Tuesday, April 27, 2010

RPG's and Music - Part 1

I've been using music in the background of my games since the mid-90's. It really started with our 2nd edition D&D games. My usual DM got hooked on the Conan soundtrack (the gateway drug of RPG music) and it got played a lot. He later worked in Last of the Mohicans and Legends of the Fall and those are both great atmospheric sets. I innovated within our group by adding Conan the Destroyer and The Planets to the rotation.

After the barrier was broken, our Fasa Trek games soon were played to the sounds of the Trek II & III scores and later the First Contact score as well. Our d20 Star Wars games had a massive soundtrack from the various movies and special CD releases. Once the LOTR movies came out those soundtracks were added to the various fantasy campaigns too. Battletech/Mechwarrior games were played to the strains of Starship Troopers and Terminator.

Early on this wasn't really an organized thing - when we started the game we started the CD player and let it roll. We would occasionally switch to "battle music" when we got into combat but for the most part the music was on in the background continuously during the session with no real planning or effort made to tie it to the activity in the game. It works, it's just not as atmospheric as it could be, and when all of your games are using the same music regardless of which campaign you're in, it loses a little flavor. Later I had the opportunity to use multiple CD's so I would load up one for "Town", one for "Traveling", and one for "Dungeon" and switch between them. This helped but it was a little clunky and it was the same "all-purpose" music we had been using. Better, but still ripe for improvement.

I experimented with situational music a bit during my 2006-2007 campaign in the Scarred Lands. For different adventures I picked different music. Best was Bloody Jack's Gold where I used some Pirates of the Caribbean for the sea voyage and the island and then some videogame music for the dungeon.

My first serious effort at changing this really only came in 2008 when my Savage Tides of Kalamar campaign kicked off. I got a serious itch to use new music so I needed a completely new source. I found one in "Autumn Thunder: 40 years of NFL Films Music". It's really good. If you're a football fan you will recognize much of it of course but if you have players that are not it's a rich untapped vein of greatness. There's a lot of martial trumpeting, a lot of traveling type music, a few sweeping themes - all of which can be used easily in an RPG session. I went a little crazy and picked out a "Campaign Theme", a "Freeport" theme (the campaign was the Freeport Trilogy mixed with the Savage Tide Adventure Path) a theme for each adventure in the Savage Tide path, a theme for the party, and a theme for each character ( I had 8 players). It ended up around 30 tracks altogether and the players liked it a lot. That suite served as our musical background for pretty much the whole campaign. Now when half the party died in the epic conclusion of the Freeport trilogy it did screw up my plans somewhat and we used it less after that, but I should have added in some new tracks and continued with 2.0 - I didn't but it would have been a better option.

The real challenges to using music in a game I see are these:
  • Finding fresh music your players haven't heard thousands of times already - if your player's haven;t heard the Conan Soundtrack before then crank it up - if they've been using it for 20 years then it may be a little stale.
  • Choosing the right music - Duel of the Fates is great if you're playing Star Wars, but it's almost impossible to use it for anything else as it's an immediate mental switch to thinking about Star Wars when you hear it.
  • Figuring out a way to make it appropriate to the moment - it's not 100% necessary but I think it helps. Like I said a simple town-travel-dungeon breakdown may be enough for a straightforward D&D campaign.
  • Executing - setting up different suites of music is great but you have to switch them when called for. All of the wonderful speakers for ipods out there can make this much easier than the old days. Remote controls can help here too.
For Necessary Evil I haven't been using music but I may start. For Return to the Ruins of Adventure, I will from the start. More on that tomorrow.

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