Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Song

by Robert Couse-Baker
The Song
by Tobie Abad
Written February 2012

Music enriches any movie.  The power that a well-matched soundtrack brings to a narrative cannot be ignored.  Musical swells can help heighten an emotional moment, and when done correctly can even make the sternest player be brought to tears.  Heart-thumping percussive beats can transform a battle sequence into a life-or-death epic struggle that will leave players reminding themselves to breathe.  In this article, we will discuss an add-on to try in your games:  The Song.

Before that, however, let's talk about music use in rpgs in general.  For role-playing games, barring the extremely rare circumstance of having someone to originally score music for your session (which I am sure is happening somewhere out there), storytellers and game masters are forced to resort to using movie and television (and some times, even book) soundtracks and scores to give their games an additional aural flavor.   Some even take another step further and make use of special sound effects to punctuate or high light moments in a game.  (A common way I do this is to knock under the table without warning when someone knocks on a door where the player character is present, or activate my own cellular phone ringtone before telling the player, "Your phone is ringing.")  There are two basic guidelines to using soundtracks and scores in a role-playing game:  Don't choose a song that is too familiar and don't choose a song that has clear lyrics (unless the lyrics are intentional).

by Cassius Cassini
Why are these guidelines necessary?  Imagine if you're running this massive fight sequence in a Pathfinder game, with your players forced to take shelter behind a weakened castle wall as the three dragons assaulting them breathe down upon it to force them out.  As they run from the crumbling cover, they find themselves heading straight towards the evil Sorceror who, through some ancient artifact, controls the great wyrms.  Then you hit the cd player and the Imperial March from Star Wars plays.  What would have been a moment of intense drama and tension is suddenly replaced by amusement as players start asking if the Sorceror looks like Darth Vader, or if he breathes the same way, or worse, they break out of character and start chatting about the last Star Wars movie/series they saw.  Something too familiar will break the illusion of reality out of the game and will only work if the musical piece was meant to match the game (like using the Imperial March if you ARE playing a Star Wars rpg).

If the song has lyrics on the other hand, you might have players breaking the mood by singing along instead of focusing on the game.  Again, this worst best only if a) you really intend to have them sing along as part of the game (modern day, visited videoke bar scene) or b) the moment is intended to be a break from portraying their roles, and the lyrics are intended for the players to hear and connect to the story.

And that's where The Song comes in.

The best movie villains have a theme song.  Darth Vader is an obvious choice for an example of a villain whose theme song can immediately trigger dread even if the villain himself isn't visible yet.    Another example would be the shark from the movie Jaws.  This would be something awesome to do in your game without even telling the players.  Just make sure you always play a specific musical track whenever the villain's presence, machinations or activities are encountered by the players.  Eventually some of them will notice, and when they ask you, "Isn't that the music for that bad guy in this game.." then just tell them, "I guess you're character's gut is saying something.."  As fun as this is, you will notice that here the use of the song is meant to be one that reaches only the player's but not the character's ears.

But why not push the use of The Song to being an actual present element in the game.  Like a theme song, have a specific track play whenever the activities of a villain are encountered.  The best way to do this is to find a nice song that has multiple variants available that you can use.  One of my personal favorites is The Carol of the Bells, which I can find as a choir group, as sung by children, as an instrumental piece, as an acapella piece, done with a modern modern touch, and sung with a with foreign language.  With those variants, I can then sneak in the song in so many scenes which can hint on the villain's presence.  The choir perhaps as they walk home from an investigation.  The children version when he wakes up and hears the kids singing outside his door.  The instrumental piece as the elevator jingle in the building owned by the enemy, and so on and so forth.

In another game, I used The Song to represent an obsession piece that the villain would need to play to do his thing.  The villain was a serial killer who would play music from The Carpenters whenever he would kidnap and murder a woman.   So to even make it more fun, I started to use specific Carpenters songs to match the sequences.  "We Only Just Begun" started playing when the players first confronted and failed to stop the villain.  "Top of the World" was playing when they realized the villain was eluding them way to well too often.  "Close to You" began playing somewhere in the darkness when the villain was stalking one of the player characters.

by bidrohi
Lastly, you can make The Song the catalyst for events to happen in a game.  Perhaps The Song has been magically cursed to cause things to happen to those who heard it.  Or perhaps The Song is actually a shard of code hidden within musical beats which when played, unlocks any secured data system.  Maybe The Song is actually an antediluvian ritual which when played repeatedly a set number of times, invokes a harmonic spell that awakens long sleeping ancient horrors.    One favorite of mine is to have The Song cause those who hear it to experience waking nightmares, seeing familiar faces instead as threats, and being forced to deal with them because they feel "no one else in the world knows about it.  It is up to us."  And then later having some NPC ask the players, "Did you hear the song?  How do you know then you haven't been chasing after things you only see in your head?"

Try adding The Song to your game, whatever system it is, and see how you can make that little ditty of a harmony make your game completely unforgettable.

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