Burning Questions: How Can I Add Ambience to D&D Sessions?
  • Burning Questions: How Can I Add Ambience to D&D Sessions?


    Welcome to another edition of Burning Questions. Today’s query What are some great ambience actions I can take that will add excitement and value to my Dungeons and Dragons role-playing get-togethers?


    Photo by Jonas Zürcher on Unsplash

    This is an interesting question with multitude of answers. Creating a pleasant and fun ambiance for a D&D game is highly subjective. In the past, I've used Syrinscape, video game music, film soundtracks, instrumental music and various sound effects to set up the mood and play in the background during the adventure.

    For free options, YouTube and Tabletop Audio can be the DM's best friend and staunchest ally. There is a wide range of lush, well-produced ambient music on these sites suitable for any game.

    For paid options, Syrinscape has a cornucopia of high-quality music available, along with an app. I haven't used it much beyond the free trial—it doesn't really suit my dungeon mastering needs—but it can be a good option for newer DMs or folks who may prefer the unique style of their tunes. If you have paid subscription to sites like Spotify, Pandora or Google Play Music (doubles as a YouTube Premium sub with some carriers like T-mobile), you can find a plethora of pre-made D&D playlists, curated by players and DMs alike.

    Now, here's where things may get a little bit weird—my taste in music is a bit eclectic and all over the place. I've used variations of the following suggestions in my two most recent campaigns. In my current Dragon Heist campaign, I use everything as outlined below. I’ll keep the music a bit low so my players can hear me and play each piece as appropriate to the game’s action.

    Admittedly, some of my musical choices are a bit different than what one may expect for a RPG setting. However, in the context of my various campaigns, the music just seems to work for me. To that end, I love using a combination of Super Nintendo era video game soundtracks, the soundtracks to my favorite 1980s films and Frank Zappa instrumental tracks to create

    For general, game-length ambiance, my go-to the Chrono Trigger OST. The music from this classic Super Nintendo RPG is ideal for traveling, battles, dungeon delving, tension, drama and just about any application you can think of during your game. The original Super NES music is great, but Google Play features a great version of the soundtrack by White Knight Instrumentals that Ifind works ideally for my games. It can be found here.

    For travel music, I prefer something from the soundtrack to either Conan the Barbarian or (silly, I know) Ladyhawke. With the former, everything from “Anvil of Chrom” to “Orphans of Doom” is an amazing fit for my D&D games. On the latter, I find the mix of synths and guitar only contributes to the fun of the game for my players and me. I especially like using “Main Title,” “Phillipe’s Escape,” “Tavern Fight” and “The Search for Phillipe.” The soundtrack for Ladyhawke can be found here and Conan can be found here.

    For battles, I like to use Zappa's Guitar and Trance-Fusion albums, specifically the cut “Chunga's Revenge” from the latter record. Holst’s The Planets is also great for battle and dungeon ambiance.

    Aside from musical ambiance, I keep the lighting dim and use a grid table, along with minis and homemade terrain to create a visual reference. Occasionally, I'll create props for use during the game as well, but I’ll keep this to a minimum due to my substantial lack of crafting skills. If the game calls for it, I sometimes make scrolls, burnt maps and similar items for my players. But on the overall, ambiance in my games is predominantly musical.

    How about you, EN World? What do you do to set the right mood for your D&D, Pathfinder or other role-playing game sessions?

    Contributed by David J. Buck (Nostalgia Ward) as part of the EN World (ENWC) program. When he isn’t learning to play or writing about RPGs, he can be found on Patreon or Twitter.
    Comments 23 Comments
    1. RobJN's Avatar
      RobJN -
      Four words: Two Steps from Hell
    1. Sadras's Avatar
      Sadras -
      Sometimes when the party come across an owlbear I might actually shout out "Wooot, wooot!"
      From my experience it appears to surprise both characters and players.
    1. delericho's Avatar
      delericho -
      The soundtrack to "The Da Vinci Code" works surprisingly well.
    1. practicalm's Avatar
      practicalm -
      Honestly, I've tried background music and I just find it a distraction from hearing other players. I agree it can bring a good amount of atmosphere but it never worked for me.
    1. materialcomponents's Avatar
      materialcomponents -
      We've curated some pretty serious Spotify playlists over the years any are welcome to follow for free:
      https://www.materialcomponents.com/playlists/
    1. Zanzer Tem's Avatar
      Zanzer Tem -
      Subscribe to Google Play Music or YouTube Red/Music -
      I try to create playlists that match the story and can easily skip around tracks if the characters are all over the place.
      Personal Favorites:
      -Nox Arcana
      -Derek & Brandon Fiechter
      -Cryo Chamber
      -Adrian Von Ziegler
      -Midnight Syndicate
    1. Koloth's Avatar
      Koloth -
      Sound is only one part of setting the mode and I have found that sound loud enough to listen to often results in making the sessions harder to run. And if folks are listening to the music, they probably aren't listening to the game.

      If it is a dedicated game area, pictures and posters and banners on the wall can help set a mode. Decorations picked up during Halloween close out sales are often useful. Lighting that lights up the table without shining in player's eyes can really help. Thematic candle holders are often cool. If cats or small children are involved, replace the candles with flickering LED fakes. Provide a set of mugs rather then players using Taco Bell cups. If it is a dedicated gaming table, refinish to resemble a worn tavern table.
    1. MNblockhead's Avatar
      MNblockhead -
      This article is an example of why one must be careful about including music in their campaign. I don't think I would enjoy playing in a game with the author's choice of music. I'm not knocking the author's taste in music--I like Zappa, but it would ruin immersion to have Zappa playing in the background. Actually, any music with words in a language I understand would be distracting. Playing old Nintendo-game music would be annoying. I don't think I could stay long at a table with that going on.

      I've tried using music at my table, both Syrinscape and music playlists (Apple Music and then YouTube Music). Syrinscape is neat, but too fiddly for me as a DM. I would only use it if a player took on the game-DJ role. Also, I would likely NOT want to use the spell sound effects.

      I found using the playlists on Apple Music or Youtube to work much better. There is a wealth of thematic background music one can use. I do think it can add something to the game as long as it is not too loud or otherwise distracting from game play.

      As I get older, I am less impressed by attempts to create ambiance. I keep coming back to a more minimalist play style. The great thing about TTRPGs for me is that it exercises your imagination. The more props and special effects you add to it, to less your mind has to do. That's why I don't feel compelled to spend a fortune on ultra-realistic terrain. In terms of ambiance-creating gimmicks I've tried or have been subjected to, here are how I stand on them:


      • Background music works best when it gets out of the way of your imagination.
      • Scented "gaming candles" can be interesting--at first, but you can't change scents as easy as music, making it hard to support scene changes with scents. Also, many people are sensitive to scented candles, so ask your players before lighting up candles.
      • Lighting. You'r playing a game not having a themed dinner party. Keep the lighting bright so people can easily read and write. If you play with digital devices, maybe this isn't as important, but I would think all the lit screens would ruin the effect of your ambient lighting anyway.
      • Digital aids. I will use RealmWorks and VTTs for showing maps but I rarely show pictures of NPCs, locations, etc. Usually I prefer good verbal descriptions.


      For new DMs asking about all this stuff, I tell them to forget about it. Get the core rule books, and adventure they are interested in running, some dice, pencils, and character sheets. As for creating a good game ambiance, bring together a good group of players and the "ambiance" takes care of itself.
    1. Jarrad Maiers's Avatar
      Jarrad Maiers -
      Quote Originally Posted by MNblockhead View Post

      I found using the playlists on Apple Music or Youtube to work much better. There is a wealth of thematic background music one can use. I do think it can add something to the game as long as it is not too loud or otherwise distracting from game play.

      What playlists would you recommend from Apple Music? I have found that there are a lot on Spotify, but not many on Apple music.
    1. MNblockhead's Avatar
      MNblockhead -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jarrad Maiers View Post
      What playlists would you recommend from Apple Music? I have found that there are a lot on Spotify, but not many on Apple music.
      I make my own. I've actually had more luck finding adventure-specific playlists on YouTube. I cancelled my Apple Music subscriptions a few months ago and subscribed to Youtube Music, but you can access most of the playlists just from YouTube AFAIK. I was running Curse of Strahd and a number of people had posted playlists for CoS on YouTube. I still altered them to fit my preferences.

      With my current campaign, Rappan Ahuk, I'm not sure if I'll use music at all. If I do, it will be general thematic music. Maybe three to five general fantasy playlists with long play pieces.

      One with dark/mysterious music for in the dungeons.

      One with general fantasy and nature soundscapes for in the woods.

      One for use in villages and a smaller populated areas.

      One for use in larger cities (though I might have a different playlist for different cities, e.g. one set of music for Bards Gate and another for Endhome, just to help them feel different).

      But I don't bother with "tavern sounds" and other location specific soundscapes. I focus on music that can create a feel and fit in with any location instead of location-specific soundscapes.

      If you want to get hyper specific and change the background sounds for different buildings, etc., Syrinscape or Battlebards is probably the way to go.
    1. jmucchiello's Avatar
      jmucchiello -
      Don't forget smells. Skin a cat right after the first person scores a hit in combat. Are they in sewers? You know where to find those smell. Etc. You should also play the game in high traffic boxing gym since parry members are going to sweat a lot during most adventures.

    1. MNblockhead's Avatar
      MNblockhead -
      Quote Originally Posted by jmucchiello View Post
      Don't forget smells. Skin a cat right after the first person scores a hit in combat. Are they in sewers? You know where to find those smell. Etc. You should also play the game in high traffic boxing gym since parry members are going to sweat a lot during most adventures.

      Ah, so that's what some of the convention players were up to! I thought they just had bad hygiene, but no, they were trying to create ambiance.~

      Well, boy do I feel like an unappreciative jerk now!~


      ;-)
    1. Razz0putin's Avatar
      Razz0putin -
      I can't believe no one brought up tabletop audio the multi ennie winning background music site. That place is really good with quite the selection.
    1. Hippy's Avatar
      Hippy -
      Quote Originally Posted by MNblockhead View Post
      Ah, so that's what some of the convention players were up to! I thought they just had bad hygiene, but no, they were trying to create ambiance.~

      Well, boy do I feel like an unappreciative jerk now!~


      ;-)
      LOL..Great response
    1. evildmguy's Avatar
      evildmguy -
      I'm a mix of these ideas.

      For lighting, I'm older as is my group, and so having it lit so we can read our character sheets is needed. Yes, there are a few screens, and certainly I have them as DM, but I prefer lights.

      For music, I have just found Arkenforge. It's a good, generic version of Syrinscape. I do recommend Arkenforge for that reason. Nice and generic, easy to find. Sadly, as good as Syrinscape is, it's UI isn't great and can be specific. I also have a group called the Baltimore Consort, which does Medieval music on appropriate instruments. Midnight Syndicate has good generic albums, including a DND one. I do like Robin Hood Prince of Thieves' soundtrack but it does have two with words, including Bryon Adams.

      I use Realm Works as well. It's not great for quick notes at the table but does help track bigger things. It also has a nice reveal that doesn't give away the size of maps.

      I picked d20Pro and did that with a remote player I had. It also allows for a bigger map than just the usual tiles or flip maps.

      I do agree that the music needs to be low, just able to be heard if no one is talking, so it's not a distraction.

      Great discussion, thanks!
    1. Ralif Redhammer's Avatar
      Ralif Redhammer -
      Makes anything instantly 150% more epic.

      For my part, I’ve been using a lot of the various 4+ hour fantasy music mixes on YouTube. That way, I don’t have to mess around with it while running the game – it can just run in the background for the duration. I used to customize the music to the adventure, but I don’t think the pay-off was worth the time investment.

      Quote Originally Posted by RobJN View Post
      Four words: Two Steps from Hell
    1. Li Shenron's Avatar
      Li Shenron -
      Quote Originally Posted by practicalm View Post
      Honestly, I've tried background music and I just find it a distraction from hearing other players. I agree it can bring a good amount of atmosphere but it never worked for me.
      Make sure you just didn't use the wrong music. IMXP most of the time a DM puts on some "music for D&D", they choose heavy metal or classic rock music, possibly with a fantasy twist, which is awesome music but NOT good while gaming... it's distracting as hell when not outright annoying!

      In addition, adventure/action movies soundtrack are another typical bad choice, unless you cherrypick the tracks, because each single soundtrack album typically includes tracks with completely different moods, so if you just play the whole album you may end up with battle music when you are in a totally non-action phase of the game, as well as with a romantic piece during a battle or horror moment...

      Quote Originally Posted by MNblockhead View Post
      This article is an example of why one must be careful about including music in their campaign. I don't think I would enjoy playing in a game with the author's choice of music. I'm not knocking the author's taste in music--I like Zappa, but it would ruin immersion to have Zappa playing in the background. Actually, any music with words in a language I understand would be distracting. Playing old Nintendo-game music would be annoying. I don't think I could stay long at a table with that going on.
      Exactly! Either you do it yourself but properly and with care, or don't do it at all. And considering that we are literally bombarded with music everywhere, from shopping malls to railway stations, having one evening of silence while playing a game together certainly wouldn't hurt.

      Personally I DO use background music while gaming, but it's carefully chosen by myself by cherrypicking from decades of listening to all sort of stuff... I have many playlists of my own to cover different story situations or locations, from the traditional tavern to the freakin' scary dungeon, from the open wilderness to the holy temple. Almost all of it is instrumental music of various genres, with few songs having lyrics. I keep the fantasy rock/metal only for BEFORE the game starts, and AFTER the game ends; it's good for the get-together mood, but not while playing.

      As for ambient noise rather than music, I looked at Syrinscape with interest until it stopped being free. Recently however I have found the following option which I haven't actually used in a game session yet, but it looks very promising to me so I want to recommend it anyway:

      https://tabletopaudio.com/
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      This is an interesting question with multitude of answers. Creating a pleasant and fun ambiance for a D&D game is highly subjective. In the past, I've used Syrinscape, video game music, film soundtracks, instrumental music and various sound effects to set up the mood and play in the background during the adventure. <...> Aside from musical ambiance, I keep the lighting dim and use a grid table, along with minis and homemade terrain to create a visual reference.
      You are 100% right it's subjective but for those of us with sensory issues much of what you describe can be rough. Due to an injury I have a neurological condition that means sensory things that might be stimulating or mildly annoying for typical people can be really overwhelming for me. (Yes, I've been to the doctor and have done desensitization therapy, but it only helps so much and even so there's a cumulative exposure issue.)

      In summary: Be sure to check in with your players and don't take it personally if someone has an issue. Believe me, I wish I didn't have to deal with it, too. Unfortunately a lot of folks are walking around with undiagnosed problems and/or won't talk about them.
    1. Nebulous's Avatar
      Nebulous -
      I used to use RPG soundmixer for creating ambiance. I personally love music in a game, with tracks designated as "action" or "creepy" or "travel" etc. I rarely have a moment go by without something playing.

      When the players were exploring the temple of Saja Nbaza in ToA, I was playing the soundtrack from a little known horror movie called Dagon...

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ezijviKZVYM
    1. CydKnight's Avatar
      CydKnight -
      I have had playing background music during sessions to have reactions from players that reach both ends of the spectrum. Some have absolutely loved it while others have said it's too much of a distraction. I think a DM should probably poll the players beforehand to see what they feel. If just one hates the idea, it could effect the entire group, if it's that big of a deal for the one player.
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