Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Cheap Soundtracks For Your RPG

I've been using movie and video game soundtracks for background music for my campaigns for a long time, often creating "inspired by" soundtracks that were spread out over other genres for enjoyment outside of game sessions.  Amazon's MP3 store has a sale on soundtrack albums this month, so I thought I'd go through and tell you which were the best for gaming and why.

First, you have to make sure that the soundtrack you're buying is not so recognizable to your players that they are taken out of your fictional world and into the fictional world the movie or video game created.  In this respect, for your Firefly game, don't use the Firefly or Serenity soundtracks - everyone who cares about Firefly has already seen every episode a thousand times and is certain to recognize and respond to music cues from it.  Instead, look for Western (or Eastern) themed soundtracks to get the feel of the setting/action across (you are running your Firefly game like a western and not like a science fiction game, right? right) without removing them from the world of your game.

This leads to my first recommendation from the sale, Thomas Newman's "Skyfall" and why you should be careful with it.


"Skyfall", Thomas Newman, $5 in Februrary
Thomas Newman is one of my favorite movie soundtrack composers to use in campaigns, because he works in so many different rhythmic ways that you don't normally hear.  John Williams (someone else I'll discuss below) at his best creates extremely anthemic, emotional pieces that push the audience hard emotionally.  Newman at his best produces somewhat odd, layered compositions that pull the audience into the world of the film.  Skyfall is one of his more conventional scores, so it is a little easier to conmprehend/use at the table.  As an example, "Severine" starts with that slight jangle/dissonance that we come to expect from Newman, but then moves to a more prosaically romantic string section.  Skyfall is an excellent soundtrack from one of cinema's great composers.  That said, you really don't want the James Bond horn flare to come popping out during the game, even in clarinet form ("Brave New World")!  So be sure that you listen carefully once you get the album to be sure which tracks are the right ones for the tone you're trying to get across.  In general, this is a solid action/adventure track, with some good romantic/slow tracks as well.


"Moneyball", Mychael Danna, $5 in February
Mychael Danna is not a composer that I was previously familiar with before his work on Moneyball, though he also did the score for Life of Pi, which I'm looking forward to, and Little Miss Sunshine, which I enjoyed but didn't remember the score very well (probably due to the songs of the movie being so hilariously on-the-nose.)  When I saw Moneyball, I was struck by how the music reflected the anxieties of the main character rather than the "show" that the athletes were putting on.  For a very unusual baseball movie, this was a very unusual baseball movie score.  Danna's score expresses an anxious emotion rather than trying (as horror movie scores might) to provoke anxiety in the audience.  It's a very personal score - often larger orchestrated sections will fall silent to only one or two instruments carrying an overlapping theme.  Unsettling digital manipulations combine with traditional, even romantic orchestration (as in "The Streak") to give both a sense of danger and a sense of personal feeling.  In a game session, the Moneyball score would be ideal for a planning session that carried some weight.  Not just a lighthearted heist, but something the characters really wanted to come off properly. It's truly a marvelous production all the way around.


"Hook", John Williams, $5 in February
John Williams normally writes such iconic music that it's actually sort of hard to use him as a RPG backdrop.  For example, all four Indiana Jones soundtracks are $5 each, and they're a delight, but the problem is that the Indiana Jones theme is so recognizable and so thoroughly implemented throughout that you would have a hard time picking out even a single track that wouldn't have the players jumping back to the movies and getting distracted.  By contrast, nobody in the universe gives a crap about Hook, an ill-conceived 1991 movie starring Robin Williams as a grownup Peter Pan who must recapture his childhood to save his own children from Dustin Hoffman's (unquestionably hilarious and awesome) Captain Hook.  Despite everyone in the movie giving their all, they just couldn't get the clunker off the ground.  However, Williams' soundtrack runs the gamut from early-1990s "suburban dad on the go" music to a full-on march of the pirate king, the almost-too-catchy "Presenting the Hook", along with a children's choir singing "We Don't Wanna Grow Up" from the famed stage adaptation of Peter Pan.  There are fairytale tracks and exciting chase/combat tracks.  It's, overall, a lighthearted adventure score with that full John Williams orchaestration that he's famous for, the big sound that will require you to turn down your speakers to keep from overwhelming the action.  Sometimes you just gotta go for the big red button, and that's what a John Williams score gives you.

I really do recommend the Amazon mp3 store - you get free downloads of the unlocked mp3s from the cloud to back up or install on any device you like.  I'll give you some more soundtrack analyses with some specific campaign ideas another time!