"A long time ago..."
Greetings and welcome to the second installment of "Aural Sects"-- the column devoted to the use of music in your RPG campaigns. Last column, I gave you a bit of an intro on the subject. This time out, I'll give you a general overview of the technical side of things, and then get on to the meat: reviews of game-specific CDs.
The best use of music for your campaign is as background. You'll find that playing music (preferably instrumental, to avoid confusion) at a level just beneath the comfortable speaking volume of the gamemaster is the way to go. The descriptions and other information imparted to the players by the GM are, in that way, still easily heard, but the music can serve to enhance the mood of the scene.
CDs are your best medium, as well-- and if you can get a player with a remote, even better. This allows the GM to cue up the appropriate piece of music instantly, without having to fiddle with fast-forward or rewinding a tape. When I first began using music for games, recordable CDs were not available, so we used tapes to create specific "mixes" for our campaigns-- now this can be done using CDR. Hooray for technology.
What sort of music should you look for? In general, it depends largely on the genre that you're playing in. The musical needs for, say, a Cyberpunk campaign are entirely different from what you might expect to hear while playing Deadlands, or Vampire. Keeping your genre in mind, you should pick music for specific types of events in the game. I find it useful to have several "action themes" for use during combat, or chase scenes; "moody music" for use during more introspective moments (this classification will show the most variance due to genre-- the mood of each genre is distinct, after all), "oogy music" for those times when I need to generate unease or fear in the players, etc.
The mix for a particular campaign, are, naturally, going to vary, based on the tastes of the players and gamemaster-- some will prefer purely instrumental tracks, some might like the occasional song with lyrics (especially useful as background during scenes set in nightclubs, etc.).
Experiment with it.
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Our first review is a shameless effort on the part of your humble columnist to cash in on the craze surrounding "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace". Most players of science fiction roleplaying games have looked to the "holy trilogy" for inspiration, and it is no different in the world of music. Obviously, the music composed by John Williams for the "Star Wars" trilogy is perfect for sci-fi campaigns, especially West End Games' Star Wars RPG (well, duh.). The soundtrack album for "The Phantom Menace" is doubly perfect for sci-fi gaming, however, because the music is too new to have become second nature to the players (a problem with the original trilogy's music).
The music for "The Phantom Menace" is up to William's brilliant standards, and apart from the rightfully famous opening fanfare, the majority of the score is brand new-- compositions which can be used not just for "Star Wars" but any swash-buckling action game.
The Main Title and a few bars of a familiar Jedi theme are all that remains from the original trilogy's score. Williams has invented a brand new aural atmosphere, including strong use of choral music, which he experimented with during "Return of the Jedi" (the Emperor's throne room scenes). In this film, he uses them to evoke a strong sense of conflict and majesty, through the track "Duel of the Fates" as well as more menacing sounds ("Passage Through the Planet's Core").
People who haven't seen the film yet (and, as I write this, its beginning to look like there only may be a handful of you out there) may wish to avoid reading the track listing of this soundtrack, since several of the track titles contain MAJOR SPOILERS regarding the plot-- something that annoyed the hell out of me, having received my comp copy BEFORE I saw the film.
This soundtrack is perfect to use for adventure games-- not just science fiction, either. The fact that the music isn't yet immediately identified with Star Wars makes it perfect to use for any game that features high adventure as part of the campaign.
Order The Phantom Menace Soundtrack
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Our next CD is also a soundtrack, and one that is perfect for use in science fiction games-- although sci-fi of a different sort. It is the soundtrack to the flash-in-the-pan science fiction/horror movie, "Event Horizon". The soundtrack is a collaboration between veteran film composer Michael Kamen, and the electronica group Orbital.
The music walks the perfect line between high-tech and horrifying. I can without reservation say that this CD scared the bejeesus out of me the first time that I listened to it! The mix of traditional orchestral score and the ominous electronic throbs join to evoke the mood of the film-- which was, when boiled down, a traditional haunted house story set aboard a derelict space craft. The music sets this mood of isolation, marked by moments of skin-crawling terror, perfectly.
This CD could be inserted into an existing sci-fi campaign, especially if you were interested in injecting a little horror into the setting. Imagine your GURPS:Traveller players' reaction when their Far Trader comes across a derelict, only to have this music start ebbing into the background when they board the ship to salvage it! The music would also fit seamlessly into the universe of Holistic Design's Fading Suns RPG, whose mix of sci-fi and horror is already evident.
(Sorry-- no picture for this one, folks-- it's been out too long, I guess!)
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.