Updated: Aug 20
The use of sound as a medium to draw in listeners has been around since the dawn of time and is one of the storyteller's greatest assets. Through dramatic tone, musical instruments, and sound effects, sounds have been used to bring life to storytelling.
Consequently, sounds are your best assets as a Dungeon Master to layer in the atmosphere needed to conjure feelings in your players. At my table, we have enjoyed the use of several platforms to set the scene: soundboards to make the wizard feel more cosmic and the swashbuckler more dramatic in their strikes, crazy voices, and mannerisms of NPCs (which encourage players to give voice to their characters in turn), and atmospheric music to set the right tone.
To accomplish the above, I have used Syrinscape, Battlebards, Spotify, Tabletop Audio, and others over the years of play, and each has its strong points. Syrinscape has a robust creative platform that allows you to craft and develop sounds. Battlebards is completely cloud-based and is continuing to grow every month. Spotify, being a powerhouse of streaming music, covers many genres. Tabletop Audio is completely free to use and has a solid catalog. Each of these sound applications appeals to its audiences, and I personally have added depth to my table by using each.
Yet, the focus of this article will not be on these platforms. While I could write on each in detail, there are many authors and YouTubers who have already done these reviews. I encourage you to search out those individuals should you want to learn more about those programs.
What I am here to talk about is an alternative sound option... you. Your players know your voice much like a puppy knows its human's. So today, I'm going to teach you a method to enable you to do something they will not be expecting, but some tools are required to do this.
You need a way to cue audio at a precise moment and play it at the table with speakers.
You need a microphone and a computer.
You need Audacity to record your voice (I recommend this software as it is free). You can find it here: https://www.audacityteam.org/.
Before we dive into the exercise, it would help to outline an application of this method to show you the end goal. As the DM, you have but one voice. You can only manipulate your voice in the now to a certain degree without using devices to aid those changes. For example, you likely cannot speak at one side of the table and then the other side in a split second (unless you're The Flash ^_^), nor can you cause your voice to encircle the players or layer over itself easily. The only way you can do this is either sprinting awkwardly around the table or repeat the last piece of the word you said like an echo... echo... echo...
This is not ideal when trying to create maddening voices in the dark or startle your players with the sudden noise of your voice coming from the other side of the room.
Below is an application I used at my table (but feel free to jump down to the following section as this is merely background and not essential for your understanding of the method).
The following relates to a 2-year plot device that is still growing.
In the prior campaign I was running, I created a HomeBrew item that was a book, and it contained several spells. This book was cursed and would bind itself to a PC with ethereal chains. Additionally, accessing its spells would slowly cause the book to take over the PC for a dark purpose. I made it even more of a mental problem by giving it the spell, Dispel. My players quickly concluded that it served as a warning. Any attempt to cast Dispel on the book may have consequences (as yet to be discovered by the PCs).
One of my players had managed to get afflicted by this book before this campaign had come to a close, our Druid. Every step she took led to dying ground beneath her. All that was verdant died around her, and visions began to swirl in her mind of death and ruin.
I was quite excited to see where the party took this plot device. ^_^ Alas, the campaign fizzled out as some members left the group, yet the majority remained for a new campaign.
Flash forward nearly a year after and I had started a new HomeBrew campaign, and one of my players wanted to DM a small two-session story to give me a break. I thought this was an excellent idea and was quite excited for his first go as a Dungeon Master. So now, assuming the role of a PC, I rolled up a cleric, Rift of House Heirlock.
I was surprised to see that he had taken the prior campaign's PCs and converted them into NPC characters when we began. All of the original players had returned, so this was a delight for everyone. To add to this surprise, the book came back with extended lore as he adapted it as part of the BBEG (Big Bad Ending Guy).
After a long battle, we defeated the BBEG, and one of the players Dispelled the book.
This piqued my interest a lot as they were hesitant to do it in the last campaign. As I was not the DM, I was also curious about what the acting DM would rule.
In the end, he ruled that the book lay dormant.
As the creating DM of the original book, I wouldn't let any non-clerk take hold of it. As such, I had Rift of House Heirlock take the book from the city. 7 days later, in the acting Dungeon Master's conclusion wrap up... Rift was taken by the book. Dispel did not remove all the dark magic. Dispel only muted it for a time.
I loved it.
Rift was now out in the wilds with this book of darkness, and the keys were left on the table for the future. Not only that but the effects of Dispel upon the book were now made known. This made my mind run through the "What If?" I discussed this in the prior article.
The following session, we resumed our normal game, and I once again assumed my DM's chair, but I kept the above in the back of my mind for the future, laying a trap which I could spring at the opportune moment.
They finally explored the house they earned. They found the portal and entered, the opening shutting behind them, trapping them in a pocket of darkness, torment, and death. This is exactly where I wanted Rift to show up with the book, making the book's legend grow.
The players were wandering the back halls of Hell after entering the portal in their home. Their limited magical light provided small comfort in the darkness that stalked them in this narrow, unchanging hallway. The red stone floors and jagged walls threw elongated shadows as the sound of dragging chains followed, a constant companion. They walked like this for some time before a voice began singing out to them from the darkness.
They paused to listen.
A wave of darkness hit their lights upon the song's conclusion, snuffing out all magic and torches. Quickly, the cleric reacted, casting Daylight to break the magical darkness, but the party was no longer alone. Another person stood in their midst. Rift of House Heirlock, who was carrying a magical book. As she moved, the sound of chains followed. The party attempted to ask her questions, but she provided nothing coherent.
As the party spoke, shadows of people began to gather around Rift, speaking to her in dark whispers before yanking her like a marionette out of the group. Rift struggled.
Clicking the audio file I created (roughly 30 minutes to put together), I filled the room with my voice with layered music and chains. Each voice was its own persona. One voice accused Rift, and one repeated her name; others told her to kill more. Beyond this, more voices repeated in different pitches as the music began to come to its crescendo. Two demonic-sounding voices filled the space during these last few moments, saying that Rift cannot disobey and declared their name. While this occurred, I portrayed Rift, flailing my arms at invisible shadows and yelling at the void. While I don't have a video of this, I acted over the audio file for understanding.
Using an audio program allows you to create depth that is harder to achieve when you are a solo DM. For example, you can record several layered tracks that are your voice and content as a DM with Audacity. Then play them back to act off of like an additional partner you can control.
So let's look at how to plan, record, and create using Audacity. (Note - I assume some computer competency. As such, I will start it after the program is installed and you are ready to record with a mic plugged in.)
1) You need to understand your base ambiance.
What I mean is your tone for the additional voice piece. The above example was a horror. We will continue with this example to define the steps.
Your ambiance could be a tavern, a battle, or something else creative. Use this to drive your script.
In fact, if your players are infiltrating an organization and they need to get from one end to the other while the BBEG is giving a speech to a crowd, you could record that speech and then adjudicate player actions as it plays in the background.
2) Write the script.
Writing the script allows you to stay on track and test out several different iterations of a piece.
For example, I had written words spoken at different intervals to keep the theme on task. I also wrote out the brief line at the end to stay focused and repeat it as needed.
This is where Improv can work against you if you are recording a long-winded speech. If you find audio contamination on playback, you now are stuck in a situation of trying to duplicate that speech without a script or hoping you can remove a section without it causing an audio skip.
3) Do your first recording and playback.
Do your first take. Click the record button (#1) and click the stop button (#2) when you are finished with the track.
Chances are you may not like the first take, but do a few until you're comfortable. Trust me. You sound better than you think. You have people show up to your games, and they listen to your voice. So don't be bashful - you are awesome.
While listening, you may also hear some background noise you were not expecting in your environment. Things like electronics, dog noises, fans, etc., are considered audio contamination if they are not meant to be there (CURSE YOU TEXT MESSAGES). So turn off and minimize these noises where you can. You may also use a blanket over your setup to help dampen the noise contamination, similar to a pop filter.
4) Continue as you work through the pieces you need
As this was a layered piece, I had multiple tracks I needed to put into place. You can add additional tracks following the image below.
When you record your pieces, wear headphones. This allows you to hear each track to time the voices where you want them to land and prevents playback contamination. By default, Audacity will play any prior recorded track unless you mute them. If you are using speakers, you will likely hear the track in the new track you are recording.
If you want to cancel out tracks, so you do not hear them use the Mute button (#1 in the below image). If you want to hear one of the many tracks you have, instead of muting all of them, use the Solo button on the track (#2 in the image)
The awesome part of having each track recorded means choosing your favorite performance and removing the others not needed.
5) Once completed, export and move to your playback device.
Once you have the file placed on your playback device, you will need to set up your speakers for what you are intending.
For me, I use a laptop with computer speakers and sub with enough wiring to run out to my left and right. This serves as my foundation for sound, transferring voices to the left or right channels around my table. I also use my cellphone for additional audio files that I send via Bluetooth to my Bose placed across the room to add distance. If you have a stereo that doesn't have Bluetooth, you can use a receiver to convert the stereo to receive Bluetooth signals like the one I use. (affiliate Link: Blue Tooth Audio Adaptor)
As with any plot points (and as I've noted in other articles), your players drive the story, and there is always the possibility of spending a great deal of time and effort on a recording that is never trigged by your PCs. So choose things you record wisely, or record things you are absolutely positive you will use.
The above story of Rift was part of an intro into the evening's play. As the track faded and I finished my last bit, I turned over control to players with the phrase, "What do you all do?" signifying it's go time.
When you start to create your atmosphere, I suggest you research a platform that suits your music needs. Syrinscape, Battlebards, Spotify, and Tabletop Audio are some of my suggestions. From there, create some play-lists in themes. Combat, sadness, tense, happy are some common themes that come up at the table.
Additionally, I would develop a plan to use audio and record some test files for future use. To help, I will be covering Barking in an upcoming article.
Until next time... Keep creating, keep thinking, and keep wandering.