Over on Google Plus, Emmett O’Brian asks,
What are some apps or techniques for playing music/sound effects while GMing?
Thanks for the question, Emmett. This question is a great follow up to our last question where we talk about tech at the table. In that, I note how technology can be fabulous for adding ambiance to your game night.
Emmett’s question is about using music and sound during an RPG. I’m going to expand on that a bit and look at using sound and music during any game night, not just for RPGs.
In addition to reading below, please check out Epsiode 8 – Can You Hear Me Now? of our podcast where Sean and I cover this topic.
Disclosure: Some links in this post are Amazon or iTunes affiliate links. As an Amazon and iTunes associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.
The short answer:
My number one recommendation for a Games Master looking to add both some background noise and sound effects to their roleplaying game is Syrinscape.
Syrinscape is multi-platform software for Windows, Mac, Android and/or iOS. It’s a mix of ambient noise mixer and soundboard and comes in three different flavours. You can get one for Fantasy, one for Sci-Fi and a newer one for Board Games. Obviously, the first two are going to be the most useful for RPGs.
Each one of these comes with a pretty large number of different soundscapes. For example, the Sci-Fi player comes with Shipboard and Blaster Battle. Each soundscape has a selection of ambient noises. Each of these can be toggled on or off and has a slider for volume. Now you can trigger these yourself or pick one of the pre-set options. These change the volume and frequency of the different sounds, each giving a very different feel while using the same set of basic sounds. For example “In Space Port” has mid-range music, very few droid bleeps, normal engine hum, and systems hum but lots of ships fly by and other strange sounds. In addition to the mixer, you also get a soundboard with buttons that set off thematic sounds. For the Shipboard set, you have things like Alert Sounds, Scanners and A Distress Signal.
One thing I really like about Syrinscapes over other ambient sound generators that I’ve tried is that it is designed to never repeat or loop, so you never have that feeling that there’s an artificial soundtrack playing. It fades into the background quickly. You can try Syrinscape for free but to get the full software you do have to pay. There are a few different pay models, which include paying per soundscape or by subscription. I personally think this software is worth supporting, it’s that well done.
So as to not leave the board game fans out, Syrinscape has you covered too. Just check out the Catan Soundscape in the Board Game version of the software and you will see how much this tool can add to your game. I love the fact that it has a progressive soundtrack that you advance as people build more cities on the board. It’s actually rather cool.
The Long Answer:
I don’t think audio is only useful for enhancing your roleplaying games. I’ve personally found that a bit of background music or ambiance can also increase your immersion even when playing board games. Plus there’s more out there than just Syrinscape for RPGs. So for today’s long answer, I’m going to talk about some of the great ways I’ve found to add sound to my game night, no matter what kind of game we are playing. First, though I want to talk a bit about my history with using sound at the table.
My history with sound at the table
For me using sound, specifically music, to enhance my tabletop games started by playing Bolt Thrower on a “ghetto blaster” while playing Warhammer Fantasy Battle. Over the years the idea of sound at the table has faded in and out of my game nights. I think that is mainly due to the various groups I’ve played with over the years. One of the important things about using sound at the table is that everyone has to be into it. Some people find any background noise distracting. The entire point of adding sound to your game night is to enhance immersion, not take it away.
I’ve always liked using a simple soundboard for RPGs. Years ago I used to bring a small portable keyboard that had a few sound effects on it to the Windsor Gaming Society when we played Paranoia or other Sci-Fi games. I would use various laser and alarm sounds and it always seemed to go over well. Much more recently I ran some FASA Star Trek and found a simple free web-based soundboard with all of the iconic sounds. In a licensed heavily themed setting like that, hearing the expected communicator blip and transporter sound really did help us all know we were playing a Star Trek Game. Then I discovered Syrinscape which I talk about above. This added ambiance to those soundboards and to me is the perfect audio accompaniment for your RPG sessions.
Now, audio for board games is something I personally only got into very recently, within the last year. For a long time, I always thought it would be a distraction. More than that, is it really needed? Is immersion something you want in a board game? Board games are meant to be abstract right? Fooey on that.
As I discovered, yes both sound and music can draw you deeper into your board games. Now, almost every time we sit down to a game we have something playing in the background. Whether its ambiance or just an appropriate music playlist.
As mentioned above Syrinscape is my number one choice for using during an RPG. Tabletop Audio is the very close second place. Plus, for board games, I think Tabletop Audio is a better choice. Tabletop Audio is a web-based service (also available in app form) that offers both 10-minute ambiance and music tracks as well as soundboards in a huge number of themes and settings. By huge I’m talking about over 140 and more being added all the time.
Now the soundscapes here are not nearly as customizable as the ones in Syrinscapes. There are no sliders or buttons, you just pick a theme and turn it on. Every one I’ve used has been extremely well done. While these are set sounds that do repeat the fact they are 10 minutes long usually means you don’t notice the loop. Most recently we played a game of Clank! In! Space! with the Alien Machine Shop, soundscape playing in the background and it was great.
Perhaps even more impressive than the ambiance tracks are the soundboards on Tabletop Audio. The Combat Soundpad for fantasy games has thirty-six choices which cover most of your fantasy game combat options. You’ve got grunts, shouts, dagger attack, earth spell, roars, poison traps and more. What is even more impressive is that many of these specific choices have different sounds. So there’s a blade attack button but it randomizes between three different sounds when you hit it. Some of the sounds can also be put on random repeat, so things like Sm. Group Fight and War Drums can play constantly in the background.
One of the best things about Tabletop Audio is that it’s fan supported. Which means there is no cost to try it out. If you do try it and dig it, I suggest supporting their Patreon.
I’ve got to start off with this: do not use Spotify for your game night unless you subscribe. Nothing will pull you out of the game faster than a 10-second advertisement that’s 1.5x louder than whatever you were just listening to.
If you are a Spotify subscriber and you are about to play a game there’s a damn good chance that someone out there has already created a playlist specifically for the game you are about to play. Now, we use Spotify for board game night. For RPGs I prefer the software above that adds more than just background noise, but for boardgames we like to have something you can just put on in the background, forget about it, and let it play. Even if there isn’t a playlist for the game you are about to play appropriate movie soundtracks work great. We’ve found Total Recall to be awesome for Terraforming Mars and the Auto Assault Soundtrack (from my favourite MMORPG of all time) is amazing for Wasteland Express Delivery Service. It was finding Pandemic Legacy Season 1 Playlist by Clyde Wright that actually got us hooked on using Spotify at our table.
Can’t find a playlist for your favourite game? Well, it looks like it’s time for you to make one of your own. Then let us know about it so we can start using it at our table.
RPG Sounds: Fantasy on iOS or Android is an app that’s decent. It does the whole music, ambiance and soundboard thing and has a really simple interface. There’s something video gamey about the sounds though. They sound like sound effects and digital music. Oddly, despite the name, there doesn’t seem to be an RPG Sounds: Sci-fi or anything like that.
For a very basic and easy to use soundboard with tons of great sounds check out RPGsound (RPG Soundboard). It’s bare bones but it works. No ambiance or music here, just sound effects in a variety of categories.
Soundboard.com isn’t pretty and there are ads all over but there are a ton of great lists of sound effects all free to play. By a ton, I’m talking over 500,000 sound bites, including sound effects from your favourite TV shows and movies. What’s cool here is that you can download all of the sounds. So it’s a great resource for growing your own collection of sounds and making your own soundboards. What I don’t really know here is how they are providing this legally.
I also found a ton of other soundboard apps out there but almost all of them want you to pay to use them and I wasn’t willing to spend any money on an app that I couldn’t try first. If you’ve found a solid pay app that you like please let us know about it in the comments.
There are a ton of great soundscapes on Ambient-Mixer. They have an RPG section even. You can use Ambient-Mixer right from the web or they have both an Android and iOS app version. This is a fan driven site where people upload their own audio and then fans can upvote the ones they like. I’ve found some solid soundscapes here and some not so great ones. It’s worth looking around.
When you search for RPG soundboards one of the top hits is BattleBards. BattleBards basically does what Tabletop Audio does, offering soundtracks and soundboards but it’s much more low tech. This looks like a fan project and the tools have a bit of a learning curve to use them. Okay, quite a bit of a learning curve. Added to that you have to pay for every track you want to use. You can listen to all of their tracks and audio on the site but it has an audio watermark on all of them that means you won’t be using them without buying them. What I’ve listened to sounds excellent but you will have to decide if it’s worth the price they are charging.
My wife recommends Coffitivity for modern games. The site was created to give you the atmosphere of being in a coffee shop, which I guess is supposed to increase productivity. Cool idea for a modern backdrop or when playing Viva Java. Another similar site is Noisli, which is more background sounds to increase focus. No reason you can’t use that for gaming as well.
myNoise is another site about generating generic ambiance, for falling asleep or like the above, productivity. But they have some really solid game themed soundscapes as well. Like this cool fantasy one called Dark World. Be sure to try the slider animation option so that you end up with randomized non-looping audio.
While I’ve seen quite a few different websites and apps out there for adding sound to your games the two I keep coming back to are Syrinscapes and Tabletop Audio. I don’t think anyone else has done as good a job of creating soundscapes and soundboards in such a wide variety of genres and settings. For my board game nights, I skip these fancy sites and just load up Spotify on my phone. There hasn’t been a game we’ve played yet that we haven’t been able to find a decent fan created playlist for.
There are a ton of other options out there and I fully admit I have not tried all or even many of them. So if you know of an app or website that’s great for adding some sound to your game night please let us know in the comments.