In addition to being a game, Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) is also a platform for telling a story. Like any good story, the story told while playing D&D will often switch moods at various points during the telling. Because a D&D game occurs in real time, there is no opportunity to edit the content for maximum effect. Thus, the mood of a scene is rarely as powerfully expressed as a similar scene would be in a movie or book.
One of the best ways for a Dungeon Master (DM) to better express the mood of a scene is with mood music. Mood music can express in sound what the DM may not easily be able to express in words. Just like mood music is used in movies, mood music during a D&D game can clearly encompass a scene without overwhelming it.
Using mood music requires both preparation and subtlety on the part of a DM. While music can be a strong tool for a DM, it can also be a distraction if used poorly. The best mood music is music that has no lyrics and that doesn’t involve rapid changes in tempo. This lets the music set the scene without forcing players to focus on it.
When choosing mood music, a DM should try to get a couple pieces of music for each type of mood the DM is trying to express. One common way to categorize music is based on emotions, like anger, excitement, sadness, or love. Another effective categorization has to do with locale. For example, a DM may categorize music based on whether it fits best in an urban environment, desert, forest, or dungeon. The exact categories will depend on the DM and the game being run, but emotions, locale, monster types, and encounter types are all good ways to categorize music for a D&D game.
The best way to play the music is by converting all music to MP3s and playing the music through a computer. This allows a DM to very quickly queue up and play music without interrupting a game. CDs may produce better sound quality, but finding a specific song a CD takes a lot longer. With proper categorization, a DM should easily be able to change music just with a few clicks of a mouse.
Finally, it is important that the music is always quiet enough that it doesn’t drown out the quietest member of the game. A savvy DM may choose to increase the volume of the music while the DM is speaking and then lower it at other times, but in general low volume is preferable. It keeps the music as part of the background, rather than making the music the focus of the game.
Music is just one of many tricks that DMs can use to tell a better story. While nearly all of these tricks have been around for years, music has the advantage of being much simpler to use with the increasingly low cost of laptops and increasing ease of obtaining MP3s. For a DM with the resources available, music can truly improve upon the group storytelling experience of a D&D game.