Tuesday, 19 May 2015

The Sound of Music

Just try and remove from your brain the image of a plump, bearded man in a dirndl spinning around, Julie Andrews style, in the meadows below a soaring mountain. You’re welcome.

Music has been a big part of my games for a long time. I’ve been a big believer in playing music in the background since I was spinning Tangerine Dream CDs during high school dungeon crawls, although I’ve not used it quite as much the past few years. These days I’m more of a believer in playing the right tune at the right moment, to underscore something that’s going on in a scene, rather than as wall-to-wall carpeting. Not that atmospheric background music doesn’t still have a place, particularly in genres like horror where it can really help set the mood. Even soft music that strikes the right note can do something to players, setting them on edge in a scary game, or underscoring the wonder and awe in a scene of fantasy.

Movie soundtracks have been a big part of my background music over the years, although these days I’m wary of music that is too familiar. I heard a song from the Matrix soundtrack the other day while I was in a movie theatre waiting for the feature to begin, and it only made me think of that, specific movie. Not SF techno-thrillers in general. Only Neo dodging bullets and moving in slow-mo. Not the sort of thing you want in a game, unless you’re actually playing in a Matrix RPG.

A number of years ago, when it was still A Thing, an outstanding Matrix RPG was designed by Steve Darlington (once upon a time known as SteveD on RPGnet), THERE IS NO SPOON. I mention this because Steve also wrote an article that really changed the way I use music in my games, “34 Firefly Plots Based on Elton John Song Titles”.  Essentially, Steve used the titles from a number of Elton songs as a starting point to write his Firefly series, and not incidentally, borrows a bit of the mood from those songs as inspiration. This is the subliminal power of music working on the GM side of the screen, a pretty neat trick. Sure, GMs have been writing game notes with background music playing since 8-tracks and polyester were in vogue, but this is something different: consciously building a campaign using a loose, inspirational framework that appeals to the GM specifically. Like Tarot cards, the songs become a mirror that reflects the story concerns you bring to them.

I first used this technique in my formative HTHD game AMERICAN NIGHTMARE, naming each episode after a song by my personal favourite musician, Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen’s music is, for me, quintessentially American; just exactly the kind of thematic glue I needed to hold that game together, and keep me focused on the tone and “feel” I wanted. And for a Springsteen fan, calling the climactic episode “Thunder Road” was the equivalent of throwing down the gauntlet: this episode has got to blow everyone’s doors clean off.

When I ran my Firefly campaign, a couple of years after that, I went into that game knowing that all of the main characters were going to be women. That kind of thing can’t help but change the kind of stories you tell, and I decided that the songs that I would use as titles for that game would all be by female vocalists. Every time I sat down to scratch out ideas for an episode, I was listening to female voices, and that was my focus. It changed the kind of game that I ran, and changed the way I thought about it. SUNSET EMPIRE, my Victorian vampire slayer game, borrowed a lot of titles from British punk songs, and it was meant to be a British punk game, spitting in the face of the system.

This morning, on the way to work, I started to think again about a game I’ve had on the back burner for a long time. I was thinking about it in terms of music by The Pixies, the alt-surf band of my dreams from the early 90s. Thinking about my real-life-superhero subculture game TRUE BELIEVERS in terms of Black Francis snarling “way down, down, down, in this Subbaculture!” seems like a perfect fit. And you can be sure that the villain of that piece definitely wants to grow up to be a Debaser.

The other part of songs that feature prominently in games is that they become a permanent trigger for memories, long after the game wraps up. The Springsteen song “Radio Nowhere” and the classic “American Pie” have become touchstones for my DEADLANDS: HELL ON EARTH game, and the City And Colour song “Body in a Box” still resonates strongly with the players of my SHADOWRUN: DISAVOWED game. Nostalgia is always a tricky thing, and you don’t want to look at finished games through that lens exclusively, but it’s nice to have something that strongly evokes the things about a good game you liked best.

So, what’s your favourite game tune?

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