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?