Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Once More With Feeling

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?


  1. Crazy and awesome. We have to do this at some point Even though I can't sing worth shit.

  2. Most people can't. But that shouldn't stop them from doing it anyway.

  3. I've done this twice at Ambercon, once in an Amber high school mashup, and once with supervillains. Both times as a player rather than GM.

    It works, but it requires a lot of homework from the players - you have to know the songs well enough to just burst out with them when the time arises, and I found I generally wanted to tweak the lyrics to match my character. It works best when the PCs have a set of songs prepared that are on-theme and good fits for themselves.

    Kararoke or a capella work best - trying to sing over the original is rough even when you're matching the lyrics exactly, and when you veer off, it gets harder.

  4. Also, I'm now wanting to be in another musical game. But not enough to try to run one myself.

  5. As a soft lead in to karaoke/a capella, self-professed tone-deaf players could work lyrics into IC conversation. Possibly get their full songs added to the background music playlist? I like using a theme of some sort to keep the game's soundtrack cohesive.

    Anyone at the table could try to prompt a song by fitting the lead of someone else's chorus into their own dialogue.

    (Grr, this is a re-do - the 'Publish' button ate my original comment!)

    1. Yeah, if the songs were planned out ahead of time you could definitely build in "cues" that could be in dialogue etc. or work out a song that two people could do as a duet.

  6. I have this idea for a game about a rock band, maybe in the South somewhere, that sells its soul to the devil...

    This is cool and intriguing but scary too. Singing and ad libbing at the same time = probably too hard, but if you had songs prepped that fit the character... maybe! And as others have said, just a dramatic spoken reading of rhyming lyrics - rap or William Shatner style - can get you half way to a musical feel.

    1. I don't know if we needed more challenges in SOUTHERN ROCK OPERA -- we were playing pretty hard that time!

      And yeah, it is scary... I was saying to Megan tonight that you might need to get everybody a little drunk and go out singing karaoke together as an icebreaker before actually doing this in a session.

  7. Many comments today! This must be a topic that a lot of people are interested in. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that more than one person had actually tried this, including Matt and a friend I chatted with on Twitter.