For years, I’ve heard GMs talk about using music and sound effects in games, often as a novelty item or a general mood-setter, but I’ve never experimented with it myself. Featuring recorded audio in place of gaming felt like at least a partial waste of the players’ time, and running audio alongside the game felt like a distraction that might also make it difficult for some players to hear.
Audio felt like a needless and dangerous prop, in much the same way I’ve sometimes seen maps and minis cripple an otherwise fluid game session when handled poorly. But where maps and minis also have clearly beneficial uses, pre-recorded audio seemed to have a far higher chance of being in the way than adding something worthwhile to the game.
Still, I hate rejecting any tool without trying it out myself, especially when it seems like other GMs are successfully using audio in their games, so as I was planning my latest (an Eclipse Phase game online), I looked for that one optimum arrangement where the audio interrupted the least and benefited the game and the players the most.
And thanks to friends taking the leap ahead of me, I think I finally have it.
My major mistake when approaching the idea of gaming audio was that it would be something a GM expected the players to enjoy. In reality, one of the best uses of gaming audio is actually to ratchet up the tension against the players in the right moment.
The first example I saw of gaming audio done right last year was a game of Dread, where players need steady hands to remove Jenga tiles carefully or else risk losing their characters. The scenario? A horror-movie-esque romp through an abandoned theme park at night.
The GM, a veteran at Dread, knew that despite the seeming difficulty of it, many games of Dread could make it all the way to the end without knocking the tower over more than once. To up the ante, she played “It’s a Small World After All” as the background music for the entire game.
Try to picture, if you will, enduring the music from the Small World ride for 3-4 hours as you try to painstakingly remove a Jenga tile and place it safely atop the tower so that your character lives another day. The GM found a way to amp up the difficulty of a Dread game without investing in one of the variant towers, simply by adding an element that also served as the perfect bright, childlike ambiance to the horrific acts taking place on the game’s main stage.
The second great use of gaming audio that started to bring me around to the idea was a friend who replicated the setup from The Prisoner for a convention game. With everyone’s motives and backstories a mystery, often even from themselves, the game was essentially a spy hunt in a box.
To sell the feeling, the game’s initial explanation was handled by a calm, pre-recorded voice of someone not present at the table. Their crackly, faceless overlord spelled out the details of the tight situation they were in and the very high stakes, and then vanished, unapproachable for questions and unreachable for revenge.
Specifically having the audio recorded by someone other than the GM gave the game the more official, outlandish quality it needed for its premise. If the GM spoke the lines or had recorded his own voice, the connection is made that he’s in control and players feel they can ask questions or get clarity. Having it be someone else’s voice removes them entirely from the players’ reach, meaning the GM can shrug off any questions as “hey, I just work here” and leave them swimming in the mystery that was core to the game motif.
The last piece that won me over was a fellow GM’s plight: he was terrible at screaming. It seems like an odd problem to have, but when you want to set up a tense moment and get your players’ adrenaline pumping when their polite tavern talk is interrupted by a bloodcurdling cry for help, narrating the moment isn’t always sufficient to get the desired effect.
Actually interrupting the players’ RP with the sound of an actual bloodcurdling scream, however, is much more effective at immediately getting their attention and getting them into the mode of the scene shift. So, the GM found a series of screams and cries for help available online, as well as a few other helpful interrupt noises: explosions, distant gunfire, eldritch whispering, and someone kicking a door in (apparently, there’s a file for that).
The effect? They had an arsenal on a smartphone to queue up any time they needed an instantaneous mood-setter.
Obviously, gaming audio is a fairly unique prop, and like most unique gaming props, should still be used sparingly and for more lighthearted environments like one-shots, holiday gaming, or side arcs in campaigns. That last example in particular is best kept to every other game in a campaign setting, or only once or twice even in one-shot play, even if it’s a recurring element (the whispers can be played the first time or two, and then simply narrated in the future to avoid becoming too campy a theme).
Suffice it to say, now that I’m no longer thinking about it like a backdrop or a monologue but an active element of the game, I’m eager to give gaming audio a try at last and see how it enhances a game. I’ll make sure to have some sad trombone on hand, just in case.