how to play music in your online ttrpg

There are a lot of options to share music with your players while playing pen and paper rpgs online. I spent quite some time researching them. Here is my top5 list of options for online roleplaying.

My recommendation: Online Radio using caster.fm, butt and VB-Cable

caster.fm is a streaming server provider, they use a free software called icecast that enables the users to make an online radio stream for many users. Caster.fm has a free plan, that has everything we need, the 400 listeners cap will not affect your game 😉.

Technical Background (you can skip this part)

The streaming server has a lot more bandwidth than your home connection and uses this to stream to your listeners, so you stream to the server instead of all your listeners.

the more players/listeners you have the more bandwidth you save when using a server

If you have more than 1MB/s stable upload and you don’t use hd-videochat while playing, you might want to try a direct setup. (tutorial video) This setup requires you to change your router/modem to allow your players to access the stream.

bandwidth use in a „direct setup“: without a server you need a lot of stable bandwidth

How to stream your own music for your tabletop rpg game online

  • Sign up for a free account at caster.fm (or any other icecaster service provider)
  • setup stream-client to send the music to the server  (we will be using butt )

Setting up a caster.fm account

You need to fill out the description part in order to turn on the streaming server. Everything else is pretty much like any other online service you ever signed up for. You don’t need to use different passwords for the panel and the broadcast.

As a layman, I strongly suggest to enable the password protection under “private broadcast” in the settings menu and opt out of any public listings and to only use free music to avoid copyright trouble.

Setting up the streaming client butt to stream your music player

There are many options to provide audio to an icecast server. My setup consist of butt (yes, really) and a virtual cable to route the audio to the streaming client.

Broadcast using this tool” is a simple streaming client that only supports streaming a microphone input. Therefore we need the virtual cable to connect our media player to it.

To connect your media player of choice to the streaming client install the virtual cable first, (reboot is recommended for the new device to show up and function fully). This will install a virtual input device (microphone) that you can select with butt and a virtual output that you can select for your media player. To set the audio-output device to the virtual cable go to the settings app, go to System > Sound.  Scroll down to “other sound options” click on App volume and device preferences. There you will find all running apps that are using sound. Select your usual media player and select the cable as output device. This will mean that you will not hear the sound coming from that app for now! If you use VLC media player, you can choose the output device directly in the app under “Audio”>”Audio Device” so you don’t have to go through the trouble of changing the windows settings. Unfortunately not all apps have such an option.

Then install butt. In the caster.fm dashboard you find all information needed to connect, enter it in the streaming software “butt” under settings>main> uder server add

Make sure to select IceCast and to change the mountpoint to /listen.mp3 for caster.fm
Under the audio settings tab, select the VB-Cable as audio device. (the exact name of the device might be different on your computer)

Finally go to the caster.fm dashboard to the leftmost tab  “widgets” and open the html5-widget by clicking preview. A pop-up opens, share the URL of that pop-up with your players. Then start the caster.fm server. Start the stream with butt (yes, I know how silly it sounds) by clicking the “play” icon, play music with your media player. And you should be live and able to hear your own music again!

You can also plug several apps into the cable, in the same way your speakers can play audio from several sources. So if you want to use several apps at once and stream, you can (just select the cable as output).

A word on MIXXX

I also successfully tested this with the Free DJ Software MIXXX. Caster.fm provides a setup tutorial.

It is easier to set up, because MIXXX is a media player and a stream client in one program, but MIXXX is a lot more complex than your usual media player software.

mixxx can stream and play music at the same time

Don’t use the ASIO API, because it will cause your soundcard to only play MIXXX, muting whatever voice-chat you are using to run your game. The default for most people will be “windows direct sound” anyway, so you will probably not run into this problem. MIXXX will cause high load on low-end machines, making the fan speed up, thus introducing noise. MIXXX is a great piece of software and if you enjoy learning new skills, you will appreciate the options like the “auto DJ” feature that can play your playlist and fade between them fluently and make the beat line up automagically. If you don’t care for it, I recommend butt with the virtual cable.

edcast/altacast

caster.fm also suggest the use of altacast (called edcast or oddcast in older versions). I could not get the latest version to accept the lame econder dll that caster.fm recommends. For me this version of edcast and the packaged lame encoder worked fine using the lame_enc.dll also worked with altacast . The programm works just as fine as butt, with the extra step of copying the dll over. that is why I recommend butt.

Conclusion

This option is perfect if you have stable internet as the GM. In case caster.fm ever stops providing their service for free you will need to Search for “free icecast server” or similar. Another free provider I found is streampanel.net

Pros

  • Free of charge
  • After initial setup quite comfortable to use
  • Players don’t need to install anything or sign up, works on mobile devices too
  • Use all your music
  • Works with any app that plays music on windows (other OS options are available)
  • Works independently of any virtual tabletop or voice-chat software

Cons

  • GM needs stable upload connection (128kb/s for okay quality)
  • Initial setup takes some time
  • Caster.fm could stop their free plan anytime, so you might have to switch to another provider
  • ~5 Second lag

Second Voice chat participant

If your Voice Chat software allows you to regulate the volume of chat participants individually (e.g. jitsi-meet, discord) and has good audio quality, you might want to add a second participant to your voice chat that just outputs music. One easy way to achieve this is to install the  virtual cable like in the option above, and set the microphone of the second voice chat participant to the virtual cable input.
As explained above: To set the audio-output device to the virtual cable go to the settings app, go to System > Sound.  Scroll down to “other sound options” click on App volume and device preferences. There you will find all running apps that are using sound. Select your usual media player and select the cable as output device. I recommend VLC, because you can select the output directly inside of the program audio>audio-device.

Make sure to use headphones to avoid feedback/echo.


How to take part twice in voice chat on the same device

How to take part with a second “person” on a single device really depends on the app you are using. Here are the few:

  • Skype: use skype web
  • Discord: install the beta of the discord client, or use the web client in a private window
  • Jitsi-meet: second tab in a private window/second browser
  • bigbluebutton: second tab in a private window/second browser
  • MS Teams: use accounts in the new Microsoft edge (tutorial)
  • Mumble: start client with -m option or use install mumble portable

Conclusion

If you have a strong/silent computer and high quality voice chat, this solution might be for you.

Pros

  • Free of charge
  • After initial setup quite comfortable to use
  • Players don’t need to install anything or sign up
  • Use all your music
  • Works with any app that plays music on windows (other OS options are available)

Cons

  • Quality depends on voice chat
  • Voice-chat often uses compression optimized for voice, lowering the quality of the music
  • Running two instances of voice chat can cause high loads, leading to fan noise (web clients are notorious for this)

Syncplay

syncplay is a software that syncs media players over the internet, you need to have the same file on each of the participating computers, only the pause/unpause/skip commands get transfered. So you need to have shared the media files a different way. but it is super bandwidth friendly.

Pros

  • 100% free and open source
  • Music is played at full quality
  • You can use all your music
  • even show videos to your players!
  • you even can run your own sync server
  • only uses minimal bandwidth to send commands instead of media file

Cons

  • Players need to install the software and a supported player (mpv is best, I succesfully tested vlc)
  • Music needs to be downloaded in beforehand by everyone

Discord Music Bot

There are a lot of options when it comes to Discord Music bots. I tried playing some youtube videos with rythmbot and found it to be working sometimes with some youtubevideos, with the audio quality being “meh” – even noticeably so on cheap speakers. The handling was not great for me. I don’t like relying on services with no clear way of earning money (e.g. discord), so I don’t recommend it unless you already are using discord and you are okay with being limited to audio available on youtube/soundcloud and the like. There are similar options for other voice chat options like teamspeak and mumble, I haven’t tested those though.

Pros

  • Does not use the GM’s upload bandwidth
  • Work’s directly in discord
  • Players can adjust music volume individually

Cons

  • Only works with discord
  • You need to type commands into chat
  • Audio quality like discord

Roll20

Roll20.net is a virtual tabletop for playing pen and paper digitally and has an integrated music player. Even though I currently use Roll20, I’ve heard too many stories of people’s data getting lost to spent the time and money needed to upload all the music I want and arrange it. I have my eye on maptool because it allows me to have backups of my campaign and is free and open source software.

Pros

  • There is a free plan
  • Works directly in the browser
  • Integrates free music resources like incompetech.com and battlebards
  • Does not use the upload bandwidth of the game master’s internet connection to transfer the music.

Cons

  • Media files need to be uploaded by the game master beforehand
  • Playlist and file management is tedious
  • Player reacts sluggishly
  • Maximum File size of 20MB (that’s less than 30min of decent quality mp3)
  • Only 100MB of storage for free (free tracks from battlebards etc. don’t count towards that limit)
  • Roll20 might loose all your stuff (I’ve heard several accounts of campaigns being lost with no way of restoring them)
  • Can’t be used independently of Roll20
  • Everyone needs to sign up for Roll20

watch2gether

An online service that let’s you play online media from youtube, soundcloud and many more in snyc.

Simply create a room and share the link https://togethertube.com/

After signup you can save the playlist and make the room private for your party.
a similar service is available under https://togethr.tv

Pros

  • Free
  • Easy setup

Cons

  • Only online sources

stream with cleanfeed

https://cleanfeed.net/ is made for recording interview remotely, but has been sucesfully repurpsed for rpg (youtube tutorial)

Webradio with your own server

Instead of using a free icecast provider you can also run your own streaming server. If you don’t have super great upload, you will want to rent a server for this. It does also require some technical knowledge. If you really know what you are doing you can even stream audio directly from your server, saving you the bandwidth. If you know how to make that possible as a nextcloud plugin, please reach out!

Pros

  • Full control of your data and experience
  • Super high quality audio possible as long as the GM has a good upload
  • 100% free (as in freedom) and open source solution

Cons

  • You need to maintain a server/ the icecast installation
  • Cost of server

Mix the music in with your voice

If you don’t mind that your players can’t adjust the music volume independently from your voice you can mix your microphone and the music together using a mixing software. A good free option is voicemeeter (the different versions just have more and more options, the basic one is fine for this usecase). Page 25 of the manual of voicemeeter explains how to set that up in the chapter “CASE STUDY #1 How to talk and send music in the same time on Skype?”.

Crank it up!

Just turn up the volume of the music so loud that your mic pics it up. This isn’t really a solution, because the audio quality is so poor and you can’t adjust the volume of the music independently of the GM’s Voice, but if you don’t mind that, this might be for you. Smart voice-chat solutions even filter out audio coming out of your computer, so you might need to use your phone or another second device to play the music.

Summary

If you want to have music in your online game a virtual cable is a really a good idea. What do you use to play music in your game? Did I overlook any good options? If so, please let me know!

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