Since 1974, Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) has existed on the fringes of popular culture alongside many other tabletop roleplaying games. In recent years, however, D&D and other RPGs have emerged at the forefront of gaming culture. The allure of fantasy and magic draws players into creating and roleplaying characters in a mediated fantasy space through social interaction. Though largely untheorized, Dungeons & Dragons has been examined through sociological and philosophical lenses, though these studies often ignore the performative aspects of the game itself.
During gameplay, Dungeon Masters (DMs) often exploit sensory detail, music specifically, in order to encourage roleplay in their players. The fifth edition handbook of D&D states that DMs can use “music, art, or recorded sound effects to help set the mood, and many players and DMs alike adopt different voices for the various adventurers, monsters, and other characters they might play in the game.” The following research explores the use of music within D&D as it relates to the players’ ability to immerse themselves within the game, drawing on research in ludomusicology and applying a lens of reflexive and close ethnography. Additionally, this research explicates a growing popularity of D&D on the internet through shows such as Critical Role and the live storytelling genre, as well as how it has altered ideas concerning the performance of voice. Based on interviews with players and observations of D&D games in person and via online streaming services, this article asserts that music allows players to immerse themselves within the setting of the game, which in turn creates a form of participatory performance for both the players and the Dungeon Master.
Into the Dungeon
During the Christmas holiday in 2015, I sat down around a table to run my first ever game of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) with my sister, brother-in-law, and mother. Though I hadn’t played the game before, the weekly show Critical Role, featuring a group of “nerdy ass voice actors [who] get together and play Dungeons & Dragons,” inspired me to try out the roleplaying game; taking a cue from Critical Role’s Dungeon Master, Matthew Mercer, I included music in the game session.1 While playing, I noted that the music seemed to help my players get into character, and I started to think about how music’s presence, or lack thereof, influenced players throughout the D&D community. Upon moving to the city of Knoxville, Tennessee, I found a D&D group within the University of Tennessee School of Music, where I was enrolled as a graduate student in the musicology program. As I became close friends with the group, I began to play D&D both as a Dungeon Master and player, and these games allowed me to experience how music influenced my own play. To explore this issue further, I combined reflexive ethnographic fieldwork and popular media analysis to examine how music engages, and influences, the Dungeons & Dragons community.
Largely untheorized, Dungeons & Dragons has been examined through sociological and philosophical lenses, but without much attention to the performative aspects of the game itself.2 Game designer Brian Upton’s research, however, provides a look into D&D’s aspects of play. He states that “playing a role-playing game is an experience embedded within a social context.”3 Roleplaying games, or RPGs, constitute inherently social interactions among players. According to Upton, RPGs exemplify “the synthesis of rule-based gaming with the trappings of make believe.”4 As a “soft-play” experience, the game relies on make-believe to give the players artistic freedom and agency as to how they wish to approach the game. To explicate this, Upton uses a theoretical model created by game designer Ron Edwards that describes different play styles in RPGs as “agendas.”5 The agendas focus on three distinct outcomes desired by the player. A player with a “gamist” agenda wants to roll dice and interact with the mechanics of the system, whereas a “simulationist” has the desire to explore the world created by the DM as their primary motivation, and the “narrativist” wants to explore and create a story to resolve the character that they embody. While Upton distinguishes these styles, no player subscribes exclusively to one while playing, and a player’s style often switches depending on the group and circumstance.6 My research focuses primarily on the narrativist agenda; I utilize this mode of engagement in my own DM and play styles, and, of Upton’s agendas, I find it the most obviously affected by the inclusion of music.
A tabletop game of fantasy make-believe governed by dice rolls, D&D includes two groups: the Player Characters (PCs) and the Dungeon Master (DM). D&D itself is still a game that loosely follows a set of rules and actions. The game is isometric in its play. PCs adopt the persona of a fantasy character and roleplay as that character; the DM creates the world inhabited by the characters, controls non-player characters, facilitates player interaction, and acts as an arbiter for rules of play. All actions within the game are determined by dice rolls augmented by the abilities of the players’ characters. Gameplay consists of combat, exploration, and social interaction; most of the play aspects of Dungeons & Dragons occur during roleplay, which, according to Upton, involves thinking as your character would, rather than yourself.7 In order to facilitate roleplaying, DMs often rely on sonic sensory detail to deepen an immersive experience. In the D&D Player’s Handbook 5th edition, the authors suggest utilizing various sensory details: “Some DMs like to use music, art, or recorded sound effects to help set the mood, and many players and DMs alike adopt different voices for the various adventurers, monsters, and other characters they might play in the game.”8 Adding these sonic elements alters the soundscape of the game. The sounds of dice and conversation accompany dramatic musical elements that indicate the feeling of a fictional scenario and engross the players into the story. Through my personal experience, analysis, and ethnographic research, I argue that by using music, D&D players enhance gameplay and social interaction to immerse themselves within a D&D session, which allows participatory performance to take place.
In addition to employing ethnographic research, I analyze the live storytelling series Critical Role as a mainstream and recorded example of narrativist D&D playing.9 Created in 2015, Critical Role is a livestreamed D&D campaign led by voice actor (and now DM inspiration) Matthew Mercer. Mercer, alongside several other talented voice actors, creates a story for the hundreds of thousands of viewers who tune in each week on multiple platforms.10 While Critical Role’s players are professional actors—experts in their craft and in constructing the drama of their game—the series provides an accessible window to the game, one that reveals the different RPG agendas with a primary bent toward a narrativist agenda. Further, since its inception, Critical Role has developed a strong social media community that continuously produces art and music relating to the web series, demonstrating a cooperative and community-oriented aspect to the series.11
Framing Dungeons & Dragons
Though research on tabletop gaming from a musicological perspective remains nonexistent, I adopt frameworks from the field of ludomusicology and game studies to elucidate my findings. A cornerstone of the RPG experience relies on the concept of immersion. The term immersion itself is a contested and layered concept. In her work on immersion, game scholar Sarah Lynne Bowman explicates six types of immersion and how each interplays with these different interpretations.12 Particularly, Bowman elucidates the varied concepts of immersion into character, narrative, and the phenomenon known as “bleed.”13 Similarly, video games studies scholar Gordon Calleja, in his 2011 examination of the term, chronicles the “conceptual confusion” that surrounds both the definition of immersion as well as the term presence.14 Ultimately, Calleja states that “whatever we decide to call this phenomenon, it will not be a single monolithic form of experience, but will emerge from the combination of these forms of involvement.”15 In the spirit of this statement, I also draw definitions of immersion that can be found in practical applications of music in games. Composer Winifred Phillips states that immersion in an active experience, such as D&D, occurs when the player is fully engrossed in the gameplay where their actions occur naturally; further, she describes music’s role in helping to create this immersive space.16 While Phillips primarily refers to video game composition, it applies to the use of music in tabletop RPGs like D&D.
Many ethnographic works have been performed in gaming spaces from both anthropological and musicological perspectives. Particularly in the realm of massively multiplayer online (MMO) video game RPGs such as World of Warcraft (2004), cultural anthropologists have examined issues in online environments ranging from cultural logics to gender and sexuality politics.17 In the field of musicology, William Cheng’s examination of musical performance and performative agency in the MMO-RPG Lord of the Rings Online (2007) established a model for future musicological examinations into digital environments.18 When narrowing a focus onto the realm of tabletop RPGs, Sarah Lynne Bowman’s participant ethnography dives into the psychological and performative nuances of the roleplaying mind as it relates to community and identity.19 In her work she interviews nineteen different interlocutors, including herself, to explicate how RPGs affects those whose participate in its play. My work extends this premise to a musicological context. My research, however, is limited in its scope. The works mentioned earlier, excluding Bowman’s, all interface with a single game that included thousands of possible players and interlocutors within digital universes. In contrast, tabletop RPGs, by virtue of their limited scale in a shared social space, create an intimate individualized microcosm shared by those present. Therefore, this research also focuses on one specific game, with only five distinct players. In order to relay the events I observed in this very narrow space, I take a perspectivist approach, understanding that my knowledge of the experience is limited to my own perception, to explicate how my social circle uses music to enhance play and participatory performance. I do so fully aware that my restricted view excludes the possible uses of music within other D&D games, which are as varied as each of thousands of roleplayers, and represents one method unique to my experience.
I approached the ethnographic portion of this project, in part, as a reflexive ethnography, such as exemplified in the fieldwork of Jeff Titon.20 I take into account my own experience as a player and a DM to elucidate my findings relating to aspects of performance. Performance studies scholars have thoroughly examined the connection between RPGs and performance. Performance studies scholar Sarah Hoover and colleagues state that “theater and RPGs share roots and formal characteristics as forms of performance—behavior that is restored, stylized, made special, often audience-facing and forfeiting a primarily practical function to stoke experience and meaning making.”21 This emphasis on experience and meaning making resonates with studies from the field of ethnomusicology, specifically in Titon’s work on creating a music-making epistemology.22 Titon strives for an ethnomusicological approach that focuses on music makers and a “being in the world” approach to ethnography:
The experience of music making is, in some circumstances in various cultures throughout the world, an experience of becoming a knowing self in the presence of other becoming, knowing selves. This is a profoundly communal experience, and I am willing to trust it.23
Both collaborative music making and meaning making through performance create particular and profound communal experiences. For a player, performance exists as a part of interaction. I act as a character and respond as that character would, creating a richer world for other members of the group. A DM performs the same roles as the players, such as having interpersonal interaction, creating interesting moments, and adding descriptive detail, but as a music maker I attempt to manipulate and engage my players through an affective soundtrack and create an enhanced communal experience.
Additionally, I consider some subjects of this project among my closest friends as well as ethnographic informants, which led me to adopt Titon’s concept of “visiting” for collaborative fieldwork.24 Titon uses visiting as a result of a music-making epistemological fieldwork, stating, “Visiting means treating others with respect, care, modesty, courtesy, exchange, and reciprocity. It means establishing a sound and hopeful relationship before ‘getting down to purpose,’ if there is any purpose to get down to.”25 Furthermore, Titon theorizes visiting as aspects of friendship; one aspect is considered “instrumental friendship,” which relies on a continued exchange of quid pro quo.26 The second aspect, and most applicable to this work, is a friendship based in admiration. Titon describes this as a friendship that “does not depend on usefulness, quid pro quo, or partnership, but rather is founded on admiration and a desire for the other’s well-being.”27 The interlocutors I consulted for this research, even before its inception, I count among my friends and confidants, and this project came as a result of their friendship, rather than the opposite.
As an active member of the D&D community, I DMed each Friday for a group of students that contained both veteran and beginning players. I have collaborated with this group as subjects for particular ethnographic examination in the style of Deborah Wong, where I considered one extremely localized group through close, sustained interaction.28 The specific group I examine in this research, during the particular game I describe, had been playing together for a year and a half, starting in the fall of 2017. We would meet every Friday, commiserate about the woes of graduate student life, and then play D&D into the early hours of the morning, participating in play until it seemed appropriate to end. Restricting my view further, I interviewed Livi Cheney, a close friend, member of this D&D group, and accomplished DM, about his experience on both sides of the DM screen, through performance as a DM and participation as a player; I also interviewed Tara Jordan and Isaiah Green, who are less experienced players from the group.
From my experience, music is integral to the immersive experience of the game; I observe a distinct difference in immersion and participation during a play session that uses music versus one that does not. For example, the description of a cavern hundreds of miles underground intensifies when accompanied by dissonant melodies and ambient echoes of water. The effectiveness of this type of sound accompaniment can be seen the audiovisual theoretical work of Michel Chion and his examination of materializing sound indices.29 Chion asserts that materializing sound indices are exaggerated sound cues meant to indicate the weight or actuality of physical material depicted visually.30 Much like the overexaggerated sound of a gunshot in film, the ambient sound in D&D creates an aural actuality for the players. Similarly, ethnomusicologist Kiri Miller provides precedent on how music affects play through her ethnography about the players of the video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.31 Miller asserts that the player can choose to immerse themselves fully in the character of CJ through music, specifically played on the car radio, thereby increasing the verisimilitude of the experience.32 Where GTA players make this musical choice for themselves, D&D players have less agency over such musical choices, finding themselves immersed via the DM’s use of music.
In both cases, the music moves to immerse the players and induce a sense of flow. Flow, as defined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is when “people become so involved in what they are doing that the activity becomes spontaneous…they stop being aware of themselves as separate from the actions they are performing.”33 For example, when the DM introduces a shift in music that indicates a contextual change, it can create a sense of urgency. When the group recognizes battle music, characterized by driving percussive beats and violent rhythms, the players slip into their characters and prepare for combat. Additionally, these examples illustrate Sarah Lynne Bowman’s concept of immersion into character, where players are experiencing an emotional immersion in connection to the character they are embodying, as well as immersion into narrative where they feel an emotional attachment to a narrative unfolding around them.34
While immersed, the players adopt their characters fully and contribute to the telling of a shared story, creating a participatory performance. Thomas Turino defines participatory performance as “a particular field of activity in which stylized sound and motion are conceptualized most importantly as heightened social interaction.”35 Turino distinguishes participatory performance from presentational performance in a variety of ways. Participatory performance “is a special type of artistic practice in which there are no artist-audience distinctions, only participants and potential participants performing different roles, and the primary goal is to involve the maximum number of people in some performance role.”36 While Turino restricts his definition to sound and motion, specifically dancing, singing, and clapping, he also determines that the quality is gauged according to how participants feel during the activity, with a focus on getting people involved in the performance.37 Turino relates this to differences in musical performances, but the same applies to D&D. In their engagement, players begin to weave a story through descriptive language, the adoption of accents, and social interaction. A common example of participatory performance is conflict between characters. The heated interaction between two characters consists of players, fully immersed in the characters, responding to each other through their adopted personas. D&D then stops resembling a game and transforms into an activity reminiscent of theatre dialogue, where anyone can interact or intervene in the scene that transpires.
Meanwhile, the DM can further contribute to the performance by introducing music; the DM performs music to facilitate a fantasy space, in a role similar to that of a DJ. Popular music scholar Mark J. Butler explores the use of recorded music in DJ performances and its connection to audiences; he states that
performance built around recordings and recording technologies can become live and immediate. This immediacy is negotiated between a performer and the sounds he or she creates as well as with the audience members who hear and respond to those sounds. Both the performer and audience are active co-producers of “liveness” and hence of “performance” experienced consciously as an event.38
As a divide between friends grows wider, a DM can drive the friction by introducing tense music or deepen the emotional connection by playing something with a somber tone; hearing it, the players respond in a performance of their own. In order to contribute in this manner, a DM often curates playlists of music according to a particular emotion. Critical Role’s Matthew Mercer creates DM playlists for particular situations, including combat scenes, creepy or sad atmospheres, or even ambient noise such as the sounds of a marketplace or a warm tavern. These categories are common among DMs and reveal a shared sound ideology about how scenes are heard across the D&D community. The specific sounds vary according to personal preference, but the overarching categories indicate an assumed commonality in soundtrack making, in part influenced by film and video game soundtrack culture.
The curation of these playlists indicates the DM’s intent to perform for their group and create an immersive experience through the understanding of emotive connections through music, similar to that of a DJ. Popular music scholars have explored the affective elements within DJ performance as it relates to feeling. Luis-Manuel Garcia’s article on sonic tactility and affect in electronic dance music demonstrates how DJ performance can influence feelings of romance and intimacy through sonic experience—the effects of curated music on emotion.39 The same can be said of a DM’s emotional effect on their players though the utilization of music. While each DM curates their music idiosyncratically, Mercer provides an example of the methods he utilizes on Critical Role. Mercer states that he gathers music while employing some of the same categories I noted previously:
I have a playlist for small battles, one for big battles, one for boss battles. I have a playlist for “creepy,” I have a playlist for REALLY creepy areas, I have a playlist for a mysterious scenario, for when it’s peaceful…That way it’s just really easy for me to just click any one of these playlists for a specific moment.40
Mercer’s playlists demonstrate a conscious ascription of emotions to music from various media sources. These musical choices draw from a wide variety of popular culture influences including soundtracks from award-winning video game franchises such as The Elder Scrolls and Pillars of Eternity.41 Mercer fills out his playlists with tracks that provide ambient sound. While much different from the musical soundtrack, the ambient sound operates similarly to Foley artists to create a sense of realistic sound for the fantasy environment. These ambient sounds often include those of mundane nonmusical actions and settings, such as water in a cavern or a wooden cart on a bumpy road. These soundscapes create an aural representation of the imagined fantasy environment, thereby creating a space for the players to effectively perform.
Escapism, Character Identity, Storytelling, and Community
Before playing any RPG, the player must create a character. In D&D the player adopts a classic fantasy archetype by choosing one of the designated character classes within the game. Most narrativist players enjoy the character-creation aspect of D&D because it has the least amount of “hard play” restrictions, giving it a strong connection to make-believe and immersive storytelling. The act of character creation allows the players to explore avenues of escapism, character identity, storytelling, and community.
In creating characters, players invent and adopt personas fashioned from their own imagination. These often manifest in fantasy archetypes but also allow for players to explore identities other than their own. If a player desires, they can create a character as close to their actual life as possible or choose any social identification, such as gender, sexuality, social class, religion, race, profession, age, familial relationships, and origin. After creating these characters, players build a backstory or history of their character’s life up to the point of play. This creates a deeper understanding of who the character is and sets up a story for the players to explore.
Upon closer inspection, D&D’s facade as a game falls away, and the image of live storytelling mixed with improv theatre appears. Storytelling results in interactions between the players, but fantasy space exists within the purview of the DM. The DM creates the world and the plot lines for players to follow. The story that occurs, however, is the result of the combined efforts and interactions among the players and the DM. The players act in character, attempting to play the part of this imagined identity that is colored by their own experience. The DM creates a safe space where the players can explore various identities or themes relevant to their lives such as death or loss, revealing the therapeutic aspects of roleplay. Through this storytelling, players form bonds and develop a safe community.
The D&D community ranges from casual individual players to formalized gaming groups. While members of the D&D community come from all personal backgrounds, they share a common experience of roleplaying. Members of individual groups share in a unique immersive experience through enhanced social interaction. The collective sharing of a fantasy space allows it to become “real” and solidifies a personal connection to fantasy characters and the players who embody them.
The Market of Immersion
The physical aspects of D&D gameplay vary depending on group, as it often changes depending on the preferences of the players. While certain games, such as ones seen on Critical Role, can create battle maps with the production values of small Hollywood films, complete with figurines, 3D terrain, mood lighting, and fog machines, the base materials needed for any D&D session are pencil, paper, and a Player’s Handbook. While many companies seek to enhance the visual aspects of D&D, the market to create aural immersion developed only recently.
The market for music and sound for RPGs has created a call for a new genre of music media reminiscent to the movie soundtrack. In June of 2013, the company Syrinscape launched the first interactive sound design application meant for use in tabletop game play. Its creator, Benjamin Loomes, is a pianist and composer who sought to change the immersion of gameplay through music.42 Paizo Publishing, the publisher of the popular RPG Pathfinder, quickly sponsored Syrinscape to produce specialized music for their game in 2014, and Wizards of the Coast established Syrinscape as the “official sound” of D&D in 2018, offering music packs for players to purchase.43 Other companies such as BattleBards and Plate Mail Games—both of which specialize in atmospheric audio tracks based on genre, such as fantasy, horror, sci-fi, or steampunk—broke into the tabletop audio scene through crowdfunding. Other web-based audio tools designed for RPG play, such as tabletopaudio.com, provide free ambient sound and music tracks. But DMs also draw and curate music from their own sources that evoke a sense of fantasy.
DMs often utilize music from preexisting popular franchises that inspire the same emotive context they wish to convey. I and other DMs, such as Livi Cheney and Critical Role’s Matthew Mercer, draw from popular soundtracks to enhance the musical drama at our respective tables. Livi and I both use music from franchises that inspired our love for the fantasy genre. In an interview about the inspiration for his playlist, Livi responded:
The very first video game experience I had was a Legend of Zelda (LoZ) video game, and I think that has actually been very big for me in terms of my musical development just as a musician. The music from the LoZ series, in my opinion, is such good music and whenever you talk about the history of video games music, Koji Kondo is always up there…For a while the only [music] I used for D&D, at the beginning [was LoZ]. It was great music that conveys the moods I like, but then I stepped away from [it] because of how recognizable and iconic it was (personal communication, October 25, 2018).
Here Livi demonstrates one of the key uses of music in D&D. DMs curate and play preexisting music during game sessions not to remind the players of those particular franchises but to create a unique fantasy sound to accompany our own story. To this end, DMs often utilize popular soundtracks as an easily accessible resource for high quality mood music, regardless of genre. Matthew Mercer curates video game music, such as the soundtracks from The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (2015) and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011), in order to create his own atmosphere. I also utilize music from The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and draw from popular film and television soundtracks as well, employing cues from Howard Shore’s score for The Lord of the Rings (2001) and tracks from Hiroyuki Sawano’s music for the Japanese anime Attack on Titan (2013).
Critical Role and Performativity
On March 12, 2015, the tabletop board game channel Geek & Sundry streamed the first episode of Critical Role. What began as a group of voice actors playing a home game of D&D has grown exponentially; in 2018 the cast of Critical Role broke from their production company, Legendary Digital, and created their own. Critical Role continuously makes itself known throughout the D&D community. Currently in its second campaign, the equivalent to a television series, Critical Role has aired over 175 episodes, performed live in theatres across the country, and been adapted into a comic book by Dark Horse Comics.44 By the time of their 100th episode, Critical Role had amassed over 68 million series views, cementing its place in internet culture.45
In addition to the regular weekly show, Critical Role also releases episodes in podcast format. Every episode of Critical Role is released in an audio-only format for audience members who prefer to listen to rather than watch the games. As the number two podcast on iTunes under the Games & Hobbies category, Critical Role can stand on sound alone.46 The popularity of the show in audio speaks to the performance of voice during a D&D game. Divorced from the visual, the game aspect of D&D is subsumed under the aural aspects when released in a sound-only format. The vocal performance among players becomes the predominant feature of the series, demonstrating that compelling interaction between characters draws listening audiences to the genre.
The prolific nature of Critical Role and its success are due to many different facets, including storytelling, voice acting, nerd culture, production value, and star power; but at its heart, it is also simply an entertaining experience. Critical Role’s players’ immersion and flow directly affect the quality of their performance, and to facilitate this, Matthew Mercer quickly and effectively creates the atmosphere necessary for the show to succeed. For example, a recent episode of Critical Role focused on the character Yasha (Ashley Johnson) and revealed a part of her backstory that was previously unknown. The scene takes place on a ship in the middle of a storm. Yasha had just experienced a vision from her deity, the Stormlord. It recalled painful moments from her past that she had kept hidden from other members of her party. After this Yasha sat down with Jester (Laura Bailey) and Caduceus (Talesin Jaffe) and told her story.47 In the studio, Mercer utilizes the track “Aurora” from the soundtrack for the game The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim in combination with sounds of creaking wood and heavy rain, aurally indicating the passage of the storm, in sharp contrast to the sound effects of thunderclaps used during Yasha’s vision.48 As Yasha begins her tale, her tone turns to sadness as she recounts a story of forbidden love as a part of her backstory. Yasha had been part of a tribe in a desolate country and was ordered to marry someone she didn’t love. In an act of solidarity with her paramour, Zouala, they married in secret. Yasha’s tribe discovered the secret marriage and sentenced the partners to death. At this moment when Ashley Johnson is speaking, Mercer subtly changes the atmosphere from the rocking ship to the song “Farewell, Old Friend” from the soundtrack for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, which consists of a somber melody on viola with accompanying strings that bites of melancholy and nostalgia.49 Yasha delivers a heart-wrenching tale of loss when her wife is killed, and she escapes only to be alone. While Johnson’s performance is admirable in its own right, Mercer’s attention to detail and curation of affectively appropriate music greatly enhances it.
This example constitutes one of many from hundreds of hours of gameplay. Music within the game often receives the attention of both the cast and fans of the series. There are various examples of when the cast breaks character, especially during moments of combat, and sings along with the battle music.50 Music in the show has received enough attention that various studios have reached out to the cast and given permission to feature copyrighted video game music on the broadcast. Large studios such as CD Projekt Red and Monolith Entertainment, a subsidiary of Warner Brothers, allowed Mercer to draw from their soundtracks for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor (2014), respectively, without royalties.51 Additionally, other musical features of the series come from the players themselves.
The storytelling and the improvisational aspects of D&D allows for the blending of fiction and reality through the musical performance of the fantasy bard. During the first season of Critical Role, cast member Sam Riegel played a character named Scanlan Shorthalt. Scanlan was a bard, a character class that is narratively based in entertainment. The Players Handbook 5th Edition describes that “whether scholar, skald, or scoundrel, a bard weaves magic through words and music to inspire allies, demoralize foes, manipulate minds, create illusions, and even heal wounds.”52 As a bard, a class that encourages the use of words or music, one can take advantage of performance opportunities to inspire other players within the game. Sam Riegel’s inspiration took the form of song, often an improvised parody of a preexisting song that struck him in the given moment and generated memorable events for the character and the series. The fan-made website CritRoleStats.com tracks numerous statistics throughout the series including a time-stamped list of all of Scanlan’s parodies. In the 144 episodes of the first campaign, Scanlan had 361 “musical moments,” many of them accompanied by the rest of the cast.53 Though hardly immersive at times, Riegel’s inspirations demonstrate a double performativity within D&D—on the one hand he embodies a master of song and humor, and on the other he creates music for the characters within the fantasy space, his compatriots around the table, and for all the viewers at home.
In addition to the aural aspects of Critical Role, the series has opened avenues for artistic expression through the promotion of fan art. Each week the Critical Role cast curates pieces of art from the community and features them in fan art galleries on their website.54 This practice has generated thousands of art pieces by a ravenous audience, which has resulted in two separate art books and an actual art gallery show featuring all forms of art from the Critical Role community.55 The art predominantly comprises visual manifestations of moments from the show that depict particular characters. The portrayal of characters in a visual medium provides images that match the voices of the game, enhancing an imagined space created through voice. In addition to showcasing fan art each week, the cast of Critical Role have announced a Kickstarter project to fund an animated special that features the story of their characters.56 At the moment of this writing, the Critical Role project stands as the number one funded film/television Kickstarter, having raised over $11.3 million.57 The characters will be voiced by the players, promising yet another vocal performance medium that creates the facsimile of a fantasy space. Critical Role represents a unique situation where audio media influences the creation of visual media, and then in turn the visual representation spurs the creation of new performative sound. Further, the extreme amount of monetary support shown by the Critical Role community for an animated special (now full-length animated series) explicates the ravenous desire for a visual manifestation of a predominantly aural fantasy world.
Music and Immersion
To synthesize these various aspects of music and play to explicate the participatory, performative nature of D&D, I take into account my own experience as a DM and a performer. During a recent game session in my own group, the party of adventurers had just foiled an assassination plot on a foreign diplomat. The following sequence involves a number of characters, played by my own players, but is focused on the character Mark Wallbrook, a paladin of the goddess Hestia. Mark’s family, who own a specialty shop and bar in the city, had been attacked by a group of bandits. His girlfriend, Tiffany, is the party’s rogue, who has a criminal past and has recently been experiencing visions of unknown origins. Other members of the party include Talia, an elvish wizard who searches for a way back to her home on a different plane, and a sorcerer, Brik, who seeks magical knowledge despite his stupidity.
As the party slept, Tiffany the rogue received an unsettling dream involving crows and darkness that took a disquieting turn. During this moment I used the song “The Wolf and the Swallow” from The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt soundtrack to create a dream state emphasized by thin string textures, dissonant and minor harmonies, and arrhythmic oscillating melodies. She dreamed that Mark’s family store was on fire and the crow spoke a single word, “run.” As she bolted awake, Tiffany looked out the window to see a column of smoke rising in the distance. She quickly woke Mark from his sleep to tell him her dream. Realizing the danger to his family, Mark, as he always does, dashed off on his trusty elk, Bucky, without heeding danger. To accompany this breakneck race through the city streets, I changed the music to another track from The Witcher 3, “Blood on the Cobblestones,” which sounds more indicative of a high-intensity situation. Driving percussion rhythms with staccato strings sounded while the other members of the party tried to figure out what had happened as they trailed behind Mark and Tiffany. When Mark arrived at his family’s storefront, he saw it engulfed in flames and his uncle lying on the ground outside, beaten within an inch of his life. Mark then leaned down and asked where his mother and aunt are, to which his uncle replied, “Inside.”
At this point, I informed the players that the next few minutes were a skill challenge, where they would need to successfully find their way through the burning building to save Mark’s family in the time I allotted. After setting a timer for ten minutes, we began. Mark immediately sprang into action and magically teleported inside to the second floor to search for his family members. Limited in her options, Tiffany began to break windows with her arrows to attempt to thin the smoke that was present within the building. As the other members arrived, Talia cast the spell known as “Dragon’s Breath” on herself and began to spew icy cold breath on the fire, trying to slow the inferno, and successfully adding more time to challenge. Inside, Mark fought through a haze of smoke to reach his mother and aunt, then dragged them back to the window. Seeing the flames about to overtake them, Mark threw his mother and aunt out of the second-story window, hoping that his party would catch them. Luckily Bucky caught Mark’s aunt, Brik caught Mark’s mother, and Mark teleported back out to the street. After successfully saving Mark’s family, the party still had to watch as the store burned down. As it began to collapse, I switched the music to a somber theme, again from The Witcher 3 soundtrack, “Fate Calls,” complete with string section and mournful low string timbre. Mark comforted his family to the sounds of this track until the fire had burned the store beyond recognition.
My interviews with D&D players corroborate my ideas concerning the use of music and the enhancement of immersion. I questioned Tara Jordan, who plays the wizard Talia in the game, about how the music affected her play during this scene. She states:
The music made the feeling of the scene more apparent. When the store was burning down and the music was fast, it made it that much more urgent that we do something, or that something was about to go down (personal communication, December 3, 2018).
This response reveals the base function of music within D&D. Composer Winifred Phillips explains that immersion resembles the concept of flow as defined by Csikszentmihalyi.58 To achieve flow, Phillips says, music creates immersion through the enhancement of gameplay identification and empathetic responses.59 Gameplay identification consists of music signaling that the game has changed, that something is dangerous, and that danger is signaled through the music. Tara’s quick response to the frantic music demonstrates this quality. I asked the same question of Isaiah Green, who plays the paladin Mark, who responded:
The music that happened during the running made me feel on edge as it usually does but more than that. Mark usually runs in without thinking, at least when it comes to his family, and the music made it easier to do that. Also the last song for me wasn’t just sad, because there were other things going on, if anything it made me reflect on what else had happened that day [in game] (personal communication, December 3, 2018).
Isaiah experienced closer to what Phillips describes as total immersion, which is defined as complete attention to gamespace in addition to an empathetic resonance with the character.60 His connection to Mark and the reflective state induced by the situation and music constitutes an empathetic emotional response to not just the present situation but to the culmination of previous situations experienced by Mark.
Within Sarah Lynne Bowman’s consolidation of the concepts of immersion, both of these responses cover the gamut of types of immersion.61 Music in this context, however, plays a vital role in deepening the players’ immersion into character.62 Additionally, Isaiah noted that his character’s emotions affected his own feelings as a player, which were then further deepened by the accompanying music, transmuting what was initially sadness to feelings of reflecting. Bowman describes this phenomenon as “bleed”; she states, “Some theorists connect the immersionism ideal with the phenomenon of bleed, in which the feelings, thoughts, relationships, and physical states of the player affect the character and vice-versa.”63 The emotional exchange between Mark Wallbrook and Isaiah Green becomes heightened as Mark’s circumstances wash into Isaiah’s experience, which then swing back into Mark’s emotions, now colored by the DM’s choice of music.
In order to facilitate this kind of immersion, DMs use music to create the desired atmosphere. Also in my group is Livi Cheney, a music graduate student and a more experienced DM than I. As a DM, Livi explained in an interview, he consciously aims to engross the players around him through the use of music. When I asked him about the immersive properties of music, he replied,
Yeah, it’s really easy for when there isn’t music, for there to be less immersion and more cross talk. I think that the music can really lend itself well to keeping everyone focused. If you switch from something easy to listen to, something that sounds like “tavern music,” to something very percussive, and do it without saying anything, there is going to be an immediate change in atmosphere around the table (personal communication, October 25, 2018).
Reminiscent of Miller’s ethnographic work, Livi attempts to create a world to absorb his players through music. The “tavern music” in this case represents a fantasy, proto-medieval setting, sonically realized through Livi’s choice of music. Assigning music to a mundane setting such as a tavern gives the impression of a real location that the players can inhabit. This immersion allows for the participatory performance to take place.
D&D and Participatory Performance
Bowman’s final category of immersion is immersion into community.64 She states, “For many players and theorists alike, the experience of role-playing immersion cannot be divorced from the social contexts—both in-game and out-of-game—within which they transpire.”65 A game of D&D operates only in the context of a shared social space, which is affected by the actions and occurrences within that space. Each player participates, further enhances, and deepens the shared experience, which I argue can extend into a musicological context.
Although not a typical musical performance, a game of D&D adheres to the tenets of participatory performance through its nature as a roleplaying game. D&D fits within this model of performance when viewing the DM as a musical performer whose goal revolves around immersing their players within their story. This appears in an ethnographic video taken for this project; Livi, acting as DM, presents a magic item shop for the players to peruse. When the players enter the shop, Livi (LC) changes his voice pattern to reflect the older gentleman manning the counter as he interacts with the player Isaiah (IG). The music fades out as he begins to list the potions he has available for sale.
LC: Potions of healing, potions of climbing, potions of…potion drinking
IG: Potions of potion drinking?
LC: Yes! You can slam quite a few!
(Laughs from table)
IG: Is potions it?
LC: Oh, of course not…(ethnographic video, November 2, 2018).
As Livi begins to describe the rest of the items within the shop, ranging from magic weapons to wondrous objects, he begins to play a track called “Eyes of the Forest” by Brandon Fiechter.66 This track features a plucked string instrument ostinato sounding under orchestra bells that play sustained notes, providing an air of mystery to the shop and a magical atmosphere as the players inquire about his goods. This moment demonstrates the participatory performance nature of D&D, as viewed through Turino’s lens. Shopping sequences such as these constitute moments of D&D that require nothing but roleplay from the players. They must interact with the DM in character in order to progress through the story. By adopting a new voice and mannerisms and providing music to create an atmosphere within the game, Livi puts on a performance that draws the characters in to interact with him. Through Livi’s performance, he encourages the other players to provide performances of their own, thus creating a participatory space. Livi’s approach to this type of sequence, through his use of sound, shows his intention to include the maximum number of people possible. This consciousness also emerges in my interview with Livi. When I asked him about what he considered his role as a DM as, he replied:
I’ve made this parallel a couple of times before, where being a DM is like being a host. Where you’re kind of responsible, maybe not always, but in my experience, you’re responsible for bringing these people together, and to have a good time. You invite people into your home to have a good time if you’re being a host, and just making sure that everyone’s needs are being met in this shared experience, that you’re all contributing to this shared enjoyable time (personal communication, October 25, 2018).
The “host” mentality speaks to D&D as a social activity, and also to gameplay as participatory performance. Livi’s “hosting” involves getting all the players involved in the performance and creating a “shared enjoyable time” through roleplaying and D&D. When asked how music functions in the performance aspect of D&D, he answered:
Yeah, I think [music] can definitely enhance the drama so I definitely think that [music] can get people more immersed into that headspace where you’re totally engrossing yourself into your character and this world (personal communication, October 25, 2018).
The immersion described in this quote allows for the participatory performance of a D&D game. A DM’s world building, which includes music, engages players through an immersive style of gameplay.
While music does not constitute a universal quality of a D&D game, the experiences of Livi, me, and new players such as Tara Jordan and Isaiah Green illustrate the importance of music to their ability to immerse themselves within the gameworld; in turn, this immersion allows for the kind of participatory performance described in the preceding examples. Further, in the realm of the live storytelling genre, performers such as Critical Role’s Matthew Mercer spur the creation of media and material that encourage this type of immersive gameplay. The quality of this experience doesn’t exist solely with the DM or the musical performer, but rather in everyone’s interaction and cooperation to create a story. Participatory performance of a D&D experience occurs during the dialogue between players and the DM within a mediated fantasy space created through a shared imagination and music. The social interaction of make-believe play transforms into a performative space when paired with a musical accompaniment that blurs the lines between reality and fiction to serve one primary purpose: to create memorable moments through creative storytelling.
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While hard number analytics are proprietary information for the original broadcaster of Critical Role, Geek & Sundry, speculation places average weekly viewership around 30,000 concurrent viewers, with a peak of 121,000 concurrent viewers across all platforms during the Campaign Two premiere. Cecilia D’Anastasio, “Twitch D&D Show ‘Critical Role’ Is Helping Fuel the Game’s Renaissance,” Kotaku, June 8, 2017, retrieved February 10, 2019, https://kotaku.com/twitch-d-d-show-critical-role-is-fueling-the-games-rena-1795930477.
Weekly art galleries are curated from Twitter.com by cast members of Critical Role and posted to their website at https://critrole.com/blog/. Musical examples include the fan-made Hamilton parody Vox Machina: An Exandrian Musical, which takes the music of the Broadway production Hamilton and adds lyrics based on the adventures of Vox Machina. Lisa Granshaw, “Stuff We Love: How Fans Remade the Entire Hamilton Soundtrack for Critical Role,” Syfy, May 28, 2018, retrieved February 10, 2019, https://www.syfy.com/syfywire/stuff-we-love-how-fans-remade-the-entire-hamilton-soundtrack-for-critical-role.
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The art books can be found at “Collectibles,” https://shop.critrole.com/collections/collectibles, and the art show occurred January 18–20, 2019, at the Nucleus Art Gallery in Los Angeles. Rachel, “Coming Soon: Los Angeles Live Show & Art Show!” Critical Role, December 11, 2018, retrieved February 26, 2019, https://critrole.com/coming-soon-los-angeles-live-show-art-show/.
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