Sound: Theater of the Mouse Part 1

Saturday night, huddled around our webcams, I was conducting my second session of the day. An introduction to D&D for some friends who suddenly have more free time. "That scared me!" Rupali cried. A guttural snarl cut through the backdrop of haunting music. Dark dreams danced across our minds. The audio made that encounter. Like a writhing parasite from The Face of War the layers of sound burrowed into our minds.

The Face of War - Salvador Dalí
The Face of War - Salvador Dalí

Learn to infect minds and twist hearts with sound. Join me for part one of Theater of the Mouse and add some theatrics to your Dungeons & Dragons game. Theater of the Mouse is a series on how I supercharge my tabletop RPG games with digital effects. All the effects work for both in person and remote games. For remote play the guide in section 5 covers most setups.


Table of Contents


Before we dive deeper, let's make sure you have everything you need to benefit from this guide. The short list is:

  1.  A computer
  2.  A way for your players to listen to what that computer is playing. If you're playing remotely and they can hear you talking, you're probably good

General requirements

You need a computer with a recent version of a web browser installed. You will need to open several tabs. I assume you have access to a music library or streaming service where you can access music. If you are playing in person I assume you have speakers that aren't so bad they actively ruin the mood. I also assume you'll be able to access your computer while playing. A tablet or laptop with a bluetooth speaker is probably your best bet if you play on the go.

Remote Play Requirements

If you are playing online it assumes you can install a program on your computer, open a private tab, and change your speaker and microphone devices in whatever program you're using to communicate. It also assumes your players have headphones of tolerable quality and are willing to put up with your music selection. 


Background music sets the tone for everything. My players face danger constantly so I emphasize that with music. I use soundtracks from adventure movies and video games almost exclusively. They're great places to look. Every good adventure features danger, so the songs transfer well. You don't have to spend hours hunting for music though.

Easy Mode

My first approach to music was a Hans Zimmer radio station on pandora. It worked pretty well. When a player who's old group didn't use music joined he told me the music made everything more intense. Just having background music at all was a step up. Pandora stations do have their limitations though.

Advanced Mode

Eventually I retired the soundtrack radio. Occasionally it broke immersion with songs like Hedwig's Theme. But other times a sinister transition intensified a critical moment. I found the soundtrack jukebox to be a better tool for most situations.

About 90 percent of a session I play an environment playlist. I have them for dozens of settings. Most of them aren't long, three or four songs, taken from fantasy games like The Elder Scrolls, The Witcher, or even the Sword Coast Legends official D&D game soundtrack. I aim for ten minutes of content for an environment, put it on loop, and call it good.

The subtle details in music really help sell an environment. That's why I pick tracks from environments as close to mine as possible. When my players explored an icy tower I used music from the frigid caverns and snowy caves in Skyrim. When they attended a royal ball I played Johannes Brahms' Hungarian Dances. Occasionally I have to get creative but I usually find something close.

For the other 10 percent of the time I try to pick something special. I pick an intro, outro and main track. The intro is where I put dramatic flairs. If the music has a crescendo, use it here. The middle track I use to maintain the intensity, avoiding any dramatic swings. I usually don't know how long players will spend in an area, so I put this one on loop. Once they're done I switch to the outro. After a hard fight this might be a triumphant tune, or one of mourning. If I don't know ahead of time I pick two outro tracks and decide at the last minute.


White noise. All the little sounds you tune out. They may not seem important, but your subconscious tracks them fastidiously. Volkswagen even adds fake engine noises to their cars to make your brain happy. Be careful though. It's tempting to add a lot of these but I find a light touch works best.

Especially be careful of noises that are tied to a specific environment or creature. If I add horse and wagon sounds while the party is traveling, I have to remember to turn them off every time they stop. That's a lot of toggling. Further, the party stopping usually indicates there's something else I should be worried about. So I typically stick to vague environmental sounds.

I get most of my ambiance from tabletop audio and Garage Band's Sound Library. I have no idea why Apple included two different lion roars in the extended soundpack, but I'm glad they did. They're quite terrifying.

tragedySound Effects

Movies and video games use these to punctuate specific events. You bet they played a big pow sound right when Indian Jones punched that nazi mechanic. Timing is easy since they add effects in post production. Live games have it a little harder.

During a D&D session the actions my players take are quite varied. And the places they do them even more so. It would be a lot of work for me to track down sound effects for every part of a dungeon. And a fools errand to attempt it for a more open place like a town. None the less, sound effects are quite useful.

In combat, I use them to punctuate killing blows and devastating attacks. Behead a goblin and I'll play a nice meaty thwack. Toast a group of them with a fireball and I'll play an explosion. Crit smite the boss and I might have a howl of pain handy. You get the idea.

This approach means I only need to account for what my players can do and what they might be fighting. Something I have to do anyway. It also makes those killing blows and awesome moments feel special. Additionally, I tend towards over the top noises. What they lack in realism they make up for in vivid imagery.

Adding Sound Online 

A few weeks ago this section would have barely been a footnote, now it's a necessity. My approach for this is a bit unconventional, but has several benefits. 


  1. Free: The software is either FOSS, donationware, or has an ample free tier.
  2. Use Anywhere: You can use my setup with almost any video or audio call/conferencing tool. Skype, Discord, Zoom, etc. The only requirement is you can choose what microphone the program uses. I personally use discord but it should work just as well with any other program.
  3. Cross-Platform: You can use this on Windows, Mac, or even Linux. 
  4. Source independent. It doesn't matter where you get your sound effects from. If you can play them on your computer, you can use them.
  5. Separate channel from your voice. Nothing sucks worse than being unable to hear someone over the music. Putting your music and sounds on a separate channel will let your players turn it up/down or mute it as needed. Trust me, it will bother them if they can't.
  6. System Independent: You can use whatever digital grid, character tracker, dice roller and RPG system you want. In a future post I'll write up how and why I use GIMP as my digital grid, and discord + Avrae for dice rolling and character tracking. But you can use this with or without any of those.

Set up

Configure a loop back audio device

  1. Windows users install vb-audio, which will give you a new audio output device "CABLE Input" and a new audio input device "CABLE Output".
  2. Mac users install BlackHole which will give you a new output device, "BlackHole 16ch" and a new input device "BlackHole 16ch". Download the installer for the latest version from that page. You're looking for the "Blackhole.v***.pkg" file under assets, you may have to scroll down a bit. Try to run the installer, after it says it can't install this software because it's from an unidentified developer, go to system preferences > security and there should be a popup saying system blocked software ... with an allow or Open Anyway button. Click that, and the installer should run. 
  3. Linux users. I implore you to embrace the adventure you've sought out by running Linux. You need to set up a loop back audio device. The internet is a wonderful place full of knowledge. I leave this task in your capable hands. Have fun and meet me back here once it's working. 

Create a second account in your audio conferencing tool

Yeah, that's a whole step. The important thing here is you need to have both accounts logged in and running at once. After you make a second account, start a call and join with both accounts

If you're using Discord, Skype, or another web based tool, I recommend running a private tab for the second account.

Configure the audio input device for the second account to be your loopback audio device from step one. Either "CABLE OUTPUT", "BlackHole 16ch" or for you brave linux users, whatever it happens to be named. You can leave the output device set to whatever you want, but either turn the output volume to zero or mute the tab by right clicking on it and selecting mute (tested in Chrome and Firefox).

Configure your audio input device for your main account to be your microphone and your audio output to be your speakers. You'll be changing the system default audio device in step three so be sure to specify your speakers or headset specifically.

Change your system audio output to the loopback device

The internet is full of tutorials on how to do this if you don't know.

Now you're ready to test it out. Start playing some music on your computer and you should be able to hear it. Mute your second account in the call and it should stop. Working? Perfect.

The biggest drawback is that all of your system sounds will get played over the call. So if you get lots of notifications be sure to turn on do not disturb during actual game play.

Bonus: Switching it all back

Once you're done, leave the call with both accounts. Then change your default output device back to your speakers/headset. From there, set your default input device back to your microphone.

Try playing some music and you should be able to hear everything normally again.

Remote Play Wrap-up

After seeing how easy and flexible this approach is I hope you understand why I use it. Hopefully in these troubled times this approach will bring a bit of life back to your game.

Parting Thoughts

This post is part 1 in Theater of the Mouse, a series about enhancing tabletop RPGs with digital effects. I use tools from movies and video games to elicit emotions from players and draw them deeper into my world. This compendium should be considered a hacks guide. I make no claims to be an expert, I assemble effects based on gut feel.

Thank you for reading this far. If you found this guide useful, all I ask is you share it with your friends. Perhaps they might enjoy it too. Until next time, may the dice roll ever in your favor.