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Theory, Practice, and Pirates


Greetings and welcome to the third installment of "Aural Sects"-- the column devoted to the use of music in your RPG campaigns.

I wanted to go into a bit more detail this time out, regarding the theory and practice of using music during your games. Last time around, I gave you a basic overview of the technical side (use CDs for their track-cueing ability, keep volume to just under comfortable speaking level of the GM, etc.). This time, let's discuss the whys and wherefores of using music.

Why the hell would anyone want to use music in their games anyway? The simplest explanation is that when properly used, music can greatly assist a GM in purveying a mood. In standard tabletop roleplaying, the GM has a lot on his or her plate. It is the GM's duty to act not only as all five of the player's senses, but to bring all NPCs to life, and make the setting come alive. That's a lot of work! If the GM has an appropriate piece of background music underlying his description, the music can serve as a sort of "descriptive shorthand"-- giving the players the right "feel" that you're trying to convey, without having to spend hours describing it perfectly.

Try this experiment. Read the following description aloud: "The room is dark. You're not sure, but you think you can barely make out shapes moving just outside the range of your vision."

Not bad, right? Tells the players what they need to know-- that they can't see very well, and there might be something out there.

Now, put some kind of spooky, ominous music on the CD Player-- your choice (I recommend the opening overture from the soundtrack to Bram Stokers Dracula (Click here to Order) by Wojciek Kilar) Now read the same description aloud.

Oooh-- scary! You see what I mean? The music amplifies what you're saying. Now, the players know that it is dark and spooky, they can't see their hands in front of their faces, and there are big monsters in the dark that are surely going to eat them alive. All because the spooky music ebbed underneath your words, conveying a mood that you didn't even have to state. Instant mood-setting. Ya gotta love it.

This can be put into practice by any enterprising GM to evoke the mood of a setting, or even of a particular NPC. It does take some preparation from the GM, picking musical selections before game play, writing down a "cue sheet" similar to one used in the theatre-- a list of tracks to cue at specific moments during the game. But it pays off. Imagine this: every time a recurring villain arrives on the scene, you make sure that you play his particular theme (for example, the Imperial March, right?). Now, the players begin to associate that piece of music with that villain. In the middle of game play, you cue up the villains theme, and it starts to play-- but you've said nothing. The players, GUARANTEED, will start freaking out and looking for the villain to show his ugly mug. They'll get tense and expectant, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Do you drop it? Sure you do-- but you let them sweat a little bit first. They'll love you for it. Trust me-- ignore all of the nasty things that they say about you (and in some cases, throw at you). Deep down, they'll love you for it.

Basically, when you get right down to it, roleplaying is a lot like making your own movie. Sure, it's an exercise in collective, cooperative storytelling, but lets be honest: in our culture, at the end of the 20th century, our primary mode of storytelling is television and film. This is what we're used to, what we were raised on. So, it is understandable that we, as gamers, would respond well to any element that we can bring into our games that makes them feel more like the films and shows that we emulate. The easiest way to do this is through the use of music.

There has been a rise in recent years of the "cinematic" roleplaying game. These are games that make no effort to simulate the strictures of realism, eschewing them in favor of the quick-and-dirty rules of the cinematic conventions. Games such as Feng Shui, Extreme Vengeance, and Hong Kong Action Theatre! Are rife with the unique physics of action-movie reality, and every year, more games are released that go even further into emulating the cinematic world, rather than realism. Music is a natural part of campaigns run for these types of games, since they are so close to emulating film already.

The most exciting game release of this year has been , in my opinion, the stunning 7th Sea from Alderac Entertainment Group. This is a rollicking, brilliantly-designed game of swashbuckling adventure, in the spirit of the classic adventure films of the 30s and 40s. The only thing missing from this game, which openly espouses its lack of realism, is a soundtrack-- an essential part of any pirate movie! To that end, I must make the following recommendations for music to use during your broadsides and boarding actions-- to make the spirits soar and the blood boil!

The soundtrack to Cutthroat Island (click here to order) is a must-have. This film was not nearly as bad as everyone made it out to be-- it was a perfect homage to the classic films of the 30s and 40s, and as such, struck modern audiences as cheesy. The soundtrack is out of print, so I highly recommend getting it while you still can.

Speaking of classic films, there are two collections of music from the films of Errol Flynn (god among men and swashbuckler supreme) available on CD. Both with evoke the feel of the classic pirate adventures, because, well, they ARE the music from the classic pirate adventures. These CDs are: The Sea Hawk (click here to order) and Captain Blood (click here to order. Both are worthy additions to any pirate captain's sea chest.

For the more modern (and land-locked) feel, but still evoking flashing blades and swinging from chandeliers, pick up the soundtrack to the recent Disney version of the Three Musketeers (click here to order). Apart from the opening, now-ubiquitous cheesy Brian Adams radio-play love ballad, the soundtrack is ripe for use in 7th Sea, or for that matter any swashbuckling adventure game, i.e. Furry Pirates from Atlas Games, Steve Jackson's GURPS Swashbucklers, or classics like Lace and Steel or Flashing Blades.

I think that's about it for this installment. Still to come, we've got a discussion of truly advanced music usage: composing your own (including reviews of some of the game-specific CDs that have been released). If there's any other topic relating to the use of music in games that you'd like to see covered, feel free to make a comment or a suggestion below. Of course, as always, you can also contact me directly with any suggestions or questions as well, at


Later days,

Gareth-Michael Skarka

  • Order The Phantom Menace Soundtrack
  • Order theEvent Horizon Soundtrack


    Well, that's it for this time, kids. Next column we'll continue with the reviews-- and if you have any requests for genres that you wish to see covered, or music that you wish to recommend, email me at

    Until next time...

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