This article originally appeared here in May of 2009 – however I recently had an in-depth conversation with a few other gamers about using music at the table and ended up bringing this up again and everyone thought I should bring it back into the spotlight.
On just about every discussion forum I’ve visited there have been threads about using music to enhance your games. I’ve been using music for years, but recently had a long talk about the subject with another GM who also uses it successfully in his games and we compared notes on what works and doesn’t work for us and came up with a list of our best practices that we both agree on. Each rule we set out, of course, had at least one exception, so we’ll go into the rules and the exceptions below.
At the heart of it, like anything you want to do in a game, remember the basics: Keep it simple and keep it fun. You won’t turn your game into a cinematic experience the first time you add music to it – and if you take on too much right away you’ll probably find it overwhelming or annoying. So take it easy and have fun with it.
Evaluate the Scene
No matter how much some groups love well-used music, there are some groups where it will not work. I have a group with a player with a hearing disability and using music in that game is cruel and no fun to that player. I also know a game master who has a hard time having himself heard in the best of times, so adding additional noise to the game would be a bad idea. If the room you game in is very small, then there is likely not enough room to set your speakers up properly (see the Equipment section below). If you have a player with a severe aversion to the musical style you intend to use, you should consider not using it either. If you already find that you are overwhelmed with the tasks of GMing, or get overwhelmed by adding new tasks, forget about advanced techniques completely (but still check out the rest of the article, the basics really are basic). We are gaming to have fun – make sure it remains fun for you and your players.
Use the Right Equipment
Really, we both agree that this requires that you use a laptop computer so you aren’t getting up, turning around or doing something to change music during the game. Using music in a game works best if you already use a laptop to game master with. And don’t play the music through the laptop speakers – having it playing from the gaming table makes it harder to understand anything being said and the quality of most laptop speakers sucks. Hook your computer up to your sound system, use a simple mp3 player program like WinAmp (I use Audacious on my linux box), and take advantage of the other benefits of gaming with a laptop (instant DM screen, use PDF adventures, track initiative and so on). If you can’t possibly set the speakers far from the table, try putting them under the table and see if that works, but be warned that it may not and you may have to abandon this already.
Set the Speakers & Volume
This takes a bit of practice, but first of all make sure the speakers are no where near where you will be sitting. Preferably you want them as far from any of the gamers as possible, and definitely opposite from you in the room, so your players will be able to discern from the source of the sound what is background noise and what is GM noise. Now playing with volume is essential. The best way to set this up is to sit down with a group and have a conversation and set the volume so the music can be heard, but the player closest to the speakers doesn’t EVER find it overwhelming. This volume should be with your computer sound volume at 75% or so. In this way, when you start using advanced techniques you will be able to increase the music volume when needed from your laptop without going to the sound system to turn up or down the volume knob.
Avoid Music With Lyrics
Seriously. This is probably the first thing you run into also on most forum threads about the subject. You don’t want your players singing along with the soundtrack. That said, there are definitely exceptions to the rule. When running a cyberpunk genre game (like my Ex Machina campaign from last year), pulling out the classics of industrial music like Ministry and Skinny Puppy can work. The trick in these cases is to keep the volume down to keep it from being too distracting – probably even further down than when you set up your volume in the previous step.
Pick the Right Music
I started getting into this above. You need music that suits the genre of your game. I love ambient and goa trance, but it really doesn’t suit a game of deep dungeon delving. And really, even though many gamers love metal, it is rarely the right music for the scene. Look at movie soundtracks: the Lord of the Rings trilogy for fantasy games, the Akira soundtrack for cyberpunk or modern games (and throw in some tracks from the Hardware soundtrack too) and I keep hearing people shout out with Diamanda Galas for vampire / horror games. Now go through the music you are using and set up a few playlists – each should be about an hour long. You want a general use playlist and a brave and bold playlist. You can start making other playlists as you get comfortable with it. Set the playlists to repeat – with a one hour loop most people won’t even notice.
Don’t Worry About Timing
You will keep hearing people discuss and brag about how they use music to highlight certain points in their games – the entry of certain villains, major combats, and various crises all seem to have the “right track” to play at the moment. Don’t worry about this until you are already comfortable with music playing in your games. The “right timing” will happen on it’s own every now and then and it feels awesome when it does. Once you and your players are comfortable with music at the table, then you can start looking for specifics.
Start Getting More Advanced
This is vital – don’t do anything more complex than the above material until you are comfortable with it. Just like running a game, you don’t want to overload yourself with new material right away – get into the basic game and then learn the new rules later. Having music for specific scenes is cool, but easy to mess up. The trick is to insert the track into your playlist when the scene comes up, so you won’t have the track on infinite repeat or just stop when it is done. If you forget the track, no big deal, the music goes on. This is cinematic window dressing – get tracks together for major battles, for introducing (or bringing back) villains, for specific locations (the cantina or the inn, or even the palace should have their own soundtracks) or even for major events that the PCs do on occasion. A metal song when they start their raid against the enemy base. An operatic piece when a character dies. The imperial march when the orcs come down the pass. And don’t be afraid to spike the volume for these tracks – bring it up a bit to highlight the track, and then fade it back to normal after thirty seconds to a minute. But remember that you have to take more clearly and loudly when the music is turned up.