Does music really have a place in D&D? I can still remember hearing friends talk about great DMs who always had a steady line-up of appropriate music playing during their games, but I’ve never been able to get into the practice myself. If playing music heightens the experience, when is the best time to play it? What kind of music is most appropriate? I’m still trying to answer these questions. Being a DM is tough enough balancing an entire interactive world filled with monsters, traps, made-up buildings, and the hundreds of random NPCs players interact with every minute. Should a DM really take on the burden of putting together a soundtrack, as well? Maybe, and maybe not, but I can definitely think of a few times when music made a big difference in gaming in my life.
Music Makes Memories
A couple years ago, my friend Allyson asked me if I would be interested in playing Dungeons & Dragons. Being a hardcore gamer, I had played my fair share of fantasy and Sci-Fi board games, but never a tabletop role-playing game. Allyson’s a veteran player of 3.5 ed and the Star Wars d20 system and a fellow gamer, so I trust her opinion. She was excited to try and get a game started over here in Korea. One of her friends (now my friend, too) was about to run a 4ed game and she knew I was a gamer, so she figured I’d probably enjoy it. Oh man, was she right.
After gearing up for the first session, our DM asked each of us to talk with him privately about our character’s history so he could help make it work in his world. It was fun coming up with my character’s background information and imagining all of the crazy things he’s done so far. I’ll post all about him here later. After everyone got their character sheets squared away, we sat down and got into the session. The first thing the DM did was put on some quiet music to set the mood and read an opening description of the world and setting we would all be starting in. It was exciting, and I can remember thinking about the restlessness we all had as we prepared to jump into the adventure. The DM used the adventure at the end of the DM Guide as the first quest for us to undertake, and we had a great time taking on the kobolds on their home turf.
One of the best parts of the night had to be when we faced off against the kobold wyrmpriest. The DM busted out some battle music from his computer (a battle theme from a ps1 game, I believe) and put it on repeat. Being the inexperienced players that we were, the fight took a lot longer than we had initially thought, and after a while it finally hit me that we’d been listening to the same song for over an hour. The thought still makes me cringe to this day, but I can honestly say that song will now and forever remind me of that fateful night, and of kobolds. We eventually overcame Kobold Hall, but the DM was savvy enough to bring back the wyrmpriest every now and then along with his hellaciously repetitive yet memorable theme music. And that’s the power of music: the power to make memories.
The Boss Battle Theme
Having spent my entire life playing video games, I’ve had my fair share of boss battles. There are a lot of factors that determine whether or not a fight in a video game is a “boss battle” or just a run-of-the-mill fight: level of difficulty, significance of the enemy to the plot, and typically sweet boss battle music. Great songs stick out in your mind forever, and boss themes are n0 different. I can still remember the very first time I faced Masa and Mune in the Denadaro Mountains. I was freaked out when they combined to form their hulking monster form and the epic music had my heart racing. The rush was intense, and I remember how excited I was right up until I lost.
The music from most JRPGs has a decent amount of production value, and Chrono Trigger is no exception. To this day, Chrono Trigger’s boss theme evokes a sense of urgency and excitement. If you’ve played the game yourself, then I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, I recommend you have a listen here.
Practicality vs Function
Music has magical properties of its own. It can force us to recall any memories associated with a specific song, jingle, or even just a few lyrics. It is powerful stuff. That’s what makes Bards so awesome. However, it takes a lot of work to try and put together a series of songs that will go appropriately with a D&D campaign. As I previously stated, no one wants to hear the same song for an hour. Maybe for 20 minutes if it’s not too grating on the ears, but that’s about it. Most encounters last a lot longer than that and too long for your typical battle themes. However, music really does have a nice immersion effect when used correctly and can influence a player’s emotions. So when should a DM put the time into coming up with some sweet tunes to accompany their session? Here are some examples situations I came up with:
Introduction and important transitions - Is your campaign set on the high seas or in the bleak shadows of the Dark Sun? Let your characters get in touch with the general feel of the setting by putting on some suitable music before going giving the opening explanation. Keep it going while each character introduces themselves. That way, they feel tied into the world by whatever melodies you choose to accompany them. Then, use the same music whenever you have to give descriptions of what happens over the weeks or months players have to spend making their way across the world.
Themes for recurring characters - Be it an NPC or a particularly nasty opponent that just won’t die, playing a song or a short piece of one to signal the character’s presence or influence can be a fun way to let the players know who they’re dealing with. Depending the character’s relationship with the party, the music could induce any variety of fun reactions.
Skill challenges – Most encounters would require at least 14 or so songs of average length to keep everyone at the table from going crazy. Skill challenges, however, go a lot quicker. I think it’s definitely feasible to find some suitable background music to set the mood while you try to win the duke’s favor over the course of a dinner party, for example.
In-game special occasions – If there’s a festival or some other sort of event worth celebrating going on, find some tunes to help set the mood for fun! Since these events only occur every once in a while, it shouldn’t be too taxing to put a little effort into making them a fun and memorable experience.
Music most definitely has a place at the game table, but it is a superfluous one. I think I’ll stick to conversation and tough encounters to keep my players engaged during my sessions. It’s already enough work just putting that together. I might try some music at our next boss fight, though.
Do you use music at your sessions? Does it make for a better experience, or do you find it frustrating to juggle it with everything else that goes on during D&D?