Hello everyone! Today I am going to discuss a DM tip I have only recently become an advocate for, the use of music. Audio aspects of play are often overlooked, but I have found they are a great tool to setting moods and getting my players focused.
While I primarily focus on DMs using music, a canny player could work in music themed for their character. Maybe you play a specific song after each victory, or perhaps while interacting with NPCs you have a mix you play. Aldo, the Bard in my current campaign and author of the Bards Tale, plays a specific song every time the party rests, representing a music box he possesses and sleeps too.
Music can really help set the mood and tempo. One of the best uses for music I have found is during scary moments in game. It is extremely tough to get players on edge; however, the right use of verbal description with the right spooky music, and suddenly players are on the edge of their seats.
To put this in perspective think of a horror video game, like Resident Evil or Silent Hill, the music, while subtle, can really influence your reaction to the game, heightening tension and nervousness.
Another excellent chance to set mood and tempo with music is during combat, the right songs playing in the background can help make combat feel like the intense action in players’ favorite movies. Music can be used to establish other moods, I am always on the look out for new songs to use during urban and wilderness moments.
In my sessions, having music playing has helped get my players further invested in the game. They often regularly comment, “Ohh this music is perfect,” or “Yeah, i’m not really feeling this.”
Music can also serve as an audio cue. For example, I only play certain songs during combat, giving my players an additional cue to what is happening in game. A real world example of this can be heard in Pokemon game, the moment the battle music starts playing players know they are in a battle. Other examples are Final Fantasy games, which always have a shift in music when the party enters combat, this helps players transition from exploration, social encounter, ect. to combat.
(How many of you heard the victory music without it even playing?)
I have even purchased a CD of nature sounds when I want to emphasize specific weather or settings, rainstorms and thunder for example has worked well. Without this audio cue its easy to forget that it is raining in game.
Right, so now you are sold that you should try to use music in game, but how?
First, you do not want to use music with words, a few words are ok, but for the most part I stick to only instrumental. Words can be too distracting and pull players away from what I am saying.
This of course means do NOT use popular band music, as your players will start focusing on their favorite hits, rather then the game. These songs are also not very appropriate for fantasy style game.
My go to for music has been soundtracks to certain movies and games. These are valuable for two reasons, first they are a great source of music without words; Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings are some good ones. My absolute favorite is the original Conan the Barbarian soundtrack. It has amazing combat and exploration music, the Riddle of Steel/Riders of Doom (skip to 2:11 for the combat part) is one of my all time favorites, it gets everyone pumped for combat.
The second reason I like these soundtracks is because many have context already ingrained in the players, from the moments of the game or movie. For example, it would be nearly impossible to find someone who hears the Imperial March from Star Wars, and not picture ranks of stormtroopers and Darth Vader.
As a DM I use this to my advantage, plugging these recognizable songs in at moments when I want to instill similar feelings to the iconic moments in the movies.
At the suggestion of my assistant DM (Fizzywink’s player), I once used Arabian Nights, from Aladdin, to set the mood for my party moving into a desert nation during a new story arc of my Lost City campaign. It worked really well, getting the party pumped for a new phase of the campaign, and helped serve as a clear transition.
You have to be careful with this, as players may recognize a song that actually conflicts with the mood of the game. For example the Imperial March played while first meeting a good ruler may unintentionally cause them to suspect said leader.
When using music I have found the key to success is variation. I don’t play music directly off a CD, my players will eventually get tired of hearing Harry Potter song after Harry Potter song; however, several different sources of music mixed together gives variation and keeps the music fresh.
I sort my music into 3 generic mixes; Town, Exploration, and Combat/pump up. These are the various moods I often find I am looking for. If my mixes are 12+ songs then I can just play them and not fiddle too much with my ipod during the game, except when switching settings. The exception to this is when I have a specific song in mind, in which case I make note of it, and actually switch to it when the time comes.
Worth noting is Midnight Syndicate, which is music made specifically for roleplaying games. The cd Realm of Shadows has been my favorite for setting creepy moods. Whenever I play it for a new group they always comment on how much they like it. There are a number of CDs by Midnight Syndicate, and they are definitely worth considering.
If you are a little unsure on using music, give it a try, youtube has some great play lists, which are free. The library is also a great free source to try for various soundtracks and spooky Halloween music.
Hopefully this has been an interesting/ useful discussion. I would love to hear if any of you play in games which use music, or if you have specific songs/ CDs you like.