The role of music for D&D mood setting is an often overlooked aspect of the game. Many GMs are already feeling the pressure of preparing interesting combat, roleplaying unique NPCs, and wielding the details of an entire world, so prepping D&D music can feel like just another obstacle.
Below, I talk about techniques for simplifying the process and making your use of music and sound effects more impactful in your sessions. Let’s take a look.
Disclaimer: All opinions expressed here are my own. This post may contain affiliate links. At no additional cost to you, I may earn a small commission.
The Importance of Your D&D Soundtrack
Music sets the tone for the session, creates a sense of immersion, and helps evoke a stronger emotional response in players.
I posit that adding music is one of the easiest and most valuable ways to improve your game. It can greatly enhance the overall experience for your players, and it helps you influence the table’s overall engagement.
Use D&D Music to Set the Tone
One of the most obvious ways that music can be used in TTRPG sessions is to set the tone for the session. Different types of music evokes different emotions. By choosing the right music, a game master can create a specific mood or atmosphere for the session. Fast-paced, energetic music can be used to create a sense of excitement and action.
Slower, more contemplative music can be used to create a sense of mystery or tension. This can be especially useful in creating an immersive experience for the players, making it easier for them to imagine themselves in our game worlds.
I like to use music that fits a trope. For example, my players were planning a heist a few sessions ago, so I played music from famous heist movies mixed with some royalty-free “spy music” and “heist music” in the background. It got them excited and added value to the gameplay session without being much extra work for me.
GM Aside: A Note on Recognizable Music
Aside: Some GMs love using recognizable music all the time. I do not. I prefer to use music that none of my players will recognize, because I’d rather them focus on the game we are playing. This is purely personal preference and there is no “correct” answer. About half of my players will tell you they love hearing music they recognize. It just depends on what you want to do.
If You Want Strong Feelings for a Scene, Music Can Help
Sometimes it feels impossible to get our players to feel as intensely in a scene about specific characters or events as we want them to. We, as GMs, have been reading and studying and crafting this story and these characters from the ground up.
How do we make our players feel the same intense care for this particular NPC? Or this village?
How do we get them to feel the same feelings as us, the creators?
Music is an excellent tool for this. Let me give you an example.
Darkest House by Monte Cook
I ran the Darkest House module by Monte Cook (which I modified significantly, but had a great time with). One of the primary characteristics of this haunted house/horror module is the omnipresence of four super-evil family members. They always have a chance of showing up and chasing down the players. I really wanted my players to fear these characters, and to have a lot of anticipation about their presence, since it’s a huge part of the module.
I decided a great way to do this was to mimic movies. The villains needed their own theme songs. I scoured YouTube for the perfect tune for each member.
I wanted each song to capture their unique personas, be instantly recognizable, and elicit a strong emotional response from my players.
The Effect of Villain Music
I used the Wolf Suite by Danny Elfman for the father figure. This character is a violent, terrifying creature. He’d slam into whatever room my players were in, completely trash it looking around for them, and then storm out.
He hit hard and nearly killed two of my players on two different occasions. He was a big scary villain to be ran from and hidden from. On top of this, one of my players brought in his own backstory to surround this villain, and it made the evil father even less of a viable combatant.
I Set Expectations Up Front
I told my players that each main villain would have their own theme song as a cue for their incoming actions, and that it would be timed. It didn’t take them long to learn.
As soon as they heard those first few notes of the “Wolf Suite,” they knew Father was coming. They’d immediately sit up straight, lean forward, bounce a little in their seats, and talk all at once about where they were hiding.
I Created a Sense of Urgency
I’d give them maybe 10-15 seconds in real time to pick a hiding place or decide a course of action. Then, Father would burst into the room and I’d start rolling dice to see where he was going to search.
It was insanely effective. My players were almost always nervous about Father or one of the other family members coming after them. I’m 100% sure it was because of the songs I selected. Those scenes and characters just wouldn’t have the same impact without the music.
Stress in Moderation
Remember to pace your players through emotional content. Humans can’t sustain high stress for a long time. We become numb to it, and the trigger is no longer stressful. This is actually a super interesting feature of our brains, and one of the ways psychologists have dealt with treating phobias. They call it “flooding.”
Humans can’t sustain high stress for a long time. We become numb to it, and the trigger is no longer stressful.
As GMs, this means hours-long combat or horror scenarios should have some variation in stress levels, intensity, and music. Playing hours and hours of heavy metal (or whatever) isn’t going to force your players to feel intensely about a situation forever.
D&D Music Can Provide Continuity
Your D&D music selection can also be used to create continuity in the game. This can be achieved by using the same or similar music for similar scenes, characters, or situations. If we use the same music for an easier fight scene each time a battle occurs, we can help to create a sense of familiarity for our players.
If you’ve watched any amount of Critical Role, you are surely familiar with the combat music Mercer uses in seasons one and two. Combat starts with the same song pretty much every time. That’s fine–it cues your players into what’s going on. Think of it as a learned, subconscious set of directions.
A similar example would be a theme song for a particularly punchy or important NPC, such as a villain or a goofy sidekick friend.
This consistency becomes even more important when you change the music. If you use the same playlist or set of sounds for standard combat, and then you use a new song, it’s likely your players will notice.
We can use this tactic to build excitement and cue to them that something special is happening with this particular battle.
Silence is Extremely Effective
…When your players are used to music
One of my favorite TV tricks is when something super intense happens at the end of an episode, and then the credits are silent. It can be so emotionally impactful. We are trained to hear music when a show or movie ends, so this decision really stands out.
You can do the same thing with your players. Here’s how we set it up.
We continually have non-invasive, low level generic fantasy music going when our players are traveling or camping. We have city noise when they’re about town, and tense music when they’re fighting. This way, they get used to having some noise about them.
A fireball lights up the tavern where they’re having dinner! It sets the place aflame and kills several NPCs immediately. You play tense music as they use initiative and combat rolls to put out the fire.
When they assess the damage, though… it’s silent. You pause dramatically in the quiet as you describe to them the scene: one of their favorite NPCs was killed in the blast. This silence both intensifies the moment and helps them process the severity of the vengeance they will wreak.
Or whatever. You get the idea.
Using Sound Effects Without Breaking the Pace
In addition to music, sound effects can also be used effectively in gaming sessions to set the mood and create a sense of immersion.
These are fun, but some of the toolsets are clunky or cumbersome to use. Pacing and disjointedness can be an issue here.
In my opinion, the best and easiest way to use sound effects effectively is by creating a soundscape that corresponds to the setting of the game. This way you can just set it up and leave it, freeing yourself up for other tasks.
For example, in a forest setting, birds singing and leaves rustling can create a sense of tranquility. Wolves howling, wind, and crows in the distance can create a sense of spooky danger. I like to use a combination of a preset ambience along with sound effects that I manually add in myself, like doors opening, or footsteps.
Ambient Sound = Easy Sound Effects
Ambient sound can help to create a more immersive experience for the players, making it easier for them to imagine themselves in your game world. There are tons of premade sets for different environments on YouTube, and in my resources section below I link an article I wrote for you that has loads of great sound effect sites and soundboards, too.
Another way to use sound effects is to highlight important moments and actions. Using the sound of a sword being unsheathed to accompany a character drawing their sword can add emphasis to the moment and make it more impactful.
Don’t get too wrapped up in trying to have everything ready, though. It’s fun if you happen to have it available, but the last thing you want to do is continually stop the game just to play a sound. It breaks everyone’s immersion and can be stressful for you to juggle.
Sound Effects Provide Continuity and Immersion
Sound effects can also be used to create continuity in the game. For example, using the same sound effect for a spell being cast each time the same spell or school is used can help to create familiarity for the players.
It’s a fun trick and it can make the world feel a bit more alive, too. There are a few soundboards that can make this easier, but honestly I do not go to this level with my sound effects. I’d love to, but the reality is I’m just one person. I have a lot more important things to do (in my opinion) during combat than make sure I play the correct spell sound effect whenever it goes off.
I do occasionally play a sound effect for spells and my players love it. It’s typically in less tense scenarios, when they’re roleplaying something out, or trying to solve a puzzle with some MAGIC.
If you are an A+ multitasker and can juggle sound effects alongside everything else, that is awesome. If not, though, don’t lose sleep over it.
Respect Your Players’ Needs
It’s important to note that the use of D&D music can also have different effects on different people. Some players may prefer quieter music or ambient noise. It’s crucial for the Dungeon Master to be aware of their players’ preferences and respect them.
One of my players has a hard time hearing me if the music is too loud, so I have my primary speaker (I love my Oontz!) positioned to face away from her and I keep the volume a bit lower.
I’ve also had players who like to record our sessions to take more notes later on or revisit the content for fun. (I know–I have awesome players.) It was important for me to keep the music source away from the recording device in these situations, too.
Resources for D&D Music
Whether you’re looking for a D&D music playlist, a specific soundtrack for a special event, or an easy way to manage sound effects, I’ve got you covered.
It is a vetted list of my favorite resources, most of which I use on a weekly basis in my own primary game. It includes premade YouTube playlists, sites with awesome soundboards, and quick reviews on some of the more popular paid services available.
Music and sound effects can be an effective tool to enhance our gaming sessions. Wielded consistently, it creates a sense of immersion, highlights important moments and actions, and creates continuity.
Do you have a source of music you can’t play without? I’d really love to read about it in the comments below.
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