There is a wide diversity among Dungeons & Dragons campaigns; I have often marveled at how the same rule set can produce games that convincingly immerse players in worlds like Tolkein’s Middle Earth, Ancient Rome, Howard’s Hyborian Age, the reign of Loius XIV and all points between.
Regardless of the specific flavor of campaign, it is the dungeon master’s responsibility to do all in his power to maintain player interest “in the moment” during the game. One way to complete this task involves adding elements external to the rules that enhance players’ overall experience; a primary element I add is music.
Any music can be helpful to a game, as it tends to drown out noises from adjacent rooms, thereby limiting a frequent source of distraction. I have known gamers who have played classical music in the background, heavy metal rock music during combat encounters, and quieter music, such as Pink Floyd, during exploration periods. There are also groups, such as Midnight Syndicate, who specialize in ambient music.
My preference has always been the use of orchestral film scores and, of late, video game scores. A score is the background music you hear during a film or game; the very best scores suit their media so well that viewers may not specifically notice them, although emotions depticted in the media can be amplified by a good score without a viewer’s conscious knowledge.
In many ways, a score composer’s task is much like a novelist: she must be “invisible” to the reader or listener, and any out-of-place word, phrase or note that would remind readers or listeners that they are listening to music or reading a story detracts from suspension of disbelief. Dungeon masters seek that suspension of disbelief as well, and the highly heroic and emotional symphonic scores that accompany fantasy films are filled with dramatic tension that can help players stay focused on the game.
Adding music to your Dungeons & Dragons game is a relatively simple process. It is of course possible to purchase scores from online CD merchants, although brick-and-mortar retail record stores sometimes have scores in their “bargain bins,” as these recordings present something of a niche market and don’t sell quickly. Chances are that many D&D players own numerous fantasy-themed computer games, and obtaining the music files from those games is only a matter of copying and pasting from the appropriate files on their own computers. Local public libraries may also have appropriate musical selections that can be borrowed for gaming purposes.
Keep in mind that some very poor films have outstanding scores; Graeme Revell’s music for the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers Movie is outstanding for a D&D game, although it wouldn’t appear so at a glance.
Regardless of how the music is obtained, preparing it for play is similarly easy. Nearly all computers have some form of media player with the capacity to create playlists; many dungeon masters listen to scores, placing musical tracks on playlists for combat, exploration, chases, or anything else the game requires. These playlists can then be burned to audio CDs, or, for dungeon masters who keep a computer at or near the game table, the lists can be played directly from the computer.
Dungeon masters who want to take game music to the next level can purchase the RPG Sound Mixer, a simple sound mixing program that combines media playlisting with the ability to assign sound efffects to keystrokes at pivotal points in the game. I presently use an old version of the product, but plan to upgrade soon.
Those seeking sound effects for their games could again mine their compter game files, which are filled with a surprising number of game-appropriate effects. There are also Web sites, such as soundsnap, where sound effects can be downloaded for free.
Another option for dungeon masters who have Internet access at the gaming table is to register for free at Radio Rivendell, a Web site that continuously streams fantasy music. Although a game master cannot control what Radio Rivendell plays, it works well in the absence of prepared playlists. A similar approach involves using Pandora Radio, another free service that plays music in the same genre as artists a site visitor types in; creating a personal Pandora station using well-known composers such as John Williams or Jerry Goldsmith accomplishes a similar effect.
Apart from adding to the atmosphere at the gaming table, these playlists can be used by dungeon masters as background music for game preparation. We’ve all been at a point where we must prepare a game for the near future, and don’t particularly feel like doing so. By definition, film score music must be highly emotional – it is designed to provoke emotion in viewers, after all – and hearing a few rousing battle themes has often been enough to alter my mood and stimulate my creativity.
While music won’t turn a poorly-prepared game into a good one, it does have the potential to turn a good session into a great one; it is for this reason that I suggest dungeon masters explore the potential of music in their games.