Making Music An Effective Part Of Your Roleplaying

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0112

A Brief Word From Johnn

Two Cool Fiction Recommendations To Inspire GMs

“The Pillars Of The Earth” by Ken Follett

Signet, 1989, ISBN 0-451-16689-2

Peter W, a tips subscriber, recommended this historical fiction book and I just have to mention it here. I’m enjoying it a lot and getting a ton of good GM ideas from it. It deals with the building of a Cathedral in England in the 1100’s. On top of the great characters and villains, it goes into great detail about medieval construction, the economics of a large undertaking like building a new Cathedral, and what life was like in the twelfth century.

The book also weaves a good plot, including interactions with leaders and rulers, without turning the story into a save-the-world affair–a good skill for GMs to have to help maintain campaign scope and balance. Highly recommended for fantasy and historical GMs.

“The Barkorcghasse Chronicles”

From Mark Kibbe of Basement Games

The Barkorcghasse Chronicles is a fantasy-based adventure series set in an actual game world, Juravia, a setting replete with fascinating monsters, places, and cultures. It’s just like the old Flash Gordon serials, with a new part being posted bi-weekly. This series is a good way to enjoy a story and find some inspiration. The best part is it’s online and free.

(By the way, Basement Games offers a lot of cool gaming materials like dungeon maps, mini-adventures, rumour hooks, etc., via its free Membership program. I joined without spam or hassles and now get a regular email newsletter with a lot of great fantasy GM stuff. The URL to register is here if you’re interested: )

Thanks For The Music Tips

I passed on the tips you sent in, as per the request in #107, to Jared Hunt, and he was then kind enough to compile, combine and write them into cohesive advice for everyone to enjoy. Thanks Jared, and thanks to everyone for their tips submissions–that was a tough topic!


Johnn Four
[email protected]

Pick Up Some Counters A Free Adventure For Saturday Night

Visit where we have over 130 different plastic counters – More affordable than pewter, more durable than paper. Come look at our variety and unique perspective – buy individual pieces or economy packs. And whatever you do, don’t forget your free adventure. [Comment from Johnn: check these counters out, they’re a pretty cool and safe alternative to figs, and many only cost twenty-five cents a piece.

Mark L. Chance, an RPG author, Tips subscriber and Tips contributor, posted a review of this company’s products on the DMAdvice List:

You can also find the review re-posted here: ]

Making Music An Effective Part Of Your Roleplaying


Music Triggers Memories

If an NPC or location is always accompanied by the same song or music type, the PCs will soon come to associate them which each other, and this helps maintain deep immersion in the setting.

For example:

  • Playing Irish music each time the players are in a pub or inn will definitely give them something to remember about it.
  • Events often use specific music. What would Mardi Gras or a grand parade be without the appropriate tunes?
  • Playing solemn, dignified music can reinforce the power of an authority figure.

Be aware that you can tip your hand by playing a soundtrack too early, allowing the players more time to prepare than you intended. Conversely, you can use a villain’s soundtrack to build suspense by playing it when the group is in a tight spot.

Choose The Right System

Reaching over to change CDs in the middle of a tense battle sequence can spoil the effect you are trying to create. It’s vital then, to know the music you are going to use, or more specifically, know your equipment.If you have access to a computer during your game, that’s an excellent way to manage your music. There are a number of different programs available that allow you to create and categorize lists of music.

MP3 players are another great option as they offer portability and extended memory which should minimize the distraction factor. Some also offer the same category organization features as you find in computer programs.

Making your own CDs with a burner lets you get the exact tunes you want.

A remote control for your stereo is also a good option if you are familiar enough to use it without having it in view, the abrupt changes possible can make for some great moments.

A portable stereo system does not provide the same sound quality as a full stereo, but it makes up for it in ease of use.

Use Theme Songs For The PCs

Many action movie heroes have theme songs. A potentially cheesy but fun addition to the game may be for each PC to have their own theme.

The song can be chosen by:

  • The GM
  • The player
  • The other players in the group

If you want to take the idea even further, the character may receive a bonus to all rolls made while their theme song is playing. If you use this rule, it is suggested that you place all of the PC songs in random order, perhaps with the rest of the music for the session. That way the players cannot “stall” until the time they know their song will be playing before taking actions.

Use Volume Control

If you want music to provide a backdrop to a scene it should be played quietly.Conversely, you can drastically enhance the intensity of a combat by increasing the volume of a fast-paced song.If you’re setting a scene in a dance club or loud party, it can help convey the mood if you turn the music up loud enough that the players actually have to raise their voices to be heard. Perhaps not the most popular choice with the neighbours, but if you can pull it off, it works well.

When dealing with volume, always remember: the volume of the game will always be at least one notch higher than the volume of the music.

Get Organized

These organization tips relate to during the session and when preparing for it.

  • Invest in a CD case that you always keep with your gaming supplies so you won’t forget it.
  • Designate a player to change music at appropriate times so you don’t have to. (Even better if she’s playing a bard character).
  • Categorize your music.
    • This can be done on a computer or MP3 player through the appropriate software.
    • If you are using home-made CDs they can be labelled.
    • If you are using purchased CDs, it is a good idea to make a list of tracks and what they are appropriate for.
    • Stereos with multiple CD capacity benefit from a list by disc and track number.
    • Suggested categories are: combat, travel, eerie, inn/tavern, royal, and of course, there are many more depending on your campaign style, genre, and setting.
  • If burning your own CDs, buy coloured CDs, cases, or sleeves. Use red for combat, green for travel, blue for sea adventures, etc.
  • Write specific CD titles or track numbers on Post-It Notes and paste them in your module or notes for quick reminders and easy in-game reference.

Be Sensitive To The Group

It is entirely possible that the soulful ballad you intended to help emphasize a dramatic moment reminds one of your players of his ex-girlfriend. A good way to avoid problems like this is to poll your players after each session in which you used music. (An after-game question period is often a good idea anyway).It also pays to keep an eye on the reactions of your players when changes in the music occur. This will tell you a lot about the mood that is actually being created by your tunes, regardless of your intent.

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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Speeding Session Preparation

From Ed K.

As a GM and player of 18 or so years of experience, I have learned a fair number of ways to speed up the process of preparing your next game session. I could probably write a whole book on it, but I’ll limit it to the few points I believe are most helpful.

  1. Know Your Story Line
    This tip may seem a bit obvious, but what it means is focus on your plot and themes. A great deal of time that I spend creating sessions has nothing to do with drawing maps and detailing monsters/treasures/NPCs. Instead, I spend the most time trying to develop the story line as it should unfold in the session. If you try to be true to the spirit of the past, work in the campaign and keep everything cohesive as it will speed this part of the process.
  2. Know Your Players
    Here, I mean think about what your players want. Don’t waste your time trying to think of a complex hook that drags them into a murder mystery adventure that you want to run when you know it is a hack and slash romp they really want.
  3. Know Your Schedule
    Don’t take on more than you can handle. Detailing Dr. Destructo’s secret hideout all the way from the holographic desert scenes on level one to the active volcano that dominates the pit down on level 98 would be great, but you need to sleep sometime. Be thorough, but be reasonable. Don’t bite off more than you can chew.
  4. Know Your Engineer
    When you sit down to map out a dungeon or castle or whatever, think like you are the guy/gal that built it. If it is the ancient palace of a warrior-king, forget the labyrinth, labs, and summoning room. He didn’t need them. He needed barracks for his troops, an armory, and maybe some torture chambers. Don’t fall into the habit of creating certain stereotypical adventure features simply because they are standard. If you don’t need something, don’t waste your time working on it.
  5. Know Your NPCs
    Think ahead on who the NPCs are going to be. If you need security guards to catch your special agent while he tries to sneak into the Russian embassy, don’t waste your time making up stats and equipment for them if you already have stats and equipment for the cops who chased your heroes in their last session. Just play with the stats a bit and change their personalities to suit your new needs.

I’m not saying be lazy, but you really do have more important things to do than worrying about a hot dog vendor’s intelligence score.

  • Let Your Players Help
    If you haven’t the time to draw maps and create NPC statistic sheets, have them do it for you. Don’t trust them with anything critical to the story line of course, but let them fill in the background a little. If you let a friend map out a simple inn for you one week, he probably won’t recognize it a few months later once you’ve named it and stocked it full of people and furniture. Along the same lines, have him whip up the statistics for that hot dog vendor if it really means that much to you. Who cares if he knows the guy’s strength? It isn’t like the guy is going to beat him up anyway (I hope).
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Introducing New Players To RPGs

From Marty R.

[In response to Introductory Sessions Tips:RPT#104 – 5 Ways To Work Information Into Your Game ]

The idea of using a solo introductory gaming session is an excellent way to get new, inexperienced players started in RPGing. One problem that Brian E. encountered, i.e. the first player not taking “the bull by the horns”, might have been offset if he had something to give that player prior to that first session, something that describes RPGs in general (such as PC classes, basic abilities, skills, game play, combat, etc.) without going into a large amount of detail like that in a “standard advanced player’s handbook.”

I started playing Basic D&D in 1979. I don’t know how long you have personally been into RPGs so excuse the following if you are already knowledgable. Basic D&D consisted of a boxed game set with dice, a rule book and a basic module and was followed by an advanced rule book boxed set. It was followed some years later by another basic boxed set with a players book, DM’s book, basic adventure and dice. I snatched up two copies of the second version mainly for the dice. I quickly got into AD&D and have been using the basic rule books to introduce new players to RPGs.

This accomplishes two things:

  1. New potential players get an idea about what is going on and what options they have in character class selection and other aspects of RPGs. These players come to the table with a general idea of what type of character they would like to play and ask fewer questions.
  2. There are all sorts of people that express an interest in, or curiosity about, RPGs. These people may make good players that show continuing interest or not as their personalities may dictate. Those that are going to become “deadwood” usually have their curiosity satisfied by a quick read through and don’t cause the problems associated with mild interest.

The problem I have encountered with this method is that the basic rule books in question have too much information for an ideal introduction. I usually say, “Ignore the information on spells, particularly if you are not going to be playing a magic-user.” They actually are going to be playing AD&D rules in my game and becoming overly knowledgable about the basic spell system used in the basic rules could be confusing.

One day, if someone doesn’t beat me to the punch, I’ll write a basic RPG rule book that explains some of the differences between systems which can be used to introduce new potential players to RPGs.

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Naming Streets

From Neil F.

If the PCs are strolling around town and you suddenly need to know the name of a street, you could do worse than name it after a monarch or VIP.

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Use Obscure PC Skills For Adventure Seeds

From Daniel B.

I have discovered that obscure and often under-utilised skills are great seeds for adventures and I wanted to see if someone has suggested this before.

For example, I’m running a WHFRP game and one of the characters has “scroll-lore” as a skill so I tried to imagine a situation where that would be a really useful skill and determined that the PCs would need to gather information about an arcane artifact and that there would be various conflicting or mis-leading texts. From there I just extrapolated out the process of finding the texts, evaluating them and then acting on them.

Another similar skill could be heraldry (perhaps fake a coat of arms and pose as a noble or investigate a suspect recent arrival at court). I’d suggest checking some of the weird or obscure skills your PCs have.

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Cheap Minis Substitute

From John S.

Being a little cramped for time, I never get to paint miniatures. Luckily for me, I found the perfect miniature substitute during a recent trip to Wal-Mart. In the “kids’ party/kids’ art aisle”, I came across a neat product by a company called Learning Playground. They produce packages of 1-inch by 1-inch white plastic tiles that have numbers and letters printed on them, which means they’re perfect miniature-size.

Each package contains 88 (!) tiles, more than enough for any GM and they retail for $3.97. The black- lettered tiles are quite thick and hardy, too. The tiles, which come in re-sealable bags, have three different package types — Upper Case, Lower Case and Numbers.

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Source For NPC Names

From John S.

While some people might think this is morbid, I like to pull my NPC names from my local newspaper’s obituary listing. I find that a lot of the names are interesting, especially when I put a spin on them for the particular campaign or need. I don’t hesitate to mix-and-match names either. Sometimes I pull the name from several different obituaries and mash them into one name, using the last name as the first name and throwing in an elfish suffix or a dwarfish surname.

Some recent examples: Orpha Kanish, Ihoko Brailler, Darby Neuhaus, Athalene Blymire, Lynialis Reighard.