Not everyone uses ambient music during their tabletop sessions, and it really should be used as a tool whenever possible. Background music holds the power to change even a mediocre reveal into a grand revelation! Music has transcended being a pleasant tabletop accompaniment, evolving into a must-have in any GM’s arsenal.
Background noises are nothing new to Tabletop RPG’s. In fact, everyone and their brother has already written articles on the subject, but most miss the point of how it actually influences the game, the players and the world around them. I set out to prove that it is an important tool for any GM. I can dictate, using examples, how music can set the tone, fill in the setting, influence your players, or build tension.
Let’s bring in some examples. An instrumental version of Smash Mouth’s “Walkin’ on the Sun” plays in the background as the characters arrive at school, ready to serve a Saturday detention. PC’s can absorb the lighthearted-pop song giving them a feeling of invincibility walking into the school. Unconsciously, the players can feel the tone of the song and build off of it as their characters get set up for the session. It sets the entire tone of the scene: how they should act, what the feeling is in the world around them. In this case, it can also describe the setting just as well as words can, you can feel the late 90’s oozing out of this Breakfast Club rehashing.
Changes in music can alter how the players want their characters to react. Moving along, let’s say these same characters decide to leave the classroom to explore the school, keeping “Walkin’ on the Sun” may lead them to some lighthearted shenanigans, but to subconsciously cause them to push the envelope, change the music to “Blitzkrieg Bop” by The Ramones, and an entirely new set of characters emerge. Ones that can be filled with teenage angst and destructive tendencies. You may soon find the players instead of deciding to stealthily pick open a locker may use a fire extinguisher to bash it open.
The easiest way I’ve ever found to shift scenes is to change a song. Let’s change the characters and scenario entirely. Let’s go with a group of adventurers in D&D preparing for a large-scale battle alongside many allies they’ve gained over the campaign. The DM (that’s you) pumps up some epic jams for the battle, and a difficult battle ensues for the PC’s and some random enemies. All while this fight is going on, other skirmishes are happening simultaneously around them. Then, when the battle is over, the PC’s have a chance to catch their breath, you change the music to “Dearly Beloved” from the Kingdom Hearts OST. The hauntingly beautiful sounds wash over them giving them a temporary reprieve before they look upon their allies that were stuck in other matches. Allies, bruised, battered, bloodied, and dead. This moment speaks volumes to the PC’s, what’s occurring in the campaign is no longer child’s play. This is where things get dangerous.
Now, I’ll preface my last example the following by saying, all of the examples above are actual events that I took from games that I’ve run. The reason that I remember them as clearly as I do, is because of how the songs impacted the mood of the characters playing. However, none of them hold a candle to my final example. This is my greatest moment of Game Mastering I can ever hope to achieve.
It was during a superhero campaign, the PC’s created their own superhero agency, recruiting their classmates in a superhero high school. These heroes had just beat the Big Bad for the first half of the campaign, bringing him to justice. They were exhausted, battered, and in need of a long rest. Flash-forward two in-game weeks to New Year’s Eve. The PC’s have some Champagne, Hors d’oeuvres, and are surrounded by their friends that they’ve known for years. “Auld Lang Syne” plays in the background, as the PC’s celebrate. Then the countdown to midnight: 10, 9, 8, 7… That’s when something happened. All of the superheroes in the agency suddenly froze as a new Big Bad announced his presence. At this moment, “Auld Lang Syne”, instead of carrying the joy of being done with a year of heartache and pain, now instead conveyed pure terror, as all of the heroes were unable to move, and could only watch as the emerging villain monologues. The speech concluded with the villain firing a bullet right at one of the Player’s favorite NPC’s, killing them immediately. By pure chance, this happened right as “Auld Lang Syne” hit its crescendo, then filtering into silence.
Now, this scene would have been good, if not great by itself. This was the turning point of the entire campaign to let the PC’s know they weren’t in the minor leagues anymore. But the inclusion of the song was the single factor that brought this gaming moment to Legendary. For once, in 6 years of playing with this group, everyone was, honest-to-goodness, absolutely speechless.
I’ve always been a fan of having ambient songs in the background of gaming sessions, but after this moment, I will never run another session without having pre-selected at least a dozen songs to play during a session. After having a defining moment only augmented by an appropriate song choice, and to have that moment become iconic for your players, that’s an achievement that all Game Masters will eternally pride themselves in.
Do you already use music at your game table? How has it impacted the game?