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One of the most memorable things of any good movie scene is the one where the score or song playing syncs perfectly with the action.  Think about it: Luke Skywalker fighting Darth Vader in the Emperor’s Throne Room on the second Death Star; Richard Gere carrying Debra Winger off as “Up Where We Belong” is sung by Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes; even just the way the music crescendos when the action hits a climax.  In every one of these instances, the weight of the scene bears down on you, evoking all the emotions they can.

The most recent chance I have had to experience this as a player was a few years ago, and I was playing in an old World of Darkness combination setting titled “Mists of the Past”, a derivative of a game I ran for them called “Iron City, Steel Nights”.  I played a young mage named Quinn Franklin, the son of a Son of Ether and a Cultist of Ecstasy who ignored his natural proclivities for the Cult, and joined the Hollow Ones.  Quinn encountered, and slowly fell in love with fellow Mage Aisha, played by my friend Trey.

As we progressed, we came to a scene wherein Aisha was trapped inside of a magical prison by a deranged Virtual Adept.  As we got to the scene where we all were to discover Aisha’s predicament, my Storyteller, Dan, asked us all to step outside.  When we came back in, the room’s light’s were off, candles were everywhere.  A single white rose sat at the head of my character sheet, and red glass beads were scattered over my play area.  I don’t even remember what song was playing in the background, but I know Dan had it on a loop.

What I do remember was the near constant feelings of frustration, sorry, anger and desperation as that tune played over and over, and the atmosphere crept in on me.  It was one of the single most moving role playing experiences I have ever had.  There was a powerful force at work, beyond just dealing with the problem at hand (being, how to get Aisha out of the damn bubble).  And punctuating the simple obstacle was Dan’s effort to drive it home.

For the past few posts, I have been talking about how player’s can contribute to the game.  This time, it’s the GM’s turn.  And in specific, this one is about setting the atmosphere using music.  Music is a powerful force, and a most useful one when used properly by the GM.  There are, however, a number of pitfalls and traps you can fall prey to.

First of all, you have to make sure the music is suited to your game.  If you are running a cyberpunk-ish game, based around the idea that someone is selling designer death drug simchips to the clubkid crowd, and your troupe is trying to track down the source, you don’t really want to choose Big Band music, country music or most of the orchestral stylings of John Williams.  What WILL fit, though, would be some of the more industrial euro-club music (Rammstein), Drum and Bass, Techno, Trance and House.  Once you have narrowed your genres down to a moderate list to pick from, then it is time to find a selection of songs that work for the scene you plan to portray.

Now let’s talk right here about something.  Not every scene in your game is going to need a specific song.  If you want to set up a playlist to generally repeat an appropriate list of music, toned down in volume, then you may have a good ambience set up over all.  But certain scenes that you portray will just cry out for specific music.

Related to the above, I was running a session of “Iron City, Steel Nights” wherein a major NPC that the players (and one player in particular) had ties to would seem to die.  I found a great song (“Deception” by the Cruxshadows), and as I described the scene, set it to play, on repeat, softly in the background.  The undertones of the scene, coupled with the tones of the song drove the point of desperation home.

What you have to do is carefully evaluate what the major emotion you wish to convey with your song is.  If this is the final showdown with the Big Bad Guy they have been tracking down for months of game time, you may want to think about a good martial orchestral tune, or even a solid rock tune or two, set to play over and over.  Or, if two of your players have a love interest between their characters, and one of them has to undertake a suicidal mission (say because the player is going to miss a few sessions), you may want to drive the scene home with a love ballad, a good hair band song or even some soft classical piano music.

Now, you have the song or songs selected.  How do you implement them?  I suggest using a computer, especially if you have the capability to create playlists through a program like WinAmp or Windows Media Player.  If you have a wireless mouse, this makes it even easier to control things from your position at the head of the gaming table.  My biggest suggestion to make here is, when the moment comes for the Big Scene… do what Dan did.  Shuffle everyone out.  Set the mood.  Tone the lighting and use some idle props.  Do everything you can to make sure that when your players come back in the room, they are blown away.

When you start your music up, don’t set the volume too high.  Blasting Cascada or Benny Benassi to simulate the nightclub scene may seem like a good idea, but when you have to use your club voices in order to be heard by one another… well it goes from fun to frustrating in a damn short time.  At the same time, if you set your volume too low, the music won’t get to the players correctly.  I suggest you set it to a level where your ears can hear it just right, and then turn it down one or two units.  This should be just high enough to seep into your players’ minds, without blasting them out of their seats.

The other thing I can tell you is this: if the scene rolls on and on… turn off the music after a while, or put the game’s random list into play.  Seriously.  Hearing the same song over and over and over for two hours will just piss your players, and yourself, right off.

Think of music as a fine but strong spice.  It has to be used properly, in the correct amounts, in order to flavor your dish correctly.  Under do it and you might as well have not done anything at all.  Over do it and you overpower the tones of the dish.  And another thing, not everyone will like music at their games.  It is best to listen to your players, and decide from there.

On a related note, there was one other thing we did for our characters at that game.  As the sessions rolled on, we started to compile what we called “Character Albums”, CDs of music that depicted our characters.  Scenes would stick with us, such as the night Aisha told Quinn she was leaving him, because she felt like there was nowhere else to go in her life.  It brought to mind a couple songs from my past, not the least of which was “Days Go By” remix by Dirty Vegas.  Each of our characters had their own album, and at various times, we would pop a CD in and listen.  I know I listened to Quinn’s over and over as I kept a journal of what happened in game.

What do you think?


One Comment

  1. I can’t agree enough. Music has this way of drowning out the unimportant chatter that your mind may distract yourself with. It stokes your muse and, depending on its application, will heighten almost any experience.

    The best advice I’d have to add to this is to try and keep the soundtrack to instrumentals. There’s plenty of no-lyric music out there. People like myself who have trouble focusing on more than one conversation trend at a time will thank you as they won’t be required to repeatedly ask you to repeat yourself. Also, a bunch of folks would be trying to tune into whatever hidden messages may be in the song and how they would apply to the scene you have planned. Meta-gaming ftl, but some people swing that way.

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