I've written here in the past about a few "White Whale" gaming concepts that I've never quite been able to land. Here's another, one that I discussed recently with friends over dinner and wine and a viewing of Julie Taymor's great ACROSS THE UNIVERSE.
I think that Joss Whedon has proved conclusively to the modern nerd audience that musicals can still be fun, relevant, and tell a great story filled with drama and character. So why shouldn't roleplaying games co-opt that genre too?
Roleplaying games as a medium does very well in incorporating any theatrical trick you can think of, from stuff like improvisation (which plays a part in just about every game I can think of, to one extent or another) to background music, lighting, props and costumes. Of course, you have to get over the self-consciousness of players who aren't used to such things the first time they happen, and that would only be amplified by the strangeness of bursting into song during a game session. Some people aren't even comfortable speaking in character - how you gonna do that?
Well, first of all, I think we can discount the notion that people who don't like to speak in character or engage with the dramatic parts of roleplaying are a) reading this blog or b) likely to participate in such an event, so let's dispense with worrying about the timid souls up front, yeah? Good.
Just us hams left? Okay. First of all, I think you'd have to ask yourself whether you're talking about having people sing a capella or to music. If to music, are you having them sing along with the original song or to a vocals-free track -- in other words, karaoke? A capella seems the easiest, but it's much easier to encourage people to sing with some background. I'm not sure, honestly, whether singing along to a track or a karaoke version would be best -- the latter would mean you'd hear more of the player's vocals, certainly.
Spoken word versions of songs, or pieces of songs, could also work very well as part of a "musical episode" or campaign. Imagine the villain of the game speaking the chorus from "Sympathy for the Devil" as he reveals his Evil Plan to the PCs.
A musical would definitely require some pre-planning, both to make sure players had songs in hand that they were comfortable singing (alone or in a group of two or more) as part of the game, and in setting up whatever accompaniment might be desired. Each character might have a couple of songs to sing that were relevant to their circumstances or moods over the course of the entire game, although the player might not know exactly when they might happen in the game -- a player could just cue the GM when they feel like they're going to call for a scene with one of the songs. Or, for people who like a little more structure, you could plan it out based on something like the episode planning in PRIMETIME ADVENTURES, knowing that certain songs would happen on certain episodes (which follows the above, as episodes are PC-centric in PTA). Group songs could be agreed on by the whole company as fitting roughly at the beginning, in the middle, or towards the end of a game.
One thing that would require some negotiation would be the actual selection of music, so that the whole game has a cohesiveness to it. You might need to select songs from a particular era, or genre, or even from a particular band (if they have a large enough songbook and appeal to all of the players, which may be a trick - musical tastes being subjective). Taymor proved that a band like The Beatles can easily spin out a story that is both new and familiar, with characters putting a particular emotional "spin" on old songs. American standards or folk songs would also work, in the right setting, or as an ironic counterpoint to the setting.
Also: a few glasses of wine couldn't hurt.
Has anybody out there tried this?