The Gassy Gnoll: The Power of Music in Gaming

Music can tame this savage beast. It can raise me up. It can tear me down. It can make me feel. It requires no words, but sometimes the words are what matters most. And I know I’m not alone. Music has always been a big part of my life and I hope it will always continue to be.

Where does music come into your equation where gaming is concerned? For me, there are two different sides… Pre-game and in-game.

Note on a Glass – xxl – OpenClipart.org

If I’m writing about gaming, I typically have some music going in the background. And it varies widely what genre or style. Sometimes what’s on is less important than the fact that something, anything, is on.

But in that creative pursuit, there are a few soundtracks and songs that I find to be amazingly effective in bringing my creative juices to the surface.

Movie soundtrack-wise, there are two main categories. The Gladiator soundtrack (the original one, not the follow-up album as much) and John Williams. No these two categories aren’t really equal, but there’s something about the soundtrack to The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark that take me back to my early days as a gamer. And Gladiator from Hans Zimmer takes me on a journey with several rises and falls (so does the soundtrack to The 13th Warrior from Jerry Goldsmith, but it wasn’t as good a movie IMO).

Lyrical pieces have a different effect on me, but are no less creative. For example, I have wanted for years to put together a short fiction piece or adventure built around the classic “All Along the Watchtower” song (originally written and performed by Bob Dylan, but will forever be in my head as performed by Jimi Hendrix). Like many of the “storyteller”-style songs of the 1960s, it has a well-defined beginning, middle, and end that could be easily converted to a series of scenes or full adventures if fleshed out.

On the other side of the equation, we have music as used in gaming sessions. I’ve played with groups that prefer to not listen during sessions, some where it is merely background noise and has little to do with the session itself, and some where it’s used to set the mood at the table. There is no one way to game and all of these are correct so long as they work for the individual gaming group.

Let me talk about my experiences with the last two variants – music as background and music as mood.

Music Sheep – dodger2 – OpenClipart.org

During a game where music is used in the background, it can sometimes be a little distracting. Not always, but sometimes. For example, in one gaming group I was with the GM would put a bunch of CDs in a carousel and it would play one CD after another, usually a mix of soundtracks and different genres. Quite often I’d find myself listening more to the music than the game and asking the GM about the group playing or particular songs. Though I discovered some new favorites (and rediscovered old ones) I was always splitting focus between the game and the tunes.

However, more recently I’ve been playing with a GM who uses soundtrack-style music in the background (no lyrics, stylistically like some classic movie soundtracks at times but also different enough to be unique). Sometimes he uses it to set the mood. Usually we’re all making wise cracks about “Isn’t this from such-and-such?” but I’ve found that it really can set the “creep factor” nicely on occasion as well as just being on in the background.

Beyond those uses for music in games, I’ve seen collections of sound effects, but wonder at how much of a distraction they would be during gaming. With the plethora of personal electronics these days, I’m surprised we don’t have an app that can be used to play different battle sounds to reinforce character actions – a sword strike, a miss, an arrow shot, a hit on a shield, and so on. That might actually be kind of fun for a while, but might get old quickly. Has anybody had any experience with that sort of application at the game table?

While chatting about this with some of the Gamer Assembly folks (thanks twwombat, Zed, and tresi!), some other intriguing approaches came up. One that I’d not considered was sort of a “Fortune” or “Fate” deck approach using specific songs on a particular soundtrack. As an example, some folks assigned different bonuses and penalties to a particular album from The Darkest of the Hillside (who write a ton of Cthulhu-themed music). One song may give a bonus in combat vs another might give a penalty to movement. Obviously you’d have to agree to the song “themes” and adjustments ahead of time, but it’s definitely an interesting approach.

Another approach involved each character having a particular “theme song” and getting a +2 to everything they do when that song is playing. Again, this would require a bit of pre-planning and an interesting playlist for each group, but it’s something I’d not have come up with.

So let me end this piece with a question. How do you use music in your gaming? Are there any favorite pieces you use for a creative spark? Or great soundtracks to set particular moods? Any good 3rd-party, generic “soundtrack”-style tunes you’ve found to avoid the inevitable “Isn’t that such-and-such movie?” comments?

Let us know in the comments below!

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