Aural Sects: Music for gaming
The Campaign Soundtrackby Remy Verhoeve
Using music during a role-playing session isn't very difficult. You put a CD into the CD-player, and push the "play" button. A lot of classical CDs are generic enough to be played in the background of an entire session without any more thought from the GM.
However, with just a little extra work for the GM, music can become a very important part of the role-playing experience, and one that some of the players will learn to cherish if it is done right.
This time, I'm taking a closer look on what I call the "campaign soundtrack". With the campaign soundtrack, a GM can affect his campaign in several ways.
The campaign soundtrack does for a campaign what a movie soundtrack does for a movie. It has a unifying theme song and has several theme songs to illustrate certain important characters. The best example is 'Star Wars' with its famous unifying theme ("ta-da-da-da-da-daaa-da") and it's easy-to-recognize theme songs (You know Darth Vader makes will appear when the distinctive "Imperial March" starts playing).
A campaign soundtrack is best implemented before the campaign is yet to be played. During the creation of the campaign (or reading through a series of modules), the GM creates specific events, backgrounds, starting points, places to be visited, and important NPCs. Using this information, the GM can choose a campaign soundtrack that will fit the campaign she is preparing.
Choosing the right soundtrack is crucial, since the music will appear throughout the campaign. Make sure none of the players dislike the music you have in mind. A movie soundtrack is an obvious choice, since the music is already written to support a fictional story. Movie soundtracks also have themes and recurring elements ready to use.
Suppose you are creating a campaign in a fantasy setting. You know the PCs will start off in a region closely resembling Scotland in the Middle Ages; using the motion picture soundtrack for 'Braveheart', you get a CD with many theme songs, and get music to illustrate the environment you have created in the same package. Whenever the players hear that familiar tune from 'Braveheart' which permeates many of the songs on the CD, they will be instantly transported to your fantasy world. The next time they see the film, they might associate the music with your adventures rather than William Wallace's heroics!
Do not use the campaign soundtrack all the time, otherwise you and your players will get tired of the same music. Use it for the "right moments" in the adventure. In 'Star Wars', John Williams does not play the heroic Rebel Fanfare very much - only when it counts, like when the Rebels destroy the Death Star or when the heroes receive their medals on Yavin IV. "Right moments" in the game include such events as:
The campaign soundtrack gives the campaign a sense of continuity, and songs from it should be used whenever there is a "right moment" in the story. However, you must supply additional music for the scenes which do not require the campaign soundtrack per se. When the characters stroll into a dark dungeon to fight a tribe of goblins, it is better to find an "action cue" from another CD than to use the campaign soundtrack. If the dark dungeon was the lair of the party's nemesis or a uncomfortably large dragon, the soundtrack would be more fitting to use.
The music you play when not using the soundtrack should be similar to the soundtrack, for instance, use only classical and movie soundtracks if your campaign soundtrack is a movie soundtrack, to preserve the moods of the campaign.
The following example shows how I chose and used a campaign soundtrack for the campaign I am currently running.
First, I needed a good fantasy setting. I decided to place the characters in a country torn by civil war. A land in the north of my own campaign setting had been divided by two warring princes fighting over their dead father's crown. The characters were to start off in a small, secluded village not knowing much of the surrounding world or the civil war. I made the characters beforehand, making it easier to prepare their background and family ties.
I placed their home village of Wolf's Den to the far north of the realm, surrounded by spooky woods and fields of snow. Creating major NPCs, environment details and a few story threads for future sessions, I was ready to choose the campaign soundtrack. It was actually my girlfriend who clued me in to an appropriate CD, which was the original soundtrack for James Cameron's 'Titanic'. I was a little negative at first (as I loathe the movie), but forcing prejudice aside, I discovered just how perfect the CD was for my setting.
The first part of the CD had beautiful, calm songs with choral elements which really served to illustrate my setting of a lonely village cradling a hill in the winter wilderness. Also, the third track was perfect for a situation I had planned: a forced march away from the village. The last part of the album also contained several "action cues" which I could use for dramatic events.
I chose the first track of the CD as the first session's opener, and the second track as the "theme songs" for the characters of my players. In the first session, the villagers were forced to pack their belongings when news reached them of impending war - I used the third track for their march south to the safety of a walled city. Moving from the village to the city took the characters many sessions, in which I reinforced the music from "Titanic" by playing it almost exclusively.
This made the introduction of an important NPC even more special when I suddenly gave this NPC an entirely different theme song, "The Death of Cisco" from the 'Dances With Wolves' soundtrack. This NPC was actually the campaign nemesis, but all the way through the first 20 sessions he was considered an friend and ally - until the great betrayal, of course - in which "The Death of Cisco" was played, making the betrayal even more effective as a plot device.
Now, with summer vacation and all, we haven't played for nearly two months. Within the next three weeks, we will continue the campaign. And too easily get the players into the right mood, I'll just open the session with their own theme song, "Distant Memories" from 'Titanic'. They will immediately get that feeling we have developed throughout the campaign, that feeling of participating in something grand, an adventure above and beyond normal life. And that feeling is all because of the campaign soundtrack.