Loot Studios – The Impact of Sound and Music on RPG Games

The Impact of Sound and Music on RPG Games

An Epic Journey Through Notes, Scales and Arpeggios

the impact of sound and music on RPG Games

I’m not saying you’re not a good DM. I’m not saying that sound effects are necessary to ensure a good campaign. And I’m not also saying that some good music is key for an enjoyable session. However…

It helps. Come on, you know it. Same as a well-developed world, a challenge that is tough but not cruel (your mileage may vary), a full fleshing out of characters, locations and NPCs. One extra bit of immersion or playfulness may not make or break a session, but they certainly add up. There are many ways of implementing a combination of sounds to provide a certain experience for humans. To borrow a bit from urban design, music and computer science, Soundscape is the term that defines this environment perceived by humans, in context. The tuning of this acoustic environment is something to strive for your players, and this post aims to give some tips and resources – from simple to more complex and labor-intensive to search and set up.

Just Play Something

Not to say that silence can’t be enjoyable or music won’t get repetitive after a while, however there’s a benefit everyone could get from some low-medium volume music. As for the genre, it’s tougher to define. A rule of thumb is to, at the bare minimum, find something that is tolerated by the whole table. You can be tempted to adopt the “my house, my rules” on everyone but that could be a sure way to never have some members of your group coming back.

Be mindful that, as much as music unites, inspires and whatnot, maybe other people don’t enjoy listening to something as much as you do. I can say that personally: once, at a board gaming afternoon, the host had played a Lo-fi hip hop playlist. And it kept going. It kept going. It. Kept. Going. 6-7 hours later, when heading home, I was feeling as if my head was about to burst, even though the music has, overall, a soothing effect. Sorry, Myron.

In any case, a simple rule of thumb would be to go for milder or instrumental music that won’t bother or distract the groups between their discussions. Or you, in any case, since few things irk me more than having someone zone out singing whatever they like WHILST you’re TALKING and then they ASK you TO REPEAT YOURSELF, LUCAS. So you don’t want that, okay? Go for either movies and video game soundtracks – there are some great playlists made on all streaming platforms that can be found in seconds of search and provide decent background songs for your sessions. These songs, after all, were made for that purpose: to be listened to for hours on end without getting annoying.

Okay, You’re Not in Silence Anymore. Time to Curate a Bit.

Now that you’ve established a simple soundtrack for your sessions, it’s fitting to give some more thought on what goes on your playlist. When playing with my high school friends XX years ago (I will not number XX. It will make me feel old. Just assume XX is between 00 and 99), one was responsible for the songs and they’d get everyone’s recommendations, add some more for good measure (I mean, since you’re doing all this work you’d deserve some extra treats) and sort them, more or less, by the vibe.

That last criterion might have sounded odd, but there’s a good parallel to be taken from storytelling in general: we do like our dose of excitement, but it has to be… Well-dosed. Action, energy, just like spiciness and seasonings in food, works exceptionally well when worked in a context. See most popular movies and games: while they usually start with a fast-paced section to hook their audiences, there’re always mellower parts that allow people to breathe, recompose and get ready for more action.

Of course, I’m not arrogant to try to encompass the whole range of human tastes in a couple of pages of text, but it’s reasonable to assume that there’s a somewhat uniform range of excitement vs. calmness contrast that would bode well with most people. In any case, more often than not you’re DMing for friends and acquaintances, so you can get a decent idea of how often they like to be challenged.

Choosing a Playlist

With that in mind, try to assemble a playlist that follows some sort of progression, either by genres, mood or something simple like the songs’ bpm. If you keep the same atmosphere with similar songs, make sure that it is kept for an appropriate, enjoyable amount of time (40-80 min? I can dig that. 6 hours of early 2000’s Linkin Park? You’ll wear yourselves out). Unsure if the music’s still entertaining? Ask. I know there’s a great feeling of sleekness in being a silent host, that anticipates their guests’ wishes and makes micro adjustments before they even know they wanted it, but remember that is a skill like any other. It’s not shameful to develop this intuition over time, and the easiest way of sensing what people want is…well, having them tell you.


There was one moment – it was accidental and happened on a board gaming session, I’ll admit it, but it stuck with everyone at the table and all of them could tell this story as I will now. We were playing Pandemic on the hardest difficulty level because we lack self-respect. As presumed, the game started beating us from the first round, and it was absolutely brutal, but with some good card draws and the right character classes, somehow we were making it. The playlist at one point had finished and started showing recommendations based on what was on beforehand, you know how it is, but we weren’t minding it that much since the game was so tense.

To win, we had to get the exact cards from the Infection Draw Pile. Twice. It was not looking good and the song itself barely matched what was happening at the moment – something from Civilization that started in a mellow, but promising way. As the game progressed and we got the first draw as needed, our moods got better. Expectant. The song started to build up, big, booming drums anticipating something bigger. And then…we won. The last Infection card was a location we could manage, and the results were clear. Just as that happened, drums and cymbals climbed up to the song’s climax. Harps, flutes, bells, violins and many flavors of brass instruments accompanied a choir heralding our victory. We embraced, basking in the song and our victory. Mmm. Chef’s kiss.

the impact of sound and music on rpg games

Time to Get Fancy

This last tier will require more previous work than the last ones, while also demanding some level of multitasking on your part. It has a simple essence: develop a soundboard.

There are lots of apps and softwares prepared for this kind of task and, while not created exclusively with DMing in mind, we can easily appropriate them for our sessions. As I said, the planning aspect is as much fun as it is demanding: you have to anticipate parts of your adventure, building your soundscape accordingly. Will it be full of  brawls? Grab some bone-cracking, sword-clinking, yelps, grunts or simply general fighting sound effects. There are more than enough of these out there. Are they exploring caves, woods, forgotten or purposefully hidden places?

Sparse, reverberating, ominous slithering sounds help to establish the atmosphere whilst you describe their windings through that dungeon. If your player lands that finishing blow on  a creature, it adds a bit of flavor to the experience if you play a sound of a yelping/hissing monster just before informing the results. A tavern setting gets more immersive with some traditional music, layers upon layers of conversation played one over another, the creaking of wooden tables, stools and doors.

Be Diligent, You’ll Get There

As with any of the skills involved in the act of playing RPGs, this is a separate, but not independent, area that has to be trained on. Keep it simple at first, start experimenting with different apps, playlists, software, tools, control stations, button layouts and speakers. Eventually, you’ll find the best setting that not only delivers the best labor-benefits factor for you but also helps to further engage players into your gaming sessions. Extra work into providing the best experience for the group should be always appreciated, but be mindful to not bite more than you can chew so that this effort backfires.

So go on, mess around, try to add some voice-acting, dabble, dawdle and doodle. Add another level of sensory immersion to your world – and be sure to let us know of the unique moments stemming from this new layer of complexity woven into your adventures.

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