Music in character is usually either of the PCs making – often on the level of “bluff bluff bluff the stupid ogre”, or from the GM as part of scene setting. Your players may run the gamut of skills in music or lyrics, so other than saying “if you find a bard with any actual talent, encourage them” I’m going to focus on what you can influence as a GM..
Every book, talk and advice from older GMs on scene setting I have ever come across features the hint “use all the senses” Seeing as I’m the musician of the team. I figured I’d focus on sound.
Think about the ambient sound in any location. Is it busy and cosmopolitan, with many voices in multiple languages?. Is the only sound the rustling of the trees? Is there music, and if so, what? From the 1920s onwards, is there a radio or TV – or hyperview? Tuned to what channel?
For help with what kind of sounds are appropriate (technically, it’s called building a soundscape) imagine loading up one of the old fashioned computer RPGs – Ultima, Baldur’s Gate or Fable. When you walk into the pub, it plays “Jolly Pub Theme” when you walk into the woods, it plays “Spooky Forest Theme” What theme would your location need? Take a look amongst your DVD collection, at the extras. Do any of them have a piece on Sound in This Film – Men in Black 2 had an awesome piece about foley work – getting the right sound of footsteps or bodies falling. Or aliens exploding, but that was less transferable.
Musical styles invoked in description can bring a sense of place, or of pace. Think of walking into a nightclub. Is it a metal bar? Is it full of thumping techno? A jazz lounge? The picture in your head is likely very different in each case. Use that to evoke what kind of emotion your players feel – a biker might be tense in a pool hall that played classical, but much more at home if it played “Hits of the Seventies”
We can use music to colour in civilisations too. Use the pentatonic sound of Japanese music to shade in a place where elves hang out. Perhaps the islanders here play reggae? Deciding on the musical style of a culture can help you – and your players – get a handle on what kind of people these are – by paralleling them to the mundane culture that developed that kind of music.
Over time, every GM acquires a repertoire of what I call ‘effects’. Things you can do to bring the game to life for your players. Music is one of the easiest of these, but I’m going to throw a few others into the mix too.
I’m going to assume you can act a bit here. Think about the voices of your NPCs. Not everyone can pull off convincing accents – but if you can, consider making some characters have a Southern drawl, an Irish brogue, a Geordie twang. Even if the NPC has the same accent you do, think about tone. A reedy “when shall we three meet again?” has little in common with “I’m Brian Blessed”. Although you should take care not to annoy the neighbours, you could vary the volume – think Good Morning Vietnam’s “I’m in Artillery!” A character who whispers (or stage whispers) could make what he says seem more important.
So the party are investigating a haunted house. The ghost in question is an Iteration X construct – basically, a Terminator. So when the players are busy rolling to investigate the attic, I start to tap on the arm of my chair. Da Da Dum Da-Dum. Da Da Dum Da-Dum – until one of the players notices. Then stop. Then when they’re arguing about what they’ve found, again. Da Da Dum Da-Dum. Da Da Dum Da-Dum.. The same player looks at my fingers, tapping. “Guys, I’ve got a gut feeling this isn’t a human thing. Can robots leave ghosts?” Cue the one member of the party with the skill roll a Mage Lore check and leap to the thought that the pool of mercury wasn’t ectoplasm, it was body remains.
This trick only works if the musical theme is instantly recognisable – think the opening from Close Encounters of the Third Kind; Ode to Joy; or Land of Hope and Glory. Movie and TV music are good for this – Cantina Band, the Indiana Jones theme, X-files Instantly set the mood for cinematic games with the “title sequence” – this was very effectively done in a convention game with the Nerf Herder track for a Buffy the Vampire Slayer game
Give a major NPC a ringtone that indicates something about him. Have a theme song for characters to indicate hidden influence in a scene – even if it never makes it out of your notes, it can help you remember the emotional backdrop – spooky, pensive, tense, lighthearted, comedy.
Phone box mobile
So, another convention game – Shadowrun this time. Contact Bob has two pieces of useful information for the party – one he will reveal for the asking, and one he thinks of later. So what would a good buddy do. Call you back.
A call from a friend became much more real when the GM’s mobile rang with “BOB” on the screen. The GM hands the phone unanswered to the player whose contact is Bob. “it’s for you” Player picks up the phone, answers, and “Bob” – with a similar drawl to the GM’s first personation – rattles off Information Point Two, and finishes up with ‘gotta go, think the cops are coming. See ya’
Achieved by priming a steward pal to slip out to the phone box in the hall, ‘any time after you get the text’. Turned out to be exactly right timing, but by more luck than judgement. Not really something you can pull off every week, but nice for a showpiece.
So, sound in RPGs.- Music, rhythms, voices, ringtones, Think about the tools you have – computer, phone, hands to click or clap, and use them to develop a soundscape that complements your gameworld.