Friday, June 24, 2016

Creating a soundtrack for your RPG

Music is powerful. 

It's been a part of my life in many ways since I was young. I spent the better part of six years performing it, promoting it, eating1, breathing and sleeping it. During my first go-round in college - before taking those aforementioned six years - I was a theatre student, focused on sound design. I studied the impact that music can have on a dramatic scene, the way it could elevate a mood, increase tension, or accentuate tone. Especially in "black box" theatre, an awful lot is left up to the audience's imagination, and music is a great way to excite and enhance that.

I don't know if I was ever good as a sound designer. There was a lot of praise, and I worked on some award-nominated stuff, but it's not like I set the world on fire as a college student.


I definitely tried to learn as much as I could. Live sound, studying pro audio at the Recording Workshop, and dozens of little projects here and there. I'd like to think that I picked some things up along the way.

Is it any wonder that as I became more and more involved with RPGs, that I'd try to apply what I'd learned?

Lovely album all the way 'round, and full of great "intro themes."

So, what are we doing here?

Soundtracking your RPG sessions can be a great way to enhance the experience for everyone. Not unlike live theatre or written fiction, there's a lot that your imagination needs to fill in to complete the scene. Visuals, emotions, physical posture - so much of what's going on in a scene can be intuited through a soundtrack.

It can also be a great big distraction if handled indelicately.

We're not going to delve too deeply into communication theory2, but there's some basic concepts that are important:

The Tone, or how the mood of music will inform the mood of the scene
The Association of a particular sound cue with some story element
The Practical Realities of adding additional sounds to a sound-based medium

These aren't scientific terms, just some things we should keep in mind.


This is what most people think of when we talk about soundtracks - the excellent use of musical score in Game of Thrones, or the Mass Effect games is a great example of this - emotional content underscored by appropriate music. Sad scenes can be punctuated by appropriately melancholic or sorrowful melodies, and a pulse-pounding action scene certainly benefits from a complimentary score.


This requires some forethought, but linked elements can provide consistency. Instruments, composers, and specific songs can all form associations that you can use later. If a certain song plays when an antagonist is introduced, it can not only highlight elements of their character you want to emphasize, but can help accentuate those traits in later scenes.

Needless to say, you'll want to avoid anything that your table already has a strong association with. If everybody's played Mass Effect, don't use its most memorable songs in your soundtrack; that'll conjure up memories of the other property3 distracting from your game.

I tend to emphasize associations for situations rather than characters, as too much micro-managing while GMing leads to a disjointed experience. Speaking of!

Practical Realities

RPGs are a primarily auditory medium - information is conferred via the spoken word more than anything else. Music can be a powerful tool to fill in conceptual gaps, but it's also more noise; you want it to enhance your game, not distract your table. Some things to keep in mind:

First, volume levels. Ever step into a bar, and you can't hear your friends over the chatter and music? That's partially due to what we call a Sound Floor - basically, the ambient noise level you have to talk over in order to be heard. Your music should be loud enough to be audible, and to provide enjoyment in its own right, but not so loud that you need to talk over it. It's not a bad guideline to set it to a level that feels about right, then walk it back a little. You can always turn it up later.

Secondly, frequency. Not as in how often something happens, but rather the frequency it vibrates at. Human speech tends to hang out in the 150hz-500hz range, so you'll want to cut that by a couple decibels for gaming purposes. The idea is to carve out some sonic real estate for people's voices, give them room so they're not fighting with the score.

In other words, don't EQ your soundtrack to sound great by itself; it's a supporting actor, there to make the stars look good.
More like HANDSOME Zimmer, amirite?
(Please don't get a restraining order, I just like your work.)

Thirdly, you don't want anything that's too busy. Epic Trailer Music like Audiomachine or Two Steps From Hell can be lovely, but there's usually so much going on that it can get distracting, and detract from the game. Likewise - and I know this might sound strange and heretical - but that film soundtrack you love so much, the one that would be perfect for your RPG?

Don't use it. Ever.

Look, I love Hans Zimmer as much as the next guy, possibly even more. But his music is designed for films, which are timed down to the frame. Long quiet stretches are interspersed with sudden, dramatic crescendos. In the film, they tie in perfectly to the action. 

In an RPG, they come out of nowhere - they draw attention away from the story, and put it on the weirdly sudden burst of French horns and violas. Don't do it.

Finally, you want to avoid anything with lyrics in a language anyone speaks, and probably altogether (remember that bit about making space for the human voice? Competing human voices don't help.) It can work great in film, anime, even some video games - but ours is an auditory medium, and it's just too much information in the same channel.

Where do I get it from?

It bears repeating: not all music is going to work for these purposes. In fact, music that you like - because it's interesting - may not work so well. Because it's interesting

Stay away from anything designed for a symphonic orchestra - while this is some of the most beautiful music imaginable, it runs directly counter to our purposes. And while film scores tend to be pretty bad, video game soundtracks can be downright amazing for our purposes. They're designed to be more dynamic. Events don't happen at a set pace in games; your score needs to support myriad options in order to be successful. This, by the way, is exactly what we want. Beyond that, the New Age genre has some delightful contributions, as do many electronic "chillout" artists. 
Recommendations could - and soon will! - take up an entire post by themselves. But the key to remember is that you want something that's less dynamic than most music. Is there something you like, but find boring? Now's the time to bust it out.

Putting it All Together

So now that we've covered the basics, let's talk about actually putting together a soundtrack for your game. What follows is how I do it - it's not the One True Way, but it is A Way I Guess, which capitalises just as nicely.

When I'm getting ready to start a new campaign, I put together a couple playlists. I use Google Play, but anything that lets you assemble playlists is fine. I generally want a couple playlists ready to go:

  • A "Chill" playlist. This is my default, it sets the tone, but mostly provides ambiance
  • An "Action" playlist. Fight scenes, parkour chases, starship battles. Something more uptempo that delineates these scenes from normal play
  • A "Suspense" or "Investigation" playlist. Nothing too intense, but more downtempo, minor key stuff. 
  • An "Emotional" playlist, that's appropriate for sad, tragic, melancholic scenes.
And those are my big four. I'll usually have more - often lots more - but that should get me through most games I run. If you're less intent on dancing on your players' heartstringsthen you could probably get away without the last one. Typically, I'll want the "Chill" playlist to be pretty long - something that covers the length of the game session, if I can help it. That way, if I want to just set it and forget it, I can do so without worrying that it'll cut out at an inopportune moment.

I personally like to stream music from a tablet to a bluetooth receiver - this way I've got my finger on the volume if I need it, and I can switch playlists with ease. When it comes time to switch, I'll often cue up the playlist I want to play next, so there's no jarring transitions.

Of course, sometimes I want jarring transitions. "Boss Fight Music" is a time-honored tradition, and one that I make extensive use of.

I also tend to make "pre-show" playlists. These are an artifact from my theatre days, where you want some music to play while people are making their way in. I've found that this is a good place for more involved compositions that I really like, but are probably too busy or dynamic to use during play.

I tend to think of this as "opening credits" music; it sets the tone while people are making their way in, getting snacks, catching up. I also like to open each game with the same piece of music, as I've found that to be wonderful for setting the tone of the game, as well as transitioning out of "social time" into "game time."

In Conclusion

Music is awesome. It's added so, so, so much to my games. I sincerely hope this can help you gain some of the same benefits that I have.

Rock on! Just, y'know, quietly and in the background :P


* * *

1 - Good thing too, as it didn't pay me enough to eat much else ;)

2 - Though if you are interested, this plays off concept like the Elaboration Likelihood Model's concept of Peripheral Routes, Framing Theory, Priming Theory, and every advertising technique in history. If you're interested in the topic, Cialdini's Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Revised Edition (affiliate link) is a super accessible resource. 

If I ever teach university again, I want to do a persuasion class called "Defense Against the Dark Arts." Influence will be required reading.

3 - When do you break this rule? When that's what you want! I ran a Mass Effect game to great success - my players hadn't played the series, but I had. It made a difference for me, and that influenced my descriptions. 

Incedentally, they're playing the video games now, and getting associations from our tabletop! 

4 - Hi players! How are your hopes and dreams this fine day? :D