It was one of those rare moments for a DM, when you get approval from one of your players without soliciting it from them at the end of the session. We were working our way through the final battle of the adventure, and most of the players were discussing their tactics for the upcoming round of attacks. I look over and Allen, our Paladin, is head banging and playing air guitar. He notices me looking at him and grins at me through his beard and says “This is a really good song for this fight.”
I don’t remember the exact song that was playing. I do remember that it was something by The Sword. I also remember the sense of pride I felt picking music that set the tone for the encounter correctly. This lead me to thinking more in depth about how I was going about choosing music for my games. Here are just a few of my thoughts.
Background music is not background noise
I think the biggest mistake most people make when picking music is treating it like it is just “there”. When you’re wandering the grocery store, a little bit of light music keeps the store from sounding like a big empty space. It isn’t meant to be noticed. You should not treat music in your game like it is just filling the air. The music should have purpose or it becomes just background noise, and background noise is just a distraction. You can’t convey a feeling if at best, your music is distracting your players, and at worst, it’s taking focus away from your game.
You want your music choices to be a little assertive. It should fight for a little of the players attention. If it doesn’t, then it has a much chance of creating a bit of atmosphere for your players as the expository description of the dungeon room your players just yawned through. Even when you are creating a calm, relaxed vibe for the setting the music has to be noticed. Don’t think that volume increases will get your music choices the right kind of attention. Sure, the music will be assertive, but you will all be yelling at one another.
This may upset some people out there, but if you are using the soundtrack to the Lord of the Rings movies, or Star Wars or another famous property out there, you are doing your game a disservice. Do your game a favor and think of music the same way you think of the rest of your game preparation. You wouldn’t use tired, hackneyed plot lines (I hope), and it’s safe to say that your gaming group has probably heard the theme to Conan or the music from the Lord of the Rings movies. While your favorite films and video games have great compositions in them, your players familiarity with the music will relegate it to background noise.
Let’s talk for a moment about metal. There’s something great about heavy metal that goes so well with role playing. Metal can be really awesome when used in a game setting. Keep in mind that your players might be really familiar with the bands you choose when you play metal during your gaming sessions. Use your powers of heavy metal judiciously. It’s very easy for any style of music that your players are familiar with to suffer the fate of being ignored.
Lyrics aren’t bad
In most games that I have played in that have used music, the trend is to play solely orchestral pieces. There is no reason you have to restrict yourself to music without lyrics. If you are picking music correctly, the entire tone of the song, both the music and the lyrics will work with your story to convey an over all feeling. The human voice is just another instrument. With all the other voices at the table, trust me, no one will be paying attention to what the lyrics of a song are. Limiting your choices to only instrumental pieces will make the entire process of selecting music much harder on you.
Set the tone
Music should fit the tone of the encounter. Focus on music that conveys a feeling, not just an ambiance. For exciting, tense moments you want music that is insistent and driving. For the more prosaic moments, choose something soothing and light. Don’t fall into the trap of tempo. Just because a song is fast doesn’t make it tense and the opposite can be said be said for slow songs. Think of the theme music from the movie Jaws. It’s very simple but it creates much of the tension in the scenes with the shark.
How do I choose music?
So you might be asking yourself, what’s the best way to choose music for my game? The answer sounds pretty dismissive, but use your ears. Start digesting as much music as you can stuff into your head. A streaming service like Spotify is a great place to start. It’s easy to discover music and it doesn’t cost you anything. This article will help you know what avoid, after that it’s easy. If you listen to a piece of music and it grabs your attention, chances are, it’s going to get your players attention too.