Beyond Zeppelin – Using Music to Set a Mood in RPGs

I have a confession to make. With all apologies to Stephen Lynch, I have never once listened to Led Zeppelin while running, writing, preparing, or in any other way involving a D&D game. I was never that huge a Zeppelin fan, and, although they occasionally toss in a fantasy reference or two (like mentioning that Gollum slipped up and made away with one’s lady so fair) and have songs about Vikings, I just don’t feel like the mood of their songs matches the mood of my games.

Many people have told me over the years that Heavy Metal is the music of D&D. Somehow, I’ve never felt this was the case, probably because I’m just not a big metal-fan. A run of Metal anthems might work well for some combat scenes, but I tend to find that lyrics can be distracting, especially when they’re screamed or howled at Metal-esque levels.

Despite my Zeppelin and Metal-deficiency, however, I’ve been using music in my games for years, to the point where, if I play a game in a store or other venue, I often find myself missing the music. Music, like many other things, can be used to enhance the experience of playing D&D, but it can also be used poorly to your game’s detriment. In this article, I hope to give GMs some tips on how to use music wisely and well in your games.

Choosing Themes

One simple way in which you can bring music in right from the start is to pick a theme for your campaign. My Swords of the Amanar game had the song Valorian Ships from Ultima IX as its theme. With its initial horn note, its martial drumming sound, and the soaring trumpet pieces throughout, it made an excellent theme for a Spelljammer game. For my current campaign, I’m using the long version of the Pillars of the Earth theme. This music starts off energetic and bold, gets quiet, and then launches into a majestic sweep of rising chords, punctuated by church bells. Again, this theme fits perfectly with the feel of the campaign, especially the rise from Heroic Tier to Epic tier. If you listen to it, think Heroic Tier in the first half, then Epic tier in the second. ;)

In a recent article on the Wizards of the Coast webpage, Chris Perkins mentions that he begins every game by saying “Previously, in Iomandra,” and then recapping what had happened in the last game session. This is like the part at the beginning of a TV series episode where they remind you what’s happened in previous episodes. I do this as well, usually using the phrase “As you may recall from our last tale of high adventure…” I also play the theme during this part, as it’s just about long enough to last through a recap. These are signals to my players that it’s time to calm down, put out of game conversations aside, and prepare to play.

Besides the main theme, I also have secondary themes for some of the main NPCs and settings in my campaign. Whenever Lady Alinora, the slowly blooming potential love-interest of one of the PCs appears, I play “Lady Marian” from the Clannad “Legend” album. This simple harp piece adds flutes and other instruments as it continues, suggesting a simplicity that evolves and grows. I like this theme for her very much. Similarly, when the PCs are being entertained by the tiefling bard Voldrotha Hasp at the Minstrel’s Tarry tavern that is their de facto headquarters, I put on an album called “Lute Music for Witches and Alchemists” to suggest her chosen instrument.

By choosing themes, you can add a subtle suggestion of connection between scenes. Let’s pretend, for a moment, that I had chosen “The King of the Golden Hall” from The Two Towers soundtrack to be the theme for a particular character. We’ll call him Lord Aconar. This theme is very distinctive (the violin theme of Rohan in the movie) and it occurs multiple times throughout the soundtracks of both The Two Towers and The Return of the King. If I later played “Merry’s Simple Courage” from The Return of the King, a piece that begins with a horn version of that same piece of music, when I introduce the young knight Sir Hallan, it could be a clue to the players that he may actually be Lord Aconar’s missing heir, whom they’ve heard about. This can be a subtle technique, but don’t be surprised if your players pick up on it. Mine have, occasionally.

What Kind of Music?

What kind of music works best is going to be determined by your style of play and the genre of your campaign. Despite my earlier comments, it could very well be that heavy metal and/or Led Zeppelin is the perfect music for your campaign, and I don’t use the same mix of music for my Gamma World game that I use for my D&D game. The three sources of music I’ve come to rely on most are movie and video game soundtracks, early or period music, and ambient or instrumental original pieces.

There are fantastic movie soundtracks to be plundered, but it’s best if they aren’t too recognizable, as this can work against you. With a little planning, however, you can even make this work for you.

A quick browse through my gaming music lists turns up many movie soundtracks indeed. Besides Pillars of the Earth and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, I immediately spot The 13th Warrior, Conan the Barbarian, Dungeons and Dragons (yes, the terrible movie had a decent soundtrack), Cutthroat Island, and Passion: Music for the Last Temptation of Christ. When I add in game soundtracks, we get Lord of the Rings Online (no surprise), Dungeons & Dragons Online (again…no surprise), Dante’s Inferno, God of War II, Dragon Age: Origins, Myst III: Exile, and Pool of Radiance. In my soundtracks for more modern or futuristic games, you’ll find Tron: Legacy, the new Star Trek movie, The Crow, K-Pax, Daybreakers, as well as Mass Effect 1 and 2 and Dead Space 1&2. And for my Star Wars games, oddly enough, you’ll find all the Star Wars movies.

Early and period music is invaluable for setting the flavor of your game. If my bards were playing Beatles songs, it wouldn’t sound very medieval. Instead, the music they play comes from albums like “D is for Dulcimer”, “Music for a Medieval Banquet” and “Music of the Crusades”. and my monks chant along to Gregorian chants, or Byzantine hymns, and I play albums of traditional sea shanties when the players are on an When I run traditional Call of Cthulhu games, I dip into collections of 1920s and 1930s music, setting the tone for the time period the game is in and my Deadlands game led to me discovering several collections of Saloon Piano music.

A number of bands are making a fine living producing albums of very theme-heavy instrumental music. Nox Arcana and Midnight Syndicate both have excellent albums of music without lyrics, making them prime candidates to be cannibalized for gaming music lists. Midnight Syndicate, in fact, created the official soundtrack of the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game. And for modern music, the albums by Blue Man Group have songs with and without lyrics and a very unique sound.

Using Music

Besides using themes, as previously mentioned, there are two excellent ways to organize and utilize your music. Organize it, and play to stereotypes.

Organizing your music is vital. Nothing spoils the mood more than when you’re playing a piece…say, “Evenstar” from The Two Towers…to evoke romance. And suddenly, the next track comes on: ”The White Rider.” Suddenly, your romantic scene is broken by an incredibly dramatic chorale, and you’re fumbling for a different piece of music.

In ye olden days, I used to make cassette tapes of different themes, recording tracks from albums and CDs, making sure that the music would stay fairly consistent in feel as a scene progresses. These days, you kids have your fancy iTunes and what not. You can create playlists of specific musical moods, sorting the music you want into them in order to create solid blocks of mood when you play them. If you’re very fancy (and yes, I am, before you ask,) you can load a program called Remote on your iPhone or iPad. Using this program, I can control iTunes from my iPad, changing playlists, adjusting volume, and never needing to walk over to my computer to do so.

I mentioned before that you should be wary of using music that’s too recognizable. When you do, you run the risk that your players will be pulled out of the scene, because they recognize the piece of music. I also mentioned that you can use this to your advantage. Certain pieces of music can really stir a specific feeling in your players, because it reminds them of when they’ve heard it before. On the soundtrack of the Return of the King, there’s a piece of music called “The White Tree.” It’s the music from the lighting of the beacons sequence in that movie. When that music comes on, as part of my Battle mix, everyone gets a little more intense. I recall one time when a player said, “I’m not sure what to do,” while this music was playing. “You have to do something amazing!” my husband exclaimed. “Don’t you hear the music?”

Be wary of allowing yourself to become enslaved by the music. When I was a younger and less wise DM, I ran a scenario based on The Phantom of the Opera. I used music from the Broadway show as the operatic sequences. This led to comedy when my players switched the tape while I was out of the room. When I came back on, I was trying to illustrate a scene with the music, only to realize they’d put on Les Miserables instead. I was so flustered, even though I found it funny, that the scenario kind of floundered for a while, to the game’s detriment.

It *was* funny, though. I’ll grant that.

Your Turn

Alright, then. I’ve spun enough words about being a DM/DJ long enough. Do you use music in your campaign? Do you have a favorite piece I totally failed to mention here? Do you think I’m sacrilegious for my lack of Zeppelin in my games? Let us all know about it.

About GGG

Andy/GGG is a gay geek guy for sure. He's been playing D&D since he was 10, and he equates reading Tolkien with religion to some degree. He's a writer/developer for a Live Action RPG called The Isles, and he writes a comic called Circles, a gay, furry slice-of-life piece that comes out way too infrequently.

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