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Mood Music

Dated: 12 Jun, 2021

A recurring theme on chat rooms is thoughts about having music playing while people play and what that music should be.  I think this is important to people in so many ways, not just for atmosphere or to bridge any awkward silences (even if they ever occur, which is unlikely…).

At the start of my role-playing career we didn’t have music; we were 11-13 years old and simply didn’t have the money or the access to much music.  As we got older we variously obtained tape players or “Ghetto Blasters” as they were called in the early eighties, all unconscious of any implied prejudice, and the era of the cassette tape was upon us.  C-90 tapes with various albums on each side started making the rounds and these were inevitably played in the background while we played.

My friend Dave Chapman ran Star Frontiers for us, and later Star Wars and Ghostbusters amongst others.  He played all sorts of pop that he liked, Blondie was popular but his fandom of Frankie Goes to Hollywood meant that Welcome to the Pleasure Dome was a staple.  Whenever I hear the opening bass riff of that album I am transported back to his back room and endless fun silliness.

My own D&D (1st ed) sessions were themed by my passions at the time; U2, Big Country, Eurhythmics, the Who, the Smiths, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Ultravox and so on, but above all; Echo and the Bunnymen.  Lots of Echo and the Bunnymen.  Their fourth album, Ocean Rain, came out at about this time, which is brilliant, but my favourite was Porcupine.  I still often play this wonderful soundscape when writing scenarios – I am reminded of sitting in my parent’s house doing the same thing, listening to my elder brother’s vinyl copy on my parents’ stereo.  It was a time of deep contentment.

As we got older, fashions of the post punk era diversified but we found ourselves drawn to gothic genre and the harder, more rocky stuff.  At Dave’s, the staples moved on to the Sisters of Mercy, All About Eve (he does like his fey ladies) and the Mission.  All of which started to appear at my sessions too, and we were also into The Cult, Husker Du, the Sex Pistols, Sound Garden, Nirvana, Screaming Trees, Pearl Jam and so on.  Our tastes widened even more when most of us went to college, bringing back all sorts at holidays, although more time was spent at the pub than rolling dice in those days.

My oldest friend, John Sewell, was my dealer when it came to new music.  His broad and eclectic tastes from listening to John Peel and the like drip-fed me the choicer elements of what was going on then: The Godfathers, Ride, the Snapdragons, Stone Roses and the bizarre Colour-Blind James Experience.  John has always been a bit left-field in music.  Dave was getting more industrial Goth by this time: Stabbing Westward, Korn, Bush, Perfect Circle, Ministry and then, via Marilyn Manson, to Nine Inch Nails, where his passions remain to this day.

By this time music had become a vital part of our role-playing experience.  The D&D group I ran at college, with whom Dunromin and Barnaynia was created, gathered for all-night games once a week in 1986-9.  These were crazy times and the soundtrack was more Sisters of Mercy, Metallica, The Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen, Depeche Mode, Siouxsie and the Banshees and everything Goth I had copied off Dave.

It was at this time that I began consciously selecting music for the atmosphere I wanted.  I had a suitably large collection by then, hundreds of C90s, and even some CDs.  I had also invested in a really good stereo that could get brilliant bass and high definition at the low volume that was required so as not to interfere with the role-playing but enhance it.  And enhance it the music did.

My friend Tony Warrington ran the Masks of Nyarlothep for Call of Cthulhu for us and his choice of music played a big part in creating the atmosphere.  Tony brought along the soundtrack from the Last Emperor and the ethereal, far-eastern vibes were perfect.  Low light, candles and the music made for an atmosphere of creeping horror, week after week.  It remains one of my favourite role-playing memories.

This was an important lesson – film soundtracks and instrumentals lend themselves far more readily to setting the scene for your role-playing experience.  As I have got older I have realised that vocals, especially if unfamiliar, can be a little bit of a distraction.  Soundtracks are perfect – they are, after all, specifically  designed to add atmosphere without swamping the dialogue.  Dave Chapman played the Crow soundtrack a lot, but this is probably not a brilliant example of what I am getting at here.

In more recent years I have fallen in love with Dead Can Dance, specifically In the Realm of a Dying Sun, Spleen and Ideal, Spiritchaser and Aeion, but pretty much anything is lovely for a Celtic-medieval, sinister vibe.  The Lord of the Rings Soundtrack is cool too but the well-known bits can be distracting and have a habit of popping up at inappropriate times – the last thing you want playing when the party confront the BBEG is some happy Hobbit dance music coming through the speakers…

And it seems that I am not alone – reading through all the threads about gaming music that are out there the common themes that emerge are heavy metal, predictably perhaps, but also lots of atmospheric stuff – particularly the epic rock of the early seventies; all that sweeping synth stuff about elves and goblins seems ideal for most folks.  Which is cool, although not my bag; my seventies scene was the punk scene, thanks to my elder brother and his more rebellious influences.

But if that is your bag, take a look at the Facebook group 1st Edition AD&D.  John Scott does regular items about what he’s listening to and the band Yes are a regular feature of his games.

But this is just a (long, perhaps too long) lead in to the observation that actually prompted this blog.

As you may be aware, I am a trained educator; specifically, a secondary school and A-Level Science teacher (that’s High School; 11 to 18 years olds for you in the ‘States) and one of the elements of my training resonates here (pardon the pun).

Different people have different learning “styles”; that is there are visual learners, who remember pictures, diagrams, videos and images most clearly; there are kinaesthetic learners, who respond best to actually touching and playing with things, movement and so on; and Auditory learners, who pick up best on sounds, voices and so on.  In fact, few people are entirely one kind of learner or the other, most people are a blend of different types (I am unusual in that my responses are the same to all sorts; I don’t have an outstanding type, which may be why I am quite a good communicator).

Since any role-playing group is likely made up of different types of learners the best DM is the one that uses different techniques to appeal to all learner types, whether they consciously realise they are doing so or not.  The great pictures, maps and other visual aids will help the visual learners; mini-figures, dice and so on will appeal to the kinaesthetic learners; and cool character accents and mood music to the auditory learner that is in every one of us to some extent or other.

SO!  Embrace the movie soundtracks, the Celtic meditation sonnets, the folk music, Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Dead Can Dance and all the rest – lots of classical music has an incredible theme and feel to it.  Even a YouTube or Spotify of Whalesong might add an eerily surreal atmosphere to your Drow City…

One word of warning though; some people find music distracting and annoying, sometimes to the extent that it can ruin the experience completely for them, so check with your players that they like it first.  If everyone’s into it then you can REALLY up the intensity of the experience.