Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Finally Discovering Tabletop Audio

 The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

Marcel Proust

The internet seems so infinite, with so many voices and creators, even when I simply look at the spaces inhabited by those catering to the adventure gaming hobby and greater sci-fi/fantasy fandom. I’m in no way omnipotent; it shouldn’t surprise me when I stumble upon, or others point out to me, exciting developments I’ve missed, even for years, that can enhance my gaming. I’ve been “late to the game” before, discovering new game material well after it’s launched and found popularity, often as it’s waning in the public interest or on the verge of passing into the dreaded “out-of-print” status. (And I’m not even touching the gaming trends that don’t appeal to me.) So I’m delighted with my belated discovery of Tabletop Audio given my lifelong love of music and my use of soundtracks while running roleplaying games.

I’ve discussed how music influenced my early gaming before. Growing up in a time before the ubiquity of VCRs I spent hours plugged into my stereo listening to great film soundtracks for media like Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and James Bond which, along with reading related novels and comic books, helped me experience the movie action once again. When I discovered roleplaying games for some of my favorite media properties – first the James Bond 007: Roleplaying on Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Star Wars: The Roleplaying GameI started taping my own adventure soundtracks from records (facilitated by the more narrative structure of scenarios with episodes to help estimate the atmosphere and action). CDs helped make things easier, though I still compiled soundtrack “mix tapes” for adventures. These sustained continued gaming in Star Wars as well as new games like Space 1889 and Cyberpunk 2020. Alas, adult responsibilities have eaten into my ability to host roleplaying games lately and, hence, my use of soundtracks in that gaming.

Just as music has always played a role in my life, it’s also inspired my game and fiction writing. Sometimes I just have classical music on in the background to help keep me motivated and focused. Other times I put on genre-specific music to help inspire me on specific projects. I have large CD libraries of classical music and soundtracks, most of which I’ve now ripped to my computer hard drive as audio files (I once owned a 200-CD carousel unit, now hopelessly obsolete in our ever-accelerating technological age). I’m always on the lookout for compelling music, whether it’s classical material I’ve never heard or new media soundtracks.

I suppose I’d heard of Tabletop Audio at some point before now. Maybe in a blog post or gaming news item. Certainly when I backed Shawn Tomkin’s Ironsworn: Starforged, which came with a backer reward of access to several Tabletop Audio tracks composed specifically for the game setting. I remember when they became available and I downloaded them. I was really impressed: each track merged background music with evocative ambient sounds for each theme. Some even offered multiple tracks with just the music and just the sounds. As with so many things that occur to me to look up later on the internet, it no doubt got lost in the flood of 18 other things that required my attention at that moment...and thus faded quickly from my immediate memory to “rediscover” later.

The arrival of the Ironsworn: Starforged physical rewards – the 400-page full-color, hardcover book (with bookmark ribbons), the 128-page reference guide, and the pack of slick asset cards – reminded me about the Tabletop Audio tracks. Following social media posts of other backers receiving and sharing photos of these great game components mentioned a link to Tabletop Audio’s website...which I followed to completely disappear down a wondrous gaming audio rabbit hole. Tim, a professional composer and sound designer, has almost 350 tracks available for free download; a number which, no doubt, will continue climbing throughout the year. Each lasts 10 minutes, an ideal time to let it run to provide audio atmosphere for a segment of roleplaying game action. For those doing the math, that’s more than 50 hours of free gaming accompaniment to download. The music is original and evocative of the given subject; the “ambiance” sounds don’t simply repeat in a loop but ebb and flow along with the music. Tracks range across numerous genres (sci-fi, fantasy, horror, historical, nature, and modern) with such titles as “Starbase Omega,” “Medieval Banquet,” Mega City Slums,” “Shuttle Crash,” and “Goblin Ambush” (and the website lets you sort them by genre). Supporters of Tim’s Patreon can also download many of the more recent tracks with music or ambiance only, giving gamemasters more options for using his audio to enhance games. Download tracks to play from your device. Use them with apps or on a virtual tabletop. Create a playlist on the website.

The tracks aren’t intrusive as standard movie soundtracks. Both the music and ambient sounds remain in the background, setting the tone but not driving the action. Soundtracks often have overly compelling motifs related to specific scenes, locations, and characters in the context of a movie’s plot; they can also can key off of one’s latent memory of the media (if folks have experienced the media before) on a subtle emotional level. Having used them myself in roleplaying games they can sometimes serve as a heavy handed cue not simply setting the scene but propelling the players along a particular course. Sometimes that works, particularly at climactic points in a game. But many times I’ve wished I just had good background music simply to accompany gameplay, not drive it; sounds to enhance everyone’s experience, not dominate it (and also distract me as the gamemaster while I cue up the next track or try to get my timing right). Tabletop Audio pieces enhance the game without overwhelming it. Let an appropriate track run in the background for its 10 minutes, then either repeat or loop it or have another suitable piece ready. Just want the lingering sound effects? Find one (or support the Patreon) or download one with ambiance only.

I’m looking forward to exploring Tabletop Audio’s immense library of themed tracks. Right now I can customize my playlist for musical inspiration on whatever project I’m developing (the fantasy roleplaying game setting at which I’ve hinted...) or while starting my Ironsworn: Starforged journey reading the book and creating my setting and character. I keep hoping I’ll find a roleplaying game group; when I do, Tabletop Audio will accompany us on our adventures.

My younger self would have loved discovering this amazing audio resource. Of course back then the internet was nothing like we know it today. We managed with the resources available at the time: records, tape decks, eventually CDs. Looking back at my 40 years playing in the adventure gaming hobby I’m often amazed at the advances we’ve made in all aspects of gaming. And while I’m often overwhelmed by the vast scope of it all – the creators, the kinds of games, new and evolving mechanics, innovative enhancements, ways of looking at games, media that instructs and reviews, increasing diversity on all levels – I’m enthralled by the relative handful that engage my interest and ultimately enhance my enjoyment of games.

Some of the greatest things, as I understand, they have come about by serendipity, the greatest discoveries.”

Alan Alda


  1. Thanks for finding and sharing this, it is something I've been looking for. I've made do with some pretty Nintendo-ish stuff til now [specifically one app for the iPad] although over the decades have used soundtracks from various movies and video games.

  2. If audio is your thing, then I've had great times with Audiomachine for inspiring content and KHInsider for video game music. Just Google both and see what you can find


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