Friday, August 9, 2019

I’m Changing The Sound of the Games I Run

As I’ve driven across my country, an old and perplexing problem has vexed me in ways most sinister:

What are the prevalent “moods” of Dungeons and Dragons? That is to say, what are the general atmospheres/scenes we convey in game for players? 

I know this is likely different per game, as like, the genre shifts per every storyteller, right? 

I’m thinking that for me it’s: 

- Exploration/Open World

- Dungeons/Underground

- Steath/Intrigue

- Combat/Violent Conflict 

- Rest In Civilization/Rest the Wilderness

The reason I’m asking this is because I’m rethinking how I approach soundtracking my own games, and I’m thinking that rather than like, doing it with just a few albums in the background, I should do it via a series of playlists that add to the atmosphere of the world I’m building. Especially since I have so much fantasy music, it’d be easy for me to have a folder on my iPod to play randomized stuff in each category.

Previously I had a separate playlists for like, every possible setting. Taverns, Temples, Dwarven Places, Elven Places, Pie-Eating Contests, Treant golfing tournaments, etc, etc. and I think this is, frankly, a hassle and a half. I largely think this is inspired by/comes from our familiarity with movie soundtracks, where the film is made, then scored, so that the music has arise and fall with the action of the story and narrative and sonic crescendos occur simultaneously. Think of Hitchcock’s use of strings in “Psycho,” or any blockbuster Fantasy’s repeated movements. Now remove that score from that scene you’re thinking of and instead pair those stabbing violins with a joyous wedding vow, or “Imperial March” to ordering a sandwich at a fast food place and awkwardly counting exact change. Doesn’t fit quite right, does it? 

Table top RPGs are live-action in a sense, and a better way to handle this is more akin to video-games, which indeed have iconic music (more on that in a bit), but much more importantly have music that 1) enhances the atmosphere of the scene and 2) can and does change as the scenes change. Think of the first underground level of Mario, when the bright, cheery main theme shifts to those deep bass notes, with the swift skittering of anxiety laden jumbled notes to follow them, and the briefest hint of an unnatural silent pause before repeating. Or the dreaded epic movements inside a castle, lava and certain death around every corner. Think of the difference between the haunting and teeth grinding underground music that plays while avoiding degenerate Falmer in Skyrim, now compare that to the wondrous and airy tunes played while wandering under the ethereal Northern Lights on a wintry mountain. The Witcher’s action music has fantastic, bombastic openings and percussion kicks off at a horse’s pace, and then when left alone in the rain switches to lighter acoustic tones and gentle, lonely lines of string accompaniment; only then it turns to creeping, pacing tones riddled with tension for political intrigue and stealth. 

So we have decent examples of how to score our games, but the dilemma still stands as to with what to score our games? This is... a tricky answer for me. I’ve had a lot of great games soundtracked many different ways, and I have done a lot of games in a modern setting which is suuuuper easy ‘cause you can use modern music. I also love, love, love “modern” music. Not that one couldn’t run a fantasy game set to 1970s punk or 1990s industrial, but I’m looking to make utilitarian lists, things anyone and everyone can pick up and use, and a lot of players find lyrics (especially in a language they understand) distracting. Also death metal and hardcore aren’t for everyone. So, that limits our genres. 

An older Dragon magazine article from the early 2000s wrote on this, and honestly gave some advice that I feel doesn’t stand (“One Winged Angel”? Star Wars? Yuck. Though Uematsu and Williams are geniuses and deserve full credit as such). The problem with that advice is that it relies upon iconic songs. And movie and video game composers are always, always, always trying to create iconic songs. Iconic songs are good, they get stuck in your head. You hum them and sing along with the notes with your friends on car rides. Think of the main theme to the Legend of Zelda games or the Jurassic Park movies. You know them instantly. The music, the beautiful, glorious music is what helps sell the game or show. It works wonders. And it comes with its own associations that are hard pressed to be shaken, and can jar the verisimilitude of the game. So, for me, main themes and anything instantly recognizable are out. Despite my love of them. This is also a two fold problem: I may not immediately recognize every song on this album, but you as a player might. And it is you and your game I am considering here. 

So what and where do we pull our selections from? For me, I tend to lean towards the lesser known tracks of fantasy video games, and towards action and horror movies who’s scores I remember, but get picky with it. I’m not afraid to slice out iconic songs left and right and to only choose a song or two from an album. Also, the lesser known the album, the better. I also nix any song that varies too wildly in sound from the established moods, as such, things like Epic Score tend to be removed as they will start slow and tense and then be a rollicking orchestra of Armageddon prophets by the end of that three-minute track. I also dabble in some dark ambient, especially the stuff from Cryo Chamber. A lot of people are hopped up on Dungeon Synth for their games, and I’m very picky with that genre. A lot of the genre has some retro eighties synth sounds I feel are better kept to cyberpunk games where retrowave would be better suited. I also caution listeners, as I know some underground artists that get lumped by association into that genre (due to its roots in black metal) have hate-culture associations, and there’s no space for Nazi garbage in my hobby. Do a google, know what your buying. 

So we know what we’re using, we know how to soundtrack it, the next step is to do the actual work: you have to listen, actively, to each individual song out of the library of music you have selected and determine which songs go in what playlist. This is the hardest part, as it is time consuming, and for me, I want to be doing something active when I’m listening to music, actively or not. It’s also, for me, very tempting to move that slider to fast-forward and not listen to a track I know I’ve heard a million times before, but if I do that I know I’m gonna miss a chunk of spoken word poetry in the midst of a wonderful acoustic track, or the one moment of action hero guitar in an otherwise tense track of brooding cellos and violas. Don’t. Just listen all the way, choose to keep or chuck it, and if you keep it, know which playlist it has a home in. If you can’t choose a playlist, move to the next song and come back later. 

After likely a few too-many hours’ worth of work, you should have your own playlists set, and be ready to have background music for your adventure up and running.

And now the last question: why? Why do all this awful work when you could just as easily buy one of the dozens of apps for your computer or phone that has ambient music and sounds and all kinds of fun gadgetry that solves all this hard work for you? Well, because 1) I’ve bought this music, I might as well use it, 2) I like making playlists, 3) I think there’s something incredible about music, a kind of sonic indelible ink that tattoos itself into our blood and doesn’t ever let us go, and I know from all the movies and games I cited above that it can enhance a story, and 4) playlists are a one click solution to ambience and I don’t need anymore apps or gadgets in my game, or items cluttering my table/DMing Area.