Aural Encounters, Part II

This is Part II of a 2-part series that discusses using themed music for your campaigns.

A few of the steps from Part I were distilled down to a beginners version of what I actually do for my own games.

Part II details the advanced versions of those steps, as well as outlines some other music techniques I perform during game sessions, such as song editing, timed speeches, and a slicker way of controlling the music.

This article is provided more for a sense of completeness than as an assumption that DM’s should or are running music in their games this way. Though it can be used as a practical guide to emulate my processes, no DM who stumbles across this should think that they are expected to be doing any of these things. 

Everything in its Right Place

The following is how I organize music; it is, however, not the quickest, nor easiest way to do so. For a simpler method, see the section entitled A Song for Every Occasion in Part I.

After “legally” downloading gigabytes of soundtrack music, it’s time to divide and conquer. Inside my D&D music folder are eight folders: Climax, Combat, Danger, Hope, Mystery, Rock, Somber, and Upbeat.

  • Climax: Songs categorized under Climax are for act breaks and session endings. Going to stop for lunch and the group just walked into the chieftain’s den? Or maybe it’s the end of the session and the adventure has concluded with the characters crash landing their airship into enemy territory. Within the Climax category, I further subdivide songs into Danger, Hope, Mystery, Somber, and Upbeat. This way a Climax song is available for just about any sort of feeling you want to evoke in a scene. Listen to examples of Danger, Hope, Mystery, Somber, and Upbeat.
  • Combat: Once the fast tempo, loud symphonic bridges, and deafening percussion hits, players will know it’s time to roll initiative. Combat tracks are separated into Basic, Grand, and Epic. Basic Combat songs play when the party chances upon yet another encounter with goblins and orcs. However, when the adventurers attack the King’s Vizier who has been secretly leading the kingdom to ruin, you pop on a Grand Combat tune. Finally, when the group is ready to confront the adventure’s big, bad, evil guy, give them everything you’ve got by playing a song from the Epic Combat category. Listen to examples of Basic, Grand, and Epic.
  • Danger: Whether they’re exploring dungeons, caverns, keeps, or tombs, adventuring groups are almost always in the grip of danger. Accentuate that tense feeling with songs from this category. Not to be confused with simply wandering down empty dungeon corridors, Danger songs are for when the group has stumbled into the lich’s evil lair and they’re surrounded by grinning skulls, dripping blood, and the screams of tortured souls. Danger is then sorted into Tense, Threatening, and Imminent. When viewed in that order, these subcategories describe scenes that range from mucking about in a troglodyte den to standing outside the cathedral door, ready to burst in and put a stop to the evil cleric’s unholy ritual. Listen to examples of Tense, Threatening, and Imminent.
  • Hope: The walled village of Winterhaven is under siege by evil forces intent on raping and pillaging the resources of this peaceful community. When the adventurers pledge on their honor to defeat the menace, and the population raises their voices in a thunderous cheer, a song from the Hope category really brings the moment home. Similar to Combat and Danger, Hope is parceled into subcategories that help the DM to determine whether the scene is simply a moment of happiness, or an event of tear-jerking joy: Soft, Uplifting, and Exhilaration. Listen to examples of Soft, Uplifting, and Exhilaration.
  • Mystery: Trudging through the city sewers, the group chances upon the outline of a door on the wet stone wall. Instead of a door handle, a riddle is etched out in a strange language. Through the door, the character’s stumble into a dungeon maze, filled with deadly traps. They’re not in any immediate danger, but a hint of the unknown rides in the air. Mystery songs are divided into various subcategories, depending on what level of anticipation you want to instill in the players: Calm, Tense, and Dark. Listen to examples of Calm, Tense, and Dark.
  • Rock: Some people will think using rock music in their games is revolutionary and some will think it’s ludicrous. There was a time where even I had never considered using contemporary tunes in any of my D&D sessions. I figured I’d find it distracting and too anachronistic for the feelings I was trying to evoke. However, after many years, I finally tried it. Instead of being discordant, it took a combat encounter that was running just a bit too long and kicked it back into high gear. Of course, tastes will vary and if a player or group hates the band to begin with, it probably won’t work. Typically, I use a song from the Rock category when a Combat song has been on loop for too long, just to shake up the mood a little. My favorite use, however, is to choose a Rock song for a character and play it every time he uses a daily power; in essence, it becomes that character’s theme music. Here are two examples of Rock songs I use: “The Touch,” by Stan Bush and “Knights of Cydonia,” by Muse.
  • Somber: Things just aren’t going the way of the characters. Between their old friend and mentor passing into the great beyond and recently discovering their homeland was razed to the ground by a dragon, this just isn’t their year. Under Somber, you’ll find the themes to evoke the sorrow of leaving home for the first time or the emptiness of witnessing a comrade perish. Depending on how solemn the moment, everything is organized into one of these subcategories: Trifling, Weighty, and Crestfallen. Listen to examples of Trifling, Weighty, and Crestfallen.
  • Upbeat: The horns blaze and the drums pound as the adventurers enter the Hall of Audience for a meeting with the King of Kings; accompanying them are the grand marches of the Upbeat category. Anything from browsing the city market to entering the city capital can be represented by a song from this category. As with the rest, Upbeat is further separated into Simple, Cheerful, and Exalting. Listen to examples of Simple, Cheerful, and Exalting.

After organizing your music, you might discover other subcategories or “tags” you’d like to add. For example, for Asian or Old West inspired music, you might place an Oriental or Western tag on your songs. To note this, you could either modify the song title to say [Simple, Western] or [Cheerful, Oriental] in the case of Upbeat songs, or you could use MP3 tagging software to modify the genre to Oriental or Western.

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

Advanced Music Organization

The Redheaded Step-subcategory

Even after dividing my music into over 30 categories and subcategories, there is still one more: Reveal.

Occasionally, there are songs that start out with a sudden explosion of sound. Other times, there are tracks that start off soft, but then build up to a crescendo and then keep that level for the rest of the song. These songs are perfect for… well, for lack of a better word, reveals.

Imagine the characters are being lead down into a great underground cavern that meets with the sea, like in the The Goonies. Suddenly there’s a giant galleon, ready to whisk the group away to some far off land. Or, imagine the characters have been searching for a jewel as the focus of their last few adventures. Without warning, the corridor they have been travelling on empties into a giant chamber with an impossibly high ceiling and a fatally low drop. In the center of the area, on a shining pedestal, lies the object of their desire. Both of these circumstances lend themselves to Reveals.

The important difference between reveals and regular songs is that you have to hit the description of whatever’s being revealed just as the music reaches its “hook.” This is explained more under the section discussing timed speeches, found later in this article. Listen to the following examples: Imminent Danger Reveal, Soft Hope Reveal, Dark Mystery Reveal.

Make Your Songs Audition for You

For a moment, let’s go back to something I said in Part I:

Know that not every song will fit easily into one of these categories. Sometimes a track will start off as a perfect song for one category, but then a few minutes later it jumps into another. 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.

I’m not going to bury the lead: I edit songs on the computer to fit specific scenes.

It all started years ago when I first began using themed music for game sessions. There was a track that was just over six minutes long with a four minute beginning that I knew would work perfectly as a Combat song. However, halfway through the four-minute mark it jumped to Somber. If only it didn’t have that last couple of minutes! That’s when I realized I could use audio editing software to trim off the end, maybe even adding a fade out so the track wouldn’t cut off so abruptly.

Learning to do it correctly took some time. But, like anything else, once I knew how to do it, it took almost no time at all. These days, I can split apart a song into two or three different tracks in about 15 minutes. However, teaching the skills necessary to operate software like Adobe Audition is outside the scope of this article. Nevertheless, there are a few tips I can pass on to those who already have the appropriate knowledge or are willing to do the research and learn on their own:

  • When you split up a track, if the resulting halves are less than a minute, they’re probably not worth the trouble. Remember, this is a song that’s going to be on repeat; if it’s a Combat song, it might be on repeat for an hour—that’s 60 rotations of the same song if it’s only a minute!
  • It’s possible for a track to start off in one category, jump to a second category, and then return to the original category. In this case, split off the first and last fragments of the song and make them their own tracks, deleting the middle, unusable portion. Then, take the track fragments and load them into a multi-track editor, layering the first fragment so it runs into the second fragment by a few seconds. If you position the segments over each other just right and use some fading, they should blend black into one song. This doesn’t always work, and really depends on how different the second fragment begins, compared to how the first fragment ended.

“I Have a Dream…”

Timed speeches happened quite by accident. I don’t remember the exact circumstances behind the discovery, but it went something like this: I was describing something of interest to the group while a song was playing. Now, I hadn’t quite gotten to the point of my description, but I knew from repeated listenings that in about 10 seconds the song was going to spiral upwards with an explosion of instruments. I decided I was going to time it so that I hit the main subject of my description just as the music changed. When it happened, there was a moment of stunned silence, followed by cries of, “That was awesome!!

There isn’t a whole lot to timed speeches beyond that. Some tracks have a sudden change in tempo or volume—I call this the “hook.” Many of these songs have probably already been categorized as Reveals, but that’s not necessarily a requirement. Just match up a song with a long DM description or monologue; it can be the introduction of a person, place, thing, or perhaps even the description of some tale of valor or hardship. In my notes, I make a small notation next to the track name. For example, if I know the song hook is 1 minute and 22 seconds into the song, I write (1:22) next to the song title. Then, as I’m relaying the description or performing the monologue, I hit the main point or subject at exactly 1 minute, 22 seconds.

It takes some practice, to be sure. At first, you’ll carefully monitor the song in your music player as you speak, watching the timecode count up to the right moment. However, as you get more comfortable with timed speeches, you’ll learn to recognize the moment as it’s coming based on the feel of the song and your familiarity with music general. 

The Most Expensive Remote Ever

The following is how I play music during game sessions; it is, however, not the quickest, nor easiest way to do so. For a simpler method, see the section entitled Play it Again, Sam in Part I.

These days, I don’t use a laptop; I’ve found that I’d rather have my attention turned towards the table instead of divided between the players and a computer. Because of that, the way I run my music is a little more tricky. You’ll need the following:

  • An iDevice (iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad)
  • The Apple Remote app
  • iTunes
  • A Wi-Fi network
  • MP3 tagging software
  • A desktop computer near the game
  • Speakers

First, each music track must be tagged to be part of an album named after its category or the adventure it belongs to. For example, all the Combat tracks—including every subcategory of Combat—should be tagged in an album called Combat. Or, if you’ve chosen music for Keep on the Shadowfell, the tracks should be tagged in an album called Keep on the Shadowfell. Next, tag each track’s artist to be something like “D&D Music” or maybe even your name. Don’t tag track numbers.

Tagging your music’s album and artist information is an extremely important step; if this isn’t done, the music will get all jumbled around in iTunes. If you wish, you can also create album artwork and tag it to each track in order to make it easier to visually identify the albums in your iTunes library.

Download the album art I use here.

Once everything’s tagged, load the tracks into iTunes on a computer hopefully located in the same room you game in. Next, create a playlist for each music category: Climax, Combat, Danger, Hope, Mystery, Rock, Somber, and Upbeat. Also, create a playlist for each adventure you’re running, such as Keep on the Shadowfell or Thunderspire Labyrinth.

At this point, everything should be loaded into iTunes, appropriately tagged, and turned into a playlist. Next, boot up the Apple Remote app on your iDevice, link it to your iTunes library via Wi-Fi, turn off the computer monitor, and turn on song repeating. As long as your computer’s speakers can be heard from the gaming table, you’re done! Tracks are chosen and volume is controlled from your iDevice, and the music will come through your computer’s speakers.

I also recommend turning on Crossfading. Select Preferences from the Edit drop-down menu. Click on the Playback tab and place a check mark in the Crossfade Songs box. Move the slider to the eighth tick mark and click okay; this will fade the last four seconds of the track into the first four seconds on a repeat.

You’ve effectively created a tiny, wireless remote, with instant access to all your D&D music.

Click on the thumbnails below for an example of what your iTunes and iDevice setups should look like.

iTunes Setup
iDevice Setup

Would You Like to Swing on a Star

What if you’re the kind of DM that runs adventures by the seat of his pants? Not all is lost. There’s a reason for organizing your music in such an exacting fashion—not only does it help you find songs easily when preparing adventures, but it lends itself perfectly for fly-by-night DMs.

Let’s say you’ve just set the following scene: The dead have begun to rise from an ancient graveyard and the group is watching from a nearby hill. Though they’re still far enough away that you haven’t rolled initiative, it will definitely be in the cards soon. You feel this moment fits under the Danger category. If you’ve made a playlist for each of your music categories, then all you have to do is load up the appropriate list (in this case, Danger) and then pick a song. Sure, it’s a grab bag; unless you’re especially intimate with each song, what comes up can be a surprise! Nevertheless, if you’ve organized your music well, then chances are one Threatening Danger song will sound like the next.

Download the first five encounters of Keep on the Shadowfell and all the music I used.