Music is as important to a D&D session as miniatures and dice.
After a year and a half of using music in every one of my D&D sessions, I now believe the above statement to be completely true. I have found that the right music played at the right time adds an incredible amount of immersion and excitement to an already immersive game. However, finding the right music to use, and then knowing when the right time is to start each track, can be a pretty difficult challenge.
Finding the right music requires knowing what to look for. Here are my main requirements when evaluating if a particular track will work well for my D&D sessions:
- No lyrics. This one should be obvious. Lyrics are distracting.
- Not iconic. I very much dislike using highly recognizable music. The Lord of the Rings soundtrack for example, while very good, is extremely recognizable by any fans of the movies. It’s a bad idea for the same reason the old 3e Player’s Guide gave for not using character names from other fictions: It stifles immagination by putting preconceived images in people’s heads. I don’t want people thinking of the battle at Helm’s Deep while we fight an epic D&D fight: I want them to be thinking of their own fight and how it is iconic and amazing in its own unique ways.
- Must fit the “era.” This one is trickier to define, but is usually easily noticeable when it doesn’t fit. It needs to “feel” like a fantasy or medieval soundtrack. Sci-fi movies and games, for example, typically have a very different feeling soundtrack.
- Needs to loop well. By this I do not mean that the end of the track needs to blend with the beginning of the track; that is nice but not required. What I mean is the track needs to maintain a fairly even pacing throughout its entire length. If a track starts out slow and then grows in to a big crescendo it will not make a good D&D track. D&D combat takes hours, not minutes. So if there is a big crescendo in the music every 3 minutes, it will be distracting.
The most common place I look for excellent D&D music is video games. Video games often have great soundtracks that loop well and aren’t too overpowering, because they too have variable-length combat sequences where the music can’t presume much about what the player is experiencing. Movie soundtracks tend to not be very good options because they are much more dynamic.
After I find the right music, I need a good way to know when to play the different tracks. This took me a while to develop a good system for, and eventually I settled with one that is very simple: I name the tracks based on the feeling they give me when I listen to them. I went through all of my tracks from the various soundtracks, and added words to the beginning of the filename that describe when I might want to use them. I use words like “action, fast, peaceful, grand, serene, morose, dark, suspense.” Then, during my session, I can quickly pick a track based on what is happening in the game and be fairly confident that it will fit the scene on my first try. The last thing I want to do is play a track, realize that it’s no good for what’s happening, and have to start a new one. Talk about immersion killer!
I’d like to give a specific example from last week’s session. Last week I ran what I consider to be one of the best sessions I have ever run. The events included a climactic battle with a major enemy including a skill challenge mid-battle, a frantic escape from an erupting volcano and collapsing mine wherein one of the players fell unconscious and had to be carried out, and then finally a huge player-driven roleplaying event where one of the characters announced to the party that it was time for him to finish his personal quest, which was in the opposite direction of where the party was headed next. As the character made it clear that he was leaving and wanted anyone that would join him to do so, most of the rest of the party knew that they could not, because the very last part of their year-and-a-half journey was right around the corner, and if they delayed it could mean the end of all life.
For escaping the erupting volcano, I used this track:
The Witcher - Last Battle
And this is the track I used for when the character left the group. I didn’t play it until after the discussion had taken place. I started this track the instant negotiations were over and it was time for him to say his farewells. So this track was playing while each character shook the hand of the departing one and said some final words about their time together, and then when the leaving character got on his phantom steed and rode off in the opposite direction, along with one other character who had decided to go with him. I had never used this track before, but I had been saving it for the perfect moment. I knew from the time I first heard it that it could be used at just the right time for an amazing impact. I was right.
The Witcher - Leo's Farewell
I left the track running after the departure, during the quick summary of their week-long journey to their final destination. I felt it helped represent what a trip like that might feel like. There is happiness that they are finally going to stop the cult that they have been hunting for so long, but it’s bittersweet as two of their long time companions have left them. My wife told me later that she very nearly cried during the farewell. And I almost cried when she told me that. If that isn’t an indication that I’m doing this whole DMing thing right, then I don’t know what is.