Tuesday, April 12, 2011

D&D: Music and GM'ing - Part 1

Finally having the time to once again sit down and do some blogging, I decided to take a break from painting my Warhammer-army, and finally touch upon a subject I’ve always wanted to discuss.
That of D&D and the use of music.
Back in 2007 Dragon-magazine (issue 355) printed a short article discussing the subject of including music in your D&D-sessions, along with some suggestions as to how one could acquire and utilize it in the best way possible. Though a solid article, it sadly (in my opinion) spent too much time on the practical details of obtaining the music, and in what way one could prepare it for the session.

I’ve been using music in basically all D&D-campaigns, since I started playing back in 1996. I’m a big proponent for musical adventuring, and with this blog I hope to inspire some of you to at least give it a shot, or otherwise provide some suggestions as to what kind of music seems to do especially well.
Also keep in mind that despite the title, D&D could translate roughly into any fantasy-setting. In the second part, I will provide a very short section in the end for Horror, Sci-Fi and World of Darkness, but I admit my experience is limited in that regard.

Why use music in your campaign?
There are as many opinions on this matter as there are people, which is frankly understandable. After all, it comes down to personal taste, and I am in no way preaching or trying to convince anyone. In the end, you’re likely reading up on this, either as a designated or an aspiring GM, and the logical conclusion is: It’s your decision.
However, there are a few points you might want to consider the advantages of:

Don’t tell it. Show it! 
One of the finest tasks of the GM is the ability to not only tell but also portraying an engulfing, trustworthy (as trustworthy as fantasy-universes become), living world for the players. After all, if you didn’t feel like living in a fantastic universe, you might as well just bring Descent: Journeys in the Dark to your next session.
This is the same reason why pictures are included in many adventurers, as they, after all, say more than a thousand words. Music can’t so easily be included, but is often bound to have the same effect. Travelling through a meadow, with subtle tones of flutes and birds singing in the background, will often provide significantly more depth to the description the GM is providing from the textbook.
In that way, a musical score might say more than…500 words. Maybe 600.
Duel of the Silence
Combat can be extremely more intense and rewarding, with a tense track playing in the background. I tend to imagine how the final battle of, say, The Phantom Menace would have been, if not for Duel of the Fates.
Setting the Theme
If you know, well in advance (which you should as a GM) what themes will dominate the upcoming session, providing the right music from the start will get your players quickly into the proper mood. Is loss and despair coming up? Don’t worry that you might not be Shakespeare. Write a small introduction about how everything has seemed moody and depressing of late, how dark clouds are gathering and people are losing faith. A sorrowful tune is the spice that can make it all work out for you from the start.
Forcing the theme
Though an atmosphere shouldn’t have to be forced, putting up a proper theme will often tell your players, discretely, that right now might not be the time to jump around casting dancing lights. Otherwise, putting a happy theme on loop will bolster that merry spirit, and make sure your players will notice the fun is about to stop, once you switch track.
Hello, silence, my old friend!
Humans are adaptive creatures, meaning we often tend to accommodate to the surroundings. Playing with music might feel awkward tin the beginning, even later at the beginning of the campaign. However, as time passes, the players might investigate a dungeon with a recording of wind blowing through caverns sounding from your speakers. And they won’t notice a thing.
Once they enter the inner sanctum, bathed in unholy red light, you can turn off everything, and let silence spread through the room. Suddenly, silence is uncomfortably noisy, and you’ve doubled your gain, as the players start having a really bad feeling about this place.
After all, they’re relied on music to set the theme.
Without it, you’re basically robbing them of a sense of orientation, which can be a strong narrative element.
“Hi, my name is DJ-GM!”  
If you’re new to using music in your campaign (and perhaps, new to GM’ing in the first place) a potential DJ-career might seem potentially overwhelming. Dragon Magazine #355 presents some suggestions as to how you can better manage and prepare your DJ-booth ahead of time. My personal advice; Keep it simple. Keep it safe (not hidden). Begin with 10-15 tracks and work your way out. You might potentially end up with thousands of good tracks, and most human beings won’t be able to remember even half of them. Stressing yourself and wasting time searching for that special song takes time away from the game, and bores you and your players. Prepare in advance, and chose what to use.
“No, really. I like Tokyo Hotel!”
It’s impossible to account for personal taste. Some players prefer one type of music, and some prefer otherwise. To some, the wrong kind of music might very well have the exact opposite effect of what you’re trying to achieve, if they find your DJ-selection distasteful. Others will merely be bothered by it. Another group I used to game in, sincerely insisted that the only music to be played during session was metal, which in the end was really distracting to me. Be prepared to hear your players out, if you decide to spin that shit.
“Who’re those ‘Beatles’-people I keep hearing so much about?”
Some people just don’t like music. They exist, trust me. No matter what you chose, they’d rather listen to silence or the washing-machine in the next basement-room.
“Hi, I wondered if you still have that Baldur’s Gate Soundtrack on sale?”
Getting your hands on the music can be a long and, despite what Dragon Magazine points out, demanding task, depending on your preferences. I am not venturing too much into that territory in this blog, but be prepared to maybe spend some time looking. Various pages on the internet are selling individual tracks from popular albums and movies, whereas some tracks from old computer-games and the like have been freely (and legally) published for download. Remember that downloading tracks from the internet can potentially be illegal, due to copyright reasons!
Luckily, some computer-games have published official soundtracks, whereas others actually include their music as individual MP3’s.
Music-Use: Atmosphere versus Cinematic
In general I prefer to perceive my music as either the general, discrete type used to create an atmosphere, or the very active track, which draws a lot of attention to itself, often used only once in a specific scene.
Atmosphere is any track or repeating series of sounds which can be used to establish the players’ current environment. When music is used it is often set on repeat, or switching between variations of the same theme. An example of this could be the overland-music from Oblivion or Morrowind, which is divided into several tracks, and yet sound amazingly similar.
Sounds are often recordings of natural occurrences or environments, such as wind blowing in the treetops, and birds gently singing. Or it could be the sound of rain, a ruffled crowd or waves slowly brushing up on the beach. In most cases, the recording can be set on repeat without many people noticing.
Cinematic music is used for that special scene. You are of no doubt aware of them from movies. The one in which the villain raises his evil speech, the hero is making a run for it to get out of the burning house, or the Balrog chasing down the fellowship. While narratively powerful, this can require a great deal of coordination from the GM in order to work perfectly. Especially if you’re the kind (like me) who prefer to write down important scenes in advance, to be read out loud to the players.
However, making it work, and the music setting in at just the right time, can contribute to amazing memorable scenes. If you’re new to DJ-GM’ing, I’d suggest you stick to atmosphere initially, as this only requires you to change tracks, whenever your players change location.
Pitfalls of DJ-GM’ing
Also known as common mistakes.Too loud!: Music can be very different from when you’re sitting at home with your headphones, compared to coming out of your speakers. Especially if they are placed near you. Your voice should always take precedence, and music should be the background choir.
Using too popular music. Aka “Oh! I know that one! Isn’t that the one from that Gladiator-movie?” : While using popular tracks is certainly justifiable, be prepared that it might backfire, should you decide to utilize very popular overtures. Whereas using music from a scene in The Dark Knight might be great in a night-time investigation, playing the well-known theme from the new Batman-movies might just be too much or simply be too distracting.In the end, it comes down to your knowledge of your players. If none of them have ever played World of Warcraft (I’ve heard those people do actually exist) you’re blessed with a myriad of possible soundtracks. Whereas another group would instantly utter; “Cool, Arthas-theme! Reminds me of that raid yesterday…”
Being a one-track pony: As sessions progress, our energy-level often drops. That’s okay, but make sure to keep the music changing at least a little bit. Late at night it can be surprisingly tempting to simply switch between the same four tracks. Use variation, not only to avoid dullness, but to aspire people to move on and experience new things.
What is good fantasy-music?
The answer to this is in no way, and will likely never be, set in stone. Below are some of my recommendations, regarding soundtracks, games and albums.  In part 2 I will describe my suggestions for various, but recurring, fantasy-situations.
Dragon Age: Origins. OST.
Readers of my previous blogs will know that I very much favor DA:O as one of the best games ever to be released. A great reason for this is its great selection of music. According to the Dragon Age Wiki, it was officially released on the 3rd of November, 2009, and composed and arranged by Inon Zuhr.
Various versions of the OST seem to appear. A special version was included with Collector’s Edition, featuring seven new tracks, though a great deal of the tracks are available on Amazon.
There are still tracks lacking from the official releases, such as the one from The Fade, among others. Nonetheless, this album is a great start if you’re new to DJ’ing. There is good music for battle as well as exploration, and general mood-setting. Also, despite its popularity, most of the scores are so subtle and varied that your players likely won’t recognize it.

Baldurs' Gate and Baldurs' Gate 2 OST
I honestly can’t give any advice as to how you should acquire these masterpieces, but they are really worthwhile getting. Why? Because this is actually one of those albums which you want your players to recognize. I’ve been playing with only a very few people who honestly complained about the all too familiar tunes in the backgrounds, which honestly seemed a bit cantankerous… In my humble opinion, both tracks are great for that special nostalgic feeling. Even if your players never touched the Baldurs’ Gate-series they will likely appreciate a lot of these tracks as well. Much of this music is to my knowledge by Michael Hoening.The BG-OSTs (still sounds like a weapon from Quake or something) offer some awesome tracks for your average adventuring, whether your party is travelling in the ruins of a lonesome forest, or in the depths of the dungeons. Others are great for rich/poor taverns, or as a theme-song for that very special NPC. After all, that was what these lovely games were all about. There are some few good combat tracks, though some of them are rather short, and they do tend to get a bit repetitive after some time.
BG2 offers some really good background music for when you’re reading introductions aloud, such as “Galean Bayle sailing” and “Jon Battle and Peace”. It’s worthwhile to familiarize yourself with as much as possible, as they make for awesome sequences.
Icewind Dale 1+2 OST.
Continuing with the same theme; the IWD-games. I’m frankly not aware of any soundtrack to the second game, but I did manage to listen to the first one back then. Overall, they do not seem to offer as much potential as BG. Some combat-themes which are okay, and some great stuff for taverns and inns.

The Vale of Shadow-theme actually turned out to be massively great in my Savage Tide-campaign, when my players were exploring the ancient Olmen *cough*Inkan*cough* ruins.
That being said, I wouldn’t go to great lengths to get my hands on these.

Planescape Torment OST
To me PST is all about NPC-music. There are some tremendous and awesome themes for the tremendous and awesome characters of the original game. PST is a game which I really want to love, and actually progress into (further than the mortuary in the start, at least) but that shouldn’t influence my opinion of its musical scores.
If you haven’t played it and you’re new to the whole planescape-concept, I might best describe it as ‘wonderfully philosophically weird’. That also shows in the music. If you’re running a planescape-campaign, you’re likely acquainted with this game, at least. That being said, giving it a chance is not a bad idea. Plus, it’s not really that common among new players, at all, so you’re not likely to have players who recognize it.
You won’t find much combat-oriented music here, though the few pieces are by no means bad.
Neverwinter Nights 1+2
Great games with some great music. Though I’ve never been that much of a fan regarding the first one. I’m actually not entirely sure as to how big the difference really is between the two of them, regarding music. A lot of it seems to overlap. What I especially like in NWN 2 is its combat-themes. These are easily the best I’ve heard in a game to date.
NWN 1+2 both have the special advantage that the music is included with the games, as you install them. Even better, so is the environmental sound. Those who’ve played the games will remember how howling wind, rain, breezes, and muffled shouting behind closed doors all were a natural part of the adventuring. Hell, there is even the sound of a room with talking people, a busy street and much more. With no musical interaction these tracks make for perfect scores, once you think everyone needs a little break, or simply if you’re not that big a fan of music. I’d strongly suggest you to at least give it a listen. All the files should be included in your Neverwinter Nights install-directory.

World of Warcraft
We’re not getting around this. I am aware that there is some conservatism regarding keeping PnP and WoW separated, which seems silly. Whether one likes the universe or not, the Blizzard-boys have made some really good and solid musical scores in their many years, and a lot of them are more than viable for tabletop-gaming, even without using the extremely well-known themes.
WoW has generated tons of great scores in its time, which is also the reason why it’s so hard to specifically recommend an album as such. Good tracks tend to be found spread out along the different OST’s, which by now should cover The Burning Crusade, Wrath of the Lich King and Cataclysm. A lot of the original music is still good, such as the familiar Stranglethorn Vale-theme, for more exotic adventures. You really have to sit down and make a listen and see if there’s anything you like. Much of the cinematic music is good for your own reading out loud-pieces.  Just don’t, ironically, expect that much great music for battle.
If the majority of your group plays WoW this can actually be quite the advantage (as long as it doesn’t lead to WoW-talk, too much). Other people will beat you with their cane, telling you that Gygax is spinning in his grave.
Might and Magic 6 – The Mandate of Heaven
From very new to very old. MM6 hasn’t really aged well on the graphical side.
Frankly, it’s ugly as sin. Still it’s a wonderful game, and the CD comes with a number of tracks ready to play in your stereo. Ah, those were the days…
Whereas some of the tracks here are downright dull and not very inspiring, a few of them are quite fantastic for the special feeling. I’m perfectly willing to admit that I am judging partly with rose-tinted goggles, since MM6 was the first piece of music I ever used. Still, I do believe there is some potential to be had, especially when your group is travelling outside in the open landscape. A few instrumental dungeon-tracks are there as well, though they tend to get a bit too instrumental and dramatic at times. Listen and judge for yourself.
If end up liking this, I can truly recommend to also check out Might and Magic 7, which is basically more of the same stuff.

Final Fantasy 7-8-9
I have a strange relationship with FF. The reason for only mentioning 7-9 is the fact that these are the only ones I’ve played. That being said, I like a lot of the FF-scores, and always wanted to include some of them, one time or the other.
The main problem for me is the fact that I never seem to find a situation into which the tracks really fit. FF does have its own kind of musical style which might be kind of hard to include in your average basic fantasy-campaign, unless you end up with an ideal situation. Some of the tracks are generic enough in themselves, so that they can qualify for almost everything, whereas others have almost zero potential. Still, Dragon recommended One-Winged Angel if I recall correctly, which is perhaps one of the most popular villain-themes to ever exist (and with good reason) so I am sure others besides me had the thought.

There are a few good combat-themes in FF, but again, they aren’t exactly classical as you’ll find in BG or NWN. If you’re going for medieval fantasy, Final Fantasy 9 might be your best bet.

Temple of Elemental Evil
If you’re like me, you tried ToEE once it finally hit the shelves and left with a bitter feeling in your mouth. While not a particular awesome game, one had to at least respect it for staying true to the 3rd edition rules. And its good music. I am not aware whether an official soundtrack was ever released, but I seem to remember the music as available files from the installation. Just like NWN.
ToEE isn’t exactly abundant with awesome tracks, but there are a few that might be worthwhile using. The theme in Hommlet has the perfect atmosphere of an idyllic country-town, and the battle music is varied, offering just the right pacing. Plus it easily bears being put on repeat for longer fights.

Midnight Syndicate
I’m split about the Dungeons & Dragons soundtrack created by these people in 2003. The same counts for the 13th hour-soundtrack. First and foremost, let me say that we seriously need a lot more of initiatives like the ones taken by this band. There are a lot of good tracks in various games, but to see dedicated artists actually undertake the making of music specifically aimed at PnP-games deserves recommendation.
Some tracks on the D&D soundtrack and the 13th hour are great. Tracks such as ‘Beasts of the Borderlands’ , ‘Family Secrets’, ‘Deep trouble’ and ‘Troubled times’ are memorable, whereas others are generic at best. Again, you might disagree with me on this, so the best advice is to give these guys a chance and listen it out. I imagine that the real issue with this one, isn’t that the music is bad. Just that it might be hard to imagine what you could use it for. There isn’t much music for battle, and the one track that does involve combat contains background sounds of people fighting. Personally, I’ve always found that effect rather silly. But if it’s your style, all the better.
Oblivion+Morrowind OST
Great games. Great atmosphere. Poor combat.
I don’t think I can put it better. Especially Oblivion has some extremely nice tracks for outdoor exploring. “Peace of Akatosh” and “Wings of Kyraneth” from Oblivion has become my main theme whenever my players are exploring sunny plains and forests.
Everything seems to be at this meditative slow pace, which is also the reason I loved the games. Even the combat-music was…spacey.  Some might prefer this, I really didn’t.
There are some tracks for dungeons as well, which are more or less on par with the MM 6 and 7.
All in all, both of these ‘albums’ are awesome if you want a meditative, almost therapeutic, session with a relaxed atmosphere. Jeremy Soule seems to be the main man to look for here, by the way.
Thief: Deadly Shadows OST
I’m a long time fan of the Thief-series, and for your average gloomy-ominous-dangerous place, you will have to look for some time, before you find something better. Eric Brosius is the genius behind these tracks, which are characterized by a subtle unnerving tune. If you’ve ever played some of the Thief-games, you might be familiar with the eerie feeling associated with them. The music is, sometimes, barely noticeable and instead turns into a collection of strange sounds and nodes. At other times it’s merely strange or threatening. Seaside Manor is one of my favorite tracks at all time, as is the level in the game from which it was taken.
Listen this soundtrack out. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

Thus we conclude the first part. Stay tuned for part 2 in which I will review various typical fantasy-elements with specific recommendations for music. I will also attempt to make suggestions for other types of campaigns.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. You know, if you do a quick google search, you can easily find a small program that will extract the music out of a game (baldurs gate fx.), I cant imagine that it would be illegal, since you already own the game, and you aren't really breaking any copyright laws...

    edit* where's the bloody edit button....

    Btw, the music from the Myth series of games is great ;)

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