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Ways of Using Sounds in Your Tabletop RPG

(Author’s note: I am not affiliated with, nor do I own any of the products I am providing reviews for. All product information is adapted from their respective websites)

Before we begin, we need to have some idea as to what is meant by “sound.” For the purpose of this article, the concept of sound will be as follows:
Sound consists of the various background noises and music, in a game used to help create game immersion, uphold suspension of disbelief, and a general sense of atmosphere.

The idea of sound can be accomplished in a variety of ways, including, but not limited to Foley sound Effects, overhearing conversations, Audio Apps & Programs, and onomatopoeia.

Foley Sound Effects
According to Wikipedia

Foley is the reproduction of everyday sound effects that are added to film, video, and other media in post-production to enhance audio quality. These reproduced sounds can be anything from the swishing of clothing and footsteps to squeaky doors and breaking glass.

This website goes on to say

[In Film] The boom operator’s job is to clearly record the dialogue, and only the dialogue [while minimizing or eliminating sounds that would interfere with it]. At first glance it may seem odd that we add back to the soundtrack the very sounds the sound recordists tried to exclude. But the key word here is control. By excluding these sounds during filming and adding them in post, we have complete control over the timing, quality, and relative volume of the sound effects.

These effects were originally used in radio broadcasts to give the listener a way of piecing together what’s going on. In a game these can add to the immersive quality if done properly, but getting the timing right in introducing these sound effects is crucial.

Many Foley effects are simple enough to do on your own. Some of them include:

  • Creating hinge or mini door contraptions to emulate a squeaking door or a screen door that slams shut.
  • Frying bacon in a pan mimics the sound of rain
  • Dried coconut shells against a hard surface can mimic a horse’s walk. Faster iterations of the shells hitting the surface can mimic galloping
  • Celery breaking is often the sound of broken bones.

More ideas and recordings can be found here, here, here, and here

Overhearing Conversations

Then there is overhearing conversations. This is a bit more difficult to do in a gaming format, but once perfected, it’s a useful tool for allowing the PCs to be able to catch rumors, gain information they would not have normally have access to, and help them to solve mysteries as they wander through town. If they’re interested, they’ll stop to address the NPC regarding the issue at hand. Want some examples of how to do so effectively from a literature standpoint? Read some fantasy books from L.E. Modesitt, Jr. He does this wonderfully.
This concept can even be done outside of town, but this will take a deft hand. In dungeons, perhaps while skulking around, the PCs could pick up conversations of the monsters if they can understand their language. Maybe they’ll be able to determine the location of the captured mayor’s daughter. Another way this could be uses is if the PCs are captured, they’ll be able to determine who has the keys to the shackles if they don’t have any way of getting rid of them and no one has the ability or tools to pick the locks.
This could even be done in the wilderness with a spell like “comprehend languages,” the druid’s ability to become different animals, and the ranger’s animal friendship ability, but the type of information that is able to be gathered will be considerably less because most of the time the animals are only concerned about their own survival and procreation activities. So if something interrupts their hunting/ foraging, nest building, and/or mating rituals, that’s when they’d likely notice and be able to provide information.

Audio Apps & Programs
There are a variety of audio apps and programs that you can download for free or purchase for use in your games. Among the products and apps out there are:

YouTube is an awesome source of music and sound effects for your game. One of the best ways to find appropriate music is to google what you’re looking for. There are quite a few video game music compilations on the internet that could provide hours of background music.

Sound Mixers

  • Tabletop Audio is a free resource for: Role-players, boardgamers, writers, coders, artists, graphic designers, teachers, house-cleaners, lucid dreamers, gym-rats, distance runners, commuters and ANYONE who wants to immerse themselves in the audio-space of one environment, while physically inhabiting another.
  • Ambient Mixer is a community driven project offering you some unique quality soundscapes with different atmospheres for chilling, relaxing or your recordings using our endless audio loops. You can further effectively mix and create your own sounds absolutely free, with no software installations required. You can begin listening to our sounds by clicking on the images above, which are based on different themes. All atmospheres are royalty free audio files and you can use them even in your commercial projects, thanks to the Creative Commons Sampling Plus license.
  • Simply noise is the best free color noise generator on the Internet, with thousands of new users discovering our site each day! All of our content is crafted by a professional Sound Designer to ensure the highest audio fidelity. The benefits of color noise have been utilized in clinics, schools, households, and offices around the world. Enjoy the benefits and features many expensive sound machines can’t match.

Ambient Sounds

  • Sound Jay Ambient Sound Effects
  • Ambiance: public Domain Sounds
  • Horror ambiance
  • Free Sound Effects and Royalty Free Sound Effects
  • “Pro Tabletop Gaming Audio” Weapons & Spells and Monsters and traps. Professional Golden Reel and Emmy-nominated sound designer and editor Wes Otis brings you great sound effect Mp3s for your tabletop RPG. With 15 years of pro audio experience and over 30 years as a GM, Wes brings new levels of depth with his sound design. All tracks are 320Khps Mp3s.
  • Go Mix it: Use this free tool to play various sound mixes on headphones while reading, meditating or just for fun.
  • DMDJ features a next-gen game audio engine that makes unique and never repetitive soundscapes. E-create a vast amount of environmental scenes and sound fx, which will spice up your sessions and indulge your party into the world you have created for them. Choose the location, day or night setting, add some of the best sound fx around and choose the overall intensity level of the whole environment. According to one reviewer:

DMDJ has an excellent ambient-track engine that generates the mix of effects dynamically, not by looping a pre-recorded track, so there isn’t ever that moment where you realize you’ve heard this same set of sounds in a previous loop. Its greatest drawback is that its sounds are fixed and since it tries to be multi-genre it has a[n extremely] limited selection… those [tracks] I could use were very effective and I used them often.

Music Mixers

  • BlackPlayer is a fast, and easy-to-use fully customizable free elegant modern local Music player, supporting standard local music file formats such as MP3, WAV, OGG with a built in Equalizer, bassboost & 3D surround virtualizer or option to use external Equalizer. It allows users to view & Edit embedded lyrics, tagging them for easy tracking, and music scrobbling with limited support for crossfading. Price: Free / $2.69. DOWNLOAD ON GOOGLE PLAY
  • jetAudio HD is the highest rated and most downloaded media player on CNET.COM which plays almost any type of digital music files you have (.wav, .mp3, .ogg, .flac, .m4a, .mpc, .tta, .wv, .ape, .mod, .spx, .opus, .wma* and more) and, it provides a very high quality sound with various effects and enhancements such as Wide, Reverb, X-Bass. The program comes with 32 equalizer presets that will provide a wide array of listening experience. Customizations include 10/20 bands graphic equalizer and other advanced playback functions including playback speed control, crossfading, AGC and much more. Free Basic version provides same features with Plus version except advertisements and some features. To enjoy full features of jetAudio, please purchase Plus version. Price: Free / $3.99 + $2.99 monthly subscription
  • MediaMonkey helps you navigate, manage and sync large music collections by keeps playlists, tracks and videos including file info, ratings, lyrics, play history, etc. in one place, allowing users to navigate by Artist, Album, Composer, Genre, Playlist, etc. with support for multiple attributes. The program allows users to play any content supported by your device (using system codecs), with replay gain (volume leveling) and an equalizer. Users can edit properties of single/multiple files, manage single/multiple files (e.g. play, queue, playlist management, delete, use as ringtone, share), and much more. Price: Free / $2.49.
  • n7player is an intuitive audio player giving you an innovative way to browse your music. It provides advanced features in a user-friendly interface. Because the ease of use, this app is perfect for beginners but its countless features will satisfy even the most demanding and advanced users. It plays most popular audio file types, including: mp3, mp4, m4a, ogg, wav, 3gp, mid, xmf, ogg, mkv*, flac**, aac**. It also Full-featured, 10 band equalizer: tunable bass and treble, built-in presets with possibility of creating your own, pre-amp, channel balance, audio normalizations, surround effects and SRS (if available on your device). Price Free / $3.49. …

Onomatopoeia are words that sound like sounds. Examples are crash, woof, meow, boom, bang, screech, etc. You can find websites with examples of such herehere,  and here  

On A Different note
On a different note, it may be useful to record your sessions and view them at a later point in order to be able to play more cohesively. There are a variety of apps that you can download both for your phone and other electronic devices for this purpose. If you do it well enough you might be able to post it on YouTube, get followers and make money doing so through ads, if people are sufficiently entertained to sit and watch all the way through the videos.

The point of doing these recordings is to see how your game plays and to see where it could potentially be improved. Are people interrupting or talking over one another? Is the GM missing important information? Are the players missing rolls they need to make because they can’t hear? Are the players remaining in character?

Final thoughts
Sound can add great atmosphere to the game. But DMs need to have a deft hand when using it, as it can quickly get out of control. Take these suggestions on how to add sound to your game and see if they are able to add the depth you’re looking for.

As always feel free to like, reshare, and comment.