Think back to your favorite movies, imagine your favorite scenes and moments. Now imagine them without music. Even the most subtle musical accompaniment can influence the experience of a film, tv show, or even video game. While it is not always necessary, it can facilitate emotional responses or also alter a person’s cognitive faculties. We’re not going through the psychology of music in this article, but it’s important to understand that music does factor into your experiences, especially when we’re talking about the tabletop landscape.
How Does Music Enhance Storytelling?
If you think back to the earliest films, which are referred colloquially as “silent movies,” music provided a wide array of emotional responses that helped create a sense of ambiance and situational cues for the audience as scenes progress. Film or shows that use a series of musical signals and themes often create an audio library, but it can also establish a score that becomes the core identity for the media. An example would be a soundtrack from a movie or show, such as Star Wars, Star Trek, Game of Thrones, and Harry Potter.
The major takeaway is to elicit an emotional response or connect emotion to particular imagery or scene.
Even in audiobooks, you may have non-verbal auditory tracks. Early radio plays utilized various sounds and musical tunes to help create the necessary atmosphere. Horror movies thrive on using music to help establish the tone of a scene. Music has an impact in regards to memories and actions, where familiarity with a particular song can elicit basic emotions associated with a memory. Action through music can have a similar effect, such as driving faster when listening to louder, faster tempo music or restfulness while listening to slow, melodic sounds.
Your Instrument of Choice
Thankfully, there is a slew of choices and options whether a DM/GM wishes to have musical accompaniments with their narrations or the players seeking to develop a playlist full of songs to establish the mood for their characters. I took to Twitter asking people within the D&D and RPG community to voice what options or services they use (you can read the various responses and discussion on the Twitter thread here).
- Most commonly, YouTube and Spotify reign at the top of choices. These are often ideal as many times as artists, musicians, and composers feature their soundtracks on these audio/video platforms. Other mainstream choices include Amazon, Google Play, and Soundcloud. While Pandora can provide stations, the interface isn’t as accessible as YouTube or Spotify.
- Syrinscape utilizes dynamic sound and musical control through a computer application or mobile app. I’ve enjoyed using Syrinscape in some of my horror RPG sessions, such as having the ability to auto-loop tracks while adding sound elements that vary in frequency of appearance. The best part, Syrinscape fits for a variety of genres, not just Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder.
- Battlebards provides an audio library of original content, the ability to create a soundboard, a mixer, and a desktop player for offline gaming. I backed their Kickstarter several years ago, and the sight continues to improve over time, in addition to their offerings.
- The Roll20 Jukebox player allows GMs to incorporate musical elements into their gameplay whether for streamers or just casual online play. Also, Roll20 provides additional musical libraries include Tabletop Audio and Fanburst to name a few.
- Tabletop Audio is another ambient audio library service that has won several ENie Awards.
- If you are in need of a great gothic horror sound library, Midnight Syndicate provides inspiring soundtracks whether you’re running Curse of Strahd, a game of Dread, or Bluebeard’s Bride (you can learn about more Horror Tabletop RPGs on my article on Encounter Roleplay).
Elevating Your Games – Using Music
When it comes to any particular hardware or software, many audio libraries provide a web browser interface. In most home games, the use of Bluetooth speakers connected to either a mobile device, laptop, or desktop is standard practice. Though it should be stated that managing audio tracks in addition to your game, for a GM/DM, can be difficult especially if you’re like me, become engrossed in the story and your exposition. I have used music several times in my D&D games, but since I improvise far more with my players, I often do not have the tracks readily available or open in time, which is really a planning issue on my part than anything. For my annual Dread games, I definitely put far more planning and effort into those sessions, writing in notes for musical cues after selecting my soundtracks.
- Write short game session notes, and mark musical cues with track names next to pivotal moments.
- Keep at least one to two tracks available based on these types of scenes: Calm/Pensive, Battle, High Drama/Tension (for those serious moments), Sadness. Additional tracks you may employ will be determined by the overall theme, situation, and setting wherever your players go.
- Keep your playlists short. It’s easier and faster for you to navigate through a short playlist to procure the necessary musical score or track. Separating your playlists by theme or situation also helps keeps you organized.
- If you’re encouraging your players to create character playlists, have them share it with you (the DM/GM), so you may select songs from them during key character moments and arcs. This personalizes the experience and also signals to the players when this might be a crucial moment for their character.
- If you’re choosing an ambient sound that plays in the background, make sure that’s never louder than you or your players.
- Some background music can be easily looped, but sometimes they are not. Make sure to listen to an entire song before using it, the way a song cuts out can prove to be distracting for your players and audience (if you’re streaming).
RPG streams are elevated or highly regarded for their higher production quality with the inclusion of musical and graphical assets. Whether you endorse it or not, RPG streams are a form of live entertainment. Even actual-play podcasts will implement music into their final product, and there is a significant difference in the quality of the final product. Of course, there are plenty of RPG streams and podcasts that employ a minimalistic implementation of music, and these groups and media STILL have strong followings. In the few streams that I have participated, some GM/DMs will give the players (and the audience) access to the current playing theme to help bring the players into current mood and atmosphere of their scene. Remember, music used in this sort of fashion is intended to bring context and elicit emotions.
Featured Composer – Michael Ghelfi
Curating an accessible audio library with tracks that provide the necessary ambiance that is neither distracting or overwhelming can be a challenge, sampling your music is always encouraged. It was through my samplings that I came across Michael Ghelfi and his musical selections on his YouTube channel and Bandcamp profile. Michael has some excellent ambiance music and sounds for your RPG, and D&D sessions split into two volumes on his Bandcamp profile. If you fancy steampunk, there’s an orchestral steampunk album that works very well for RPGs such as Year Zero: Mechatron (yes I know it’s post-apocalyptic robots, but you can easily change the genre around an incorporate some Studio Ghibli magic here).
What I love about most of the ambiances Michael produces:
- Their length ranges from half an hour to an hour long, which is long enough for most DM/GMs to get their narrative expositions across to the players
- They cover a ride range of locations, themes, and genres (include a School of Magic one, great for Harry Potter inspired RPGs like Broomsticks & Wands) I’m also a Slytherin too Michael!
- When I spoke with Michael, there were plans for additional content to be produced and updated on YouTube and Bandcamp. Having a good stream of new music and ambiances is always a good thing. If you want something more specific, you easily hire or commission Michael
Please check out Michael Ghelfi’s channel, if you wish to support him and purchase some of the sounds you hear for your homes, you can easily do so by checking his Bandcamp profile. I should state that if you wish to use his music on a stream, that you reach out to him first.
Support him on Patreon: http://www.patreon.com/MichaelGhelfi
Official Website: http://www.michaelghelfi.com
Also, as of this article until December 26th (2018), anyone that purchases any of Michael’s music from his Bandcamp using the promo code: deathbyghelfi will receive 30% off their purchase. Not only will you be supporting an artist and content creator, but you will have access to some absolutely beautiful musical content to use for your games.
What services do you implement for your RPG/D&D games? If you had a pivotal RP moment in one of your games, what sort of music of theme would best compliment it? Please comment below and let’s keep the discussion flowing. Thank you again to Michael Ghelfi for suggesting this topic and for partnering with me to bring some great material to explore with all of you in this article.
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