Music in Gaming

It’s no longer uncommon for a GM to select specific music to play during a game session. Even in my earliest days of gaming, I’d often put on some CD or other, just to provide some background noise. But more and more, GMs are looking for something along the lines of an actual score for their games. Why is this?

The reason is actually pretty simple, even if many GMs don’t consciously comprehend it (I suspect most of them do, however). It’s the same reason video games feature music, or television shows, or film. Hell, it’s the reason behind opera (plays with music, essentially). Music is not just sound, rhythm, tone, melody, etc. Some of it is, don’t get me wrong. But the best music, the music that lives through generations, is the music that conveys emotion. It could be happiness, frustration, elation, sadness, fear, or any other emotion. And when used properly in any of the media mentioned above, it can kick the emotional punch of the story into overdrive.

What’s the most intense moment from any movie you can think of? First thing that comes to mind. Chances are, the music playing at that moment is part of what comes to mind. Even if not, next time you watch it, try to imagine what it would be like without the score playing, just silence. It would be a very different film. Can anyone blame a good GM for wanting music to help amplify the emotional intensity of a particular scene?

The problem most GMs face is that they can’t afford to hire someone to compose and record a score for them. Even if they could, RPGs are unique in that the storyline can change at a moment’s notice, so any music recorded specifically for a scene could find itself cut short if the players quickly bypass whatever challenges are present, or it could need to be repeated several times if the players have trouble. It could also become entirely superfluous if the players come up with another way to achieve their goals without even triggering that particular scene!

So a GM needs something flexible. CDs are great for this, since you can skip almost instantaneously between tracks. Computers, especially laptops (portability), are even better, since you can store much more music on them. So what kind of music should you load up your laptop with, and how should you use it?

The music you choose should be determined primarily by the game you are playing. Star Wars, as an example, should be quite easy to select music for. There are six or more movie soundtracks available now, many of them with two CDs. The genre and any peculiarities of the setting should point you in the right direction. For example, Serenity is pretty much sci-fi, but there are two aspects of its setting that should be noted. One is the western influences on setting and story, melding the two genres together. In addition, the Alliance is built out from our very real Earth. The most obvious influence this has on the setting is the commonality of the Chinese language, both spoken and written. So music with some Chinese heritage would be at home, and by extension, you could really incorporate just about any kind of world music, especially any kind of fusion, blending elements from different cultures, sometimes blending it with electronica or techno.

I’ve found the best music to use, regardless of genre or any other consideration, is instrumental music. No singing. If you can’t quite manage that, try to ensure that the vocals are not in any language easily understood by any of the players. Failing that, go for obscure songs that no one knows. The reason for this? Distraction. You don’t want your players singing along with background music during the session. There are some players you just don’t want singing at all! And if it’s a well known song, you risk the entire party spontaneously breaking out in song: “We built this city on rock and roooolllll!” Soundtracks, specifically scores, tend to be perfect for gaming music.

Here are a few ways you can use music in your games:

  • Main Titles: Choose a song to serve as the opening titles for your campaign. Just like the beginning of any television show. This works especially well if you have music playing while the players are gathering and chatting before play. It won’t take many sessions before they realize that when this song plays, it’s time to quickly wrap things up and get ready to play. This song should be almost instantly recognizable among whatever else you are playing, and should ideally be about (or otherwise encompass) the mood and themes of your game.
  • Character Themes: Choose a theme for major villains or other GMCs. Have the players each choose one for their character. This should be something instantly recognizable, with the hook right up front and not too long. You want to be able to start the track, let the bit play that everyone will recognize as whichever character, then quickly fade it back to background music so the game can continue. Use these only at key times, like when a PC disables the device that’s about to blow up the space station, or the door opens to reveal the enemy they all thought was dead, not when a PC hits a mook goblin in a standard combat. A perfect example of this is in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace as the Jedi and the queen and her guards head to the throne room, and the door opens to reveal Darth Maul. Listen to the music at that point, and you’ll understand this technique.
  • Respite/Home Base: Find some quiet, soothing music to play when the group finds a place to rest or returns home. Don’t even turn up the volume on this one. Let it play in the background. Players will still pick up on it, don’t worry. And when you cut it off and start the combat music, they’ll know they’re under attack.
  • Combat: Think of the Final Fantasy games. Every time the PCs are in a combat situation, a particular piece of music plays. It’s fast-paced, maybe a little frantic even. Now think of the boss battles. There’s different music now, isn’t there? If you’ve established your basic combat music, your players will react very differently if that music doesn’t play when they’re rolling initiative. They’ll suddenly be paying a lot more attention.
  • End Credits: Similar to Main Titles, above, choose a track to signal the end of the session. Give out experience and let the players spend it while the song plays. Talk about the session. Use it for general wrap-up. The best use of this is once your players pick up on its significance, end a session with a cliffhanger. Get the players worked up and eager for the next bit, then, instead of saying “and here’s where we break for tonight” or whatever, play this song.

The possible uses are near limitless. These are just some of the main ones. Put your mind to it, and you’ll come up with more. The trick is to not overdo it by having music for every little thing, and not to overdo it by letting it distract you from running the game. That is your prime job: run the game and make it fun. Music can add to that, but don’t loose focus. It’s an aide. The game’s the thing. Start simple, maybe with the Main Titles and End Credits ideas listed above. Then start to add some specific cues, just a little at a time. If it becomes too much to handle, back down a bit. I’ll say it again: The game is the thing.

I’ll follow this article up every now and then by sharing some of the music that I like to use in my games.

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