What are the downsides of adding sounds to your online RPG game?
This short article looks at the pros and cons of adding a dedicated soundboard/soundscape tool to your online D&D game. I have been running sounds in my games for several years now and after a few failed attempts I am now a huge advocate. However, it is not for everyone and there are some valid reasons for not diving straight in.
Why add sound to your RPG campaign?
OK, so what is up for grabs in adding some sounds to your virtual table?
- Players love the immersion - my table absolutely loves the soundscapes and effects I use at the table. The high level of immersion resulting from the soundscapes is a regular feedback point after each session and my table is willing to pay to keep the sounds on.
- Emotional texture - there is a reason all movies major on sound: we are hardwired to react to sounds with an emotional response. As DM you can weave an emotional texture into your game with a single soundscape click (creepy, victorious, melancholic, etc)
- Bring weather to life - I love using sounds to convey the weather non-verbally. My table recently travelled to the Amber Temple in Curse of Strahd, which is based in freezing conditions atop a mountain. The whistling wind and sounds of their footfall crunching in the snow had the table virtually shivering.
- Make battle “pop” - whether it’s the clash of steel, the creaking string of a taut longbow about to fire, or the booming explosion of a fireball thrown into battle, adding sound into your combat seriously levels up the immersion for your players.
- You can give your players their own soundboards - some of the platforms enable you to give your players their own soundboards which they love for adding their own sound effects in-game such as spell and combat sounds. You can find out how I give my players their own Syrinscape soundboards from right within Roll20 here.
What are the downsides?
Despite the glossy marketing around these soundboard tools, adding sound to your campaign is not all roses! Here are the key downsides I have found:
- It either costs money or time (and often both!) - there are cheap and cheerful ways to add sound without spending money but they tend to require a lot of time to create and/or curate your sound lists or are very limited in what sounds are available (so fine for a tavern encounter but limited for a whole campaign). For me, having tried a few free options (and being time-poor!), I ended up spending some money to get a decent soundscape experience.
- It requires additional DM prep time - the amount of time required will vary hugely depending on which tool and campaign you are running. Of the tools I have tried, using Syrinscape with one of the WotC campaigns that have premade soundsets is probably the minimum prep time I have come across, but even for these, there is still some prep time needed, albeit relatively small.
- It adds some more tech to your online table - you as DM will have another piece of tech to manage. Depending on the tool, your players may also need to install some additional tech too. This can be a major turn-off if you are running a game with people you do not know (e.g. are they on Windows or Mac etc), or who are technophobes. At my table, this has not been a big headache, but we are quite a techie group.
- It is another cognitive load on the DM: last but definitely not least - this one is perhaps the most important! If you are already feeling overwhelmed as DM (which happens to us all!), then it may not be the right time to add sound to your game. With the right tool and a little prep, the cognitive load is relatively low, but there’s no getting away from the fact that it is another thing for you to think about and manage. My advice is to start out with sounds in a campaign you are already comfortable DMing.
There are a bunch of fantasy soundscape providers and although none are perfect, my weapon of choice (after trying a few) is Syrinscape. It is one of the most expensive but my table shares the cost. If you are interested in a long-term review of Syrinscape, watch this space - that article is being penned right now!
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