Aural Encounters, Part I

I’ve been asked a few times over the years to explain how I run music during game sessions.

A large part of the mystery is that players don’t even realize the music is being switched between encounters; scene appropriate music always appears to be playing of its own accord.

Once, a player told me that he didn’t enjoy music during D&D games because DM’s were always distracted, either from setting up the next track or fiddling with the volume. However, when I did it, my attention was always on the game.

So how do I do it?

This is Part I of a 2-part series that discusses using themed music for your campaigns. It explains everything from getting the music to organizing it; from choosing songs for specific encounters to playing them during sessions. Note that a few of the steps I outline here have been distilled down to a beginner’s version of what I actually do for my own games. For the more advanced methods of performing these steps, turn your attention to Part II.

You’ll Need Music

The obvious first step is to amass a giant collection of movie soundtracks: From The Last Starfighter to The Lord of the Rings. From Star Trek to Indiana Jones. Digital downloads (or torrents, if you frequent the dark, evil corners of the Internets) are best, as they save you the trouble of converting the tracks from hard copy to MP3.

Once you have the music, listen to all of it. I know that sounds pretty basic, but it’s a very important part of the process. Listen to tracks while you build cardstock models, while you read the new issue of Dragon Magazine, while you prepare the next adventure, and while you clean. The whole point of becoming familiar with the music is so you can get a feel for the flow of each song. After a listen or two, you’ll be able to break the tracks of an album down into one of several categories. Does this song have a thunderous, repetitive beat? It will be perfect for combat with a tribe of orcs. Does this song have have a quiet, mysterious melody? It will be perfect for exploring an abandoned keep. 

A Song for Every Occasion

The following is not how I organize music; it is, however, a quick and easy way to do so. For my more involved method, see the section entitled Everything in its Right Place in Part II.

Now it’s time to divide the songs up. Somewhere on your hard drive—preferably in a place set aside for D&D—create three folders: Combat, Places, and Special. Each track should be named something unique and placed into the appropriate folder. For example, consider the following: You’re listening to one of the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtracks and you find a song that would be perfect for when the characters are in the dark parts of a city. Put the track in the Places folder and rename it to something like “The Seedy Underbelly of Fallcrest” or “Looking for Trouble in Waterdeep.”

The Combat and Places categories should be pretty self-explanatory. Combat is… well, for combat. Places can be for anything from town squares to dark crypts; from forest paths to mountain strongholds. The Special category is a little less obvious. Basically, it holds tracks that are to be used for specific people, places, or moments. Good examples of songs for the Special category would be a motif just for the King, a melody played only for a special trap, or a climactic theme for the end of an adventure where the characters are captured by the enemy and lead off to their doom.

Know that not every song will fit easily into one of these three categories. Sometimes a track will start off as a perfect song for Places, but then a few minutes later it will jump into a Combat theme. That’s just the nature of movie soundtracks; most songs will jump all over the place and unfortunately, without editing them using special software, they probably won’t be appropriate for use in a D&D session.

This next part is going to be a bit tricky to explain, so bear with me.

Take a track from any movie soundtrack; for example, “Death Of Jonathan Kent” from the Superman: The Movie soundtrack. Rename it to something like “Leaving Home for the Last Time.” Now place it into your music player of choice, such as Winamp. You’ll find that the track reverts back to it’s original name: “Death Of Jonathan Kent.” This isn’t because your rename didn’t take—it’s because your MP3 has a little something called an ID3 tag.

ID3 tags contain all kinds of identifying information about an MP3, such as its title, track number, artist, album, and cover image. This information can get in the way, especially if you’re trying to rename it to something other than “Death Of Jonathan Kent.” To delete these tags, first you must download ID3Remover from Using the tool is easy: Run ID3Remover.exe after downloading, drag and drop your MP3 files to the program, and click Remove. The ID3 tags are now removed completely. Problem solved!

Click on the thumbnail below for an example of what your music files should look like when organized.

Basic Music Organization

Breaking Down the Adventure

Once your music collection is nice and organized, it’s time to turn your attention towards the adventure. After reading through it, separate every interaction into one of the following groups: Combat Encounter or Non-Combat Encounter. That should be pretty easy to do. Will the characters be rolling initiative? If yes, it’s a Combat Encounter. If no, it’s a Non-Combat Encounter.

Combat Encounters

Each Combat Encounter is broken up into four musical sections: Buildup, Engagement, Resolution, and Ambient. Songs for these sections can come from any category; just as long as it fits the mood you’re trying to evoke.

  • Buildup: As the name suggests, this is the song you play when the encounter is ramping up in excitement, just before it comes to blows. Are harsh words being called out between the characters and their enemies? Do things feel a little eerie in the dungeon just before the orcs spring their trap? Now’s the time for the Buildup theme.
  • Engagement: As initiative is rolled, begin this track. Since combat can last up to 60 minutes in some cases, you don’t want to play the same 3 minute and 25 second song over and over on a loop. Try breaking up the repetitiveness with either a second combat track, or with a contemporary rock song; some rock songs can be wonderful introductions for the big, bad, evil guy. For more on using rock music in game sessions, see Part II.
  • Resolution: As the last enemy drops, ease into this theme. It’s sweet release from the thundering beat of the Engagement song and is an obvious audio cue to switch into combat wrap-up and then back into exploration mode.
  • Ambient: Once combat is over and enough time has passed since the Resolution track has been on (typically one or two repeats), play this song. Additionally, use the Ambient theme if the characters return to the same area in the future; since they won’t be meeting any more monsters, there’s no need to go back through Buildup, Engagement, and Resolution.

Non-Combat Encounters

Each Non-Combat Encounter is broken up into six musical sections: Hope, Mystery, Somber, Upbeat, Danger, and Ambient. Here are examples of when each of the six themes would find a moment of playback:

  • Hope: The group has agreed to rid the town of an ongoing kobold menace; a crowd of peasants has gathered to see the characters off just as the dulcet tones of a sweeping melody rise upward.
  • Mystery: The adventurers find themselves at an inn investigating a kidnapping. On the bed lies their only clue: a ransom note. A quiet, ponderous tune plays in the background, stressing the serious nature of the moment.
  • Somber: During the village chieftain’s sad tale of his daughter’s capture by ogre thugs, a melancholy theme cuts under the graveness of his situation.
  • Upbeat: As they travel through the market, the characters see an illusionist amaze and astound several children. In brightly colored booths, vendors hawk their wares while a steady, happy beat thrums.
  • Danger: Something just doesn’t seem right as the group approaches the forbidding final chamber inside a dark, dank maze. Within lies the lord of these demises, ready to destroy interlopers with sword and magic. A complex descant draws the companions tighter together as they prepare for peril.
  • Ambient: As the sun falls, all is quiet and at peace. Nothing interrupts the serenity of the early evening; not ambition, not puzzlement, not sadness, not exigency, and not happiness. A simple, repetitive, soothing tune closes out the adventuring day.

A great way to put Non-Combat Encounters into perspective is with a module I ran called Keep on the Shadowfell. At one point in the adventure, the characters arrive at the walled village of Winterhaven; one, giant, Non-Combat Encounter. Since the group can literally do anything or talk to anyone, it’s important to have several songs queued up for different circumstances. Whether they’re buying things at the General Store or talking to the Lord Warden; just in case they stumble their way into a strange situation or decide to do nothing at all.

Putting Everything Together

I keep game information in a folder named for the campaign; for example, “Points of Light.” Within the campaign folder are more folders with the names of the various adventures I’m running; for example, “Keep on the Shadowfell” or “Thunderspire Labyrinth.” Inside the adventure folder is a folder called Music—that is where I copy over songs that are to be used for upcoming sessions.

Once you’ve made a copy of the track and slipped it into your adventure’s music folder, change it’s title to something that evokes the moment, such as “Winterhaven’s Plight” or “Morning Ride.” Keeping the original track names made during organization is not recommended for this step; unless, of course, your campaign world has a place called Krypton or Isengard.

One last bit of organization I perform is to add some numbers in front of the track name. This prevents any mix-up of the tracks when they’re loaded into your music player of choice. The first song in the first Combat Encounter has [01-01], the second has [01-02], the third has [01-03], and finally, the fourth has [01-04]. If the next encounter is a Non-Combat Encounter, then the first song will start with [02-01], all the way to [02-06].

Click on the thumbnail below for an example of what my adventure music files look like when organized.

Adventure Music Organization

Two Tips for Picking Songs

As you begin to pick songs for your game sessions, the weight of such a task might begin to drag you down. Here are a few tips to get you started:

  • Not every room of every dungeon has to have its own Ambient track; likewise, not every encounter with goblins or kobolds has to have its own Combat song. Try to score your games like composers score movies. If you found an amazing track that works perfectly for combats with goblins, use it for every goblin combat in the adventure. The recurring theme will bring about a sense of familiarity with your players; they will start to identify the tune with goblins and their ilk. Do the same thing with Ambient tracks in a dungeon. If five or six areas are linked together thematically, use the same Ambient track for each to link them musically as well.
  • Even as you use the same songs for several encounters to link them together musically, link the entire adventure together in the same way by choosing songs from the same movie soundtrack. It’s no secret that all the songs on the Lord of the Rings soundtracks sound similar; Howard Shore used specific leitmotifs to represent people, places, and things—those themes continuously weave their way throughout the music of all three movies. You can create the same effect by using all your songs for each encounter from the same soundtrack. Another trick is to widen this to include soundtracks from the same composer. This works well because many composers stick to a certain style. For example, to the untrained ear, songs from Beatlejuice and songs from Edward Scissorhands are nearly indistinguishable from each other due to Danny Elfman’s unique, but persistent style.

It’s All in the Notes

Last, but not least, here’s the final way I make sure everything’s organized for upcoming sessions. Theoretically, DMs use some kind of notes for their gaming needs. If you’re running the adventure straight from the pages of a purchased module, then you can write the titles of the songs for each encounter right in the margins. If you’re working from your own typed or hand-written notes, then it should be easy to set aside a small space for your music selections.

Click on the thumbnail below for an example of what my adventure notes look like.

Adventure Notes


Play it Again, Sam

The following is not how I play music during game sessions; it is, however, a quick and easy way to do so. For my more involved method, see the section entitled The Most Expensive Remote Ever in Part II.

Let’s recap: You’ve gotten a hold of a massive collection of soundtracks: everything from Back to the Future to Battlestar Galactica, from Jurassic Park to WALL•E. Then you went and organized it all, creating a giant, easy to navigate library. Finally, you cherry picked various songs to be used during your next adventure, renamed them, and then put them in order according to when they’re supposed to be played. Now how do you play them? Well, it goes without saying that you’re going to need a computer or laptop nearby. But then what?

Winamp—it’s free, uses almost no system resources, and takes up barley any computer screen real estate, which is great if you use your laptop during games. Select Always On Top from the Options drop-down menu and Winamp will never disappear behind another window. Also, make sure and click the Repeat button twice, located to the right of the Track and Timecode Display. Clicking on it once repeats the entire playlist; clicking on it twice repeats the current track over and over, which is what you want. Now arrange your other windows—such as adventure notes and maps—around Winamp for easy viewing and you’re ready to play!

Double-click on the song you want to start with. With repeat selected, Winamp will play that song until you manually select the next track. You do not want to leave repeat off, otherwise Winamp will play through your entire playlist in one sitting—which can be disastrous if you’re in a meeting with the thieves’ guild and suddenly a Combat song begins to play.

Lastly, you’ll want to turn on Crossfading; this will blend the end of the track into the beginning of the same track on a repeat. Do this by clicking the tiny Config Arrow to the right of the Volume Slider. This will drop down the Equalizer. To the left, you will see Crossfading, a small button with two right-pointing arrows. Click on it, and the little light should turn on. Next to that light, change the displayed number to 8; that means the last four seconds of the track will blend into the first four seconds on a repeat, making each replay of the song unnoticeable. Click the Config Arrow again to make to Equalizer disappear.

Click on the thumbnail below for an example of what your laptop screen should look like.

Laptop Example

Wrapping Things Up

People might think using music during games is too much effort for something that seemingly has little payoff. My suggestion is to do it for a few weeks and see what your players think. If you’re just testing things out, you can easily score your sessions without spending the time organizing your music first. As a beginner, plan on the process adding about an hour or two to adventure prep time. Nevertheless, as as the sessions pass, it’ll come as naturally as anything else you do as a DM.

Once you see the difference in your campaigns, the silence heard in games that don’t use music will be… deafening.