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August 17, 2007, 1:04 pm

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Cheka Man

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Hollywood's Musical Movie Magic


Music and Gaming, two great things that actually do go together. And movies show us how.

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.

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Comments ( 12 )
Commenters gain extra XP from Author votes.

November 27, 2005, 0:11
Yes, great article.

Silence is a killer. The right music IS very important, but when lacking what you want, use anything you have. Not radio though, too much talking.

Without something in the background the sound of the dice, the rattling chips, the tapping of a finger. These are the things that draw the attention and start to annoy and might cause some uncomfortable moments. Nobody is forced to fill the silence or be annoyed by otherwise insignificant noices...instead there is the subtle mind occupying background melodies.
November 27, 2005, 0:12
I mentioned this briefly, but this information takes it to the next level.

You had asked, "How do other GMs out there manage their media files?". Well, I use MP3s as background music during every session, and I have
over a gig of MP3s that I've downloaded and listened to that I have decided "fit" the atmosphere of my fantasy campaign.

I organized them by putting them in folders, such as:

* Town -> Noble -> Day
* Town -> Rural -> Day
* Town -> Rural -> Night

This is fairly efficient, but as you said, "It's not enough
to just create categories of folders on your hard drive."

So, what I did, since I put each song in the category folder
it most closely aligned itself with, I made a Winamp
playlist for each type of "music group" (Wilds Day, Castle
Evil, etc). I opened each corresponding folder and added all
the songs inside to the matching playlist. Then I went back
and sampled all the songs over again, adding songs from
different folders to each playlist they fit, regardless of
what folder they were in. This let me have an organized
system to call music without having multiple copies of the
same song in each folder it could possibly fit with.

I open Winamp every session and load in all the playlists.
If the party is out in the forest at night, I double click
"Wilds Night" playlist and let Winamp randomly play
appropriate songs from the list. At some point that night,
the players encounter a pack of Dire Wolves, so I double
click the "Combat" playlist and, before I even make the
enemies' presence known, my players are already mentally
preparing themselves for the battle ahead.

The playlists are a big help and keep me from having to go
through all my folders and files every time I want a song
played. All I have to do is click on the category that I

by James Crowder
Voted Zylithan
November 29, 2005, 10:51
Music is something I've just begun to experiment with, so it's nice to grab a few tips as I get going.
Voted KendraHeart
December 1, 2005, 1:37
This makes sense. I will play all those Celtic CDs in the background now.

Do you have a list of recomended music or music you have used to effect?
December 8, 2005, 11:51
Voted axlerowes
October 28, 2010, 22:11
Only voted
Voted ScorpionJinx
August 5, 2011, 9:30

I have experienced the game enhancing nature of music while gaming. During one of the long running campaigns by Scrasamax, the other players were overwrought by the death of a beloved NPC and very nearly demanded a funeral service to be played out. It took some planning, but when the game resumed, there was music and crying.

The music was Ghost in the Shell soundtrack. "M01 Chant I - Making of Cyborg" – 4:31

There was a memorial service for the NPC, several PCs got up and spoke. There was a funeral procession, and one of the PCs even made a special crafted adornment for the NPCs crypt.

It was an interesting night to say the least. The music made it even more memorable.

Instead of CDs, the music was played on the nearby computer via Napster.

January 25, 2012, 14:31

Just some thoughts I had recently.  While I store them in very specific folders, I use them in three ways: 

  1. Ambient for the bulk of the session — anytime I’m not using one of the other two playlists, I’m on this one. The music in this playlist isn’t distracting, but it isn’t boring. Overall the music in this playlist is designed to fade into the background pretty easily and fits the genre and setting of the game.  This is always on Shuffle.
  2. Action for, well, action scenes: combat, chases, and other thrilling escapades. The bulk of this playlist is music that gets your blood pounding — it’s what you hear during video games, movie scores, and fight scenes.  This is also always on shuffle when being used, just because I tend to be distracted (and my DJ often is too).
  3. Danger for scenes where I’m trying to put my players on edge, up the tension, or where creepy/scary stuff is happening, or a specific foe (What? The Dragon has its own Soundtrack?!).  These are always specific pieces, so it is sometimes played down the list.  Depending on what the danger for the session is, I might create a new list for the Danger (or have several depending on what is comming up.).  Yes, important and memorable villians have their own soundtracks and theme songs.

This may not sound like enough playlists or enough diversity to cover every situation, but the past couple years’ of gaming have taught me that it works well.

I need to note:  I have yet to find a good set of music for super heroic games.  There are only so many times you can hear an exerpt of a movie soundtrack before it gets old.  When I get a good set, I will note it.  

December 8, 2012, 16:23
I read the comments and realized that I missed something.

Theme Song

When you start the game, every time, play the same song (or segment of a symphony or song). This works as a starting bell, a signal to the players to stop hanging out and focus on the game.

It also sets the mood for the game. It is the first great line of your campaign's novel. Pick the right one and it will rock your player's world...errr... game.

So pick a theme song for your campaign.
Voted valadaar
February 28, 2013, 15:18
Now, I just need to get a flesh and blood campaign going one of these years. This is a great submission.
December 22, 2014, 23:53
You can do it with forum games too easily enough, like the various You Tube music videos Echo includes in his game, they add nicely to the thread/scene. ;)
Voted Silveressa
December 22, 2014, 23:51
Meant to vote on this last night when I HoH'd it.

Music is one of the best tools in my GM arsenal for keeping the players focused at the table, the theme music for the sessions beginning and ending works especially well.

These days there's also a plethora of ambient video game music available easily, most games from Steam and Good old Games ( often include free soundtracks in .mp3 which are perfect for setting the mood, and even games that don't often have music files located in their directory that can be played with VLC media player (a free program) or converted to .mp3 easily enough.

Personally I try to avoid all music with lyrics during the play session (the intro/credits theme song is fine with lyrics however) since just like in movies, voiced lyrics often means everyone has to talk over the music and if it's someones favorite song it can prove a major distraction.

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