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Music in Gaming

Deconstructing Composers: Reverse Choreography

by Damon Bradshaw
Jan 06,2003

 

Music In Gaming

Deconstructing Composers: Reverse Choreography

In this article, I'm going to detail a form of roleplaying inspiration that is as important to me as a GM tool as the ubiquitous bag o' dice. I've used this pretty simple visualization method to dream up cinematic action since I was a little kid.

My grandad was a big fan of classical music, and was bound and determined that I would be as well. One of the first birthdays I remember, I was given a PlaySkool record player by my grandparents, and a "best of" set of classical music records from my aunt and uncle. I was hooked. The music I enjoyed most was stuff that evoked visualization, as if I could see a scene on TV happening with the music playing in the background. I would choreograph my action figures and army vehicles into climactic battle sequences while Hall of the Mountain King or Ride of the Valkyries played on my little record player. And when I was done, I'd reset them all to their starting positions, replace the needle to the front of the track, and do it over again, working out the kinks and trying new iterations until the entire scene was perfect. I was roleplaying, and Grieg and Wagner were my game masters.

Many years later, I started calling this activity "reverse choreography."

Let me kick off my explanation here by saying that I know, I know, it's not really "reverse" choreography, it's actually normal choreography, i.e., taking music and sequencing action to it's movements. But for playing purposes, it just doesn't seem right to call it straight choreography. The players aren't executing a series of actions based on the flow of the music like dancers would, instead, the GM is forming in his or her mind a sequence of action that the players will experience while roleplaying the particular scene. Your players aren't always going to do what you think they'll do, so you can't akin them to dancers performing. But the action in the scene is really what's dancing; it's progressing according to an established set of triggers or marks. And yes, this is normally what a game master does when creating a scene in his or her head...

Only I use a piece of music to decide what the marks and triggers are.

Obviously, soundtrack music works extremely well for this, because it was originally composed to go along with the action of a scene in a movie. But almost any kind of evocative music works.

Usually, when I'm looking for inspiration in an adventure, what I do is listen to an appropriate soundtrack repeatedly (which is easy while driving or doing computer work or working out or whatever), and listen for tracks with obvious musical cues, changes in the theme or highly evocative passages. Often, I won't even have a scene in mind yet, but the music will help me create one. And occasionally, scenes you create using this method will be in some way similar to what's happened on the screen in the movie, which is to be expected, of course.

As I've mentioned in past articles, there's a few thematic music elements that just scream certain visuals to me. For instance, I'm a big fan of what I call "strut music." The Imperial March is pretty good strut music. So is Ravel's Bolero (check it out on Amazon; if you don't recogize the name, you'll recognize the tune right away).

Likewise, there is all kinds of music that totally bring to mind fight scenes. Or tearful goodbyes. Or off-camera training/building montages. Or all sorts of stuff.

Something to remember with reverse choreography is that hardly ever will the music and the action during the actual game synch up the way it does in your head. The track might make good background music for the particular scene, but don't count on it going with the actions of your players and NPCs beat by beat.

It's also helpful to know your players, and know how they may respond to things you present as a GM. This isn't necessarily imperative, though, because again, it's not the characters you're guiding with the music, it's the scene set-up and dramatic triggers and effects.

I'll demonstrate how I go about this procedure using one of Basil Poledouris' works, a track called "The Tradition of The Games," from the larger work Honor and Glory, which was composed for and played during the 1996 Olympics at Atlanta. You can find this track at his website, Basil Poledouris dot com. Go to the Music Clips section and scroll down a bit.

I'm not sure exactly when or where this particular track was played during the Olympics, but I sure can picture it as an opening montage with some sportscaster dramatically voicing over a monologue about how much an olympian has to train. It's got a vaguely Mediterranian feel, alluding to the birthplace and heritage of the Olympics. Thanks to this, I can see this track used for a fantasy game with Middle Eastern or North African inspiriations.

It's definitely "build-up" music, bringing to mind an almost drudging movement or forced march. As it progresses, layers emerge; some percussion and a few ethnic instruments (which I won't even try to name).

Just before halfway through, a very inspiring chorale hit changes the track's gears, and the tempo slows briefly, then starts rebuilding with more conviction.

The symphony comes in after this bridge, and the tempo slowly increases, adding to the strength and urgency the music portrays. The horns kick into the main melodic sequence as it ascends, giving the piece even more oomph.

Then, to conclude the track, the chorale comes back in accompanied fully by the orchestra, to sing an extended vocal line, and climax somewhat abruptly in a fanfarish declaration.

In my opinion, one of BP's coolest compositions. And ripe to mine for gaming ideas.

To me, the sound effects and distant men's chorus at the introduction call for a mystical feel to the scene.

I see the group of PCs entering a oasis city after trekking through the desert. There is a baazar of the usual marketplace activity; wares to buy and sell, food to eat, equipment to be equipped, accoutrements to be acquired.

After spending some time with the friendly citizens, a flurry of activity causes all eyes to turn to the palace. A luxurious sedan chair carried by impressive-looking guards and flanked by elephant-riding sentries is proceeding down the palisade. All of the citizens drop what they're doing and genuflect, leaving the PCs surprised at the spectacle. If they hesitate for more than a few seconds before following suit, of if they refuse to kneel at all, the captain of the guard scowls and points at the newcomers.

Immediately, guards dispatch to detain the PCs. Depending on the players' reactions, a strange foot-chase ensues, with the PCs maneuvering through a large marketplace filled with prostrate citizens, and the city guard having just as much difficulty following. The chase can extend into the winding and twisting streets of the strange desert city, turning into a cat and mouse game depending on the boldness of the players.

At the climax of the music, the players work themselves into a dead end alley, and they are cornered by the royal guard carrying the sedan chair. The rider stands, throws aside the curtain to reveal a beautiful and lavishly dressed woman with blue skin... a genie! She claps her hands, ordering the PCs to drop their weapons.

And we segue to the next encounter...

However, to leave myself an out in case my players pull a fast one on me and go a totally different direction (which they always manage to do in some way), I'll back up a little bit and think of a different path, and some different action.

If the PCs stand their ground to the approaching guards, they will find themselves swarmed by wave after wave of mediocre warriors (read: cannon fodder, or I guess, scimitar fodder), and have plenty of opportunity to display their fighting prowess or coolness under fire. With each approaching troop, the captian of the guard becomes obviously more and more impressed with the group's skills, and after the marketplace is littered with bested guardsmen, the captain is laughing uproariously at the sheer tenaciousness and audacity of these strange outlanders. At the climax of the music, the figure inside the sedan stands and claps her hand, ordering a stop to the display. She throws open the curtain to reveal a beautiful and lavishly dressed woman with green skin, blah genie blah, etc.

I like this sequence. It's definitely got potential. Of course, I'll flesh it out a bit more with the game system and a couple of more listens to the music, but the skeleton is there, and certainly playable. I can see the genie enlisting the PCs to do a job for her; I can see the captain of the guard becoming fast friends with them; I can see the citizens regarding the strange visitors with incredulity ("They didn't kneel before Her Highness!"); I can see all sorts of stuff blossoming out of this.

Some people use pictures or drawings for inspiration, some people use stories or movies, others just pull it out of some strange pocket in their brain... I use music. It seems to come naturally to me. And I know there's people that don't like using music in their games, and to that I say just give reverse choreography a shot. There's a nice array of thematic music on Basil's Music Clips page, westerns, sci-fi, love scenes, all sorts of good stuff. Or pop in your favorite soundtrack and see what you can come up with. There's no shortage of music, classical, soundtrack, or otherwise, so surely you can find something fitting for your game/setting/style.

I'd love to hear your suggestions or experiences. Post away to the forum below, or shoot me off an email.

See you in a month, and game on.

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