Whether you’re exploring epic realms with Dungeons & Dragons or pursuing the horrific unknown with Trail of Cthulhu, whether you’re a new Gamemaster or a honed expert, you probably spend a fair amount of time describing what the players’ characters see and hear. But what about what the players themselves hear? What about the soundtrack to your RPG campaign?

If you want a more cinematic experience when running your favorite RPG, do what movies and videogames have been doing for years: Use music to add a new dramatic dimension to the scene.

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Music can heighten the theatricality and deepen the immersion in a storytelling game like an RPG. It saves you time and provides an undercurrent of atmosphere even when your game temporarily devolves into in-jokes or rules debates. It works like the music in your favorite movie or videogame, except the music is never (or almost never) composed specifically for the game you’re playing. To select and play the right tracks to give your game new ambiance and attitude, you, the DM, must also become you, the DJ.

Source and Score

First, some terms. Film music comes, roughly, in two types: source music and score. Source music is music that exists within the fictional world of the story, whether it’s being played by a musician character on screen or echoing from a tinny radio in the hero’s car. If the characters can hear it, it’s source music. You can also call it diegetic music, because it exists in the diegesis, the fictional world of the story.

The score, on the other hand, is the music we in the audience hear but that does not literally exist in the world of the film; it’s the music composed for the film. Darth Vader doesn’t hear “The Imperial March” when he’s striding the deck of his Star Destroyer, but we do. This is non-diegetic music.

I use these same terms when talking about the music I assemble for my RPG campaigns. The score is anything the players hear but the characters can’t. The source music is anything the characters can hear that I play out loud for the players, too.

If I just say to my players, “Beethoven’s ‘Für Elise’ is playing on the loudspeakers in the derelict alien spaceship you’ve boarded,” it’s just a reference to the music. If I actually play “Für Elise” on the speakers in my living room while our characters explore a spaceship where that music is playing, that’s source music.

Selecting Tracks

To play the right cue you first have to find the right cue. That requires an understanding of how you’re going to use the track in actual play. It also requires a selection of tracks from which to choose.

Some great soundtracks come from mediocre movies and games. I’ve often used bits of score from movies and games I’ve otherwise not enjoyed because the music suits something I’m trying to do with the atmosphere of my home game. (I’ve never even played Lair but I’ve used its epic and textured musical score, by John Debney and Kevin Kaska, in countless D&D sessions since I found it.) Such soundtracks have the advantage of being less familiar to my players. Something as familiar as John Williams’ iconic theme for Darth Vader’s evil empire – “The Imperial March” – feels like parody when it’s used outside of Star Wars. I prefer to use music that’s appropriately moody yet not immediately familiar, because it works for atmosphere without reminding the player of someone else’s imagery.

I’ve come to think of tracks as falling into a few categories, describing how I’m likely to use them. (Some tracks incorporate elements of more than one type, of course.) Some examples:

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Openers: These tracks have strong opening moments, immediately setting the scene or inspiring a reaction from the players. Sometimes I only use that beginning bit of the cue, but some of the best openers lead into tracks that are good all the way through for ambience. (A short track that’s just a quick dose of dramatic music is sometimes called a “stinger.”) A good opener conjures an immediate vibe, whether it’s a jolt of horror or a heroic rise, which can be a great response to player actions. Play that ominous opener when the characters discover the latest murder victim; play that rousing fanfare when it’s time to roll initiative and things break out into heroic combat.

Repeaters: Repeaters can be long or short, suitable for quick-paced action or drawn-out atmospherics, but they’re always good all the way through and for more than one play at a time. You want a good collection of atmospheric repeaters to play in the background of dialogue-rich or exploration encounters as well as a slew of great action and battle cues that you can play over and over without getting too tired of them. Just set your device to repeat and focus on the gameplay for a while.

Repeaters are also valuable pacing mechanisms. Having the same track on repeat helps you recognize when you’re letting something drag on. (Depending on the piece of music, the track’s constant repetition might actually emphasize that things are dragging and spur players to action.)

Dramatics: Dramatic cues have musical twists, dips, or crescendos that wonderfully underline or announce some dramatic event like a critical hit or the death of a boss monster. These cues are tricky: They have great dramatic turns or narrative arcs within them that are tempting to use for key moments of play, like when the tide of battle turns or a climactic revelation emerges, but they require careful timing. To get the most theatrical effect out of a dramatic cue, you must time your narration just right, announcing the monster’s dreaded attack or climactic defeat just as the music crescendos behind you. This takes practice and a comfortable familiarity with the piece of music you’re playing.

If you know a track well enough to time your speech to it, just about anything can be a dramatic cue. When all you’re doing is narrating – whether it’s the somber funeral of a heroic king or the triumphant celebration of his successful rescue – dramatic cues can support your words with an emotional undercurrent. When you’re in the midst of a hectic combat turn, though, you’ll have to let some of the crescendos go by. Part of being a good Gamemaster DJ is remembering that the game comes first; don’t sacrifice clarity or fun just to make some musical cue work for you. Don’t expect your players to sit still, even for a minute, and listen to a piece of music you think says it all – roleplaying games are a conversation, and if the talking stops, so does the imagery.

Themes and Tone

Attach music to key characters or themes in your game to create musical themes. Play a specific tune whenever the bad guys show up, and you can allude to them later just by playing the track. Play a track whenever the characters are in danger of defeat, and the players may learn to dread the sound. Play a track when magical rituals are performed, or when bizarre aliens are discovered, and you might have a theme for wonder or discovery.

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You can create a distinctive character for your adventure or campaign by mashing up musical styles with different visual descriptions and games. A D&D campaign with a soundtrack made up of Nordic death metal feels different from a campaign set to percussive cues from the new Battlestar Galactica; those two campaigns are likely to be about different things, if the music that inspires them is any indication. Consider a campaign that mixes traditional medieval music, used for moments of rest and courtly intrigue, with driving rock music for glorious over-the-top battle scenes. That campaign certainly tells players more about what combat and intrigue are meant to feel like in the game world than a campaign without music does.

Be careful, though, that you don’t accidentally create dissonance between your imaginary mind’s-eye visuals and your auditory cues. Music often moves forward in time more poignantly than it moves backwards. Bear McCreary’s great scores for the new Battlestar Galactica use traditional instruments and percussion to create an epic, timeless quality to a show about spaceships and robots. On the other hand, electronic synth tracks laid over medieval adventure can be jarringly anachronistic.

Music sends signals to the players. Your favorite action cue sends the signal that it’s time to engage the combat mechanics. An enemy’s theme suggests that the foe is involved with the current scene even if he isn’t physically present – menacing if the characters are battling disguised minions, intriguing if the characters are investigating a crime scene.

If you’re trying to send a signal that reminds the players that “Violence in this world is bloody and epic and emotional” or a signal that says “Action scenes in this game are rocking, high-flying spectacles,” make sure your music is sending the same signal.

Mismatched music can create a moving and provocative atmosphere … or it can be accidentally hilarious. Sometimes a music choice goes unnoticed and, worse, it draws the wrong response from your audience. So it goes. Move on to the next track in the playlist. Keep the game moving.

Challenges and Changes

Why would I choose “Für Elise” to play on a drifting alien starship? For contrast. It’s unexpected. It sends a signal contrary to my description of the ship, and that dissonance can be unsettling. If the ship is thought to be teeming with deadly aliens, that contrast can even be kind of spooky or surreal. That puts the characters, and hopefully the players, on their guard. (Or, in the case of Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori’s elegant Halo soundtracks, that detachment can create a sense of epic ethereality.)

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If it’s source music, it also suggests that somewhere on the ship there’s a working device actually playing the music, which creates the illusion of a space bigger than what’s right in front of the characters and conjures a little mystery: Why is this music playing? When the characters find the futuristic device that’s playing the music, hopefully soon, they can turn it off. In which case I, the GM, can turn it off, too. That creates a fun dynamic whereby the characters’ actions affect the play environment, changing the atmosphere for both the characters and their players. Your players might not hear “Für Elise” the same way again, now that they associate it with a haunted spaceship.

The music you deploy during play clues the players in to the kind of atmosphere you’re trying to create. Conflicting atmospheres – like the collision of a beautiful classic piece with a deadly alien environment – are uneasy, just like you want your interstellar boarding party to be.

Music can influence the players as an audience at the same time that it informs them as actors in the game. It shows what sort of mood you’re trying to conjure up and contributes to the atmosphere of the scene – sometimes only subtly – in a way that your description of the game world alone might not. It carries some of the weight for you as the gamemaster and storyteller.

Ultimately, what works for your players is what matters. The only audience you have to please is the one at the game table with you. So build your musical repertoire with your players in mind, add in a few tracks to challenge their expectations, coax their emotions, and get ready to play.

Will Hindmarch is a freelance game writer and designer. He’s also the co-founder of Gameplaywright Press, where he blogs about music for RPGs and other intersections of story and gameplay.

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