Setting the Mood of the Game with Music

William T. Thrasher

“The first bite is with the eye,” is an aphorism among the world’s finest chefs. We experience a meal long before we actually eat it and create a memorable experience by engaging as many senses as possible. That is why among the papers, dice, sourcebooks, and sundry game aides and accessories in your arsenal, you should include the kick to the senses imparted by music. 

I have been using music to enhance my game since I began running role-playing games in the early ’90s. Music can set a scene, establish atmosphere, and immerse your players in a world of the fantastic in a way purple prose cannot. 

Why waste time describing how the player-character’s starship is adrift in space when the first three bars of a Marty Simon composition makes the situation clear? Running combat encounters can be a chore, but a fast-paced techno track imparts the sense of urgency that is all too often lost amid calls for initiative rolls and damage saves. There is a real utility to bringing music to the gaming table, whether it is to ease the burden of the Game Master or deepen the players’ sense of immersion. 

What music is most appropriate for your game? That’s something each GM must decide for themselves. Only you really know what your campaign should sound like. However, there are two things to keep in mind. 

First, be wary of film scores. John William’s score for Star Wars is one of the best film scores ever composed, but if your campaign setting is not a very specific brand of fantasy space opera it will take your players right out of the game. Second, know when to press play, when to press pause, and when to work the volume. Let the music set the scene, but never let it overshadow the players’ actions. Your players should not have to compete with your campaign’s soundtrack, and neither should you. 

The advent of MP3 players has made every GM’s music collection, no matter how sprawling, as portable as a dice bag. We are also fortunate to have companies like Sonic Legends producing ambient and atmospheric music specifically for the gaming table. 

Now is a good time to bring music into your game!