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I've been toying with the idea of adding sound to our typical sessions. I was thinking about throwing in some sounds for atmosphere's sake, like some of the following:

  • Birds chirping/water running in the wilderness
  • Muffled conversation or music if they're in an inn
  • Roars or battle cries of any creatures they may be facing
  • Thuds of arrows or the sounds of any spell being cast
  • etc.

It seems like these could make a big difference in the realness of the game:

GM: Do you dare venture into the evil dragon's lair?

sure, why not! He can't be that tough...

(GM clicks button): RAWWWWWWRRRRRRRRRRR!!!!!!

Uhhhh...second thought, let's stock up on healing potions first...LOTS of healing potions....

Questions:

  1. Has anyone tried this before, how did it turn out?
  2. Did this add to the overall immersion without detracting too much from narration or what the players are actually doing?
  3. Where did you obtain good sounds to use?
  4. What other sounds did you use that added value?
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Gnome Stew just posted an article about how they do this! gnomestew.com/gming-advice/… –  Daenyth Jan 18 '12 at 21:46
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15 Answers 15

Sound is an integral part of my gaming sessions. I've always used music, but I didn't use sound effects very much until recently, when I wrote my own application for quickly choosing different sounds. It is controlled with the keyboard and also allows for displaying images along with the sound.

I've put it up for download: RPG Ambience.

As for your other questions:

  1. Has anyone tried this before, how did it turn out?

    Using sounds has worked very well in my games. For audio that loops in the background, I mainly use music, primarily because it adds more drama than environmental sounds but also because music is easier to find. For one-time effects, I occasionally use sounds like explosions and dragon roars, but I save those for specific events because they require more coordination and might become gimmicky if used often.

  2. Did this add to the overall immersion without detracting too much from narration or what the players are actually doing?

    If the GM has prepared a sound effect and has an easy and quick way of playing it, then it certainly adds to the immersion. I would avoid sounds that might come off as comical or "too realistic", such as battlecries and people talking.

  3. Where did you obtain good sounds to use?

    There is a single unrivaled source for good sound effects: video and computer games. They are the best because they have to solve the same problems as audiovisual GMs: providing a wide range of sounds that can be used at any time. Games based on the Quake engine (such as Jedi Outcast and Jedi Academy) conveniently store all of their audio in .pk files, which can be opened just like a normal zip file. For other games, instructions for obtaining the audio can vary widely.

    As mentioned elsewhere, it can sometimes be difficult to find exactly the sound that you are looking for. A good alternative to spending a lot of time searching is to simply adjust your needs: If you're looking for a lion's roar but can't find one, consider using a different animal that you do have a sound effect for. This might not be satisfactory in all scenarios but it's worth keeping in mind if you feel that the audio will add much to the scene.

  4. What other sounds did you use that added value?

    Don't forget that sounds can successfully be combined with music if the audio levels are right and there isn't too much going on at the same time. Some of the audio files in Baldur's Gate actually mix ambient sounds with music.

    Sounds can also be used to illustrate certain concepts as opposed to just adding drama. In one of my Star Wars games, I used the alien voices from Knights of the Old Republic to show the players how certain characters sounded.

Update: After a major overhaul, RPG Ambience is now a browser-based application with a graphical user interface.

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I tried it. It helped, but wasn't worth the extra work.

First of all, I had to find sounds. Usually I had something in my head and wanted a pretty close match. Long story short, there were better ways to prep than googling for audio samples.

But even when I did have the audio I wanted, playing it was a distraction. I can only keep track of so many events that need to happen, and queuing sound bytes was another one. Don't get me wrong, it added to the game, but way less than other things would have. Even when I did remember to play the sounds, I didn't have an interface for doing so quickly.

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My experience was very similar. It's a fair amount of work for little gain, at least the way I was doing it. I'm willing to try again, if someone has a better system. –  Pat Ludwig Dec 15 '11 at 3:51
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I have an iTunes D&D library that is broken up into playlist for several common settings or themes, Combat, Tavern, Caverns, Forest, in-town, etc. I have the playlist, which contains several songs for variety, set to continuous loop. During the beginning of the encounter or scene change, I can easily select the playlist and continue to describe the scene.

One time I forgot to switch music and several players quickly pointed out that my Forest sounds were not appropriate for the immenant fight with the 'Ogre King'. "We want our combat music!"

I keep the volume quite low, which allows for clear communication around the table, but still adds that lil' oomph to the mood. I recomend sound tracks to movies as a great starting point.

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Try using SceneSound. It is software specifically created exactly for tabletop RPG music/sounds. I also highly recommend Songs & Dragons for Android smart phones and little apps like some white noise generators also have ambient sounds like crackling fires, rain, etc that can serve as great ambiance on the fly if you keep a smartphone at your gaming table.

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I wrote a short blog article about this a while back as well, here it is: myrpgame.com/2010/10/14/… –  DreadGazebo Dec 29 '11 at 21:23
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Our GM uses a program he wrote to play sounds and background music as well as show mood setting images and props on a computer screen. While changing the images and sounds takes some button presses, the result is well worth it. It takes some setting up, but once you get a hang of it, it's not too hard.

The sounds he used were mostly ripped from games such as KOTOR (for Star Wars games) and Baldur's Gate (for DnD).

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Nifty! Is this program floating around the web somewhere? Or could you describe its interface for people who want to follow in your GM's footsteps? –  AceCalhoon Dec 17 '11 at 21:41
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I don't think he's uploaded it anywhere, but I can tell him that there's an interest for it. He places all the required files in a folder and uses an XML file to define scenes and what keyboard commands to use to switch to a particular scene. –  evilcandybag Dec 18 '11 at 14:59
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Now that the cat is out of the evilcandybag, I've uploaded the application to Github for everybody's benefit. I've also written a separate answer to this question incorporating it. github.com/JakobKallin/RPG-Ambience –  Jakob Dec 29 '11 at 13:18
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Looking for music really slows down the start of an encounter. I recommend outsourcing this to a player with a laptop -- they have a lot less to keep track of. Sounds like a job for the bard...

If you have something specific -- like there's a pipe organ haunted by an invisible stalker in Castle Whiterock and you picked out some creepy pipe organ music -- you could mail the player a link and then signal him when to queue it up. If he listens to it ahead of time, that should help "hype" your session a little.

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So the Order 66 Podcast has done a few episodes about using background music and sound effects in their games. Episode 103 has one of the audio guys from LucasArts talking about how to incorporate music into your games. I remember some earlier episodes that dealt with sound boards, sound software and sound effects... but can't remember what they are.

Basically, background sound can really make the mood fit into a game. You just have to do some research and find what fits. There is both background music and just background noise that can make a scene just seem 'more real' for your players and help them get into it. The important thing is to make the sound not seem weird by playing a random sound byte that doesn't seem natural.

Some GMs I know, especially for Sci-fi games, have recorded NPC mission briefings in which they would receive them by transmission and played them for the players. This is great when the PCs can't question the NPC, but you can add hints like the sounds of battle in the background and maybe the subtle snap-hiss of a lightsaber right as the transmission ends.

So it is a lot of effort, but I think it can be worth it if you really want to immerse your players.

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There's even dedicated software for this. An example (that a quick googling for "sound effects music rpg" also brings up, along with a number of other options) is The RPG Soundmixer, which seems to have a tryout demo - but I'm sure there are free alternatives as well.

As for the specific questions:

  1. We've tried this and occasionally still use it. It needs preparation, for which you don't always have time, but it's worth it, in our experience. Just aim for the right balance - you don't need to provide an effect for all and every sound. Add a sound to major and/or lasting events/phenomena only.

  2. If done carefully, it does not hurt immersion. Quite the contrary. See 1. above.

  3. There are tons of free sound effects online. Try googling for "sound effects" (or "sound effect libraries" or "sound banks", "soundbanks" etc.) You may also try and extract sound effects from your favourite computer rpgs (googling a given title with the added "sound effects" may help.)

  4. Environmental ambiences: Rain, thunderstorm, city sounds and so on. (For example, SimplyNoise has a free 60min recording of a thunderstorm available right on its front page. Imagine running that while playing a gothic adventure - with the occasional track from Coppola's Dracula played in a different music player software. :))

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Yeah seems like too much of a PITA for specifics but a good background reminder of ambient location. –  mxyzplk Dec 26 '11 at 18:09
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I played in a game where the GM used http://www.freesound.org/ for sound effects related to things like taverns/sewers/fight down the street/etc and it didn't seem to add anything to the game. to be fair, the game was heavily on rails to the point where we once found a way to & decided to go through a wall to get around a magical forcefield thing in a tunnel only to find that there was a forcefield protecting the back of the wall in the tunnel part we were in preventing us from leaving the tunnel, the railroading didn't help matters much... but the time spent fumbling with his laptop did not help matters either. The sounds were a nice idea in theory, but it didn't add much of anything to the wilting game run by an enthusiastic friend nobody wanted to abandon without another game or something to jump to.

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Has anyone tried this before, how did it turn out?

Tried it once. Worked out amazingly, although don't underestimate the amount of work required. But if your players are wanting immersion or are very aural people, this will make the game that much more fun for them. When I did it, I didn't have a sound for everything - a few especially creaky doors, a clunking pit trap, the wrap of a net and screeching of spiders (they're monstrous, let them screech!). The hydra boss had a few noises because I knew that encounter would take a bit, but otherwise the only one who had two noises were the spiders. Hiss/squeal and death splat.

Did this add to the overall immersion without detracting too much from narration or what the players are actually doing?

This added to the immersion only after I had it already set up and cued to load. This is true in any instance though, see Schrodinger's Familiar. My player (one-on-one session) really liked the added effect and is looking forward to this coming session where I bring in more noise. She still gets chills when I mention the spider noise, and is still creeped out by the spider. Her character was in a trap two below the party level with no continuous damage against the weakest spiders, and her fort save was excellent so she had only a five percent chance of succumbing: But that noise made it exciting for her, a sense of urgency.

Where did you obtain good sounds to use?

After much searching I settled on this website. The link is the hydra entry. Soundsnap.com (click for spider entry) is freely accessible with no download required. Just gotta surf around for a bit to find a sound suited to your use, and keep an open agenda with your encounters so you can fit something cool-sounding in (hydra was inspired by the sound opportunity).

What other sounds did you use that added value?

I focused my sounds on events, like a creature appearing. Something dying, hydra head severed, hydra head regrowing... Personally this was because my description of monotonous events sometimes drags on. There are only so many interesting ways to describe the death of a goblin (unless that's your thing). Sound substituting for drole dialogue on my part worked out great for the adventurer, the adventure and I.

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I haven't tried adding sounds to my games, but I certainly have tried adding background music. This means that I don't have to queue up each track separately, but I can instead throw it all in a playlist and leave it playing happily on its own. If I want different kinds of music for different atmospheres and places, I create separate playlists and swap them accordingly, i.e. a tavern/inn playlist, a scary playlist for mausoleums, tombs and graveyards (and general spooky places) an action/combat playlist, a neutral playlist for villages towns and cities, etc.

I usually use soundtracks, and usually from games. The ones I have used the most are:

  • Diablo II
  • Bastion
  • Neverwinter Nights 2
  • Dungeons and Dragons Online
  • Danny The Dog (movie)

There is also a music CD in the Player's Guide to Ebberon (I think, it was some supplement for Ebberon whatever it was) for 3.5, not great, but good enough for background music.

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I have been using sound and music in my game for 8 years. I have used The RPG Soundmixer, for 8 years through 2 different versions. Yeah, it's a german product, but no software has been able to offer the features it has in 8 years.

To the person who said, it's not worth the trouble, i disagree. Immersion is everything. RPGsoundmixer access to all music or sounds on your hard drive. Within each campaign file, you can categorize sounds/music and then assign them key designations (I use alt-letter). So as you're going through your adventure, there's no need to go into another program and click on anything. I simply press two keys and the fight music begins. I press another two and swords are scraping. A dragon is heard overhead with another. I love a loud metal sound or a roar when the party goes too far off into tangent conversation.

On I typically have 5 catagories. City music, dungeon music, travel music, battle sounds and animal sounds. With each are music for suspense, mystery, heck, i even have one for bumbling. (my players find it hillarious).

I use music from computer and video games and i have a victory sound cued up for a successful battle.

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We created an iOS application just for that, called DMDJ. DMDJ features a sophisticated audio engine, as well as a number of environmental presets and music themes, aimed at improving the experience of a pen&paper session, by allowing DMs to create audio environments for their players. In short, main features include:

  1. An audio engine, with complete randomization to minimize repetition. Therefore, the final result is extremely close to reality.

  2. A large number of high quality environmental presets, music themes and SFX - the number increases with every update, according to users' demands.

  3. Each environmental setting offers 3 intensity levels and day-night transitions.

Now, regarding your questions:

Has anyone tried this before, how did it turn out?
I've tried it both as a DM and as a player. As a DM, I was not the most organized person in the world, so it did not turn out well, as I had to stop the story to control my sounds (it was back in the CD era!) and the whole feeling of immersion was lost. However, I tried this as a player, 2 years ago, with a more organized DM (at least more organized than me!). The feeling was better, he used a combination of music tracks and some sound effects - however, it was still difficult to control the effects and they were quite repetitive, which brings us to 1 year ago, when we released DMDJ.

Did this add to the overall immersion without detracting too much from narration or what the players are actually doing?
In my case as a DM, the result was not good, at all, but this was mainly due to the lack of automation. In my case as a player it was better, but still not perfect. Since I haven't had the chance to play a session during the last year (still in search for a party nearby), I'm relying on user's reviews for DMDJ's ability to add to the overall immersion and, without wanting to do any shameless promotion, their views have been very positive.

Where did you obtain good sounds to use?
We used sounds from some of the major content providers for DMDJ, since we wanted content to be of perfect quality.

What other sounds did you use that added value?
I believe that the ideal combination is:
a) Environmental presets: these act like the overall sound effect of the scene i.e. a forest under heavy rain.
b) Music: this adds drama to the scene, when needed.
c) Situational sound effects, for specific important actions.

Teamed up with intensity levels, these 3 can definitely increase the immersion of your players.

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We often get self-promo answers here that are more promo than answer, but this is a good example for how to do it well. Thanks for being a) open about the association, b) helpful and on-point, and c) not letting the promo get in the way of the a & b. :) –  SevenSidedDie Dec 15 '12 at 20:47
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Thank you! :) We're players (that's how the whole idea of creating the app started), first and foremost, and I wouldn't like to ruin the discussion by throwing a promo message. –  Avento Dec 18 '12 at 8:25
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Full disclosure: I'm the creator of http://tabletopaudio.com - I created this site because I was having a hard time finding exactly the right type of audio for use in my RPG sessions with my kids. Plus, being a composer and a sound designer it was a fun break from client driven work! I designed Tabletop Audio to be a low-tech, low-maintenance audio solution. The GM doesn't have to do too much fiddling, the sounds are long enough (10 minutes) that you can play one and leave it on repeat for as long as your scene or encounter needs. Most of them are minimally musical (there are some full music tracks) so you don't get distracted. All the other examples given to the OP are good - there are lots of great options out there, but one size definitely does not fit all.

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I don't normally use soundscapes in my games, but if I ever wanted to, Tabletop Audio would probably be my first stop. (Or to put it in a more Internet-friendly way: I don't always use soundscapes, but when I do, I use Tabletop Audio.) Simple, varied, and should run on almost any device. I guess the one feature I'm missing is being able to disable music and just get the ambient sounds. –  Jakob Apr 28 at 21:10
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The sound effect we used in our games was to have music playing in the background, it wasn't necessarily matched to the mood, but now many years later when I hear those tracks I think again of the scenario we were doing when that music was on.

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-1. Relevant, but doesn't really answer the question at hand of how to add game-related sounds with as little work as possible. –  Gordon Gustafson Jan 12 '12 at 0:13
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