Setting the Mood in Your Game

Part One: Music

“You open the door, within the room the smell of feces and rotting food fills your nose as the smoke from several torches within stings your eyes. Three small rat-like men turn away from the corpse of a villager they were feeding on to look at you; their eyes burn with a yellowish red glow as they crouch, the muscles in their backs and legs rippling with the anticipation of leaping into combat.”

You step through the doorway.

The above is a decent example of a description to draw your players into the scene, it engages the senses of sight and smell, the description visceral. Setting the scene properly can really help the players become vested in the action of the moment. Getting the right mood is vital in setting the scene you want. Being able to set the proper mood of a setting or scene is one of the most important jobs of the Game Master, and can be one of the toughest to do well.
In this effort to more fully engage the player, Game Masters have used props, lighting and music to help enhance the verbal descriptions.
So, how do you know what to use for maximum effect? What is too much and what is more of a distraction?

Let’s start with music.
Music is one of the easiest elements to add to your game. It can really add depth to the mood you want to set. But it can also easily be misused. This is true if the piece of music does not quite fit the emotion you are shooting for, if it is played too loud, or if the dialog in the music interferes with your ability to be heard by your players. Let me explain a bit more on each of those elements.

Emotion: The main thing music can do is to help evoke an emotion. Joy, fear, confusion, sense of urgency, it can be used to calm the party or to ramp up their tension. Picking the right piece can help intensify the emotion you want to come across, choosing the wrong piece can ruin the mood.

Volume: This is a tricky aspect of using music in your game. Too soft, and it may be missed or only come across as distracting to the players. To loud and it interferes with the GM and players understanding what is being said around the table.

Dialogue: Be careful not to use music with too much dialogue. I don’t mean just lyrics. Singing is typically not that distracting. But avoid musical pieces with spoken word, like a monologue in the song. This will be a distraction to many players and often will detract from the enjoyment of the game.

So, these are the things to avoid. But what works for a game table?

Always consider the situation you want to set up. Find a few pieces of music that could be used as a generic backdrop. These are great for common situations. Have a few pieces of music ready for action/combat scenes, a few for mystery or investigative scenes, a few for suspenseful and frightening scenes. Also have a few pieces of music for sad scenes that help evoke a sense of loss, calm music for peaceful and relaxing scenes and a few for the generic opening and/or closing of your sessions. These can be recycled over and over again to help as background “decoration” if you will.

Once you have these, begin to look for specific music to fit more specific scenes. The players in a modern or futuristic setting head into a dance club; have some trance or techno pieces ready for the music playing in club. A few older country songs for a smoky, hole in the wall bar. Have some hard rock songs ready for a biker club. Look for sound effects as well. If they are in a busy diner or pub, play some background chatter with some Irish fiddle music or instrumental versions of pop songs playing a bit lower.

Yeah, that’s all good, but I want some examples!

Alrighty then!

I’ll take the setting of Savage Worlds Rifts (Or the original Palladium Books Rifts). For an urban night club, I would use a Dance remix of Rob Zombie’s “Dragula” or “Living Dead Girl”. Going to a vampire controlled club? Use the Bloodbath Dace music from the film, “Blade”. A small town bar? I use old country music from the 1970’s and 80’s. A bar in the city, I might use some 80’s or 90’s heavy metal, like Metallica, ACDC, or Megadeth. Or if it is a more mellow bar, I might use some current country like Tobey Keith or Brad Paisley, or some country rock like Kid Rock; maybe some Uncle Cracker.  For a diner, I would look for piano covers for some pop music (Just look for it on YouTube).

For the more generic music, I have some standbys. The music group Three Steps from Hell does some great action music. I’ve used the one hour uploads of music that’s all over YouTube for many of my emotional standbys. You can just YouTube “suspenseful music” or “sad theme music”. I say theme music as it will tend to be more instrumental and less vocal, although some specific songs that you enjoy can be used. I have used “My Immortal” by Evanescence for an emotionally sad scene before. For combat, I’ve used the Colonial Marines theme music from the film “Aliens”, which has worked well.

One final note about music, I have used a concept album to help set the mood and progression of a game. I used “Operation: Mindcrime” by the band Queensrÿche in a cyberpunk game. I had created a series of five adventures that loosely followed the story of the album. I then used music from that album at specific points to help accentuate the plot and affect the mood. Most of my players were Queensrÿche fans, so they loved how the adventure arc and the music were woven together. This can be hard to do if you don’t already have an idea for the adventure, but if you can pull it together and create a compelling adventure based of an album, it is a great way to pull the players in.

Next time, I will cover the use of lighting and props to help enhance the mood and help draw your players in.

Hopefully I covered all the bases for music and you learned something useful. Did I forget anything?

Let me know what you think in the comments below.


3 thoughts on “Setting the Mood in Your Game

Add yours

  1. Great article, topic I’ve chewed on more times than I can count.

    How do you handle the logistical aspects? Getting the right music at the right time without fiddling with a PC for five minutes ruining the mood? Do you use Spotify to grab all these disparate tracks or just rely on your own library? And how do you handle the volume question?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It does take a bit of planning.
      I typically use my pnone. I keep generic action and sad/mournful music on file at all times. Then I look to see what I’ve planned for the upcoming session. I load the music I plan on using into my phone. I also try to think of situations the players may wind up in.
      For example, say I’m planning two investigative encounters, one in an alley and one in the library, I also have a bar scene/social encounter planned.
      For the investigation ones, I’d use mysterious and creepy music for the alley to ratchet up tension and for the library I’d choose some more mellow music. For the bar I’d play some generic sounding country music. Actually, I’d create my own background music using Audacity. I take generic country music and do a search for bar ambiance sound effects. I put both into audacity and tweak it so I can loop it then save it as a new piece to use.
      This can start off as tedious but once you have five or six such custom tracks it’s not so bad.
      Anyway, I load up those 3 tracks along with my 2-3 stock action and sad music. Then I’m only sifting through like 6 or so tracks.

      As for volume, that takes a bit of tweaking and playing around. You want it loud enough to be heard but low enough to easily talk over. I wish I had a better answer for you!


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