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In Praise of the Playlist

I’ve read several columns on the use of music in gaming, and for every RPGnet column that expounds on the incalculable enhancement that music is to the gaming session, there are at least two comments that the mechanics of including and managing music during an adventure, plus the potential for distraction, add up to a royal pain. Music is nice, but GM and players are here to game, first and foremost. Music should be an aid to roleplaying. As soon as the music or the management of it music intrudes on gameplay, you’re not gaming any more.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the best soundtrack to a session is one that supports the overall mood of the game and that can adapt to specific moods without requiring a significant break in the flow of the session. The problem is that, up until the past few years or so, such a goal has been difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.

Thankfully, the advent of the MP3, the ever-decreasing size of computers and the capability of ripping tracks from CDs have put the minimal-maintenance soundtrack within the grasp of Joe and Jane Gamemaster. In fact, the convergence of modern technology has given this goal a name – the playlist.

And why stop with just one? Take your CD collection and a few hours, and you can put together several playlists, each one suiting an individual mood within your campaign. All you have to do when the mood changes is swap between playlists and make sure the brick is still on the Track Shuffle button!

What Is A Playlist?

Quite simply, a playlist is a list of musical tracks to be played. As this is telling you nothing you don’t already know, I’m broadening the definition for the purposes of this article to include not just the music, but the storage media that contains the music and the equipment that plays and aids management of it. More often than not, your playlist will be either:

  • A collection of tracks on the hard drive of a PC, connected to a set of PC speakers.

  • A set of CDs (either store-bought music CDs or writable CDs with tracks burned onto them), loaded into a stereo system’s CD stacker.

There are combinations, of course. Some have their PCs hooked up to their stereo systems full-time, or make the effort just for gaming sessions. Also, the MP3 player is making its way into the modern stereo system, whether as an integral feature or a specialised “multimedia mini-PC”. But I think you get what I’m driving at.

In this column, I’d like to expound on my ideas when it comes to gaming music, and see whether my first (and most recent) attempt at seriously including music in a game has any worthy examples. I’m directing this toward game masters, as they’re the ones who are most likely going to be organising the session soundtrack.

A Legal Warning

I apologise for patronising anyone, but I’d like to remind you all that the methods of assembling and utilising a playlist that I discuss below often occupy a gray area in music and copyright law in many nations; in others, most if not all of the tips I give below are strictly illegal. Check your local laws, so that at the very least, you know whether you are or aren’t breaking the law.

Plan For A Party

Gaming is often compared to narratives such as theatre and movies, so much so that when gamers start thinking about including music in a roleplay session, they start thinking in terms of theme tunes for individual characters, specific songs for specific moods, and digging out their favourite movie soundtracks. Therein, I think, lies the downfall. It’s no wonder that some gamers simply throw their hands up in frustration when faced with changing tracks, hunting down a single song that “suits the scene” and accommodating (or not) players wanting a specific tune that “really puts across what’s going on with my character right now”.

It’s condescending to state that a roleplaying game isn’t a movie. But when it comes to music, it’s worth a reminder of what roleplaying is: a group of people getting together in one place to have fun, a.k.a. a party. I think that idea is the key to planning a good session soundtrack.

When preparing music for a party, you consider the mood that you want to encourage; whether the party’s going to be relaxed and comfortable or upbeat and loud. You also consider volume, balancing “loud enough to be heard” with “not loud enough to compete with or drown conversation”. Finally, you consider maintenance: whether to have a stack of CDs to be changed on a regular basis or just one and two so you can leave it to play while you’re doing other hosty things.

Plan your gaming music in the same manner. Rather than thinking of specific tunes, think of musical genres, and artists in those genres, that suit the general flavour of your game. Rather than specific events in your game, think of the moods that will (or may) occur during your game and pick tracks based on them. A helpful hint is to think of the places within the game world your PCs will visit and the activities they will most often perform, and base your playlists around them.

    Example: A few months ago, I ran a session of the octaNe RPG, and put playlists together for two of the major locations: Shangri-L.A./California (surf/punk) and Free States (hillbilly/rockabilly).As octaNe emphasises The Road, I also assembled Roadhouse (for when the players are at a roadside bar, drinking and/or gambling) and Cruise Control (road music). There’s also Action (for the inevitable fights) and Pedal to the Metal (car chases and auto duels).

    If I can get some appropriate music, I’d like to put together two more location playlists: Lost Vegas (Elvis/Rat Pack) and New Texaco (Country/Mexican).

Be General, Not Specific

If you’ve planned music for your gaming sessions before, you know how hard it is to find more than two songs that suit a specific combination of mood, setting and non-player character (or characters). My advice is to aim for just mood. You’re more likely to find a lot of tracks that suit a general mood (even if you’re staying within a given genre) than you are to find tracks that suit a specific event or character – especially when, given the nature of a roleplaying session, there’s no guarantee said event or character will ever occur or appear.

As such, don’t worry about specific “sets” when you’re planning the playlist for a location; although one track may be slightly more appropriate in the throne room of the Evil Overlord’s Dark Castle, it shouldn’t be a big deal if it comes on in the Dark Castle’s dungeon (or anywhere else in the Dark Castle, for that matter).

Don’t Play Favourites

No matter how they plead, no matter how much they beg – never, ever put your players’ favourite tunes in your playlist. That goes double for you, Mister or Mistress GM.

Okay, maybe I’m being a bit harsh. Really, it shouldn’t be a big deal when a song gets everyone’s attention for a bit; after all, the odd break won’t bring your whole session crashing down. If you and your players are enjoying the roleplaying, you’ll all segue back into character and mood quickly enough. Just be careful when you know the song in question is one a player particularly likes (or one you particularly like). The music should be changed as little as possible in order to remain an aid, and monkeying around with the playlists to find a specific tune (and then hopping back into the playlist once it finishes) is too much work on top of running the game.

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

It’s tempting when coming up with your session soundtrack to pick extended pieces from movies or the classical genre. Be careful here. A piece of music has its own internal consistency that never quite goes with any other tune. The ear can get used to things, and in my opinion, it’s better that the ear gets used to lots of small changes between shorter tracks than getting used to the flow of an extended piece, only to be jarred out of it by a single track change. That’s not to say it can’t be done, it’s just that your playlist will need closer management than otherwise – which, of course, diverts your attention from gaming.

You’re the Voice

I don’t think there’s anything really wrong with including songs (i.e. music with singing) in your playlists. When played at an appropriate volume, it’s not difficult to tune out sung lyrics, simply because the sung voice is melodious, and melody is easy to tune out.
Rap, on the other hand, is another spoken voice added to a table of spoken voices, and that can confuse and distract. If your players are off to a modern urban or American ghetto setting, I recommend finding non-vocal hip-hop or house over rap (the rappers are going to sound a lot like the NPCs the GM will be portraying).

The Shuffle Button Is Your Friend

Keep mixing up the tune-order on your playlists; even if you’ve used a playlist lots of times before, you can get away with re-using it when its tracks never play in the same order.


In my opinion, the best system to run a playlist on is a laptop with a set of external speakers. Using Windows Media Player or WinAmp, you can have a list of your playlists right there on the screen, accessible with just a few clicks. A simple double-adapter (and extension cord, where necessary) will give you power for the laptop and a set of external, powered stereo speakers (laptop speakers are often very tinny) right by the gaming table (not on, by; laptops aren’t spill-friendly), and the whole kit is fairly easy to port around; a bonus if the game is at Sue’s place this week and Rodney’s next week. You can even alt-tab between the playlist and your game notes.

The downside is, of course, cost; laptops, even used ones, are expensive pieces of hardware, and I think I’m in the minority in having access to one.

With Apple going all-out recently in its marketing of its iPod portable music system, it’s tempting to look at that as an option for gaming music; it beats the pants off a laptop in the portability stakes, and it can be connected up to a set of PC speakers via headphone jack. However, I’m not familiar enough with the device, or other common portable MP3 players, to comment on how easy it is to manage a playlist with – or even if you can set a playlist up on – one of these devices.

A stereo system is a more ubiquitous option, but to really use it properly for gaming purposes, you need to have your playlist or playlists burned to a CD (this also presupposes you have a computer with a CD burner, and tracks that can be legally copied). You won’t spend too much time juggling CDs, especially if the players hang around individual areas for extended periods.

Ideally, you’ll also have a carousel or stacker setup so that you can change playlists rapidly. If your stereo isn’t close to your GM’s seat, use any available remote control so you can make changes without having to get up from the GM’s seat. Have a printed list of the playlists handy, so that you know which disc is which, and also where individual tracks are should you need a specific one (preferably as little as possible, if at all).

The Low Budget Option

Unfortunately, there are those gamers (and I think they’re more often than not) who are stuck with a basic stereo system with a single-CD drawer (sometimes a DVD player doing double duty). This sort of setup is probably the cause of many gamers’ horror stories with music in games. Imagine having to stop the game for a few seconds at a dramatic moment to leap over to the CD player, stop it, take the CD in there out, put the one with the appropriate track on it in the drawer, select the track number and hit play, then wait for the player to close, seek and come on… it’s no wonder some gamers start pulling their hair out when their players (fellow or otherwise) say “Hey, I have a CD here with a track that’s perfect for what’s happening!”

If you absolutely, positively must have music with this sort of setup, be prepared for breaks in your GMing as you rush to the stereo to pull one CD/tape and put another in. My advice? Concentrate on game mastering and don’t worry about music. If your players strenuously complain about the absence of music in your sessions, ask them to split the cost of a CD-stacker stereo. That’ll shut ‘em up. If not, hit them up for the cost of a laptop. Hey, if a stereo system didn’t faze your players, they must be rich!

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