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In my most recent D&D campaign, The Northsea Saga, I chose to wear a lot of my inspirations on my sleeve. The thrust of the campaign was essentially this: J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings meets Brian Wood’s Northlanders comic book. Humanity, all but abandoned by elves and dwarves, was fighting a losing battle against the Witch-Queen (inspirations, right on my sleeve), a godlike sorceress who was raising up volcanic islands throughout Northsea where her followers—orcs, goblins, humans, and giants—could dwell. It was full of travel and adventure, grand sorrow and ugly violence, epic foes and nuanced heroes.

A whole lot of the tone I managed to convey came across from the music I selected. (Much of which is included in this iTunes playlist.) To get a sense of what I’m talking about here, check out the iTunes or Amazon MP3 previews for the tracks mentioned here. I’m not a musical scholar or even much of a musician, so I don’t talk about music properly—I engage with it almost completely on narrative terms: atmosphere, pacing, allusion. It’s one thing for me to tell you that a track is brooding or elegant, but it’s another to hear it in the music itself, right?

I used music to draw out the themes and motifs of the game world and the story the players were developing over time. Whenever the ever-distant Witch-Queen came up—like when the player-characters meddled with a magical artifact of hers that they’d discovered—I played the music I’d chosen as her theme: John Debney’s beautiful and brooding “Darkness Theme” from the game, Lair. (I never played Lair, but I play its soundtrack a whole lot in D&D campaigns and when I’m writing for fantasy settings.) It’s a great repeater.

The campaign began with the death of the beloved human king, and the player’s heroic characters spent a lot of time trying to sort out who would succeed him. When kingly matters arose in play—whether it was the players or me who brought it up—I played “Hymn For King Conan” from Knut Avenstroup Haugen’s wonderful Age of Conan score, to remind the players of the absent friend and the empty throne. At the Viking-style funeral for the king, a band of woeful poets sang a dirge. For this rare piece of source music in the campaign, I turned to Miranda Sex Garden’s “Gush Forth My Tears.”

Other opportunities for music abounded. Dramatic pre-adventure recaps of past adventures called for dramatic cues, so I sometimes used John Debney’s score from the opening narration of The Scorpion King. For the fearsome ship-rocking approach of a humungous sea-serpent, I used Jonathan Elias’s opening cue from Pathfinder.

Of course, D&D means battles—I used the afore-mentioned “Beowulf Slays the Beast,” Jerry Goldsmith’s “The Fire Dragon” (from The 13th Warrior), and, for battles against the Witch-Queen’s magical followers, “Firestorm” (from Lair), all of which are solid repeaters.

Over the course of the campaign, I made five distinct playlists, including lots of other music (to represent the lands of elves and dwarves, for example), with no playlist lasting more than 75 minutes. That’s enough time for a wide variety of music, but having a limit on the number of tracks helps me avoid searching for tracks in the middle of play. I pre-select a few action tracks, a few non-combat repeaters, a dramatic cue or two for landmark scenes like the opening recap or the closing narration, and an opener to mark the revelation of the evil traitor (or what have you) and I feel ready to play. The repetition in action and rest cues helps motifs emerge, for those players who care to pay attention, and lets the repeating cues sort of fade away for those players who don’t. This keeps the music interesting from week to week without being distracting—some players simply don’t care what you’re playing, most of the time.

Next time, I’ll write about exactly how I use music during actual play, from the hardware I use to the tactics I employ when changing tracks during play. It’s what I get asked about most when I talk about using music in play.

In the meantime, read this post by occasional Gameplaywright contributor, Zack Walters, about how he uses music in his Dark Sun campaign: Music to Defile By.