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Aural Sects: Music for gaming

The Campaign Soundtrack part II, plus Reviews

by Remy Verhoeve
December 19, 2001

In the previous installment, I discussed the campaign soundtrack, which is music chosen by the GM as the main background music for his or her campaign. The campaign soundtrack has themes for the player characters and main non-player characters, as well as music for other keyed events within the story.

Since I wrote that article, I have continued my own fantasy campaign, and the campaign soundtrack has become increasingly important both to the story and to the players - now, my players have demanded I make them "soundtrack albums", with all the tunes we've played as we gamed. This proved to be an excellent idea.

First, it gathered up all the relevant songs on a few discs, so I could reuse them when appropriate. For example, I had a song keyed specifically to an encounter with a princess. If the characters should decide to visit her later, I can play the song keyed to her directly from the CD (instead of searching through countless CDs to find that song again).

Second, it gives the players a real sense of "having been there". I made the CDs with covers and all, and I renamed the cues for the players to relish in song titles with their characters in it (e.g., "Lokan's Theme" or "Lonn Dreams of the Undead"). This makes the music even more special to my players, and one of them actually replays scenarios while listening to the CDs.That same player came to me before the previous session and asked if he could play a song while he described what his character thought - he had prepared a speech on how his character missed his family. Each time a new melody was introduced in the song, he spoke of a different family member. It was excellent, and brought another dimension to the interaction between the players and the music.

Third, having a few CDs based on the campaign will be a very nice memory to have in the years to come. After we have split up and the saga is no more, we'll still have four CDs each with the campaign soundtrack. As a matter of fact I'm listening to one of them now, reminiscing of that time the party first left their homeland behind, and sailed to the Island Kingdoms.

Of course I didn't include all the music we've played on these discs. I chose the PC and NPC themes obviously, and the major events which have happened up to this point in the story. I divided the campaign into episodes, with each CD representing an episode, giving the story a filmatic angle. One of the players actually knows the song "Surrounded" (from the 'The Man in the Iron Mask' CD) as "The Dusk Knight's Theme".

I could go on and on about how the campaign soundtrack adds life to the game, but this installment is really about reviews and recommendations for specific titles - if there's anything more you want to know about the topic, please feel free to e-mail me at aural@rpg.net


I'll try to review a fair mix of old and new soundtrack albums in this and future columns. Note that the reviews are written with roleplaying in mind.


(Music by Howard Shore)

Today, as I write this review, "The Lord of the Rings" will have its long awaited world premiere. I have watched the trailers, read the interviews, and of course, bought the soundtrack. I did not know what to expect from the soundtrack, but as it is, it turns out to be really good, and can only serve to strengthen the images on-screen. If this movie becomes as big a hit as, say, "Star Wars", it might be difficult to use the music in an RPG session; perhaps it will be like playing a melody from "Star Wars" during your dungeon crawl - it just doesn't fit; the music from Star Wars is too well-known. We'll have to wait and see.

The album opens with "The Prophecy", a dark piece of choral music that gradually intensifies. I love both dark music and choirs, so I guess this is the perfect opening for me. The piece clearly illustrates there is more to come, it is a good prologue to the rest of the album. As such, the song would be perfect for the first session of a campaign, setting the stage for a mighty epic. Like in the movie, the GM could use this piece to describe his campaign setting just before play the first time. The sudden halt about 2 minutes into the track makes it difficult to use in a battle situation.

The contrast to the next track, "Concerning Hobbits", is big. While not as cheerful as one might expect from a theme that supports hobbits, it still is a light-hearted musical piece with a beautiful melody. It is a vivid song which conjures up the images of the Shire. For roleplaying purposes, this is a song I would use to describe a pastoral setting or a small village, or perhaps as a theme for a light-hearted or innocent character.

With "The Shadow of the Past", the music darkens and intensifies. As the album continues, choral elements are reintroduced, and Howard Shore delivers a varied interpretation of Middle-earth. Unlike many other soundtracks, this album needs a little time to settle in your mind. The compositions aren't immediately clear, and are generally more complex than standard soundtracks. The use of Tolkien's language in the few lyrics is a welcome addition.

The music is grand, and as such I am waiting for the right opportunity to use it in my campaign - I'll probably wait until the story reaches its conclusion (and climax) to make the story as epic as possible.

Best of all, the soundtrack is fairly original - you know what you get when you buy a John Williams or James Horner album (most of the time). Here, you're never sure what comes up next.

The music is as epic as the tale, and is one of the best soundtracks I've heard in a while. The album is highly usable in fantasy RPGs, and should be the one soundtrack you bought in 2001 - unless, of course, you had the opportunity to buy more than one.


(Music by Michael Kamen)

This is one of my favorite soundtracks - it was this album that made me realize how important music can be for a roleplaying session. I was a player back then, and my GM used this album as our campaign soundtrack. Whenever we did something heroic, he would play the first track ("Overture and a Prisoner of the Crusades"). That song still makes me smile as memories from that campaign come to mind. For me, this album is no longer a mere soundtrack album - it has become a part of me, a part of that time spent rolling dice and roleplaying with good friends. I learned to gamemaster back then. Ahh, the memories..

There is no reason this album shouldn't feel as good to you - with the exception of the two last songs, it works remarkably well in a roleplaying session, with beautiful melodies and varying themes. The second song, "Sir Guy of Gisborne", has a beautiful opening which I deem useful for roleplaying mornings - "As you wake up from a dreamless sleep, you notice how the sun shines through the half open window..." I've also used this one when the party travels through beautiful landscapes - up until 02:17, at which something bad happens - the song twists into action, as the party is attacked by brigands, and swords are drawn.

Imagine a party arriving at a small village where a small festival is going on - wouldn't the third track be perfect to illustrate this? I used this song once when the characters participated in an archery contest (Robin Hood didn't participate though), which worked out fine. The song has action, but is a merry sort of action - no dark forces, just the characters in a different sort of contest (different as in, no hack and slash).

The soundtrack continues to entrance from here on. It isn't nearly as epic as "The Lord of the Rings" above, which makes the album useful for more common sessions where the fate of the world isn't at stake. The final two tracks are standard pop songs. I'm sure you might like them, but I for one would rather have that disc space used on more orchestral music from the film.


(Music by Hans Zimmer, Lisa Gerrard)

A fairly recent addition to my collection, "Gladiator" has quickly become one of my favorite soundtrack albums. I haven't used much of it in roleplaying sessions, but this album is just a fantastic listen outside the roleplaying context as well. Throughout the album, composer Hans Zimmer establishes an original sound, a beautiful, often melancholic sound with a haunting, female voice giving the music an extra sense of sorrow. In this respect, the soundtrack is exceptionally usable for sessions wherein tragedy and loss occur.

I have only used one song yet, Elysium (track 15), which I played when an NPC described a tragical event - when he lost his wife. It worked well, as the players suddenly had a lot more sympathy for this NPC. The female voice in the song served to illustrate the lost wife, which gave the sequence a nice quality. The album also has its action sequences. "The Might of Rome" (track 09), with its pounding drums, conjures up the image of gladiators, arenas and slaves. "Barbarian Horde" (track 13) builds up to the album's most epic moment, a thundering composition with a heroic melody introduced about halfway into the piece. The song would be very nice to use in an epic, heroic confrontation between PCs and some vile, dark force - the song goes back and forth between a heroic melody line (for the PCs) and a more militant, aggressive melody (for the villain). At 6:40, the music swells into a rousing melody before slowing down. At this point, if the GM manages to time this right with dramatic flair, the PCs should overcome the enemy.

As always with soundtracks, I begin thinking of all the possibilities - all the situations - within a roleplaying context. A lot of encounters have been tailored to the nature of the music, and right now I'm realizing that this song ("Barbarian Horde" track 13) with its constant shifting will be perfect for an encounter. In this way, it is the music that dictates the encounter, which can be very satisfying when done properly in play.

But I digress. Like "The Lord of the Rings", "Gladiator" didn't affect me the first time around. It needed a few more rounds in the CD-player, but it was well worth the investment of time. "Gladiator" is a dark album, with the occassional heroic melody, it is moody and useful for RPG sessions.

The music can be used in most types of RPGs (whereas "Robin Hood" above is better suited to fantasy RPGs than other RPGs), and could very well intensify the in-game drama with its contrasts between the melancholic parts and the heroic parts.


(Music by James Newton Howard)

Whenever characters travel aboard ships, I use tracks from "Waterworld". The connection is obvious, but the music is also suited to the situation with its use of peculiar instruments and exotic rhythms. However, this album doesn't manage to keep me engaged all the way through; there are too many fillers, most of the cues are too similar, and there aren't any particularly outstanding melodies.

There is one exception, however, the tenth track "The Bubble", which I consequently use whenever a PC, relatives or friends of the PCs, or important NPCs have died. Notice how the music swells at 01:15 - the perfect moment for a character's final words, followed by his demise (without the PCs getting a chance to ask questions ;) ) Well, I don't use it everytime a tragic death occurs in the campaign, but it works so well in that situation. But other than the occassional travel across the sea and the tragic death, I haven't used "Waterworld" much.


(Music by Tan Dun)

Running a campaign in Kara-Tur or another Far East setting? You could do worse than playing this soundtrack during the sessions. From the first notes of the album, the listener is transported to the Far East, and stays there until the final notes of "Farewell". While not through-and-through Asian music (the album still has that distinctive 'soundtrack feel'), the CD is perfect for sessions in a setting similar to the movie's.

In my campaign, the characters ran into an "Asian" character (a master archer from far-off Dynai) - I used the second track "The Eternal Vow" as this NPC's theme. It added to the character's flavor. And that's what running music in a session is all about - flavor.

This album is filled with beautiful melodies, soaring orchestrations, and exciting action cues. This album can certainly bring an exotic touch to a campaign. Most prominent are the various rhythm instruments used (check out "Night Fight"). Truly an "original" soundtrack.


(Music by Jerry Goldsmith)

If you're running a fantasy campaign with strong ties to medieaval England, "First Knight" should form an excellent backdrop to your story. The music of "First Knight" is all about brave knights in shiny armor, huge castles, peasants and kings, and of course, swordplay - or so you'd think.

The short introduction immediately conjures up Arthurian images. The second track "Promise Me" isn't very promising; it's a standard soundtrack cue, which could have been in any type of movie, its melodies heard before. The album improves with "Camelot", although it begins as anonymous as the previous cue. About one minute into the song, the music turns more epic and chivalrous.

"Raid on Leonesse" is an action cue, with instrumentation reminding of the splendor of Arthurian myth. If your characters are in a dire situation, you could play this song - but you could also choose action cues from other soundtracks.Like the previous songs on the CD, it is too anonymous.

"A New Life" is a serene piece of music, and at times beautiful, although the music still doesn't remind me much of medieaval England (which I really hoped this soundtrack would do). About two minutes into the song, that typical medieaval trumpetsound is introduced, but it disappears as quickly as it came.

More action music to be found in "To Leonesse", but once again, I know better action cues to use than this one. There are no strong, memorable melodies or parts in this cue.

"Night Battle" is another action cue, with a promising opening, and is perhaps the most Arthurian piece of the album, although the drumwork is rather monotonous and distracts from the orchestra. Clearly the most usable cue in a medieval setting.

"Village Ruins" is a short piece including the movie's forgettable main theme, while "Arthur's Farewell" with its choirs and fast-paced tension clearly turns out to be the album's best song. Did John Williams hear this song before writing "Duel of the Fates"? The song could be perfect for a situation where the characters confront an unholy foe, with the choir representing their holy quest against evil. The song's religious qualities combined with the intensity of the song makes "Arthur's Farewell" the only truly inspired part of the album.

"Camelot Lives" concludes the CD and is a long-winded, slow song which fails to excite, or inspire to use in a roleplaying session. A dissapointing CD then.

I hope these reviews (or the preceding article) were enjoyable. Next time, look out for more reviews (including a review on my favorite soundtrack ever), as well as an article on PCs with musical talents. TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

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All Aural Sects columns by Remy Verhoeve

  • The Campaign Soundtrack part II, plus Reviews December 19, 2001
  • The Campaign Soundtrack October 10, 2001
  • New Returns June 14, 2001

    All Aural Sects columns by Gareth-Michael Skarka

  • Original Compositions September 7, 1999
  • Theory, Practice, and Pirates August 10, 1999
  • "A long time ago..." July 15, 1999
  • "Whaddahell?" June 1, 1999

    Other columns at RPGnet

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