Music as a Roleplaying Tool – Do’s and Do Not’s

Following our RPG month theme today I bring you something that has often been source of discussion among the people in my circle with regards to roleplaying, which is how to create ambiance with the use of music. This is something that I guess to a degree depends on taste, but there are also some does and don’ts that I personally stick to simply because I have had too many bad experiences with this subject, sadly. I love incorporating music or anything else that makes RPGs be cool, something to get you in the zone, but some people just destroy games by the misuse of these tools. And here are some examples…

  • If you can hear the music more than the players, you ARE doing something WRONG – I mean, I know many of you would think this is common sense, BUT I have experienced games where the music gave me such a headache I just lost it. I was so frustrated about the fact I couldn’t hear and communicate clearly with my team mates, but the worst part was that the DM didn’t seem all that bothered. According to him I was just not embracing it… My Arse! This really puts people off. If the music plays an important role in the game, no probs! But remember that roleplaying is about talking. There is usually enough noise with people talking over each other and arguing over what is happening when, do not make a bigger mess out of it.
  • If you are using the music for ambiance, make it meaningful – How anticlimactic is it to be playing and being in the middle of a battle, boss fight or tense moment, and the song that plays through is just not appropriate. Practical example: playing a Warhammer 40k game, tense scenario as hell, as our librarian turns against us, after several months of weekly games, him being the key to succeed in this mission. Obviously not going to happen. More importantly, now we need to find a way of fighting one of our most powerful members of the party Plus the big boss. So there we are, in the middle of this gritty situation, and for some reason I still do not comprehend, the DM puts a random music selection, that went from Eurythmics, to Glados song from Portal…What the hell!?! I couldn’t take that fight seriously anymore. It threw the entire party completely off-balance: people were distracted, almost more dependant of what strange thing was going to sound next than if their rolls were actually helping us or not. It killed the mood in such a way. So please, do not do that. If you want to through your players off at a critical campaign moment, you are probably doing something wrong anyway, or perhaps you are not one for taking these things seriously, but please remember it will have an impact and those playing.
  • Do not make a story just based on music… – unless your party is aware of it, is ready for it and you have clear sound. If the lyrics to a song are an important clue to the story, you really need to frame this properly. Perhaps you may want to read it out loud yourself a couple of times. The main issue with this is that this stops being about roleplaying. Some people may be hard of hearing, may be not good with that type of audio comprehension, or simply get distracted by it. It’s a perfectly valid source for clues and things like that. But an entire game where everything depends on this or that song, with no help or context, simply will get muddy. People will get to tangled up in the song, and they will forget about actually playing the game, or they may feel undermined, self-conscious and out of context simply for not getting it at all. And of course, there is a degree of challenge on an RPG, that is why we play. But you need to measure this and still make it somewhat accessible. “Okay then I will play the song in the background all the time” you may think…Big mistake. The broken CD effect will just get people twitchy, and it will be far too repetitive people will end incredibly fed up.
  • If you want to incorporate music in the background as a constant – think about songs that do not have lyrics. I am not saying classical music; there is loads of stuff out there that may be suitable. From folk to world music, any kind of instrumental line will go down much better than anything that contains lyrics, particularly if your players are familiar with the songs. A great source of background music is movie soundtracks, because many of these playlists are developed for a narrative that has ups and downs, just like your story. Another thing that could work is music in a foreign language. This way people would still hear words, and structures, but they won’t get so mixed up with their own thoughts.
  • Music as an alternative to transitory or awkward silence – this works really well! You have left your players down to complete a task of their own? Instead of having a countdown or that awkward silence, give them something to keep them on edge, engaged, but that is still enjoyable and not overwhelming. Perhaps you have developed a dynamic that is time or table-location sensitive: use it as an excuse to do your own geeky version of musical chairs! It’s great fun. We had this in a Vampire game where people had switched personalities but they had access to their own psyche every so often. Short, fun tunes, made this dynamic work really well, people laughed, expecting and curious about the music that was going to determine which personality they would acquire next.

As you can see music can be a great tool to incorporate in your games, but everything has its time and place. Just remember that. Think about your players and how it may affect them, and if you are unsure or think it will not work out, refrain yourself. If you are going to ruin a player’s life in an RPG, do it by killing them off in an outrageous way, not by destroying their ear drums.

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