GM Tips: Sound Effects

GM Tips articles offer advice and ideas for gamesmasters to help hone their techniques and run their games, these lists are not exhaustive but provide some tips to point a GM in the right direction.

We all know from films and television that soundtracks and sound effects add a lot to the atmosphere of whatever we’re watching, for example, the jump-scare so common to horror films wouldn’t be as effective without the tense music building up to it, the short moment of quiet beforehand and then the discordant shrieking when the nasty makes its sudden appearance to menace the protagonists of the piece. I’ve talked a bit about music in games before and how effective that can be, although it is somewhat difficult to implement effectively over Google Hangouts and such programs, which is where I tend to run the majority of my games now since I live in a fairly small town, music player and broadcast through a microphone tends to sound distorted and tinny.

Thunder MakerI was tidying up our spare room recently when I came across an old prop I’d bought for a LARP game I ran years and years ago (yes I know, I’m a bit of a hoarder), the prop is called a Thunder Maker and is essentially a large plastic cup with a spring hanging from the bottom of it, when you hold it by the handle shake the cup the spring moves around and a noise similar to thunder is created.

The sound you get from the Thunder Maker isn’t the most convincing thunder sound in the world however it’s clear enough what it is supposed to be and would be an easy prop to have ready and sat next to you when you were running a game using Google Hangouts or Skype. I’ve made a recording of it so you can judge for yourself:

The main benefit of re-discovering the old prop was that it got me thinking more about how to bring sound effects into a roleplaying game, just to be clear we’re talking about sound effects here rather than music, that’s a whole different topic with its own set of issues and potential solutions. Radio and audio plays often use fairly commonplace items to create convincing sound effects, since the audience can’t see the item that is being used to make the effect and they’re listening to a story the illusion is maintained. It occurred to me that this could be a great way of producing sound effects for RPGs; obviously you’re not going to do every sound effect for the game, but certainly in particularly atmospheric moments or when you’re reaching a climactic scene it could do a lot to improve the immersion of your game, after all humans are multi-sensory creatures, using these extra senses helps to draw people in to the game more.

Here are some suggestions for sound effects you could produce at your table:

  • Fire: Crinkle paper or cellophane near your microphone.
  • Rain: Sprinkle coarse sand or rice onto a thin surface or into a bowl.
  • Slime: Squelch some wet pasta in a bowl.
  • Slime dripping: Pour thick yoghurt from one container to another.
  • Water: Stir a pan of water with your hand.
  • Twig snapping: Grab a small twig from your garden and snap it close to the mic.
  • Bones crunching and breaking: Snap a carrot or other hard root vegetable.
  • Breaking glass: Take several small glass and metal objects, place them in a bag and then gently drop them onto a surface near your mic (being careful not to actually break the glass).
  • Body blows: Punch a pillow or cushion, alternatively try rolling up a newspaper and hitting it with a stick.
  • Horse hooves: Tap two coconut shells together.
  • Footfalls in snow: Place a tray of corn starch or cat litter near your feet and step in it.
  • Footfalls in leaves: Use your feet or hands to crunch a bowl of cornflakes.
  • The sound of chainmail moving: Jangle a bunch of keys near to your mic.
  • Tentacles/vines growing: Squeeze together lettuce, cabbage and other such vegetables.
  • Heart-beat: If you have a pop-filter over your mic, tap your finger gently on it in a 1-2 1-2 rhythm.
  • Calm ocean/waves: If you have a pop-filter run your finger gently over it.
  • Wind: Take a ziploc/resealable bag and inflate it, then seal it. When you want to make the sound, unseal a small part of the bag and slowly force the air out of it near to your mic.

Picture is part of a Doré wood engraving illustration from The Divine Comedy labeled for reuse on Google Image Search, the original image can be found here.

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