Dice Tales: A Story in Song

Roman twenty-sided die(This is the forty-fifth installment of Dice Tales, an ongoing series of posts about RPGs as storytelling.)


There’s another kind of game record that I think may be, if not unique to my own circle of gamers, then decidedly less common outside of it.

When I went to grad school, I got involved with the local Changeling: The Dreaming LARP. Much to my surprise, a few sessions into my time there, the GM handed out a bunch of CDs. These, the other players explained to me, were the soundtracks for the next “season” of the game. The GMs had a five year plan — yes, very much like Babylon 5 — and at the start of each season, this guy made a mix CD to serve as a kind of musical score for the game. Because he did this ahead of time, and games are improvisational things, it was necessarily on the general side; it’s exceedingly difficult to really railroad a LARP, so the GM didn’t know the specifics of how things were going to play out. But he did know which factions existed in the game and which major NPCs he was going to introduce, and what conflict we’d be dealing with at the end of the season — if not precisely how we would deal with it. So he picked out songs to fit those things and gave them appropriate titles, then burned off copies with nicely printed labels and distributed them to all the players.

I wasn’t around when this practice started, but I presume it’s the reason that character soundtracks were such a widespread thing in that group. Unlike the game soundtracks, these generally got made after the players had been active for a while, because we had much less sense of where the story was going than the GM did. But enough people made them that we even had “soundtrack swaps,” where people would make copies for everybody else signed up for the swap. Some people just chose a bunch of music they associated with their character; others went the extra mile, or even three. Specific songs for specific associations: this one for their PC love interest, that one for the session where they did something cool, another to describe the feelings they had after an important NPC died. There were labels; there were covers. The gamut of musical styles was huge. I got introduced to dozens of new-to-me artists that way, and learned a lot about the ways you can link music and story . . . which of course made it inevitable that when I ran my own first campaign, I made soundtracks for it, too.

Back when we were talking about the tools a game can use to keep everyone on the same imaginative page, I brought up music. This technique works much better in a tabletop game than in a LARP, because you can be sure that everybody is having a creepy or romantic moment at the same time, rather than two characters professing their love for one another while three others are plotting murder on the other side of the same room. Having seen other GMs employ music to good effect in their tabletop games, I knew I wanted to do the same for my own; and having chosen music to use during the sessions, it was only natural that I should assemble mix CDs to give to my players. Maybe I would have been better off making them ahead of time, like the Changeling GM did: then possibly I would have been more restrained? His later-season soundtracks ran to double discs, but I wound up with a six-volume score for a game that lasted about eleven months. >>

The habit hasn’t gone away. I’ve made soundtracks for almost every game I’ve run — though never quite so absurdly many for a single campaign. (There were structural reasons why I went so far overboard on that one.) I make soundtracks for most of the characters I play long-term, even when nobody else in the game is doing the same thing . . . though I’m pleased to note that my L5R players have leapt on that particular bandwagon with glee. And it isn’t just an RPG thing, either! After that Changeling LARP, I graduated from having one or two songs I associated with a particular writing project to making actual novel soundtracks. Complete with new track titles and even labels and covers, despite the fact that I’m usually the only person with a copy.

Why do I go to all that work? Well, I can’t really explain the labels and covers, except to say that it makes them look nice and by now it’s a habit. I could say I like sharing the music with my readers, and it would be true — I’ve posted the track listing for every novel score on my website, and even the music I’ve listened to while writing various short stories — but that’s just the listing; I can’t actually share the music directly, not without violating a whole lotta copyright. I can’t even be sure how many people bother to look at those pages, or recognize/hunt down the songs if they do. So really, it’s just a thing I’m doing for myself . . . and that brings me back around to what I said at the start of this post.

I’ve been known to refer to those novel soundtracks as my musical outlines. The process of deciding what in the story merits a song (a certain character? a plot moment? a thematic idea?) and what exactly that song ought to sound like requires me to really ponder my story, to think about what elements carry the most significant weight and what emotional effects I’m trying to achieve with them. I often wind up making the soundtrack in between finishing the first draft and revising it, which means the scoring process becomes part of how I solidify my sense of the narrative. The same thing is true when I make a soundtrack for a character or a game, except without the revision part: I have to decide which characters and moments and feelings most deserve to be commemorated in music, and then find tunes to match.

Which means that the soundtrack winds up acting as a different kind of record of the game. A less factual one — it doesn’t tell me the precise order in which a scene played out, or the words we spoke IC — but in many ways a more powerful one, because of how music evokes such an emotional response. The best songs, the ones that just clicked into place because their melody or lyrics fit so well with the story, still carry that resonance even years after the fact. Half of the reason I wound up writing Cold-Forged Flame was because this song came up on my iPod and threw me right back into the headspace of that character. (The other half of the reason was that I’d also just heard a a different song that made me think very powerfully of Ree, even though it wasn’t one I’d known back when I was playing her.)

I make soundtracks because they’re another way of telling the story, and another way of remembering it.


Posted in Gaming Tagged , , permalink

About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit swantower.com, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


Dice Tales: A Story in Song — 5 Comments

  1. I’m also the sort of person to create mental ‘music videos’ for some songs – especially opening credit songs. I develop these a bit every time I listen to the song, so that even when it comes up YEARS later, not only does the music take me back to the game, but I’ve got full-on visuals of particular characters or scenes to go with it.

  2. Pingback: Dice Tales enters the home stretch - Swan Tower

  3. While we also love soundtracks and use them to emphasize the mood, we avoid “songs”, as lyrics are mighty distracting and/or mood breaking. Definitely prefer “just” tracks.
    One of my favorite things to do is to search the internets for various covers and rearrangements of Video Game music; this way I usually can ensure that it’s something good and emotionally strong, while also making sure that players at the table don’t know it from somewhere else and thus they will connect it with the game and feeling they have right now (or right then), instead of conjuring whatever the original source used this music for.

    • I use “song” in a general sense; we don’t use a lot of music with lyrics, either. Most of what we do use has lyrics not in English, which makes it much less distracting. Film scores are my go-to place most of the time.