Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Dungeon Mastering: Scoring the Scene

One thing I have learned over the years of playing and running Dungeons & Dragons (and, for that matter, other role-playing games) is that every Dungeon Master (or Marshall, or Fixer, or Game Master, or ...) does things a little bit differently. Introducing technology to the table is something that every GM has to think about when they host a game. Although I always insist that I run my D&D games without any technology, I do make one exception: I provide the score.

Bringing Sound to the Game Table

Having sound or music at the game table can add a lot of weight to heated battles, dangerous treks, sinister meetings, and any other sort of scene imaginable. The D&D blog Meta Gamemastery addresses ways to bring both sound and music to the table. As somebody who has what is usually described as "peculiar" musical tastes, I thought I would provide some additional suggestions regarding the musical category.

With the advancement of fancy gadgetry, the need to have a laptop at the table is lessened. A lot of good sound or musical work can be done from a tablet or even a sophisticated MP3 player. I have personally built up a collection of "D&D Playlists" in my iTunes that could easily be ported to any sort of compatible device (such as an iPod or other MP3 player). With a pair of good speakers or a home entertainment system, that iPod can be used to provide a score for every scene imaginable just by deftly switching between playlists.

People with more elaborate sound setups have more options. I personally route an AppleTV to my home stereo system which I control via my iOS devices (using the Remote app). That way, I can be sitting across the room from my audio rig and be able to control what is playing on the fly.

The Source of the Score

Finding music to use at your game table can be difficult. When thinking about what kind of music to bring to the table, it is important to think about what your game session will entail. The last thing you want to have is the fated meeting of a PC and her nemesis underscored by Yakety Sax. Well, unless that is the effect you want to go for, which could work perfectly well.


Back in 2003, Wizards of the Coast published a "Dungeons & Dragons Soundtrack" composed by Midnight Syndicate. Midnight Syndicate is a group of musicians known mostly for composing what can only be described as Haunted House soundtracks. They have released something on the order of fifteen albums although the bulk of them are geared towards "horror" music. Some people get their start "scoring" a D&D game with this but I honestly recommend passing on it as Midnight Syndicate tends to sound too synthetic. I do not mean to say that they are bad but I suspect most groups will find them a bit awkward.

A DM friend of mine uses a lot of pieces from the Pirates of the Caribbean scores (Klaus Badelt, Hans Zimmer). There are a few sinister pieces that can help set a grim tone (The Kraken from Dead Man's Chest). There are also a number of action pieces that can be useful when the party is turning the tide in combat, defeating the villain's plan (both from The Curse Of The Black Pearl), or just escaping on a giant water wheel. Overall, the collected scores for Pirates of the Caribbean have quite a few useful musical overtures and melodies to throw into any Dungeons & Dragons adventure to liven up the action or suspense.
You know. That part of the movie.
Of course, sometimes you need music for something more tranquil or mysterious. The SyFy television series Battlestar Galactica had a number of interesting pieces in the score. I put together a playlist using a few of the "Opera House" melodies that has served well as a "calm yet mysterious" set (Passacaglia, Allegro, and The Shape of Things to Come). It tends to fit that part in the adventure where everything seems to have come together in the PCs favor but there is still that lingering notion that something has gone undone or forgotten. Then again, Bear McCready's fondness for taiko drums could serve well in some sort of heated combat scene.

Looking to Games for the Score

As a person who has collected a number of video game soundtracks, I have a rather wide selection of musical pieces to choose from. Interestingly, a lot of video game scores were designed to be repeated, making it more effective for a scene in a RPG in which I cannot control the pacing at the table. For example, I have gotten a lot of mileage out of the scores for Metal Gear Solid 2-4. Many a mysterious meeting has happened in my D&D games with Drebin 893 playing in the background.

Drebin 893: Making every mysterious meeting that much seedier.
There are other pieces for other types of scenes. I have done important hand-to-hand conflicts with Snake Eater's CQC and Last Showdown as the background music. More action oriented battles warrant a mix of high-energy boss themes, such as one of my battle playlists featuring The Pain, The Fear, and The Fury. Although a game like Metal Gear Solid is set in a high-tech future (or, near future), the music still works perfectly well for an action oriented scene like battle.

For music that feels more thematically appropriate, I cannot recommend the Total War series enough. Jeff van Dyck has some amazing compositions in Medieval, Shogun, and Rome that would fit well in a fantasy themed campaign (although Shogun may be more Kara-Tur/Rokugan relevant). I have at least three different playlists (two battle, one for grim exploration) taken entirely from the Rome: Total War soundtrack. Consider Warrior March, Melee Cafe, and Mayhem to score an intense battle.

Of course, there are many other games that provide interesting songs to play during a Dungeons & Dragons session. The greatest difficulty with using video game music is finding it in a convenient format. Although popular in East Asia, video game music is still a niche thing in the United States of America. One of the easiest places to look is iTunes; a lot of publishers have been putting scores on iTunes in the last three or four years. You can find a number of meaningful soundtracks, including recent Total War titles, any number of Call of Duty or Medal of Honor soundtracks, and even some more interesting collections like Dragon Age, Mass Effect, or The Sims: Medeival.

More to Come

There are a lot of different pieces of music that can bring a lot to a game session. I touched on a few that I use but there are plenty more. Knowing your style and the style of your group is important to finding the right musical style. Although I joked about it earlier, Yakety Sax may be the perfect fit for your relatively silly fantasy adventure game. Going forward, I intend to post additional albums that I find useful in setting the proper tone for my Dungeons & Dragons game. Hopefully, you can find something that suits your style best.

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