Music can do a limited number of things for a game session: make it awesome, have a neutral influence, or make the entire night suck. If you’re going to commit to providing a little mood music to your game, there’s some things to keep mind. Whether it’s instrumental or has vocals, regardless of language or musical genre, it should add to the session. It also shouldn’t add to the session solely for you. These are my troubleshooting tips for using music at the table.
Buffering is Not A Soundtrack
Whether it’s a YouTube playlist, streaming stations or mp3s, make sure they’re cued up and ready to roll. YouTube playlists often give me the most issues when it comes to starting, playing and stopping each video. I’ve had fewer problems with streaming, and in the case of services like Pandora, I don’t spend hours stressing over a playlist. If something isn’t a match to the mood, or is personally loathed by someone at the table, I can just hit skip.
If your internet is on the unreliable side, you might want to consider rocking music that’s local to your computer instead. Whether it’s music you own or something you stream, hitting shuffle is a remarkably freeing thing to do. No hunting and pecking out songs, and you can focus on what you’re there to do, which is to either play or GM. Either way, if the soundtrack draws your attention away by actual or metaphorical buffering, it has done the opposite of its job.
I love the opening heist in Hudson Hawk. If you haven’t, the use of Swing on a Star is amazing. It tells you so much about the crooks involved, it sets the mood, it doesn’t conflict with what the movie’s like. It sets the mood and keeps it. If you’re playing Shadowrun, you could be rocking a streaming station full of the newest European techno and J-pop. If it’s a investigation heavy horror game, soundtracks to movies like The Rite could come in handy. If you watch a lot of television or movies, you’ve experienced (in some form or another) what a bad soundtrack does to the mood of viewers, versus a good one. Even if the players barely remember the soundtrack after the game, only that it “felt right,” you’ve done the audio equivalent of the perfect colour match between paint on the wall and a swatch.
Music as Plot Expression
When I was one of a staff of Storytellers for a Mage: The Ascension LARP, I had a player who always came to me when she used the Time sphere. If you’ve never played M:TA, this player was coming to me while she was attempting to see the future. I’d cue a song up on my phone as soon as she told me her question, and we’d do the test. I’d toss her my earbuds. With one earbud in, she’d ask me questions, continuing to test as I described her vision and song reinforced themes. I kept a number of mp3s on my phone, many instrumental, just for working with that player. She played a Cultist of Ecstasy. How the interpretation by the player of what a CoE embodied was tightly focused around meditation, music and mirrors, with a little dash of drugs.
I did those one song soundtracks to her vision because music made sense in context to the character. I’ve done cute “theme” soundtracks for games, but they were always a little overboard. I’ve become more judicious with how and when I use music. So whether your players are chasing a music box that plays the theme to The Elephant Man or meeting a Johnson in a hot Seattle club, think about what you want the music to do, and if you can do it without it.
If you have a story about a soundtrack gone wrong, or a tip about game music that fit like a glove, leave it in the comments!