Yesterday’s guest on NPR’s Radio West was Fred Newman, the extraordinary sound effects artist who uses his voice to do all of the effects for traveling shows of A Prairie Home Companion (can you tell I grew up on public radio?), and he said something fascinating that seemed directly applicable to GMing.
As a GM, I know that my voice is my primary tool in running a session, and in making that session fun. That’s pretty obvious, really. But knowing it instinctively and actually considering it are two different things, and before hearing Fred’s comment, I had never thought of it in those terms.
I’m paraphrasing, but what Fred said boiled down to this: When you’re watching a movie and you’re scared, don’t cover your eyes — instead, cover your ears and just watch the action. Why? Because the images are telling you what’s going on, but all the emotion is in the soundtrack, from the sounds and the voices of the actors to the score itself.
Think about that for a moment in terms of GMing. All of the emotion is in the soundtrack. As GMs, what do we do? Describe what happens in the game world, and act out the parts of the NPCs. It’s all sound-based.
And what don’t we do, with occasional exceptions? Provide visuals. Even when we do show photos or hand out maps, that only accounts for a tiny percentage of the amount of time we spend talking and describing stuff.
Assuming Fred’s right about all the emotion being in the soundtrack — and while I haven’t tested it by putting on a horror movie, I definitely see (no pun intended) what he’s getting at — that suggests a couple of things.
First, that we as GMs have a tremendous tool available to us that, at least based on my own experience, we don’t always take full advantage of: our voices, and the emotion and intensity that we can convey in our descriptions and acting.
Something else Fred mentioned on the show was how much of an impact doing even a few rudimentary sound effects while telling a story (his example was reading to your kids) can have on what the audience gets out of it, and how much fun you have telling it. I occasionally make whistling wind noises or creaking door sounds when I GM, but not all that often — and that seems like a pretty big missed opportunity.
The second thing I took away from Fred’s comment was that unlike films, we don’t have visuals to rely on to get across the basics — what’s happening in a scene, what everyone looks like, how far apart the PCs are, etc. I know that’s blindingly obvious (again, no pun intended), but when you tie it back into using sound effects more and the emotional impact of voices and sound in general, it only increases the importance of getting the vocal side of things right.
Instead of just describing a room, for example, why not make a small sound effect or two to convey the atmosphere? Or change your vocal delivery to match the mood you’re going for in the scene?
Instead of just doing NPC voices (always a fun GMing technique), why not consider the emotional impact of the dialogue itself? And if you usually only do voices for important NPCs, why not spread the love and give minor NPCs their own inflections and speech patterns as well?
That’s some of what comes to mind for me when I think about Fred’s insight as it relates to GMing. Am I just rambling, or am I onto something here?
I fully agree with the fact that auditory cues help spur people into emotion. It is one of the reasons that I reward players for talking in character. It helps get everyone in the feel of the game, and spurs others into being more involved. I don’t try to do sound effects (I feel silly), but I do have some generic background “landscapes” noises (mostly captured from video games) that I use. For a war game I played I recorded about 5 minutes of battlefield noises from a wwII game, etc. I also have generic sound effects in a folder. Like high winds, water, etc.
I came to this epiphany a few years ago.
For the longest time, I envisioned my campaigns as if they were television series. The analogy, while useful, didn’t quite gel.
That’s when I realized that running an RPG in a “tv style” is actually more akin to a radio serial.
In radio, everyone hears the same story but is free to interpret it as they will in their head. As a GM, I have to be very clear about conveying locations and atmosphere to cut down on the “wait a minute! I thought he was right next to me? What do you mean he’s across the room?” complaints.
I do use music and sound effects to enhance the mood (hooray, laptop and wireless connection!), and we do use pictures to help visualize characters (I use a casting model, where we attach RL people to characters), but it’s primarily our words that convey the action. I’m far more likely to describe a room than waste 15 minutes sketching it out.
[As an aside, one key element missing from most four-color superhero games was the fancy costuming. Without a visual reference, it could be quite a mouthful to describe the latest NPC’s spandex outfit (Hero Machine really helped me out on this.)]
I owned a copy of Newman’s “Mouth Sounds” back in the day, and could only ever manage to do about half of them well. Further crippling my self-produced sound-effects shop, I lost my falsetto to a bad case of strep throat when I was in college, so my female voices now must be merely a high-register baritone (bleah).
More on point, I am with you on this one, Martin. Robin Laws made some great suggestions in his various writings about being sure to change the pace, tone and volume of your voice regularly when GMing. Monotone puts people to sleep — plain and simple. Adding sound effects is another way to keep things interesting, but I think you have to be careful about over-doing it, or doing it poorly, and thus ruining the mood.
Another good suggestion from Mr. Laws on use of voice is to be sure to pause for a few moments during long descriptions. Lengthy monologues and speeches are, in general, to be avoided. Give the players a chance to react and respond; it will keep them more engaged.
I once berated a PC wizard as a great wyrm gold dragon in the deepest, most commanding voice I could muster. The effect was priceless. It’s the only time I’ve ever gotten a genuine “deer in headlights” look from a player. 😉
I always play background music broken up into mood/scene playlists on my Creative Zen (the tracks are played randomly). For skirmishes or action scenes, I use an “Action” playlist. I have a seperate playlist named BBEG for the bigger fights. I also have Exploring, Horror, Aftermath, City, Tavern, and a few others.
For the first time last night, I began using ambient sound effects that I downloaded from a web site (forgot where). The tracks are 5-10 minutes long and include docks, busy city street, busy market, rowdy tavern, jungle, shoreline, and a few others. I played these tracks from my laptop and continued to use the music from the Zen.
For reference, I’m running an Eberron campaign. The PCs had just made their way to Stormreach where they explored the city (city and market sounds) and river docks (busy dock sounds), and they also traveled down a jungle river (jungle sounds).
My players appreciated the additional layer of audio, and you could almost see a difference in mood while they played. Every now and then a sound such as a loud bird call or a person shouting might distract us, but overall, it really added a lot to the feel of the game.
We should not forget that we MUST also take care of our voices!
How could a DM run a game without talking!
Only by a Miracle!
as a teacher, singer and DM, IÂ´m always worried about that! sometimes I canÂ´t even do some stuff I know will damage my voice. Sometimes I wonÂ´t even DM!
Yes, itÂ´s good to change the voice (tone), but if the groups give some support(doing that themselves) it becomes much easier!
Fred Newman was from my hometown, (LaGrange, Ga.) but he is several years older than me. He’s done all kinds of movie sound effects (He was the dolphins in “Cocoon”) and used to come give lectures and demonstrations all the time at various school and public library functions. A great guy.
I didn’t hear this NPR piece, but he used to talk about while growing up, he would be at the corner store and all the old men would be sitting around outside telling stories. He would sit down to listen and be mesmerized. He once bought a popsicle, sat down to listen to them, and was so enraptured by the stories that he didn’t realize his whole popsicle had melted while he listened.
Don’t I wish I could hold my players’ attention like that!
Spurred on, I think, by the Pokemon generation, my drama teacher years ago once made us do a scene saying only the word “hello,” with different inflections. It was fun to see afterwards what people thought had happened.
I only mention this because I think it helped a lot with putting emotion in my voice. With only one word to say and remember, it was easy to pay attention to pitch, volume, and amusingly enough, pacing.
I’d love to read a quick primer on how to make the most of your voice when GMing, and I’ve never seen anything like that. A book on doing so for stage acting would probably be a good second choice — Dan (or anyone else who’s read something like this), do you have any suggestions along those lines?
I’m with Martin. I would greatly appreciate some information specifically on how to prevent injuries to our voices as you dan said (“sometimes I canÂ´t even do some stuff I know will damage my voice.”).
While dm’ing I have experienced the effect that ambience sound appropiate voice add to a session. I remember once when the PC group was in a castle owned by a vampire. Before entering I turned off almost all the lights in the room and I started moving around behind them while describing the rooms with a very slowly paused voice. When I went back to my seat their faces where fixed on me and I almost started laughing. Their attention was allmost on my words. After about half their way through the castle they asked me to stop talking so slowly because I was freaking them out and the girl in the group was really considering leaving because her nerves were killing her. This session was 10 years ago and they still talk about it.