by Ian McKenzie

I sat down with Alex Hochhausen of Astronomic Audio to discuss how he enhances his D&D campaigns and the House of Bob podcast with music. If you’re looking for some tips and tricks on creating a variety of moods in your D&D campaign through music, look no further. This guy is literally a pro at this stuff.

Where do you get most of your music for D&D campaigns?

Kevin McLeod is the guy. His catalog is extensive, deep, and broad. I’ve also seen some tools posted on /r/dndbehindthescreen and occasionally on the /r/tombofannihlation sub, but I’ve always stuck with Kevin’s material because he’s just a complete gem and his contribution to the community of online creators sets him apart. Also because it’s royalty-free, so we don’t have to worry about getting into trouble for not having the proper rights for music in the show.

What’s it like building your library for D&D campaign music?

This is a pretty simple but very long process for me. For our TOA (Tomb of Annihilation) campaign, we had an idea of the overall theme we wanted to achieve going into it. I knew I wanted it to be very cinematic, and a bit more serious than a lot of the music selections I’d made for other material. Shaun had talked to me about the setting: jungles, ancient ruins, and of course lots of fantasy monsters.

For TOA, in particular, I combed through Kevin McLeod’s catalog in a couple of specific genres he had already used to divide up his material. I primarily used the “soundtrack” genre, but for some of the more “jungly” material, I also used tracks from his “world,” “African,” and “classical” genres.

What technology do you use?

I have the luxury of using a sound design library tool built into my editing software for organization, but folks making music libraries for their DnD games can also likely achieve the same goal by tagging pieces of music in iTunes or WMP (Windows Media Player) or whatever other desktop media player they’re using.

I tend to break pieces down into a few broad and sometimes overlapping categories: combat, exposition, revealing, pre-combat (which tends to be creepy and driving), sad, drums, and super creepy.

What are some tricks to control the mood of a scene in the campaign?

I knew that I wanted to have specific tempos for the sake of controlling the mood. For combat I wanted things to feel like they were always moving, even though combat itself is often the slowest moving part of the gameplay. I generally try to use material above 100bpm for scenes like this.

Things like exposition, I’m more after creating some tension or excitement, and will typically try to keep things between about 80 and 90 bpm. I basically spent a full day listening to one song after another, downloading the ones I think will be a good fit, then listening to them all again on my computer and tagging them with what sort of scenes or feelings I think they’d be a good fit for (combat, exposition, etc. — categories from earlier). At this point I’ve got a library locked and loaded, it’s just a matter of queuing things up once the time comes.

What about background music for the more generic parts of gameplay?

In a situation where a DM wants to have background music during gameplay, I’d recommend taking this a step further and actually creating playlists for these moods/scene types rather than just using tags. As a Dungeon Master, you have an idea of the sort of situations you’ll be putting your players in throughout a session. That way, it can be reasonably easy to plan for. Some examples: you know you’ll have some combat, you know you’re going to reveal something creepy to the party, or you know if you’re going to fill them in on some sad backstory.

I’d recommend just putting one of your mood playlists on shuffle just as you start to describe a scene, and then just leaving it be. In our material, I will typically make markers for where certain events happen because I want to sync up when exciting things happen with specific events in a piece of music, like a big swell as things are getting tense. This syncing may be difficult during a live play session, so I typically only do this in post-production of our episodes.

How about for combat?

With combat, my desire is to not only make things feel like they’re always moving — but also not giving the players the impression of a scene change every time the music changes. I want transitions between pieces to be smooth enough that it doesn’t sound jarring, but also different enough that it gives the feeling of action “stepping up” whenever the music changes.

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