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.

About  Guest Author

The article you just read was written by a Gnome Stew reader. We can’t say which one in this bio, since the bio appears with all guest articles, but whoever they are we can all agree that they possess supernatural beauty and magical powers, and are generally awesome. Gnome Stew readers rock!

13 Responses to RPG Ambience: Bring Your Game to Life with Music and Visuals

  1. Hi, this looks like a good idea and simple to use. This looks fully usable as is. A “nice to have” would be to show this on two different screens, maybe by being able to open an adventure in two different browser windows and use one of them as the remote control window.

    Also, are you able to save named adventures and retrieve them or does it just remember what you worked on last through cookies? I would want to be able to save my sessions in a database or locally. Useful as backup, if I want to take it to a different PC and if I want to prepare for several adventures (or different people use the same PC).

    I will certainly bookmark this.

  2. Tarostar: I’m glad you like it.

    Multiple windows: That’s a good idea, and it’s something I have in mind for the future.

    Moving adventures between computers: That’s not possible at the moment. The technical reason for it is that files would become very large as soon as they included just a few music tracks, and browsers at the moment don’t handle large files too well. My hope is to integrate RPG Ambience with cloud storage services like Dropbox in the future.

    If you are using Google Chrome, it can be done manually by copying a few files from the hard drive of your computer to your other computer. If you want help with this, send me an email (the address is under the Help tab in RPG Ambience).

  3. I’m curious how you would get things to blend in to each other. I don’t see how you can have the intro theme playing while the other scenes play as well. From my experimenting, if I hot key to another scene the music restarts with the new scene instead of blending from the last.

    Also, any decent sound libraries you can think of. Most of the ones I search for for ambiance sounds require some kind of pay for the sound files.

    • You can blend scenes into each other by using the Layer or the Mixin features. They’re right below the Name and Hotkey fields of every scene, and putting the mouse over their labels brings up a small tooltip about their functionality.

      You are right in that most libraries of “ambient sounds” (such as birds chirping in a forest) cost money, and I’m afraid I can’t help much in that regard. In general, it is much easier to find soundtracks; Gnome Stew has previously compiled a list of 41 awesome soundtracks that can serve as a good starting point.

      In my experience, soundtracks are usually more evocative than loops of ambient sounds, so I reserve sound effects for one-shot things like a dragon’s roar. Short clips like those are a bit easier to find for free on the web.

      • I’m thinking more of having a cave background sounds on loop to keep the feel of being in a dark cave… Changing that to the sounds of a waterfall or forest as needed.

        I’ve found a couple but I’m not on my gaming laptop so I can’t really save anything. :(

        • One approach that is somewhat clunky but can actually work quite well is to start up a suitable computer game, place your character in the environment that you’re trying to capture, and then set an audio editor to record everything that’s going through the sound card. I did this with Baldur’s Gate many years ago and it turned out great. If you make the tracks long enough, there won’t be any obvious loops in them (at least no more obvious than they are in the game itself). As long as the game allows you to turn off any music that may be playing, it should work.

  4. Impressive, but what if you want to use your laptop for other GM duties? Do you use two laptops?

    • The design of RPG Ambience assumes that the GM has access to one monitor that is used only for displaying scenes. If he does, then he can run his laptop connected to the standalone monitor in dual-screen mode, putting RPG Ambience on the standalone monitor and his other tools on the laptop monitor.

      If you use RPG Ambience only for playing audio, then switching between RPG Ambience and the other tools on the same monitor should be enough.

      Does that answer your question, or did I misunderstand something about the setup?

  5. Is Ogg the only audio format supported?

  6. As an unabashed Mac user, I was a little disappointed to find out that neither the teaser nor the application are compatible with Safari. Are there any plans to extend the application to this format? It looks like a pretty nifty bit of kit…

    • Unfortunately, Safari does not support a feature called IndexedDB, which is used to store sound and images locally in the user’s browser.

      I am currently looking at how to integrate RPG Ambience with Google Drive, which would allow users of Safari and other browsers to store their adventures in the cloud. If you want to receive the latest news about this and other features, join the RPG Ambience Google Group.

  7. Music can be a great mood enhancer when done right. I’ve used it fairly well in Star Wars games. The main title plays when the players read the opening scrawl. What theme song is more easily recognizable? The Battle of Yavin theme plays during a large space battle. Segments of the Imperial March play whenever an Imperial fleet draws near.

    During my last Old Republic Star Wars series, the music was flowing gently on one of the Princess Leia themes – representing a PC’s sister’s plight. A few seconds before discovering her Sith Lord captor, it changed over to the Emperor’s ominous durge. The players certainly sat up and took notice, a couple of them exclaiming an audible, “Uh oh.”

    Now that I’ve started using my laptop for gaming notes and access to PDFs during play, it would be even easier to have prepared a series of mood music bits or even sound effects to enhance the atmosphere. As long as the music doesn’t distract from the game (loud and continual), it can be most useful indeed.

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