Does Music Belong In Tabletop RPG’s?

Disclaimer – Only useful for groups willing to experience more than just background noise.

Music is a useful and unique tool for tabletop GM’s for creating a mood during an RPG session.  All too often though it is an afterthought and merely acts as an aural backdrop to the main action.  While this is okay for some games and sessions, adding a little depth to the campaign through music can mean the difference between a merely good experience and a great one.  The best time to prepare the music of a game is during the writing of the campaign, as there are so many inter-related elements that thinking about the music you want to play will influence how you eventually run individual sessions.

Getting Started

Probably the first thing to do is set the musical theme in the same way that your campaign has an overall theme: Pick a theme song, sonata, suite, symphony or album that fits with the theme of your campaign.  Play an element of that theme at the beginning of every session so that everyone is drawn back into the campaign.  The track should act as a signal that the session is starting and help players recall what happened last week.  Giving a brief rundown of last session over the title theme also helps give the session a bit of momentum.  Don’t be afraid to change the theme over time, or at key intervals during a campaign.  My initial theme song for my current Exalted campaign was ‘Cluster One’ by Pink Floyd, as I was trying to get the frigid, empty feeling of the North.  After the reveal of the campaign ‘big bad’ behind the group’s woes, the theme has changed to Dream Theater’s ‘Misunderstood’.

In much the same way a campaign has a theme, think of appropriate pieces for each of your major characters.  Play them whenever they are in a given scene.  One way to make this work is to have a playlist with a selection of tracks and the theme snuck in the middle, once the track comes on, introduce the character as if they’ve just arrived in the scene.  You can put together a playlist that consists of the themes of group members that will create subtle associations where they aren’t obvious.

Try establishing mood through music, by using the right style/genre for the mood you wish to engender.  Don’t be afraid to use music that’s not popular if it’s more appropriate.  A scene set in a Society ball would be better served by Mozart than Metallica, no matter how much your players may protest.  If you’re trying to give a place character the most effective method at your disposal is to use traditional music associated with the people that live or work there.  For example, if you’re setting a large part of your campaign in New Orleans, you can give it instant flavour by playing some New Orleans Nightcrawlers or the Hot 8 Brass Band (And yes, I have been watching Treme a lot recently…)

Even if you don’t want the hassle of micro-managing your music choices, putting a little effort into your playlists can be really rewarding.  Try and pick music that reinforces the plot; but remember it doesn’t have to be exact.  If, for example, you’re campaign is about madness, then anything off Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album will fit in with that theme.  The reverse of this can produce interesting results; so try taking plot ideas from the lyrics of songs you intend to use.

Björk’s Army of Me contains the following lyrics:

‘You’re on your own now
We won’t save you
Your rescue squad
Is too exhausted

And if you complain once more
You’ll meet an army of me’

You could take a number of elements from that short excerpt and turn into ideas for character, plot or theme.  Meeting an Army of me, could mean that the NPC will become an antagonist of some kind, or it could literally mean that a character turns into a horde of creatures, or less literally that they command a horde of some kind.  The part of the song about the rescue squad being exhausted could allude to a support network of the players being unavailable at a critical time.  The plot or thematic points don’t have to be as specific as the examples above for them to be effective.

Advanced Techniques

Foreshadowing involves taking a piece of music that has some element that you want to introduce later on, but is not strictly speaking relevant at the moment its played.  The musical theme can create a subtle link between characters and their associations, so you don’t have to labour the point through exposition.  A good example of this is used in Star Wars: A New Hope.  Luke is standing on Tattooine watching the twin suns set while the Jedi Knight Theme is played in the background.  So far we’ve not met a Jedi Knight, so there is no reason to play the theme, but it represents the character’s ambition and foreshadows his eventual fate.

Diegesis is a difficult word for an interesting concept.  Simply put in a diegesis relates to  something that is present in the world, rather than something external that is adding to it unnaturally.  Music being played on an NPC’s car radio as they drive past is diegetic.  Non-diegetic music is what we might traditionally call the soundtrack.  All of James Horner’s music in Alien, for example, is non-diegetic: the characters in the film can’t hear it and its main purpose is to act as a signifier to the audience.  Non-diegetic music tells, rather than shows.  Why is this important?  It’s much more powerful to show that a character likes a certain piece of music rather than just using it as a signifier.  If the NPC is listening to music on his radio, it shows us something about his likes and his character.  If it is merely playing in the background, it could be that the music is representing the area, the NPC, the mood of the players or something else entirely.

One of the greatest inventions of modern music is the remix.  It allows GM’s to use the same piece in a variety of different situations.  There is a cottage industry in deconstructing Nine Inch Nails tracks, so that’s a good place to start but my personal favourites are remixes of video game tracks found at OCRemix.  Covers of songs are also great for getting something different from a piece of music.  Jimi Hendrix’s cover of All Along The Watchtower has a completely different feel to the Bob Dylan original, but they are obviously linked (You can also use the versions from the new Battlestar Galactica for added sauce).  Using the associations within the music can lead to associations in the game.

Remember, just as effective as good music, a well-placed silence can add tremendously to the atmosphere of a session.

When you start a session, you need at least an mp3/CD player or computer and a connected set of speakers.  It’s best if you can determine the music before hand, as shuffling through a disorganised CD collection during a session is hard work and can detract from the game if it takes a long time.  If you can control the music from the GM’s chair, so much the better.  My set up at the moment relies on an Ubuntu Netbook wirelessly running Spotify plugged into stereo speakers either side of my GM’s screen.  This allows me to use all the music available on Spotify and my own collection of mp3’s and sound effects for those times when a particular song isn’t available.

The trick with all of this is to do it often enough that players start to notice and look for other associations but not so much that players are busy deconstructing every song you play for meaning and advice.  You don’t want every song to be ultra-relevant, all of the time or else it becomes a game of spot the plot hook/character trait.  Ideally, you’d like players to occasionally sit up and take notice of the music because it’s created tension and feeling, with an added bonus of developing some element of the campaign.  I do it because I find it fun to hide things in plain sight.


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