Monday, May 16, 2011

gaming with music

I have a tendency to imagine that music and gaming ought to go together like chocolate and peanut butter, the way music and film mesh so effectively.  The James Bond Theme is an immediately recognizable part of the 007 mythos.  Or think about Ennio Morricone's music and Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns.  As much as I respect Leone's overall direction, I don't think the last act of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly could possibly work without Morricone's "The Ecstacy of Gold":

Personally, I think that's one of the greatest sequences I've ever seen on film, ranking right up there with the opening track shot in Orson Wells's Touch of Evil. But would it work with a score less awesome than Morricone's? I doubt it. And after experiencing the flatness of this early no-music preview for the original Star Wars I sometimes find it hard not to think of John Williams as the guy who saved George Lucas's career.

The problem is that film is a passive form of entertainment.  Roleplaying games require the active use of totally different parts of the brain.  John Williams or Ennio Morricone can work to draw us deeper into the enchantment film provides.  Put the soundtrack for Star Wars on at a sci-fi session and inevitably I will stop playing at some point and just listen.  Perhaps with my mouth agape like a slack-jawed yokel.

But good music clearly digs down to an ancient layer of meaning that I just can't reach with graph paper and twelve sided dice, so I'm not quite ready to give up on teaming them up.  Here are some ideas on how to do that without accidentally turning your session into a meeting of a music appreciation society:
  • Listen to appropriate music during game prep. Of course, this cuts the players out of the action.
  • Put together a playlist for the players, maybe even burning CDs for everyone. Some players will doubtless look at you like you're crazy, but others will get it.
  • Play an intro theme. Most sessions start out with a bit of light chitchat. Firing up a copy of Holst's Mars movement or whatever would serve as a signal to stop talking about comic books and get serious about playing.
  • Perhaps music during the session is feasible, but one has to be smart about selection. No songs with words, perhaps.  People will either sing along or simply pay too much attention to the lyrics. Nothing too strongly invocative of something irrelevant to the game at hand. To you, the sountrack to The Breakfast Club might strike just the right tone for your dungeon, but the players might have trouble connecting it to anything but the movie.
  • I maintain a little email list of my player pool.  Gmail makes that pretty dang easy.  I can imagine a scenario where in one of my regular "reminder: game tonight" emails I included a link to a youtube clip of some music video. "Tonight we continue the hunt for the Werebeast of Labbershack Moor. And to set the mood, here's Ozzy Osbourne's "Bark at the Moon"."

Anybody else with any ideas on how to use music with gaming without it ending up a big ol' distraction?