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Play it again, DM – using music in sessions

C: This week we’re going to talk a little bit about the implementation of music—sound effects, atmospheric noises, character themes, all that jazz—in campaign sessions.

A: Yes! Because—exciting development—I actually had music in the last session I ran.

C: You did! Well, you do normally have music—we don’t just sit in silence the whole time—but you just have ambient background noise.

A: Fantasy elevator music, as it were.

C: Right. Whereas this time, you had musical cues and that sort of stuff.

A: I did. It was so incredibly stressful, trying to get them to play at the right moment, making sure that YouTube had loaded the right song.

C: Yeah, that’s always a nightmare. When you’re DMing, you have a lot of different fish to fry, and when you sit down to tell this goddamn story, the last thing you want to be thinking is, ‘Oh fuck, do I have ad-blocker on my browser so that my badass music mix isn’t interrupted with McDonalds ads?’

A: Exactly.

C: That was something I actually wanted to ask you about for this topic—you used YouTube, I believe; how did you find that?

A: So, I have the cheapest computer that PC World would sell me. The sales person was like, ‘Why would you ever want this one? It’s the end of the line and really large and clunky,’ and I was like, ‘I’m incredibly short-sighted and never intend to carry it anywhere. Please give it to me now.’ I bought the Word package with it—

C: Ultimate gamer app.

A: —and that made up, like, 50% of the cost of this computer. Which means it does the internet fine, unless I make it do too much internet, in which case it breaks. It’s also not keen on Word when I have too many words in my Word documents, which is the case with Pathfinder.

C: Yeah, the wordcount for our Pathfinder documents is getting beefy. Terrors to behold.

A: So basically, I had some problems using YouTube, but that was more because my computer was like, ‘Hold on, you’re trying to search for songs and have your documents open? We will need to freeze for ten minutes while we load up all our Grammarly ads.’

C: I hear you.

A: So yeah, not perfect, and maybe in the future I would look more into other ways of playing music. What do you use?

C: Oh, I use YouTube too. I make playlists on there for every single thing—like character theme songs, setting songs, and so on—and then I ctrl+f to find the song I want. Anyone who is more music-savvy than I am, which is like 99% of the population, is mocking me in their cups right now.

A: Well, I’m in the 1% who are like, ‘Wow, playlists. That’s so advanced.’

C: We should really talk to the third DM in our group, who mixes music for his D&D sessions, Griffin McElroy style. He’s an absolute jamster and I want to buy all his music.

A: One of my favourite things in Jacques’ campaign is when Törgene fires her gun and he can instantly play a gunshot sound over the rest of the music-mix and it works so seamlessly. I’d have to stop and then restart everything if I wanted to use a sting like that.

C: Right. The most fancy I get is that I can play ambient rain noise while also playing music by using, that’s right, two tabs!

A: But yeah, Jacques is definitely the person we should really be talking to. But there is one inconvenient thing about him, which is that he does not live with us, so he is sadly not here to give us his music takes.

C: True. But don’t worry, I’ve still got some fresh takes on music. There are a lot of programmes out there that are specifically designed for fantasy settings and help with ambient noise and atmosphere, like TableTop Audio and RPG Ambient Mixer and Syrinscape. Some of our players have recommended these to me.

A: Ah, then I can’t use them. If I accept suggestions from my players, they’ll get delusions of grandeur and think they can demand things in-game too.

C: Well anyway, they’re something to consider if you continue to make music feature more in your game. Which I guess is a good question—do you think you will?

A: Well, you have themed music for NPCs and the like, and sometimes other players say, ‘I knew that so-and-so was going to turn up because their theme started playing. I got so hyped/angry,’ depending on which NPC it was.

C: Yeah, I try to have, like, in the Arrested Development style, ‘Mr F’-esque stings for certain characters. It’s become a little bit of a Pavlov thing where I’ve linked people or places or situations to certain songs or music riffs, and now I just have to play the music to get the right atmosphere. Like, you guys have been in the tavern Oldbottles, which is currently acting as your home-base, often enough to know what its music sounds like—

A: This was going to be my point though—I don’t notice! Like, it’s clearly working for everyone else, so please keep doing it, but for me, it’s always like, ‘Huh, who could have seen this character’s arrival?’ while the rest of the party is jumping on the sofa being like, ‘Fucking Tag, I knew it was him from the soundtrack.’

C: Well, that’s fair.

A: Basically, I’m very musically unobservant, so I’ll probably never do as much as you do, or Jacques does. Also, this session I tried dream sequences for the characters for the first time, and each dream had its own music, and honestly, I’m not sure I’d do that again. I don’t think it added that much to the atmosphere.

C: I mean, I really liked it. I thought it added to the atmosphere.

A: Well, it probably did a bit, but I’m not sure it did enough to justify the stress of trying to get my computer to load and play them all.

C: Huh.

A: But I did have one bit where you were trying to work out how creepy the cult was which one of you was just about to join, and I played the Johnny Appleseed song—

C: Oh, the Lord's been good to me. And so I thank the Lord

A: Right. When I found it, I was like, ‘This song is perfect.’ I hadn’t appreciated how good it would be in the moment—I’d just wanted a ‘happy working song’ type thing, but with all those references to the lord, it was way creepier than I’d anticipated.

C: For context, Angela had us try and figure out if this group of secret halflings—or rather, not secret halflings; halflings who were meeting in secret—

A: Yeah, they were pretty open about being halflings.

C: —were worshipping a torture-god or not. And the first thing they did was sing this song, and as you know if you’ve ever watched a horror movie, it’s spooky when people do pleasant music in an unpleasant situation. Only it wasn’t an unpleasant situation! They were all wonderful in the end and they’d been falsely accused.

A: That is true. They turned out to be a happy collective.

C: They were awesome people.

A: They’re definitely unionised at the fruit farm. But anyway, the moment where the song started playing and you all went from, ‘Everything’s cool and we got this,’ to ‘What!? Oh god, we’re about to be murdered and eaten by a secret torture-cult’—it was such a satisfying moment. And I don’t think I could have got that reaction with just a description.

C: Yeah, I get you.

A: So yeah, maybe I will start to think about using music a little more.

C: And all it took to get you to this point was scaring your entire party. Who would have thought it?

A: Oh, the Lord’s been good to me. Oh, and every seed I sow—

C: Please stop.

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