When I am running a modern era RPG, one of the questions I tend to ask people about their players is ‘If your character had a theme song, what song would it be?’.
A lot of people laugh at that question but they always find an answer, one that usually reveals something about how they wish to frame their characters story within the narrative.
It’s a question that works because of how we, human beings, encode emotion in music. If used correctly, thinking about how we view sound can be a very powerful tool for us as storytellers but it is a difficult tool to handle correctly and I find that a lot of players/DM come from a very particular school of thought on the matter. I want to present here an alternate take on the medium and its use, not because I think my way is better but because if music isn’t working for you, maybe it’s time to listen again.
From observation, I have found that most people’s approach to sound in a game is to aim for a soundtrack that reflects the environment of the area – in a fantasy game, this translates to the noise of dripping caves or rustling forests, a fantasy film soundtrack or folk music.
This keeps the sound diegetic, meaning that it is the sort of thing the heroes of the world would either actually be hearing or the type of music that would exist in setting. Which is a naturalistic and thoroughly legitimate way to approach design. I think that because of the way this sound design meshes well with liveplay, it has in recent years become the pervasive ideology regarding how to use music.
And yet… I recently played Deadlands and we put on a western soundtrack in the background. We were playing all day and at some point we forgot about the player, allowing it to look for and jump to related songs on it’s own. And during the game I became aware that it was the songs that seemed out of place that really got me into the game. It was like they were a commentary on the action, or stood in parallel to it, highlighting emotional dissonance.
I remembered in that moment my fondest use of music in a game is when a D&D DM ended a campaign with the heroes welcome home being interrupted by a final betrayal to the strains of The Fine Young Cannibals song “She Drives Me Crazy”. It hit me like a brick. It’s not the only experience I have of this – I begin to think in five foot squares and 3rd edition battle tactics every time I hear “Bodies” by Drowning Pool. I can’t hear the Pirates Of The Caribbean theme song without remembering the time we were in over our heads in the farthest reaches of Abeir-Toril, exploring Anchorome.
Those songs weren’t aimed at my character or my immersion in character. They were aimed at making me, the player, feel something – and they worked. It might feel counter-intuitive to mentally remove the player from the game to speak to them about what is going on in the game but sometimes, using music to create a sort of meta-thought can be a very powerful tool. It allows us to process our own feelings about the game while still playing.
It’s worth thinking about using non-diegetic sound in this way. Think about the emotions the players will be feeling, the type of mood you want to create. Find things that speak of that, get into groups you wouldn’t otherwise get into.
You’ll find it quickly becomes a new way to investigate play and adds a subtext to scenes. Not only that but if does stick with people, it means they’ll remember the game in years to come. Whenever I hear “She Drives Me Crazy” I am back in the throne room, watching the king getting killed by a person I trust with my life. It’s been 15 years. It still hurts every time I hear the song.
Here’s a few other ideas for the use of the aural space in your game.
Character Creation Graduation Ball
When you’re planning a session zero, you could bring a set of songs to play that evoke the setting and play style to help people feel the mood. Making characters after listening to The Dropkick Murhpys is going to be different than if you just digested the Moana soundtrack or a game inspired by the work of Grimes. You could also ask people to bring song they think might be reflective of the character they are playing, or they could find one during the session. Once all the characters are built, maybe have each person describe who they’ll be playing and what they look like and play their song in the background as they talk. This cuts down the need to stop the action in session one to do the intro scene but makes it feel like closing event for the making session.
You can have a theme linked to a story element that only shows up when that theme is being worked in or explored. It could even act like an audio clue to players. Slowly they realise a theme is being played when things are happening, meaning the elements are linked. Maybe it all comes together when the characters hear the whole theme played live.
If I am running a post-apocalyptic game and the players find, say, a tape recorder, I want to put together a sound clip for them to listen to. It’s an example of easy immersion that can help them get really into the game. This falls under the diegetic umbrella again but turns the sound itself into a kind of performance within universe and can help ground important information.
If you have a patch of not much coming up, you could give the players a playlist and ask them each to write a reasonable downtime scene inspired by one song on the list. This involves choosing the songs carefully and making sure outlining to the players that the scenes can not solve ongoing problems but can build character or create new stories. If you don’t do this, you’re going to have one player in your group outline the way his character descended into hell, finished off his nemesis and then escaped via riding a giant flaming bat back to his tiny backwater village which now serves him. Despite it being only three sessions since the game began and them all being peasants. We all have that player, don’t worry.
I hope that’s presented some new ways to look at sound in your games. Next time, we’re going to start looking at a tool often under-debated inside RPG circles by referencing a song by Olivia Newton John.
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