Today’s guest article by Jakob Kallin is about RPG Ambience, a free tool for GMs. He initially wrote to us to tell us about the app, but once I’d checked it out I asked him to submit an article about using it. Thanks, Jakob!

Ten years ago, I started planning my first Star Wars campaign. After watching the movies over and over, I knew one thing that I just had to include in my game: music. When the first session started and the sound of the iconic Star Wars intro thundered onto my gaming table, I knew right away that the game had been taken to another level.

In the years that followed, I continued experimenting with adding music to my games. I eventually started accompanying it with images, and later I began introducing sound effects for in-game events. Everything that I learned from these experiences has now been incorporated into a free, browser-based, open-source application: RPG Ambience.

What RPG Ambience does

RPG Ambience lets you create scenes that consist of any combination of images, music, and text. When you’re at the gaming table, you can quickly play scenes by using keyboard shortcuts that you define yourself.

This is the core of RPG Ambience, and although it seems deceptively simple, scenes are flexible enough to support many different effects that can really enhance your gaming experience. If your fingers are already itching, you can go ahead and try out RPG Ambience right in your browser. If you’re looking for some inspiration and ideas on how to use it, a few examples follow below.

Example 1: Intro sequence: The players have all gathered around the table for their new Star Wars campaign. Having just watched the movies for the umpteenth time, they’re expecting something epic. The GM presses a button, and the words “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. . . .” fade into view on the living room TV. A moment later they fade out, and the Star Wars logo storms onto the screen, accompanied by the famous opening theme. With another press of a button, the GM fades in a screen of text describing the story so far, making the players feel as if they are truly watching the next episode of Star Wars.

Example 2: Dramatic effect: The PCs have hunted down a Sith Lord that they intend to bring to justice for his crimes. The GM describes the antagonist and with the press of a button brings up a portrait of him that fills the TV screen. A PC steps forward and proclaims, “In the name of the Galactic Senate of the Republic, you are under arrest.” Instead of replying, the GM presses a button. In the same instant, the players hear the sinister hum of a Sith lightsaber igniting as the image on the screen changes to the same Sith Lord brandishing his weapon.

Example 3: Background ambience: The PCs are exploring a new and exotic city. On the TV screen they see a panoramic view of the city while the speakers give off the sound of busy city streets. As they move between different parts of the city, the GM presses a button to quickly change the mood: In the plaza, they see a vast marketplace and hear street vendors calling out for customers; in the slums, they see a maze of dark alleys and hear the sound of gunshots in the distance.

Putting it together

The examples given above require very different degrees of preparation for the GM, but common to all of them is that they are a complement to your own narration, not a replacement for it. Many digital tools, such as dice rollers, character generators, and virtual tabletops, seek to replace some aspect of the game. RPG Ambience, on the other hand, adds a new dimension to the game without taking anything away, just like the soundtrack to a movie enhances the experience without removing the need for great acting and writing.

The flexibility of the scene concept allows you to decide for yourself how much ambience to use. You might use it only for quick access to looping background music, but you could go as far as playing out every blaster shot and every sword blow; the application supports both extremes. Some GMs might use it as a tool to better describe events in their game, while others might use it to make session preparation more stimulating. For some groups, it might even be the spark needed to reinvigorate a campaign that has become stale and predictable.

The future of RPG Ambience

RPG Ambience can do a lot already, but there are features planned that will add some capabilities and make other things easier. The application itself is free and open-source, released under a license that promotes sharing and openness. In that sense, it truly is a community project that belongs to all roleplayers who want to use it. If you are a developer, you are free to modify the application and release the changes for the benefit of other gamers.

To start using RPG Ambience, visit the project’s website. It’s free and doesn’t require any installation or registration.

Note: All of the examples described above can be realized using RPG Ambience. Unfortunately, copyright issues prevent me from actually sharing them with other gamers. When you are running RPG Ambience in your own browser, however, there are no restrictions on what you can do with it.