DMs have a variety of tools at their disposal to set a scene for players. First, there are the core rulebooks and other resources featuring campaign settings, story hooks, NPCs and monsters. The core books set the stage for the DM and the players to execute published adventures or lay the foundation for homebrew campaigns. Second, there are visual stimuli ranging from the very crude – a flat map grid sheet of paper – to the very elaborate – terrain pieces like those sold by Dwarven Forge. DMs can find many useful visual aids for their gaming sessions in craft stores; in the past, I have used cheap mosaic tiles, Play-Doh, colored plastic sheets of paper, and decorative stones to bring the visual element of the game to life. In the past, I relied too often on visual stimuli both as a player and a DM. But there are four other senses, which should not be overlooked.
Earlier in the year, I was influenced by a post by Benoit at Roving Band of Misfits discussing the importance of storytelling for the five senses. Benoit states in the article:
As a DM, when I describe a scene to my players, I generally start with what the PCs see. Unfortunately, I often stop there as well, assuming that my visual description is enough to draw the player into the scene. This is a problem because when we enter new environments, our bodies give us a lot of sensory input that is non-visual. In order to truly draw the player into the scene, we need to play to these other senses as well. So we ask the question: how can we start to describe scenes more fully? I’ve begun using a “blind characters” approach. By that I mean, assume that the characters are entering an environment with their eyes closed, and at the end, they open their eyes. With that in mind, I describe the visual last. By filling in all the other sensory input before giving the full visual picture, I am forced to think about what the characters experience rather than what they see.
It is a very useful strategy for DMs to implement, and I must be honest that I have strayed away from doing this lately. I encourage everyone to read the full article. Visual stimuli are likely the easiest sense to engage with your adventuring party, especially if you have elaborate terrain, but the four remaining senses – smell, taste, touch and hearing – can be a challenge.
I continue to experiment with bringing the various senses to life. For example, I am thinking about searching for specific incense candles for upcoming encounters and locations. In the past, I gave out a bottle of blended scotch-whiskey to the party after they defeated a dastardly pirate. The prop doubled as a healing potion in-game, but required the person to consume some of the “Rot Gut” out of the game. I have not incorporated the sense of touch into the game, unless you consider props such as burnt parchment and other documents created for the campaign.
Below, I focus on the sense of hearing, and provide suggestions for bringing this sense to life during your sessions. I have been wanting to discuss my thought process regarding music and sound for D&D sessions for some time. I finally set my mind to it, and have posted some ideas that may help other DMs out there as they plan for gaming nights.
Before my first session in the DM chair a couple of years ago, I bought two sets of Dwarven Forge and spent quite some time putting together music for the evening. I was not feeling terribly confident in my abilities since it was my first DMing experience in over 15 years, so I wanted to ensure the atmosphere was interesting for the players. The encounter featured a prison break, and I spent quite a bit of time thinking about music that would fit that environment. Going through music, I found the perfect choice!
The beginning and ending of Pilgrimage by Nine Inch Nails is sheer chaos and disorder. There is a driving beat that screams urgency and there are even sounds of a crazed mob in the background. The song brings to mind an army marching and the players could imagine the guards trying to maintain order as they lose control over the inmates. But the middle of the song slows down too much; I fixed this by crudely editing the song to splice out the portion in the middle I did not like. I then made a playlist on my iPod with the song on a loop and thought, “This will be awesome for the first two encounters in the prison.”
Big mistake. My memory is a bit foggy, but I believe it was very early during the first round of combat when one of the players asked, “What is this music? It sounds like the same thing over and over again.” He was absolutely correct; it was the same thing over and over again. Slightly embarrassed, I turned on a generic rock-music mix and went on with the business of running the game for the rest of the night. I had spent several hours working on the idea of using the music for the prison-break encounters and it was eviscerated by a player within a few minutes of dice rolling.
I do not blame him; he made an excellent point. It would get boring and rather annoying to listen to the same 90 seconds of music during combat over the course of one, two or more hours. For whatever reason, I did not consider that. It taught me that while a certain piece of music might be perfect for an encounter, combat encounters simply last too long for a single piece of music to be practical for an entire encounter.
Slighty disheartened, I did not spend more time searching for exact songs to match up with the next set of encounters. I did not DM again for several months, and when I returned to the DM chair, I decided to play some movie soundtracks. I figured the soundtracks would solve the problem of single music pieces, but still provide additional atmosphere for the gaming session. One of the first soundtracks I turned to was The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.
Now this is the type of music that fits into a combat encounter. Many of the tracks on the album feature drums and horns, which conjure images of epic battles and struggle. But playing a single soundtrack from start to finish also presents problems. It is all well and good when your adventuring party is fighting a clan of orcs and the sounds of Frodo and Company fending off The Black Riders are pulsing in the background. But what happens when the next track suddenly transports the adventuring party to the quaint village of Hobbiton?
Suddenly the battle with the orcs doesn’t seem so threatening! Your adventuring party may want to kick back with some pipeweed and call it a day. The first time this happened to me while DMing, it was jarring. I believe I quickly skipped to the next track on the album, but it demonstrated that soundtracks often feature a range of musical genres. Typically, every song from a particular album will not fit into the environment you are attempting to build.
How to Play Musical Chairs
Music is an important part of the gaming experience for me. Playing in a room without the sounds of music or something in the background would feel out-of-place. DMs should think about the type of music they want to play during a gaming session. It is something to explore with your specific gaming group. I enjoy experimenting with music in our campaign, but I also do not have time to craft specific playlists before each week. Here are a few suggestions that have worked for me thus far.
The Mix Tape
Get to know the type of music your players like, and also include the music you enjoy as well. It could be 60’s acid rock, 70’s classic rock, 80’s hair bands or 90’s grunge. It could be various metal bands over the years or more recent hard rock. Whatever the genres may be, pick a few songs and then build a long playlist from there. Before each session, shuffle the tracks so they are not playing in the same order.
I use iTunes for this purpose, but I’m sure there are other applications that allow you to do similar things. For example, I have a Playlist titled Combat III. I created the playlist by starting with one song, In One Ear by Cage The Elephant. From there, I clicked the Genius button in iTunes and it listed 25 to 100 tracks that are similar to the song. I scrolled down the list, highlighted the songs I wanted to include and dropped them into a playlist. Once the songs I wanted were in the playlist, I clicked on Shuffle, synced my iPod and was ready to go for the next game night with a playlist that featured hours of music that required no attention once I turned it on. The playlist featured bands such as The White Stripes, The Strokes, Rage Against The Machine, Foo Fighters, Audioslave, Weezer, Beck, Cake and Pearl Jam.
Regardless of how much you shuffle the songs, the same music over and over again will get stale, so I have made multiple playlists with different styles of music. Another list that gets frequent use is titled Run To The Hills, which – you guessed it – started with Run to the Hills by Iron Maiden. The Genius application through iTunes produced quite a different list of songs with this song as a starting point! Groups featured in the playlist include Motorhead, Black Sabbath, Metallica, Megadeth, Judas Priest, Slipknot, The Ramones and (old) Van Halen. This playlist produced a different vibe for the evening compared to the Combat III playlist above.
I have multiple mixes that I interchange for our gaming nights. I have other mixes that join genres so it’s not just three hours of metal or grunge rock. I enjoy 80’s power ballads as much (if not more) than the next guy, but four hours of them would be maddening. And, yes, I can easily fill a four-hour playlist with the 80’s power ballads that are stored on my iPod. I make no apologies!
The Videogame Soundtrack
While movie soundtracks often feature several tracks that tend to be outliers in terms of good combat songs, videogame soundtracks are usually more consistent for generic action music. For example, any God of War soundtrack will serve you well. Most of the music from the game is a variation on the following themes.
God of War works well for most combat situations, and really shines if the adventuring party is clearing out a corrupted temple or delving through dungeons. It is a hassle-free way of playing music that will set the tone for the night, but the tracks are different enough that your players should not complain about hearing the same songs repeated. Be sure to listen to all tracks on an album before the game; for example, God of War II features a bonus rap song on the album, and you may want to create a playlist that skips that tune.
Another interesting soundtrack that could be used for background music is Mass Effect. I used the Mass Effect 2 soundtrack while the adventuring party was exploring and fighting in the Elemental Chaos. The album features classic action music, but it also has an ethereal quality that suits the environment well.
My DM uses tracks from Call of Duty and that is also effective. He combines it with tunes from other movie soundtracks, such as The Matrix, Tron: Legacy and Sucker Punch. The videogame soundtrack is another good source for any music mix you create for the game. Do not overlook these soundtracks as a resource!
The Effects Board
Background music can assist with setting the mood, but sound effects are another resource that you should exploit during gaming sessions. If you run your game with a laptop at the table and an Internet connection, then adding sound effects at specific moments is easy. There are a variety of websites that host sound effects organized by search terms; I have routinely used Sound Dogs. Imagine you are running an encounter and an evil mage fires a lightning bolt from his staff. The DM can certainly describe the attack with flavor text, but greater emphasis can be added by playing a lightning sound effect during the description and attack roll.
The sound effects can become a comical annoyance to the group. For example, my group recently stumbled upon a modified Dusk Unicorn (Monster Manual, p. 257) outside of the Feywild. The monster was flanked by Displacer Beasts and it hit hard with its Piercing Charge or Hooves attack. Every time the Dusk Unicorn connected on an attack, the party was greeted with a loud whinny and neigh. After two rounds, the group hated this monster and were quite motivated to shut it up!
Think about a feature in the environment you wish to emphasize and find a sound that brings it to life. For example, my DM uses the opening door sound liberally during his campaign. After we check for traps and decide to finally open the door, he’ll play the sound effect and wait a beat or two. It is funny, although it is an effective way to grab everyone’s attention and increase the tension during exploration. I am not advocating turning into a morning-radio DJ sound booth, but adding sound effects here and there can spice up your gaming sessions.
The Theme Song
I have referenced Sly Fourish’s Song of Power mechanic previously, and I have incorporated the rule into my game. In my campaign, every time a player’s Theme Song plays during combat, they get an immediate action. It can be a Standard, Minor or a Move, but they must use it during the song, even if it is not their turn at the moment. I sprinkle the Theme Song selections in the mixes I described above. A player’s Theme Song will appear every two or three sessions. It is a great house rule, and adds flavor to the game and the player characters. By asking your players for a Theme Song, you learn more about how the person views their character.
One thing I have experimented with is to pepper Theme Songs into a mix if I know the party is likely to be in a tough fight during the session. If the party is on the ropes during the encounter, the Theme Song can be a huge moment when one person gets to shine and save the day for the group. It is a fun element in the game, although I have attempted to argue with my group that the DM should also get a Theme Song! I think it would be fantastic for my players to cower in fear whenever this song plays.
The Outside-The-Box Option
While experimenting with music in my game, I wanted to find a way to get hip-hop, dance and rap music featured in the campaign. One doesn’t usually think of Prince, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Usher, Outkast, Christina Aguilera, Kanye West, Black Eyed Peas and Flo Rida when they sit down to play D&D. I took this on as a challenge because I wanted to try something different to see if I could fit these types of songs into my world. After several months of thought, I finally found a place to make it happen.
The party had successfully completed several quests and were transitioning to another segment of the campaign. They were about to enter a world of scoundrels and pirates in the docks of their “home” town. My plan was to indicate that the group is dealing with a new breed of NPCs. Through a brief Skill Challenge, they learned of important movers and shakers down by the docks and were referred to a tavern/brothel, The Honest Maiden. When they opened the door, I hit the playlist for the dance and hip-hop music.
At first, the group was snickering about the music selection, “What the hell is this?” But I kept moving forward and described the scene of a hazy, rowdy bar with other activities of ill repute taking place. The group started to run with it – the group started to joke, drink (both in and out of game) and mingle with the crowd. We had two female players in the group that night and they enjoyed the change of pace, and even laughed in and out of game about the presence of the ladies of the night. I created a “trap” of sorts where employees of the brothel made advances at the party members; they made “attacks” vs. Will and if they “hit,” the player lost 2d8 gold pieces. It was a fun way to add flavor to the environment and spice up a potentially dull “Find the new NPC at the bar” encounter. Overall, I think it worked well and I encourage other DMs to just “go for it” if you have an idea!
A final note on taverns, some of the best music I’ve found for scenes in taverns is from a band that plays at Renaissance Festivals each year. They were previous known as E Muzeki but split up; they now go by Wine & Alchemy. You can listen to some of their songs and view performances on YouTube. The cover of Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir is amazing.
- Use music in your game to assist with telling the story.
- Learn from my mistakes. Avoid a small playlist that repeats too often and be mindful of using soundtracks that feature songs that may not fit into the atmosphere you are attempting to create.
- Create playlists with music you and your group enjoys. Be sure to shuffle the tracks before each game, and use multiple playlists so the music does not become stale.
- Borrow from videogame soundtracks such as God of War, Mass Effect, Call of Duty and countless other options. They are a great asset to DMs in terms of providing quality background music.
- Experiment with the Theme Song in your campaign. Allow your players to choose a Theme Song and find a mechanic that works best for you group. Be sure to adjust the difficulty of combat encounters if you plan to use the Theme Songs often in your group.
- Don’t be afraid to use hip-hop and other genres of music during your games. Think about the mood you wish to create and go for it with music that brings the desired atmosphere to life.