Gamemaster’s Guidepost: The Soundtrack of Your Game

The following might not be useful for all GMs, because it relies pretty heavily on a gaming style I’ve come to call “Cinematic Chic.” Cinematic Chic is a gaming style that apes the hyperkinetic drama of action movies, fast-paced TV shows, and so on. The game play is fast, and the drama is high. I’ve learned to properly build both of those things you really need to learn the pace at which your players run and how far, and fast you can push them at once. Given that I’ve also learned that while you cannot effectively control the environment, you’re in while gaming – you can often control the atmosphere. Atmosphere, if properly done, can build the drama. Since you need your players paying attention to you while you are running your game the best thing to build the atmosphere is going to be aural stimulation. Now you could go the route of some GMs and purchase endless ambient noise tracks or use sound-mixing software (I’ve seen this used before, but I cannot vouch for it myself). You can do that…but really, that’s a lot of time you could better spend on your campaign. What I like to do is build playlists for the campaign. Then I pick a particular song that I think suits either the story arc we’re on or that particular game session and make sure that’s played first and last. It’s really simple stuff when you think about it, but music choice can have a lot of impact on what you’re trying to do. For example, if you’re going to be running a session with lots of combat, a frenetic, upbeat playlist is going to liven up your players. For GMs using GURPS Power-Ups 5: Impulse Buys (a favorite of mine if you haven’t been able to tell from the amount of times I’ve referenced it on this blog) you might even consider letting each player pick a “theme song” for their character and then giving them free impulse points when that song comes on – just make sure you randomize your play list! Another good thing to do is associate a particular song with either an event or NPC. For example, if Bad Moon Rising always plays on nearby radios when supernatural evil is close this becomes an embedded metatextual tool that the players can use to know when the fit is about to hit the shan. This works especially well with NPCs, who get their own “theme songs,” which allow the players to recognize when they’re about to meet an old friend/enemy.

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  1. I've always wanted to be able to do this, and there was a period when I tried really hard to make it work, but I've never been able to pull it off. I always have the following problems:
    1) Futzing with the sound system takes up valuable gaming time.
    2) Rather than get players immersed in the desired atmosphere it often seems to just distract them. "Who is this?"; "I love/hate this song!", "I know 74 different factoids about this song/artist/recording/genre/label/whatever and I will now tell you all about them."
    3) I can never seem to figure out what volume is best. Either players are demanding it be turned up, or that it be turned down.

  2. It can do exactly that – that's why I create a soundtrack playlist ahead of time. Number 2 is all about music they know and don't know (even amounts work quite well). Number 3 can have issues, you need to know your gaming group if I'm being honest. Mine like to be able to hear it – but not have to talk over it.

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