ORACLE

6/11/2009

Bringing Music to Your Sword & Sanity Game

Over the years I have seen conflicting opinions on whether music should be played during a game session or not. Some game masters feel music can be distracting, and choose not to make use of it in their games. Personally, I like trying to enhance the atmosphere of the game with background music. What usually works best for my gaming group is to play something that adds flavor and tone, but at the same time is unobtrusive and does not interfere with the game sessions itself. The trick is choosing the right music to play.

I think for me instrumental music has become my favorite style of music to listen to. Even outside of gaming. It allows my mind to wonder as I listen, and creates images that are not influenced by lyrics. My imagination is allowed to charge ahead unabated and unfettered when listening to music devoid of lyrics. I enjoy classical music, as well as instrumental artist outside of the classical arena. Movie soundtracks make up a large portion of my music collection. In recent years video game soundtracks have improved, and in some cases have even surpassed some movie soundtracks in quality. There are several video game soundtracks I listen to on a regular basis and I have never played the actual game itself…

Recently, I added a new section of links to this blog’s sidebar (see MUSIC). I struggled with what musical links would be appropriate to add in keeping with the sword & sanity theme. In the end I decided to keep the list of links narrowed down to those artists that I felt could either helped evoke the proper atmosphere during a game session, or could help inspire a game master while preparing for an upcoming game.

There is some quick (and quite obvious) advice I can offer on what not to play while trying to run a game. First, I would suggest staying away from music that constantly fluctuates in volume and intensity. If you don’t you will find yourself constantly adjusting the volume, and this is distracting to you and your players. Also, try to stay away from music that has become iconic and instantly transports the listener to a specific place, or brings up images of a certain character. That is, unless that is what you want to happen. In other words, don’t play the soundtrack to Conan the Barbarian unless you are running a Hyborian adventure. In the end the best advice is to find music that can sort of disappear in the background while you are running your game, which will allow it to have an almost subconscious effect on the people in the room. The music should work for you, and not against you.

To wrap up I would like to share a few artists I feel exemplify the perfect soundtrack for a sword & sanity game. Without further adduce:

  • Danny Elfman – throughout his career Danny Elfman has produced some of the best movie soundtracks ever composed. His music is playful, and has a childlike quality, which is important when trying to create atmosphere for a fantasy game. Most of his stuff is dark and creepy, and works perfectly for our needs. Some personal favorites include Nightbreed and Sleepy Hollow.
  • Univers Zero – this next musical group is not an obvious choice, and to some it is an obscure one. Univers Zero are a band that championed the avant-garde style of music called Rock in Opposition back in the mid-70s. Their music has been described as “chamber rock”, because their compositions are heavily influenced by chamber music, and from a rock-n-roll standpoint, they decidedly chose to play with unconventional instruments (like the oboe, clarinet, cello and violin). Through the strong classical influence their music also has elements of jazz as well as a strong hint of early medieval music. If you have never heard of them I highly recommend you correct this injustice now. Be warned, their music is challenging to listen to, and it is especially dark (particularly their earlier releases). I admit it is not for everyone. As a bonus they have openly stated that they are influenced by H.P. Lovecraft.
  • Arcana – despite being a musical group that sometimes relies on singing, Arcana is a great example of a group that can bring a more traditional medieval sound to your game table. Their music is neo-classical and mostly instrumental. The singing is a choral approach, and reminds me of Gregorian chants with emphasis on the baritone. Their songs are very ethereal and mystical, and like everything else I have suggested the music has a dark beauty to it.
  • Diablo II Soundtrack – composed by Matt Uelmen, this is one of my favorite PC games, as well as a personal favorite in the soundtrack department. Though not entirely medieval in approach the music for this game is creepy and defiantly has the needed vibe for a sword & sanity game. Maybe the best reason for this is because the Diablo series is in itself a fine example of the sword & sanity genre.

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