I’m a sucker for ambient background noise, as you all know. I’m not such a sucker for background music, per se, unless the music called for from within the fiction: musicians in the inn or somesuch. But noise? Sure. Especially when the environment shapes game play, as the incoming tempest does in WFRP’s The Gathering Storm.

Now, I meditate, and those of us who do end up going through all kinds of ambient noise generators in our search for the perfect calm. Since I have a parrot and two very vocal cats, I perhaps go through even more kinds of ambient noise generators than the average meditator in an attempt to drown out the cacophony of my spoiled and demanding pets who think that meditation time is time to compete for my lap by screaming at the top of their furry little lungs. I discovered Naturespace as a meditation app, but I find I use it even more often while setting the scene for adventures in the outdoors.

Naturespace has made outstanding recordings of outdoor environments in what they call Holographic Audio. They’re designed for use with headphones (more on that in a minute,) because one of the things that make their recordings so interesting is that the creatures and sounds move around you; if you hear a bird flying by while chirping, you can track his trajectory by the way his sound moves from your right to your left headphone. The sound of waves move across from one side to the other rather than staying static. You’ve probably experienced this in other kinds of audio recordings, but Naturespace’s work isn’t gimmicky or overdone; much of the ambient noise “stays put,” so those things that move seem natural rather than like forced special effects.

Of course, if you’re playing over speakers so that the whole table can hear, you won’t get the benefit of some of the neatest aspects of NS’s work. Yet I’ve found few other providers of ambient audioscapes that create such realistic and compelling sounds as NS does. They also often mix in just the lightest touch of music, not really discernible unless you listen for it, just to help set the mood.

If you take a quick look at NS’s Natural Spaces catalogue, you’ll find  most outdoor environments a GM would want. Need a lake after a rainstorm? You’re covered. Howling winter wind? Got it. The Journeys catalogue carries all kinds of titles that seem specially created for a DM, with titles such as Aegir (a rocking ship during a storm,) Hansel and Gretel (a deep forest with eerie overtones,) or The Wolves (which, I would assume, has some wolves in it somewhere.) There’s a whole Nordic set and some sci-fi sounds, too. (I can’t vouch for the scifi stuff, since I haven’t picked any up. I’ll let you know if they’re any good if I ever get that project where I convert Rogue Trader to the Burning Wheel system off the ground.)

I made heavy use of some of the rain sounds when we were finishing up the last encounters of The Gathering Storm, and they were definitely a hit with my players. Just after they finished the storyline, the sun came back out, and I popped on the Daybreak Songbirds title as we were finishing up the RP. One of my players looked up at me halfway through and said, “Wow, the birds are really loud in your area, aren’t they?”

I use this as an app on my iPad, although you can download  sound files directly from NS’s website. The app itself is both beautiful and functional, as it includes a sleep timer and an option to restore all your purchases. It also makes it easy to see all your soundscapes and choose the right one quickly.

Although gimmicks such as background noise can easily be overused, I find that they can really spice up play every few sessions, and they often help to remind me to take environmental effects into account as I make DMing decisions. NS’s recordings might seem a bit pricey, but they’re definitely worth the extra couple of dollars, especially if you have a decent set of speakers to play them and are likely to reuse the environment more than once.