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Not everyone uses ambient music during their tabletop sessions, and it really should be used as a tool whenever possible. Background music holds the power to change even a mediocre reveal into a grand revelation! Music has transcended being a pleasant tabletop accompaniment, evolving into a must-have in any GM’s arsenal.
Background noises are nothing new to Tabletop RPG’s. In fact, everyone and their brother has already written articles on the subject, but most miss the point of how it actually influences the game, the players and the world around them. I set out to prove that it is an important tool for any GM. I can dictate, using examples, how music can set the tone, fill in the setting, influence your players, or build tension.Set Some Scenes
Let’s bring in some examples. An instrumental version of Smash Mouth’s “Walkin’ on the Sun”
plays in the background as the characters arrive at school, ready to serve a Saturday detention. PC’s can absorb the lighthearted-pop song giving them a feeling of invincibility walking into the school. Unconsciously, the players can feel the tone of the song and build off of it as their characters get set up for the session. It sets the entire tone of the scene: how they should act, what the feeling is in the world around them. In this case, it can also describe the setting just as well as words can, you can feel the late 90’s oozing out of this Breakfast Club rehashing.
Changes in music can alter how the players want their characters to react. Moving along, let’s say these same characters decide to leave the classroom to explore the school, keeping “Walkin’ on the Sun” may lead them to some lighthearted shenanigans, but to subconsciously cause them to push the envelope, change the music to The Ramones “Blitzkrieg Bop”, and an entirely new set of characters emerge. Ones that can be filled with teenage angst and destructive tendencies. You
may soon find instead of deciding to stealthily pick open a locker the players may use a fire extinguisher to bash it open.
The easiest way I’ve ever found to shift scenes is to change a song. Let’s change the characters and scenario entirely. Let’s go with a group of adventurers in D&D preparing for a large-scale battle alongside many allies they’ve gained over the campaign. The DM (that’s you) pumps up some epic jams for the battle, and a difficult battle ensues for the PC’s and some random enemies. All while this fight is going on, other skirmishes are happening simultaneously around them. Then, when the battle is over and the PC’s have a chance to catch their breath, you change the music to “Dearly Beloved” from the Kingdom Hearts OST. The hauntingly beautiful sounds wash over them giving them a temporary reprieve before they look upon their allies that were stuck in other matches. Allies bruised, battered, bloodied, and dead. This moment speaks volumes to the PC’s, what’s occurring in the campaign is no longer child’s play. This is where things get dangerous.
Now, I’ll preface my last example that follows by saying all of the examples above are actual events that I took from games that I’ve run. The reason that I remember them as clearly as I do, is because of how the songs impacted the mood of the characters playing. However, none of them hold a candle to my final example. This is my greatest moment of Game Mastering I can ever hope to achieve.The Perfect Storm
It was during a superhero campaign — the PC’s created their own superhero agency, recruiting their classmates in a superhero high school. These heroes had just beat the Big Bad for the first half of the campaign, bringing him to justice. They were exhausted, battered, and in need of a long rest. Flash-forward two in-game weeks to New Year’s Eve. The PC’s have some champagne, hors d’oeuvres, and are surrounded by their friends that they’ve known for years. “Auld Lang Syne” plays in the background, as the PC’s celebrate. Then the countdown to midnight: 10, 9, 8, 7… That’s when something happened. All of the superheroes in the agency suddenly froze as a new Big Bad announced his presence. In this moment, “Auld Lang Syne”, instead of carrying the joy of being done with a year of heartache and pain, now instead conveyed pure terror, as all of the heroes were unable to move, and could only watch as the emerging villain monologued. The speech concluded with the villain firing a bullet right at one of the Player’s favorite NPC’s, killing them immediately. By pure chance, this happened right as “Auld Lang Syne” hit its crescendo, then filtered into silence.
Now, this scene would have been good, if not great by itself. This was the turning point of the entire campaign to let the PC’s know they weren’t in the minor leagues anymore. But the inclusion of the song was the single factor that brought this gaming moment to Legendary. For once, in 6 years of playing with this group, everyone was honest-to-goodness absolutely speechless.
I’ve always been a fan of having ambient songs in the background of gaming sessions, but after this moment, I will never run another session without having pre-selected at least a dozen songs to play during a session. After having a defining moment only augmented by an appropriate song choice, and to have that moment become iconic for your players, that’s an achievement that all Game Masters will eternally pride themselves in.
Do you use music in your adventures? Will you start, or are you opposed to it in general?
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If you’re like me, you really enjoy having visual aids at the gaming table. While I enjoy 3D terrain made by companies like Dwarven Forge and Mantic Games, their products are both expensive and tedious to transport and set up. These products require a lot of financial investment if you’d like to create an engaging and reflexive tabletop experience.
So what’s the solution to this conundrum?
This is where the Index Card RPG (ICRPG) comes into play (pun intended). An easy to learn game in its own right, what I love most about ICRPG is just how relevant it’s become in ALL of the RPGs I play.
What is the Index Card RPG? ICRPG is a simple, easy to learn take on classic games that gives players tools to tell stories and create dynamic and responsive challenges. While there are many simple systems like Black Hack and pretty much any Powered by the Apocalypse Game, what intrigued me most about this particular product was applicability of the namesake card sets. There are currently four volumes of the ICRPG card sets. Volumes 1 & 2 feature sword & sorcery-themed art while volumes 3 & 4 feature science fiction and weird west respectively. Each set features 100 unique pieces of art that can be cut out for use as locations, props, story building tools, and more! As a professional GM, I’ve found myself playing games with clients around the city. In 2018, I ran 5 in-person sessions PER WEEK across the Greater Toronto Area! Transporting and setting up complicated terrain is not only costly and a hassle for a mobile GM, but also incredibly limiting.
Say I’d like to set a game in a small town. I would absolutely LOVE to use a Dwarven Forge City Builder set, but that’ll set me back several hundred dollars. Alternatively, I could draw the entire town (or important sections) on a grid. If only I had the money and artistic talent. This is why I love ICRPG cards – they allow me to focus on the story while still providing a cool visual experience for players. As I narrate and describe a town to the table, I lay out individual cards – the fountain, the gates, the market stalls, the blacksmith, etc. In a matter of minutes, I have the entire town laid out for everyone at the table! For players that like using miniatures, I have them place their pieces on the icon cards themselves. The best part is that the “set up” is all part of the narrative experience. No time is wasted, and every moment is spent telling stories together.
Stay curious and game on!
Daniel Kwan is a storyteller, media professional, and game designer based in Toronto, Canada. He is one of the co-founders of Level Up Gaming, an organization that provides individuals with autism and other disabilities opportunities to develop their social skills through group gaming experiences. His first educational RPG, Zany Zoo, was released in 2018. He is currently working on Ross Rifles, a Powered by the Apocalypse RPG about the lives and experiences of Canadian soldiers stationed on the Western Front during the First World War. Daniel co-hosts the Asians Represent! podcast on the One Shot Network.
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