Choosing the Right Music For Your Campaign
Published on November 12, 2019, Last modified on February 5th, 2021
Playing music or ambient sounds can do a lot to enhance the immersiveness of your campaign, but it can also ruin an important moment.
Imagine this. Your party has just finished a weary day on the road, narrowly escaping with your lives after being ambushed by a gang of bloodthirsty bandits. An NPC you have an emotional connection to died protecting you in the struggle, and the morale of the party is at an all time low. Finally, after many grueling hours, you come across a tranquil glade where you decide to make camp for the night, feeling safe for the first time in what feels like weeks. Now imagine, as you gaze up at the night sky mourning your friend, your incredibly dense Dungeon Master has decided that this is the opportune moment to show you their favorite Norwegian death metal band.
Clearly, this is vastly inappropriate and can severely diminish what could’ve been a standout emotional moment in the story of your heroes. Unless, of course, you’re a party of Barbarians.
Approaches to choosing music
Although the above is an extreme example, I hope it gets the point across. Perhaps that type of music would have a place in your campaign, but maybe only once your party is in a final showdown against the bandit leader who caused your NPC friend to lose their life.
To avoid this kind of mishap, I’ve outlined two ways to tackle choosing music for your campaign.
The easier of the two approaches, passively choosing music, is recommended for newer DMs. The simplest way to get started is to search for things like “rpg music” on Youtube and select a mix or playlist. Hit play and you’re good to go!
The downside of this method is that the music could be wrong for a given situation or abruptly stop at an inopportune time. Believe me, music cutting out at a particularly intense moment can quickly dissolve the atmosphere you’ve worked so hard to create and make pay offs you’ve built up fall flat.
The active approach is recommended for more experienced DMs who can handle managing another task while still competently running the session. While this takes more skill on the part of the DM, it is very rewarding when you can nail a transition and completely shift the mood at will. Of course, remember that your tasks as a DM take precedence over switching the music. DM first, music second.
When preparing for sessions, I find it helpful to include cues to change the music within my session notes. Until the next prompt to switch music, I will loop a song or set of songs indefinitely. To further lighten the burden, putting songs in the right order beforehand in a Spotify or Youtube playlist allows me to simply hit next when I get to the point in the session where I am prompted to do so.
This can be a bit tricky if you have many decision trees and want different music for different scenarios that your players might face. In that case, you will have to manually queue the music as decisions are made. Not impossible, but might take a little bit of practice.
In any case, you should definitely prepare the music and ambient sounds in advance. Whether you choose to use the active or passive approach is up to you, but be sure to check out the resources at the end of this article as a starting point for your next session.
- Less is more – Songs with lyrics can be distracting, especially during pivotal moments or while narrating backstory. This is particularly true if it is a popular or catchy song. Your players may just start to sing along instead of listening to you! Likewise, songs that are too busy with instruments can also be distracting. Video game soundtracks are often designed with this in mind, and are a good benchmark for deciding what to listen to. They set the mood but are only present to support the true star of the game: the gameplay itself.
- Don’t feel like you have to listen to music at all – Some of the best sessions I have had included no music at all, we simply sat around the fireplace at a friend’s cottage in the winter. We all agreed this provided all the ambience we needed. Alternatively, maybe your group prefers to go without music, and that’s fine too. Pay attention to your surroundings and the preferences of your group.
- Download music when you can – Not only does downloaded music typically provide a higher quality of audio, it can save you if your internet connection is poor or you want to do a spontaneous session in a place without internet. For these reasons I always keep a playlist saved to my phone with some of my favourite DnD music. Be aware that this functionally is usually associated with a paid subscription, but it is well worth it in my opinion.
- When it comes to comedy, all bets are off – The campaign I am currently in is rather lighthearted in nature, and we often break the fourth wall for the sake of a joke. When one of our characters gets knocked out in battle, especially if it was due to their own negligence, we sometimes switch the music over to Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel”. This type of jarring switch up is especially effective because our campaign is online, and the website we use allows all participants to change the music on the fly. We talk more about playing music for online sessions below.
Playing Music for Online DnD Sessions
Music for online DnD sessions can be tricky. Typically, when playing remotely you are going to run into two situations:
- Online Only – All players are calling in remotely.
- Semi-Online – Two or more players are calling in from the same location.
These playing situations are going to affect how you run your session in many ways:
- How you run combat and share battlemaps
- What audio equipment to use for your sessions
- What software you use to play music (or if you play music at all)
Typically, playing music for your party works best when everybody is playing in person OR when each player is playing remotely. When you are playing in semi-online sessions, you can run into quite a few logistical issues when playing music.
When you have multiple players in one location for an online game, they are typically using a condenser microphone (such as the Yeti Snowball) that can pick up both of their voices.
If they are playing music out of their speakers, the mic will pick up the music and cause a feedback loop or choppy audio.
To remedy this, players may try to use earphones to reduce the background noise. This can also backfire because, when the other player in the location talks, they will be hearing that player twice due to the slight lag of whatever software is used to play online.
Not to sound like a Debby Downer, but when you are playing in a semi-online situation and are running into these issues, it might be best to not play with music at all.
If you decided to play music for your semi-online or are looking to use music in your online sessions, choosing the right software that fits your needs is important. Check out our analysis below to find the software that’s right for you.
What are your options for music sharing in online DnD sessions?
Tabletop Audio an advertising free, free-to-use, user supported soundmixer.
You can choose from a number of preset music and ambience tracks on their homepage but the real magic from their SoundPad page.
You can create your own custom SoundPad from hundreds of different sounds that add a ton of ambience to your games. If you choose a particular SoundPad, you can click on the Start Broadcast button and stream the audio online.
- Best software out there for ambience
- All music is loopable
- Can break the flow of sessions if the presets aren’t planned out ahead of time
- Broadcast option only works with one SoundPad at a time. If you want to switch SoundPads, you will have to send out another link
- Broadcast only works on preset SoundPads, not music or custom SoundPads
Watch2Gether allows you to stream YouTube videos to a “Room” of players. All you have to do is create a room, send your players the link and paste in the YouTube video you want to listen to.
If you sign up for a free account, you are able to create permanent rooms that allow you to add playlists for easy searching of music:
- Dead simple
- Create playlists of your favorite YouTube videos for easy and quick access
- Massive selection of ambience and songs available
- Not loopable, typically the best option is to find a 3+ hour track to play or else you can run into the issue of having to break the session to find another song or restart the song
- Limited to YouTube videos
Need Some Music? We’ve Got You Covered.
Below are some of our favourite DnD music resources. Many of them are found on Spotify, meaning that they are free to use. However, we strongly recommend the premium subscription as it removes ads, improves audio quality, and doesn’t force you to shuffle playlists. Enjoy!
Brian Davis A stunning collection of all types of music, sounds, and ambient noise. You will be sure to find something for any mood you are going for.
Marcin Przybyłowicz, Adam Skorupa, and Mikolai Stroinski Very talented music producers who have worked on the critically acclaimed Witcher video game series soundtracks. These are amazing games with some incredible music to boot, but you may have to dig through the albums to find the vibe you want.
Old School Runescape’s Sea Shanty 2 The only song you will need if out at sea. We made sure to include the 10 hour version for your listening pleasure. Or if you’re feeling adventurous, try the trap remix. But seriously, the OSRS soundtrack has some delightfully playful and atmospheric music, such as Harmony, Horizon, and Nightfall. Plus, it can be very nostalgic for some without being distracting. A full (massive!) list of all of the music found in the game is located in the game’s Wiki.
Curated DnD Playlists by Reddit user u/JimCasy This is an extremely well structured set of playlists that allows you to quickly find the mood you want. JimCasy details how the music was chosen and even explains how to properly use it! This one is well worth a look, you won’t be disappointed.
DndPlaylist on Reddit A subreddit where people can post their DnD playlists or ask for music recommendations.