Saturday, June 24, 2017

Setting the Mood: Music in D&D Games

Music is a very powerful stimulant. It interacts with our minds, our bodies, and our emotions. There are songs and sounds that describe certain feelings and experiences with more accuracy than words or pictures can. This makes it a must have for bringing a breath of life into a table top role-playing game.

Using music and audio tracks to compliment a session can be used for a variety of reasons and purposes. It can help to set tone and establish what the general feeling of the scene should be before you even describe the environment or allow them to speak with any non-player characters. It can be used to evoke sound effects and ambient noise that the characters themselves may be experiencing. An intense theme of power chords and manic percussion can crank energy levels up to eleven just in time for a huge battle.

I'll share a few of my choices for my Curse of Strahd game last night. Curse of Strahd spoilers inside.

The Town of Krezk
The party arrives in the town of Krezk to deliver wine to the residents. They had learned that the people of Barovia are reliant on this wine as a way to cope with the dreariness that they exist in everyday, and the town had not received their shipment for sometime. As they entered the gates they saw the signs of alcohol withdrawal on the crowd that waited the shipment. The living residents shuffled toward the cart, many of them shaking uncontrollably, and the scene looked not unlike the encounters with zombies they have had in the past. It was a truly depressing scene of what life was like in this town under Strahd's rule.

Music choice: Anxious Heart by Nobuo Uematsu
I think sometimes it can be distracting if you choose something from a popular video game or a television show that everyone has watched (although I have often ignored this if I think it will be fun). This particular song from Final Fantasy VII kind of fit the theme that I wanted the players to feel of sadness and hopelessness as they entered the town. I figured that it was one of the less prominent songs in the game and fit the goal that I had. The tempo has the sluggishness that represents the lethargy of the Barovians to do anything to fight against their oppression, and the piano brings out the mystery of this new place of dread.

And a certain level of dread was soon felt by the characters. In the previous session, Reinhardt the paladin and Barzulen the warlock had fallen in a battle against some druids and their evil tree blight creations within the winery they were trying to recover. Regaining their consciousness in the vast expanse of nothingness, as they soon found their spirits whispering to unknown entities within the darkness. These voices offered them a return to life to continue their battle against the vampire lord Strahd von Zarovich. They accepted and came back with a certain strangeness clinging to them that others could sense.

In Krezk, the burgomaster (name of mayors in Barovia) had asked Reinhardt, as a man of faith, to come and perform a blessing for a woman in town who had just had twins. When they arrived at the woman's cottage they found the two newborns silent with eyes wide open, with spooked looks on their faces. Reinhardt asked what was wrong, and learned that this often happens to children who are born without souls...a consequence of those who make deals with death. The players did not need to ask any more questions to understand the terribleness of what had happened as a result of their acceptance of their second lease on life.

Ireena and the Pool
One of the main objectives of the party up until this point has been to keep Ireena safe from being a victim of Strahd's vile affection. They came to the town of Krezk hoping that it would provide sanctuary for her. While Reinhardt was performing his blessing on the twins, they heard a commotion from outside the cottage. It was Ireena's brother calling after her. The party followed him to find Ireena standing before a pool of water dedicated to a Barovian saint. Purple storm clouds began to fill the sky.

Sound choice: Ambient thunderstorm

It is fairly rare that I use audio to represent physical phenomenon that the players are experiencing, so when I do it usually signals something incredibly significant is about to happen. As the storm began, Ireena reached out into the pool for a hand that appeared in the water. She called out "Sergei, my love! Soon we will be together at last." The name was familiar; Reinhardt looked down upon the sunsword he had found and saw the name emblazoned on its hilt. The party was hesitant to allow Ireena to step forward into the pool because of the extreme uncertainty about who Sergei was. But in the end Ireena joined with the form in the water and was pulled under. A face in the sky struck lightning down in a rage; it was Strahd himself. He howled in fury and proclaimed to the party that they would be stuck in Barovia with him forever, and he would ensure that they lived out their deepest nightmares.

Song Choice: God's Gonna Cut You Down performed by Johnny Cash


God's Gonna Cut You Down as performed by Johnny Cash played to represent the huge change the campaign was about to take. Strahd was denied his pursuit of Ireena and shifted into vengeance mode. I wanted the player's to feel that bad things were on the horizon for them. I love the lyrics of this song and the opening rhythm evokes the feeling of someone who is walking down death row.

It wasn't long after this moment where Strahd made true on his promise. Traveling down the road the party noticed a large black box sitting in the middle of the road with a moth eaten bow wrapped around it and an envelope resting upon its lid. Reinhardt hesitantly moved forward to read the card. It was addressed to him from Strahd. It read: You took something from me, so I took something from you." Panic growing, Reinhardt ripped open the lid as dozens of bat flew up into his face and scattered to the winds. Inside was a body wrapped in a cloth and a visible sword resting on top of the form. It was the sword of Reinhardt's best friend from his monastery.

It was a sad moment which prompted many questions. How did Strahd reach outside of Barovia to someone from their world? Who else would be at risk? Urgency is building and the crew headed towards their destination, the Amber Temple, to seek the power to destroy Strahd.

Music choice: Les Revenants album by Mogwai


The album Les Revenants by Mogwai is perfect for setting the tone in Barovia. I've come to understand that it was produced for a French TV series, which kind of makes me want to check it out since I imagine based on this music it must be quite creepy. Every track has this haunting quality to it. I will be using this to set the stage for many events to come due to the sadness that the tracks evoke while retaining the creepy ambiance.

Bringing Some Levity
You don't want to take things too seriously, and so sometimes music can be a great way to make things light, particularly in Barovia. I like to start my sessions with a recap and play a few goofy songs to help offset the tension and horror. Here is one of my favorites for Strahd; from the movie Forgetting Sarah Marshall:

Song Choice: Dracula's Lament



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