Thursday, April 29, 2010

RPG's and Music - Part 3

So once you have some music what do you do with it? How do you include it in the session?

1)Most basic is just burn it to a CD or put it on an ipod and let it run in the background. This has worked for years, requires minimal intervention during the game, and works just fine.

2) A slightly more complicated approach is to set up different groups of tracks or playlists of tracks that share a theme - In Town, In a Tavern, Battle Music, Forest Music, Dungeon Music, etc. When your players hit a new location, switch to that playlist. This is pretty easy to do and prevents the aural disconnect that happens when Anvil of Crom kicks in while buying potions at the healer temple. This is a good compromise between prep work and payoff. It's easy to update too - if the party heads to sea, add a "Nautical Music" folder, probably flavored with a lot of Pirates of the Caribbean. Over time you will build up a nice library of themed music and the players will pick up on it when they hear familiar tracks.

3) Most complicated is the full suite of music for your campaign by location, character, activity, etc. This is a lot of work and I have only done it once. It was worth it but if you are pressed for time don't bother with it - go with #1 or 2 above. In mine, each character had a theme, each step in the adventure path had a theme, each town had a theme, the taverns they frequented had different themes, eventually their ship had it's own music, each dungeon had separate music - it's a lot of work but at the time I loved the way it turned out. The players liked it, but probably not as much as I did. I switched playlists depending on where they were and had several different sets of battle music - one for shipboard combat, one for underground combat, one for fighting in the city streets- it was overkill, really, and I probably won't go that nuts again. Plus, with 8 players for most sessions, I already had a lot to do and didn't need the extra overhead.

Let's get to specifics now since I am running 3 campaigns at the moment:

  • Basic D&D - my players in this one are new and haven't really heard any of this stuff before so I'm going to keep it simple. I haven't been running any music for them yet but as we get back on a more regular schedule I will probably bring in some combat music using the classics - Conan, Starship Troopers, Gladiator - maybe some LOTR but I'm leaning away from that right now. I will see how they like the battle music and go from there. Pounding Poledouris is more their speed I suspect.
  • Necessary Evil - I haven't been using music in this one, but I want to. Some of the NFL Music may be recycled here. The Robocop soundtrack is good and underused in my games so I may use it as a major theme. I'd like to have a track for each character and some general background music and just let it roll while we play - no switching between folders, etc. Big heroic themes are good so this will mostly be movie music.
  • D&D4 - this one I will be spending a little time on. Since Phlan is divided into districts, I am thinking about having background music for each district so I don't really have to worry about switching during most of the game. Civilized Phlan will basically be "Town" music while the slums will have low-key slinky music like some of Aliens and Escape from New York. The Graveyard will have spooky stuff. Sokol Keep will have sad "after the battle" type music while the Temple of Bane will have big blaring martial themes. I will probably also do a Main Theme for the campaign and a track or two for each character, just because I like that kind of thing. I would play that at the beginning of each session while were getting ready and then go to whatever section of the adventure we are in after that - give it an "opening credits" feel for each session.
A note here: I don't think any of this is strictly necessary. I mainly do it because I like it and it makes a campaign feel more polished or complete to me. As long as the players don't hate it and I like it then it's a net plus to the game as it helps me get in the right frame of mind to run. If you're the DM and aren't that interested in the musical aspect then don't sweat it. You might consider farming it out to a player who is though, if you have one. Tell them you'd like some music for the game but you don't have time or whatever and let them run with it. My players cringe when I ask for backstory but for NE I asked for character portraits. Since we all play City of Heroes and it has an awesome character creator, they had fun designing a character for a totally different game for a change and the results were very nice - I will post them here at some point. The point was that now everyone has a character illustration regardless of artistic talent and is that much more invested in both character and campaign. If your group has someone with musical inclinations let them do some of the work here and you will have similar results- more atmosphere in the game and more investment by at least one player.

Finally a technical note. We used to play in my living room so I could use a burned CD or DVD with all of the tracks on it playing through the big surround system and operate it with a remote. This worked well but now with a much smaller group and in a different house we tend to play in the kitchen at a table. The solution to this is the ipod/iphone in a small speaker dock right by the table. It's quite audible but doesn't overwhelm the table conversations. It's easily controlled, has useful audio apps for impromptu musical needs, holds more than CD's and even DVD's typically do, and can be organized in a very detailed way with playlists that are easily modified from session to session. I will be putting it to the test with my campaigns and will note how it works out down the road.

That's the end of the spic RPG Music discussion. Hopefully it will be useful to someone else out there. I didn't realize beforehand that I had quite that much to say but I have used it a lot over the years and I think it does add a lot to this hobby of ours.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

RPG's and Music - Part 2

One problem in using music in RPG's is finding music that works. Here are a few of my thoughts:

My basic rule is No Singing! I want orchestral movie them type music for most of my RP sessions so that's what I look for. I do make some exceptions occasionally, mainly when it's a language no one at the table understands well enough to translate on the fly, but most of what I want is just music - no singing.

Movie soundtracks are source #1 for me. The big advantage is that they are usually well done and widely available. The downside is that they have to be appropriate - Star Wars games need Star Wars music, but in a Traveller Free Trader campaign they are wildly out of place. If I was running 50 Fathoms for Savage Worlds or a 7th Sea game then the Pirates of the Caribbean would be my core material - 3 movies worth of nautical pirate music is a no-brainer. However, this can be a double-edged sword. If one of your players listens to this every day on his way in to work, he may be bored and jaded with it - it's appropriate but worn-out. Some good Rp-useable movie soundtracks that hopefully aren't worn out for your group:
  • Fantasy - Gladiator, Last of the Mohicans, Legends of the Fall, Braveheart, the Recent BBC Robin Hood TV series, and Aliens.
  • Science Fiction - Babylon 5 has several soundtracks out there and they should be less recognizable for many groups then Trek or Star Wars. For more gritty or cyberpunk type games Escape from New York is one I used in a Shadowrun campaign and liked.
  • Western - look for Ennio Morricone soundtracks and you are bound to find something you will like. Themes from various western TV shows can be handy too.
  • Special - The Godzilla soundtracks have some good marches and martial themed tracks and usually a few quieter ones too. If your player's aren't fans they probably won't recognize them either.
  • Supers - this is a tricky one because most of the music from superhero movies is pretty closely associated with that particular character or group. They can be co-opted if you're doing say an homage - our old Professor Y and the Y-Men campaign could have used the X-Men music pretty easily - but it's tricky. You may be better off with another source. For one of my characters that originated in City of Heroes, Adamantium Man, I use the Fox NFL theme as his personal theme music - if you've ever listened to their pregame show you know the tune. It sounds bold and dramatic and while it's familiar to some it doesn't make you think of some other super hero.
Classical music pieces can work well - many gamers past a certain age will know the end music from Excalibur, for example. Ride of the Valkyries is another well-known example. I am not a great guide here as I haven't used a ton of them but selected pieces can fit in quite well with other music if you stick to the orchestral / no vocals idea.

New Age/Techno/Space Rock/Electronica - Again I am not a great guide here but every decade seems to have it's instrumental concept music fad and these may fit well with your campaign concept, and if you don't want the orchestral movie feel this is a good place to start. Yes/Pink Floyd/Tangerine Dream all have instrumental tracks or ones with minimal vocals that might work in some campaigns. Cyberpunk games need some club music at some point and some kind of electronic or techno can give them a very different feel than a sweeping instrumental score - online searches are your best friend here as that's where you will find most electronic music, even moreso than other music. The flavor here depends on whether you want more piano, strings, or synth in your background music.

Finally, my best source other than movie scores and video game soundtracks. To some it may be old hat but if you haven't used them before they are a gold mine of good stuff waiting to be used. Some suggestions:
  • MMORPG's often have soundtracks available for free download somewhere on their sites - you may have to look but they are there. Two I know of for sure - City of Heroes, Dungeons and Dragons Online. Others may not have company downloads but often have files that can be located or extracted from the game files if you have installed them at some point like Everquest 1 & 2, World of Warcraft, and Lord of the Rings Online. These are very handy and usually have a lot of location-specific tracks - tavern music, dungeon music, battle music, etc.
  • CRPG's usually have decent soundtracks and some special editions of them come with a music CD containing some of the game's best music. I personally have CD's from Ultima, Icewind Dale, and Titan Quest among others, and all have seen use in my games. Baldur's Gate has a few music tracks, as do Morrowind and Oblivion.
  • Strategy Games - One of the best soundtracks of all time is the music from Total Annihilation. if you don't have it go find a cheap copy online and copy those tracks- it's very good orchestral stuff that sounds good in any genre. Heroes of Might and Magic 2 also had some nice orchestral tracks if you can find a copy. The Dawn of War games have some good tracks that could fit multiple genres.
  • Shooters - Halo music could fit some campaigns. Various updates of the Doom soundtrack might have a place too. Most of them tend to be louder and faster and more guitar/rock/industrial than I want in a fantasy game but for a cyberpunk or Mechwarrior game they could be just fine.
  • Wild Cards - the NFL soundtrack I mentioned in the last post has a ton of useful stuff and doesn't fit into one of these categories. Music from the Olympics or other sporting events could be very useful if you can find it. Military performances may have some good marching or memorial music that can be used in parts of your game.
  • Internet Radio - Having a iphone or ipod or a computer with Pandora Radio on it can be useful - I needed background music for the ball in the Freeport Trilogy and used Pandora to pull up some Baroque chamber music that sounded appropriate and the players thought it was great. I'm not going to buy a bunch of tracks for that kind of thing but having a source of on-the-fly music for special situations is very handy. If you need period music for a game like a 1920's Call of Cthulu session then this may be a good way to fill it in.
There are most of my sources - tomorrow some thoughts on execution.

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.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Games I have not played

As long as I've been playing RPG's (and boardgames and mini's too for that matter) sometimes it seems like I've touched everything at one point or another but there are a few holes in my gaming resume:

  • I've never played or run Call of Cthulu. I've read a ton of Lovecraft, I owned 5th edition CoC for several years, and I think it would be fun to play in a limited campaign (like my star wars runs) but I never have. Even though it's considered one of the classics, my players never wanted to play it and no one around here ever wanted to run it.
  • I've never owned, played, or run any of White Wolf's World of Darkness games - no Vampire, no Werewolf, no Mage/Mummy/Hunter etc. I know they were popular but not with the guys I ran with.
  • At one time or another I owned Midnight, Oriental Adventures, Dragonlance, Dawnforge, and Eberron for 3rd edition but I never played or ran any of them. I picked them up at various discounts and assumed at some point we would try them out (we played a lot of d20) but we never did.
  • I own all of the published game books for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd edition Shadowrun but not a single 4th edition book. They just changed it too much and my players stopped caring. I could run for years with the material I have, so the incentive to rush out and buy a new version I like less is just not there.
  • I own almost everything for Deadlands, all of Deadlands d20, GURPS Deadlands, and 2 copies of Deadlands Reloaded for Savage Worlds but I've never run a game of it. We have come close several times but it never has worked out.
  • I have a full set of the Decipher Star Trek rulebooks and have never played or run it. I loved Fasa Trek and have a ton of stuff for it but I played it a lot too. When Last Unicorn's version came out I thought it was terrible. Then Decipher came out with a new version and it's pretty good. The only problem is my players seem totally uninterested in Trek, old or new, klingons or feds, it doesn't matter.
  • Babylon 5 - It's the only TV show I own a full set of on DVD, still in my opinion the flagship for knowing what you are doing with your story and your characters when you set out enabling you to work in long-term plots and character arcs (I'm looking at you X-Files and Lost) and come to a solid climax. I picked up every damn book for the d20 version (both 1st and 2nd edition), the deckplans, 3 different miniatures rules for it plus some miniatures and my players just have had no interest in it at all. I have campaign ideas written out, adventure notes, long term plots I could work in - none of it matters, I've never run a single session of it. I finally dumped the whole set not too long ago because I was tired of the space it was taking - and probably a little frustration was in there too. I think if I ever did get to run it I would just go Savage Worlds or Traveller (Mongoose put out a pair of books for this) and maybe use the miniature rules for space combat (I kept those) and not sweat it, rather than keeping 3 feet of bookshelf tied up in d20 minutia.
Anyway, there are the major gaps in my RPG background. Some of the are hard to believe considering I've played multiple sessions of Timeship and have run 2 Rifts campaigns, but there you go.