For those of us with a DVD player, experiementing with all those options they present becomes a hobby unto itself. Director’s commentary, F/X off, alternate languages are all common options. One option that you don’t see very often is SoundTrack Off. This option removes all the background music and musical score from the movie, leaving just dialog and the occasional sound effect. After watching a few movies with this option on, I realized why this option had "gone away". Without the music in the background of the movie, I was not experiencing the same emotions (or they were muted) that I normally felt when watching a given film. Without being aware of it, the music helped make the movie for me.
I hear people going "ahuh, sure." (Okay, I don’t but I know you are saying it to yourself). So try this experiement. Put in a movie you know well. Activate the subtitles option (or not if you know the movie really well). Mute the TV. You will hear the dialog in the actor’s voice. You will know the sound effects. Then in moments when nothing is going on you will hear it, a music in your imagination. That my friends is your mind trying to fill in the sound track that you are not conscious of, but effects you never the less.
Hollywood is obviously on to something here. They wouldn’t add music if it didn’t make moves more successful. Can music make a game more successful? Initially I did not know. Like most GMs, I tried to keep the game area quiet and empty of distractions. So I began to experiment with how to introduce music into my games. After learning some hard lessons, I came up with some rules that work for me.
First and foremost, never make a big deal about the music. It is just another tool for the GM to express a story/ setting. If you make music a big deal, it takes away from the game more than it gives.
Music can be used to set and reinforce a mood or a setting in a game. However, music must be set at a background level. Any louder than that and it becomes a distraction. If players are spending more time focusing on the music than playing the game, something is wrong.
One needs to think of the music as another voice of the game. Just like the GM needs to present information in just the right way to preserve the game’s feel, music should be selected to reflect the "feel" or ethos of the game. The specific music being played must fit the campaign, the setting, or the action. Music that fits the setting should reflect the kind of game and the environment like any non-player character. Drumming and traditional Japanese folk music were the soundtrack for my Nippon game. The soundtracks for Mortal Kombat were played when we were having combat in a martial arts game. We played chamber music for a Victorian game. Environmental sounds were great when we were in forests or out in the wilds. For a fantasy campaign, classical, celtic folk, or even Beatles could be applicable. During a huge street brawl in a modern-day game Marilyn Manson, Stabbing Westward, or Rage Against the Machine were all in the background. Find the mood you want, choose music to complement it, and play it.
Choose one song or set of songs to be your campaign’s theme song. This one song can help set the mood in the begining of the session. When ever you don’t know what song to play, you can play the theme song. It can be "looped" during the game to just fill in the background.
From there, you need to select music for certain scenes. If you know you are going to have a tense negociation, the high energy dance tune you use for combat is not the best music to have in the background, even if it is the next tract. As the GM you need to be aware of the music and use it, rather than just letting it "play".
This is more advice than rules, but music for your game is one of those you need to "gather" over time, rather than just grab in one bunch. The best tool to help you do this is "the little black book. As a GM, you function much like an author. Like an author, keep a notebook with you. Record interesting things, observations, or ideas as you encounter them. Don’t trust your memory. Trust your pen. Keep an ear out for music playing. Check the musical credits or research what music was added to the show. Record descriptions (scenery, interesting people, the name of stores, music lyrics, turns of phrase) that can be used as little nuggets of descriptive goodness in your campaign. Record plot and story ideas (and the music associated with them) and use them as springboards for future game plots. This will bring your game’s sound track in line with the stories being played. The little book will help you improve your game craft and your campaign, as well as adding music to your gaming life.
Back to music during play, to keep the disruption of maintaining music to a minimum. designate one player as "keeper of the music". This is an assistant GM position of sorts. It is that player’s job to play DJ, with some input from the GM. This allows the GM to keep attention on the game, and to add music to the gaming experience. A keeper maintains a constant flow of music that fits the setting and mood at a low volume level. Both the player and the GM pass notes to determine what kind of music they need next.
To assist this, most keepers create a "playlist" of what songs/ tracks on what albums were good for what kind of situations/ moments. The GM can scan this list and flag specific songs or general feelings for the next important scene.
Note: The keeper should be rewarded with extra experience or karma points or some game experience mechanic. Their efforts enhance the game, just like anyone who contributes something to the campaign as a whole.
If you are a 21st century GM, you might be using a computer or laptop to assist you. If this is the case, you can be your own keeper. To do this, you need to invest in a nice pair of supplimentry speakers for you system. You can use the CD player in your system or stored files as the general sound track of your game, then select certain songs when you need them for impact. One useful trick when doing this is creating folders with various song launches in it. These folders can be used as albums or to hold specific songs for specific moods. If your keeper has a system up as well, you can create a small network and both of you can manipulate the music.
So music is probably sounding like a good idea now. The next logical question is "Where do you get ‘gaming music’?" You would be surprised on how much "gaming" music you already have, if you have an average gamer’s music collection. Between that and your troupe’s you might not need any more. You can pick up more music in any music or video store, and most local libraries. The internet can still a great source for free or inexpensive music, if you are careful. Just do not spend too much money on your music. It is just another game prop. So budget money towards music carefully, as money spent on it is money not spent on new suppliments or game products.
I found you do not have to go selecting music alone. If you need help finding appropriate music, music store clerks, media librarians, and some internet user groups, are great sources of information. If you are enthusiastic and make sure to thank them appropriately, they will be a great resource for future music searches.
I would like to mention my favorite sources of gaming music. Movie soundtracks are greatest sources of game music. The pieces all follow the same feel and have pieces for a variety of mood. The soundtrack for videogames can be a perfect fit for games as they will often hold the exact types of songs as you need for a game. The compilation albums for a given time period or TV show themes also work well. (In our modern age, making your own compilations is fairly easy as well.) Classical music is very, very inexpensive. You can get two to eight hours of music for a fraction of the price of a soundtrack. If the game is set in a historical period, use traditional music for that area (the internet is a great for this). If it is a fantasy analog for a historical period, grab things that are appropriate (the use of Japanese folk music and drums in our magical Nippon Game). If the game is straight fantasy or sci fi, pick a musical feel and stick with it. Over the years, we have used Modern Celtic, bluegrass, techno/dance, Native American/ tribal music, and Beatles tunes, to great effect for games. Environmental music/ sounds CDs, Animal sound enhanced music, and the Fresh Aire series round out the field. These music types can be used for the environment, rather than the genre.
I need to make a special mention of special effect CDs. They can be very handy, but the timing to use them correctly needs to be just so. I would only recomend using them if you are a 21st century GM and running them off your computer.
My rules for music in my campaign are fairly simple in the end: Keep it soft, Keep it organized, Choose appropriately, Get Help often, and the big one—Never let it distract you from the game, but only use it to enhance the game or not at all. Keeping these simple rules in mind will let add that Hollywood magic to you game, enhancing it, for the enjoyment of all.