Many games begin in a tavern, a few end in them, and it is the rare game that never sees one. Taverns a great place for adventures to begin, they are often a great place to find both information regarding the local happening and individuals who may need some pesky goblins harassing his farm taken care of. These places are often the center of a small town or a district if its a larger city and are a great way to introduce players to local cultures, movers and shakers, and of course allow them to spend some of that gold burning a hole in their bag of holding. Taverns can pack a lot of character and flavor into a small room and there are many details that can be covered but one of the most important and often overlooked is tavern music. Music speaks volumes in a tavern and and adds so much character when properly utilized that it’s a shame more dungeon masters don’t use it. I understand many don’t have the right equipment or perhaps even the time to search for the right stuff but i recommend checking around amazon or newegg for a cheap speaker and seeing if you can make it work with a smart phone or laptop, it will really enhance a lot of aspects of your game, and as far as what kinds of music to use I will provide a list at the end of the article.
Tavern music can help establish a lot of things and allow your players to get a feel for the room and help immerse them in the environment, it can tell them if it’s a busy evening or a slow night, a jaunty tune livens spirits while a somber one my calm the party down. The music can also help to establish theme and location since the musicians in a dwarven beer hall will be very different from a roadside inn or a tea house in an asian influenced game. The music should reflect the patrons and location so it’s a good idea to give it some thought beforehand and cone this has been established with your players there are a lot of fun ways you can tweak the formula to pull some unexpected tricks with your music that will intrigue and hopefully excite them. Perhaps they enter a tavern in a dwarven mining town only to discover the publican is human and the music is less drums and horns like one might expect from dwarves and more lutes and flutes playing soft melodies played by his daughter and son that remind the publican of his hometown, much to the chagrin of the dwarven patrons. In a busy tavern the music suddenly shifts to something a little more upbeat and the patrons get quiet before joining in singing the national anthem or perhaps a battle song from a great victory tied the location. A floating tavern frequented by pirates make sit hard to converse in over the drunken slurring of sea shanties that never seem to end. All of these help to make a tavern a much more memorable and colorful place that will stand out far more than “the place we bought some ale and a wizard asked us to get an amulet”.
Aiding in the pacing of a session is another great way to utilize tavern music, nothing quit silences a room like raising the volume of music followed by suddenly and sharply cutting it. I used to work in a bar and for last call we would pump the sound system up a few decibels and then kill the music, what was once a noisy room was instantly silent. This makes a very effective tool for adding some drama to your game, imagine a crowded tavern after dinner full of farmers and merchants and townsfolk sharing stories and drinks as the bard’s music plays in the background, conversation fills the air when suddenly the music stops on a high note, everyone immediately begins looking around for the cause of the disturbance to find a bloodied man has entered the tavern rasping about orcs invading, or maybe the bard slumps off the stage, a knife in his back and no culprit to be found, perhaps he becomes possessed and speaks a prophetic message no one understands. These serve as great interruptions and staccatos that break a scene into a more interesting piece. Instead of interrupting the music could get louder and faster as a bar fight erupts or even get slower and softer to frame the scene as your begin negotiating with said wizard who needs an amulet recovered.
Finally, another way to utilize the music is to involve the players themselves. If there is a bar din the party who wishes to take the stage, allow him to select the playlist so long as they remain playing in the tavern, let players tip the musicians and request songs and perhaps they request a song that the patrons can’t stand or is offensive in some way, maybe the song is actually a tavern favorite and earns them a modicum of trust form the locals. All in all tavern music can serve to add a lot to a scene or even make an otherwise unremarkable one memorable for the players. Another aspect I want to get into later is drinking songs, but that is a separate topic entirely. For now here is a list of some of my favorite taverns songs for different situations.
A few reels and jigs
The official D&D soundtrack from Midnight Syndicate has some great all around stuff.
Some songs I have used in the past for various taverns. A lot are from games and several I just stumbled across but hopefully this provides a good jumping off point.