Thursday, May 7, 2015
Adventuring Gear: Music and Sound
When you go to the movies, play a video game, or watch a television show, sound is an important component that draws you in and sets the mood of a scene. That's why a lot of folks like to add a soundtrack to their own games. There's nothing like blasting a powerful crescendo when a climactic confrontation begins!
Ambient Songs and Musical Cues
Because music has to match the action of your campaign, I usually start by grouping my soundtracks into two categories: ambient songs, and musical cues.
Ambient Songs are softer pieces with no lyrics that can be played in the background to set the mood. Sometimes background music can be very distracting, and cause attentions to wander or affect focus. Remember to fade out your playlist if it is becoming disruptive.
Musical Cues are particular themes that match an encounter or scene that was planned for. For instance, a particular location could have a bombastic fanfare theme, or an angry NPC is associated with a song about revenge. I often have a theme song for each player character, decided upon in collaboration with the player, that will play when that character does something spectacular or significant.
Setting the Scene
The music should set the mood of your game, but also the tone. Your playlist should reflect the kind of setting the game depicts... classic movie soundtracks are the best for a high fantasy setting like Dungeons and Dragons, techno and electro-synth beats are good for cyberpunk worlds like Shadowrun. If your game is light and goofy, pop songs and rock tunes may be in order. If it is a dark horror setting, you want something more eerie and somber. The best way to know what music to use is to check out some soundtracks for movies and media that is set in the same setting as your game. By playing similar themes, the audience will draw a connection between those settings and yours, putting them in the state of mind for the world you are building together.
An appropriate CD or I-Tunes compilation can work well for your games. Other useful resources are Bandcamp and Soundcloud, or Spotify. Pandora could also work, but its radio format precludes having a lot of control over what is playing and when. Here is a link to my own Spotify playlist for fantasy adventure settings. (Full disclosure, there is a single track of Rick Astley's Never Gonna Give You Up hidden among the company of classic film soundtracks. It brings some extra levity to my games.) If you can divide your music into playlists, I recommend making two separate lists for your game session's Ambient Songs and Musical Cues I mentioned before, just so you have control over when the cues play, and they don't trigger at random moments.
Besides music, the other kind of sonic addition is ambient noise. The melding of background activity and sound effects can create memorable soundscapes that are attention-grabbing and immersive. These are harder to manage on the fly, and can distract quite easily, so I recommend using these effects at your discretion. They are most useful early in the session or at the beginning of a new scene anyway, just to set a tone before being phased out as imagination takes over. This ambient sound mixer site is great for finding pre-made mixes for various RPG settings, or creating your own. Some of the already existing options include haunted castles, busy streets, medieval taverns and space station interiors.
Because selecting and running tracks can be a distraction from managing all the other notes, it is advisable to have another player run the playlist for you. This not only frees you up to focus on your work, but it gives a player something else to keep them focused and entertained. A music lover or somebody with dramatic flair makes for the ideal DJ for your session.