is a compromise: create a single original theme for your campaign, and use it as described earlier, then use existing music by others for the rest of your soundtrack. But unless you intend to do it full-time, no other solution is practical.
Ambient / Sound Effects
The elephant in the room is this: Why go for a complete soundtrack when you can achieve most of what you want with an ambient-sound environment? There are a number of these out there for different gaming environments. Why not set the mood with some music and then go for something that’s reflective of the environment around the characters?
Some software will let you “live mix” specific audio effect files with another piece of background content – so you could have a “cave” ambient noise and add a waterfall, and the sounds of Orcs – or whatever you need.
Audio editing software can be used to play all sorts of tricks with these (you should work on copies). Take a Metallica guitar solo, slow it down 1000% and boost the pitch and add some phasing a truckload of echo and hey, presto! You have something that could be ambient sounds within the Negative Energy Plane. Though, given the group’s aggressively litigious history, maybe you should choose someone else, instead. Or maybe a long, drawn-out cello note that fades in and out is how you envisage the Negative Energy Plane. There are lots of free sample files out there that you can play with.
Only one topic remains to be addressed, then, in answering the primary question of today’s article. It’s two-fold: picking the right volume, and the environmental considerations.
The correct volume for any activity is hard to judge, as was intimated under the discussion of Dynamic Considerations. You don’t want the music to be so loud that it interferes with game play, and you don’t want it so quiet that it can’t be heard. Once again, most of this problem goes away if you employ the Limited-Immersion Solution, where you only play the music at “full volume” for a few seconds and then turn it down or otherwise fade it out. The more sound that you add to your game, the more complicated this question becomes.
As a general rule of thumb, for anything more complex, I would set the music to a comfortable listening volume (given the ambient noise), a level at which you can still comfortably hold a conversation without shouting – and then drop the volume by 10dB, maybe more.
The environment in which you play has a big impact on the viability of music, regardless of other considerations. When gaming at home, one of the busiest roads in the city is right outside my front window; we’re just far enough removed from it that it becomes background noise that can be tuned out. So music might be a viable option, but the “noise floor” that results would demand that the volume be turned up – and perhaps, turned up more than is compatible with communication. My working area, where I watch TV and write, is as far removed from that noise source as I can get – and there are still times when I can’t hear my TV for the noise. That’s one reason why I tend to time-shift as much as I can of what I want to watch – it not only avoids missing programs because I get caught up in the creative process, it gives me the option to skip back a few seconds and turn up the volume, if necessary, so that I don’t miss anything.
The other place where I GM is at a games store, which is often crowded with fifty or more CCG players and a couple of board-gamers and two or more groups of roleplayers. There are times when you can hardly hear what someone just across the table has said, and that’s before any ambient music / noise is introduced. Add to that the potential for disturbing those players with your chosen cacophony, and of persuading them to speak up so that they can be heard over your soundtrack, and the recipe is right for a volume “arms race” with no winners, only losers.
If you play in a quiet suburb, or in a basement, or somewhere like that, music can be a viable choice. Anywhere else, and you have to seriously question whether or not it’s worth the headaches.
There are lots of solutions and sources out there to consider. I haven’t used any of these, so no promises. Listed in no particular order:
- RPG-Soundmixer 1.6 – “A [shareware] tool specifically designed to create music and effect backgrounds for ‘Pen&Paper’ RPG sessions.” It was suggested on the Hero Games forum in 2011 that development had ceased, but the page was updated in late July 2016. The demo version reportedly won’t let you save, the full version costs $19.
- Softrope RPG Soundscape Mixer – “Softrope brings customizable organic soundscapes like rainstorms, battles and creepy dungeons as well as spot effects such as growls, screams and explosions to your tabletop RPG. Music tracks can also be added to any scene. Softrope allows you to build a collection of sound-based scenes. You build each scene with simple single sound-effects, layered up to create a more complex soundscape.” It’s still shown as being in Beta-test, but it has also been around since 2011, and one of the “donate” buttons on the website looks broken so it may have ceased development; however, it seems to have worked very well for the user discussing the subject on the Hero Games Forum. It’s important to read the user manual for this one.
- FMOD Studio – Possibly too much software for most people’s needs, it is described in a post on Stackexchange as “a middleware tool designed for developing and mixing audio in electronic games” that can “easily be used to control audio for tabletop RPGs, as well.” “It can design, mix, and control game audio on-the-fly, and (more importantly) … allows you to audition what you create, so you can effectively use the tool as a sort of complicated DJ-ing interface. Plus, it can be downloaded and used free of charge, provided you don’t make any profit as a result.” This sounds ideal for creating mixes in advance for accessing through a simpler interface – I don’t like the sound of DJing “On The Fly” with a “complicated interface” while trying to run a game. Possibly of greater interest, FMOD also offer “over 100,000 high-quality sounds, ready to go” – and you get 50 of them free for signing up with them.
- Syrinscape – “A cross-platform software package for GMs who want to add believable, immersive sound to their games. The app is available for Windows, Mac OS X, iOS, and Android, and uses a subscription or downloadable content (DLC) model to provide users with access to a rich set of fantasy and sci-fi soundscapes.” According to the Hero Games forum discussion I accessed, in 2011, there were lots of problems with corrupted installers, but it’s not unreasonable to hope that this problem has since been fixed, or won’t apply to your operating system. The web page which recommended it also lists some alternatives and a number of other useful-sounding / interesting GM tools – some of which I knew of.
- RPG Ambience – Recommended by Gnome Stew in a guest article by the Author of the software, Jakob Kallin, but only after someone at Gnome Stew had played around with it and decided the world needed to know. RPG Ambience is “a free, browser-based, open-source application” that “lets you create scenes that consist of any combination of images, music, and text. When you’re at the gaming table, you can quickly play scenes by using keyboard shortcuts that you define yourself.” The app “doesn’t require any installation or registration.” All of which sounds really good. You can read the full article at Gnome Stew here. Make sure to read the comments as well.
- Mixere – is “a free, open-source application for mixing audio files. It runs on Windows NT/2000/XP, and supports WAV, AIFF, MP3, Ogg Vorbis, Flac, and Mod audio files. [It] is optimized for live performance, and especially for creating live sound collage.” It has not been updated since July 2007 and may not work with more modern operating systems. The commentator at the Hero Games Forum says it “isn’t bad” but “can’t seem to load all of my sound effects” – there is no indication of whether or not it’s file format or sheer count of files that’s the problem.
- Last, but by no means least, we have Battlebards (Disclaimer: I’m friends with someone from Battlebards on Twitter. But I’m friends with a lot of people on Twitter, so don’t hold that against them). Battlebards is a soundboard/mixer that is browser-based but are working on off-line utility. “Seasoned gamers know that scrambling for the right audio file is death at the gaming table; it’s completely unacceptable. The Battlebards Soundboard brings audio closer to the GM than ever before. The soundboard seamlessly integrates audio at the gaming table. Organize it however you like with our audio and with your own personal audio collection (unlockable feature). Create Playlists for your next epic scene or even for frequently used sounds.” This is a very popular system. As intimated in the quote, they also produce custom content, and at current count have more than 800 tracks. “BattleBards audio includes background music inspired by fantasy races, Environmental Soundscapes, Racial Languages, Monsterscapes, NPC scripts written to bring life to everyday character interactions, and a colossal array of bone crushing, spell fire blasting sound effects.” But if you go with BattleBards as your choice, you should consider subscribing to their Patreon account to get releases months before they are commercially available. That’s because they “release Albums that contain multiple tracks along with cover artwork” on the main site, but Patrons get tracks as soon as they complete. Interestingly, you don’t commit to so many $ per month or week, you commit to $X for each file that they release – usually once a month, but if they miss a month, you pay nothing, or if they get creative, you may pay more than once in a month; bear that in mind.
Which brings me neatly to audio providers. I’m sure there are many more than I have listed here – again, in no particular order!
- Tabletop Audio – “Original, 10 minute ambiences and music for your tabletop role-playing games.” At the moment, there seem to be 99 of them, divided in Genre – Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Historical, Modern, Nature, Horror, and Music – but I notice one entitled “Steampunk Airship” and another called “Super Hero” (the latter described as “Music + Ambience”). So consider those categories to be rather broad in their contents. Their site looks impressive, if the audio is as good, users will be well satisfied.
- Sound Hammer do everything through their Patreon page, so far as I can tell. (Disclaimer Again: I’m also friends with someone from Sound Hammer on Twitter). Sound Hammer emphasize quality and consistency of style. “If you are using any of our tracks for live streaming, podcasts, youTube videos and anything of similar nature, then … these are all royalty free! For everything else, see below.” No mention of tabletop RPGs there, but they explicitly state that tabletop gaming is one of the core purposes for which their music is made available in several other places, so I guess that’s considered to be of a “similar nature”. Some tracks are free – the last one appears to have come out in April 2016, which must mean that we’re due for another one sometime soon. Patronage is once again per track; $2 gets you 11 or more patron-only tracks, $5 also gets you access to some 10-30 second stinger tracks (which I tend to think of as “audio punctuation marks”). There appears to typically be one of these for each patron-only file posted.
- Toxic Bag Productions are the first “RPG Soundtrack” producers that I ever heard of. I first came across them at RPGNow, but have linked to their web page. They also have apps for iPhone & iPad. They have LOTS of content encompassing all sorts of genres – I know, because a lot of them are in my RPGNow wishlist!
- “Tracks Of Cthulhu Volume 1” – Mirye Software – An album of 12 Lovecraftian / Cthulhu tracks for $14.95.
- Finally, I have another pair of posts from Gnome Stew by Martin Ralya that I want to link to. (Disclaimer The Third: I’m also friends with Martin on Twitter, even though he hasn’t been active there since July last year, have reviewed a couple of Engine Publishing products, and bought one of them). The first is RPG Background Music: 41 Awesome Soundtracks and the relevance should be obvious. This is, in part, an update of an earlier post which is linked to at the start of the first article; Creating Simple, Deep Playlists for RPG Background Music.
How good are these solutions at solving the problems? I don’t know. I’ve given you every caveat that I deemed potentially relevant, including some that I hope to now be out-of-date, so you will have to find out for yourself. I should also note that if you go to Amazon, select the CDs&Vinyl category, search for “Instrumentals” and refine the search to CDs only, you still get more than 400 pages of results.
Some (most?) of them must be useful as Gaming Music.
Coda: The Wrap-up
I’m completely out of time (and then some), so I will have to leave the question about Musical Puzzles until next time – explaining the Part 1 in the title. Besides, I think I might have quite a lot to say on the subject.
So, to wrap up the general question of Music in RPGs: There are a lot of people who swear by it. There are others whose circumstances limit the utility of the proposal. My opinion is that strong>if you can solve the problems and strong>if you can achieve a suitable environment, it can’t help but add to the gaming experience – but those are two very big caveats. Fall down in either area, and you may find that it’s a detriment of devastating impact. The resources are out there; the capacity problem has been solved; its management of the experience, and the circumstances in which you game, that are the problem.
Next in this series: Part 2, Musical Puzzles