Music has always been a powerful part of my life. It was a fun way to learn when I was a toddler; I sang solos in concerts, talent shows, and fundraisers in elementary school; it carried me through some dark times as a teenager; I took vocal and singing lessons in university and participated in a few musical stage productions; and even today, my music and signing is an important part of my personal identity. All of that background is to convince you that I have a deep appreciation for music. So, when I say that I’m very conflicted when it comes to using music during game sessions, you know where I am coming from.
Over the past eighteen years playing D&D, I have participated in both ends of the gaming/music spectrum. My early games in the mid-to-late 90’s were filled with the songs of Queen, Guns and Roses, Def Leppard, Metallica, and many others. For us at the time, these songs were meant to pump us up for the inevitable battle that would finish off almost every session. Then, as some of our regular members changed and I moved out of a player’s role and into a DM’s role, I kept the music but I changed the playlist to match my style. Soon the background was filled with soundtracks from Star Wars, Star Trek, Indiana Jones, Braveheart, and classical pieces by Holst, Bach, and Grieg. I made this change because I was finding the music with lyrics too distracting and the instrumental stuff usually had a longer running time with fewer changes in mood and tempo.
During my university days, I started playing at other people’s apartments and homes so the music was left up to the hosts and that meant it was usually left out altogether. I slowly started to realize that some people preferred playing with nothing in the background and others missed it greatly. It opened my eyes to the idea that, just like particular styles of roleplaying, the enjoyment or dislike of the music while gaming depended completely on the individual players. In essence, there are some players who find music as an enhancement to the playing experience and are able to incorporate it into their “theater of the mind” and, on the other hand, there are also players who cannot enjoy the music because they find it far too distracting and disrupting to the roleplaying.
Presently and for the past two years, I’ve played a lot of my games in public places such as gaming stores and conventions. Having music in either of these venues is both difficult (due to the noise of others) and inconsiderate (for the other players outside of my game). Do I miss using music during my games? Yes. Does not having music during my games take away from my players’ roleplaying experience? Well that’s the real question! My first reaction is to say no. My players are having just as good an experience and having fun without the need of a soundtrack. However, from time to time, there is still a part of my brain that shouts out, “This would be so much cooler with John Williams!”
No matter what side of the argument you stand on, I think it is important to realize that music is a gaming tool. It can be used or not used depending on the preference of the DM and the players. It’s no different than a calculator, a map, or miniatures. Some people enjoy the add-ons and others prefer their D&D straight up. It’s also important to note that a DM’s preference in music may not translate over to all of his or her players. For example, when I do use music in my games I lean very heavily on movie soundtracks and classical pieces but I know for a fact that at least one of the groups I currently DM would dislike me using that style. And while I’m not a huge fan, I’m sure that there are lots of groups out there that blare out Rap, Death Metal, Techno, and possibly even Polka every night. And there’s nothing wrong with that as long as everyone in the group is in agreement and having a good time.
Also, if music is a big part of your game, another thing to consider is how some of your players may react to certain types of music. For example, I know that a friend of mine is very attached to the Gladiator soundtrack and loves to play it for his games, especially during his combat scenes as it pumps him up. His players, on the other hand, may not feel the same as they are not nearly as attached to that music. As the entertainers say, “Know your audience”! An older DM might enjoy putting on a little 70’s/80’s rock but if all of his or her players are teenagers and didn’t start listening to music until the year 2000, the DM’s choice of music may not be very well received. Vice versa if the players are all in their 30’s and 40’s and the DM has just had his or her 20th birthday. The best advice here is to open up the lines of communication, see what your player’s preferences are, and try to reach some sort of consensus.
Another tricky aspect concerning music and roleplaying is matching the right mood of music with the right events in the storyline. Blaring AC/DC’s Back in Black during a friendly drink at the tavern might not be the best match-up. However, waiting another fifteen minutes and playing it when the bar fights break out sounds to me like pure gold! Similarly, try to avoid playing Howard Shore’s The Shire from The Fellowship of the Ring soundtrack during the middle of a massive battle scene. These out of place musical pieces might be funny at first but they will quickly become huge distractions. In the same vein, try to avoid random mixes and shuffles as they will betray you with glee.
I suppose the moral of this article boils down to the following: If you are going to use music with your games, put a little thought into it. Make sure you are playing in an area that is conducive to music and is not disturbing others; have an open and honest conversation with your players about what, if any, music they would like to have playing; and do your best to match the music mood with the story mood. Finally, if you are still sitting on the fence about the whole music thing like I am, remember that a truly interesting game with a great storyline will make any music obsolete… although John Williams really does make almost anything cooler.