Music as a narrative instrument
In a lot of ways, running a horror game is one of the hardest genres to bring forth to your players. There isn’t a lot of ability on the part of most GM’s, especially those who have to work for a living, to create an ambient space dedicated simply to the mood and setting of their games. I’ve read plenty of anecdotal examples where the GM draped a space with netting and played with the lighting to evoke a specific sense of strangeness and claustrophobia, but a lot of this is simply not practical for most people’s homes.
One shortcut that I’ve found and adapted to my own experiences is using music to set a specific tone. It’s a tip that comes up constantly in the various tips on how to best run an evocative game, and in a lot of ways, it’s the easiest way to get a setting across without a whole lot of work.
Well, without a whole lot of work at the table, I should say. Using music as a motif for your gaming does require a certain amount of effort outside of the game, but it’s effort of a different sort than painting the walls and raiding the army surplus store for props.
In order to use music well, you have to have a lot of music at your fingertips to be able to use it correctly. Moreover, it requires that the soundtrack that you set is proper for the mood, set up in some sort of mix, and vaguely subliminal for the purposes of not being distracting. The mix part is important, because while the music shouldn’t distract the players from what they’re doing, the GM can’t be distracted by queuing up new tracks every couple of minutes. It helps if the GM has a CD of appropriate music already in hand, but the same effect can be achieved by setting up a playlist beforehand as well. And if Esteren taught us anything with its musical cues, you can cover a lot of ground simply by digging around on YouTube for the songs you need.
One shortcut for building game soundtracks is the refer back to whichever movies or television best suit the effect that you’re looking for. This works specifically well for horror games (I can say this with some measure of experience in the matter), as horror movies built in motifs of lurking menace and outright suspense. Action movies can lend motifs of high adrenaline and sudden motion, where movies that portray specific regions can evoke that area of the world through native instrumentation and soundscape.
The main danger to this method is that if a soundtrack is familiar enough, it’s has the potential to distract the players simply by being recognizable. The Star Wars main theme is great if you’re running a Star Wars game, as is the Star Trek main theme for a Star Trek game. You wouldn’t use one for the other, however, as your players would instantly notice that the music is wrong.
Another shortcut for game soundtracks is New Age music. Often, the artists are referencing certain science fiction or fantasy themes or works in their music, and you can use this to your advantage. It also helps that there’s a rather vast abundance of New Age music to draw from, so even if your players are audiophiles, there’s a good chance that they haven’t heard the artist you’re referencing.
In a lot of situations, orchestral soundtracks trump soundtracks with lyrics, simply because there’s the innate human tendency to try to listen to the words as they’re being sung. Again, this is something that can vary for the game and the appropriateness of the music, as the situation in the game can vary widely.
One of the most important aspects of the soundtrack to consider, in the mean time, is how you view the music as the GM. The music is being used primarily to evoke a specific mood in the minds of your players, but the mood that it evokes in your mind while GM’ing is every bit as important, as it puts you in a specific mindset that will propel your game forward. During one game I found myself using the Broken Arrow soundtrack as a shorthand for one of the main villains, as I found the very recognizable guitar work of the main theme put me in mind of a swaggering evil that carried no fear of the characters he was confronting. Of course, once the players started to equate that theme with that particular NPC, they started to dread hearing that soundtrack start up.
Mind you, all of this advice up to this point is to build a method of creating certain expectations in the minds of your players as they’re in the midst of a session. Tense action music befits a combat, where orchestral cues of lurking menace work well for an investigative game. A science fiction or fantasy theme brings the world itself to mind, so as to better immerse them in that particular world.
There’s one final method to consider, and that’s the one that runs directly counter to all of this. Specifically, one of the most powerful techniques to unsettle your players in the process of a horror scenario is to give them some sort of musical basis that seems to heighten the unnatural aspects of the scenario.
This is going to require an example or two to make any amount of sense.
The first aspect of this requires that a scene already be set with appropriate music, hopefully something very simple and everyday. Essentially, the trick is to lull the players into a sense that what they’ve encountered is nothing out of the ordinary and they can relax. If they’re investigating a college campus, they’ll hear the vague muzak piped about in the classroom buildings and the lobbies of the area. If they’re in the country, it’s going to be something orchestral and pastoral if there’s no one around, else the music of the people they’re dealing with. And then, when they discover the dead body or the evidence of necromantic inquiry, the music persists, the casual normalcy of it underscoring how badly things are starting to go.
The other aspect is a little more difficult, in that it requires a certain amount of sadism on the GM’s part. Inverse to the previous, the lurking horror music is slowly amped up as the characters proceed into the lair of the villain, the tension increasing as they draw closer to the confrontation and note the personal effects of their adversary’s past victims. At which point, the adversary’s clock radio goes off, blaring his personal mix of disco favorites. The players have built up the horror movie aspect of the scenario to such an extent that the cognitive dissonance of trying to make sense of the dangers surrounding them is directly counter to the bubblegum pop that they’re hearing.
Naturally, these last two techniques are a bit harder to pull off and require that you know your players well enough to know how to get under their skin, but the final result is hard to argue with.