Music is one of the most effective tools a storyteller can use to set the mood for gaming. The Juke-box for music series explores various themes and genres, offering a wide variety of albums, composers and bands. We are going to try to give you detailed and practical recommendations for various settings. Our main objective is to provide material for tabletop role-playing groups; however, the experience of playing board games might also be elevated by the atmosphere of the gaming area. The first issue of our series will explore the sci-fi horror genre. The cold wasteness of space, the brusque claustrophobic interior of spaceships and the unknown inhuman planets are key elements in this genre, as well as the alien monstrosities that the protagonist must face.
The following article will discuss a series of movie soundtracks, majority not from the genre. However, we have good reasons to venture out to other genres of movies, because these soundtracks feel one’s leg detached. They have already proved their worth in setting the tone of various sci-fi horror game sessions. If you are only interested in the titles, check them without further reading, however, you can also find advice and various notices about tracks that might ruin your work:
- Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises
- Batman: Arkham Asylum
- The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum
- Death Race
- Max Payne 3
- Black Hawk Down
- Deus Ex: Human Revolution
Soundtracks are a natural choice for background music. They are not intrusive, lyrics do not get in the way and the familiar instruments make them easy to listen to. Most film score albums build tension, and use a short tune repeatedly to make it complete (and more catchy). If you can adapt to the rising of the tension, the strength of the volume, you can follow it with the story as a game master.
Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy has a very decent soundtrack (composed by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard). Echoing, low-pitched, slowly rising and descending melodies provide a foreshadowing, creepy atmosphere. The first album (Batman Begins) contains the main theme of the films, repeating them often, but not flustering at all. The Dark Knight has a more diverse sound landscape with the previously introduced motif. The last track on the album is a monumental piece (over 16 minutes long), which might fit the crescendo of a game session well. The closing piece of the trilogy (The Dark Knight Rises) is the first where human voices feature (track titles: Gotham’s Reckoning, The Fire Rises). A distant choir is heard in the background, raising tension slowly to an open-ended decrescendo. The opening track (A Storm is Coming) is a very short but effective one to introduce something foreboding in your story or catch the attention of your players. If you can, get the computer game Batman: Arkham Asylum’s soundtrack composed by Nick Arundel and Ron Fish. It consists of a series of thematic short tracks and tunes from ambient menacing pieces to pulsating, heavy beats for combat, but with the overall coherence you’ll need for your campaign. The tracklist requires selection and organization from the storyteller’s part, but it is definitely worth it.
The Bourne trilogy (Identity, Supremacy and Ultimatum) has an interesting soundtrack by John Powell. It has a completely different, more modern and rusty style compared to Hans Zimmer’s work. Slower pieces are mixed with faster, tight tracks, sometimes using violins and other string instruments beside a distorted electric guitar. Just the perfect background music for a menacing spaceship to fly into view and give the creeps to the players. The first album is very structured; romantic, emotional pieces alternating with industrial heavy beats. The drum and bass remix at the end of the album is ideal for the final confrontation with the main boss. Supremacy’s tracklist is closer to the classical spy movies from the cold war: low-keyed pieces with piano and a lot of strings, much less electronic/digital instruments. Be careful with Moby’s Extreme Ways song: it is perfect for driving, but completely out of character on the album (however, it might close the game session perfectly). Ultimatum is very similar to the first album, not only in structure, but melodies and instruments as well. I would like to highlight the piece titled Waterloo; it is a long, slowly building but intense track with a sudden end. Moby is here again, with a remix and somewhat longer version of the track from the previous album.
For a dirty, cramped, aggressive, more action-packed, chaotic mood, look up the soundtrack of Death Race by Paul Haslinger. Even the slower pieces are full of testosterone, painting a dark, cruel world. There are voiceovers in some of the songs, but these are not disturbing at all: men talking in a voice that would fit a marine, an astronaut or a tough engineer on the bridge. Similar atmosphere can be reached by Clint Mansell’s early work: a soundtrack for Doom (the film, not the game). It is a diverse list of tracks with tension-filled pieces performed by an orchestra and alien soundscapes produced by distorting melodies and notes. The last track is a remix of a recent Nine Inch Nails track (You know what you are?) and the only one with lyrics in it. I would save that one for the after-game wrap-up discussion.
Max Payne 3 with its strange melodies is another great choice. With the varied, overlayed tempos of the various sounds, it is a really unique musical experience. It has those moments evidently suitable for a complex gunfight, and of course there are more melancholic pieces for the soul to wander though. All tracks are instrumental with a lot of percussions and some electronic melodies, except for the last track. The song by Emicida is a great, latino, pulsating one, ideal peace for introducing a character or group with such a background. However, keep in mind that with its strong ethnic chacter it has its own feel.
Hans Zimmer’s work on the Black Hawk Down soundtrack is extraordinary. The album combines voices and instruments foreign to the European/American ears with classical melodies. It is up to you if you use the songs of Rachid Taha, Denez Prigent (and Lisa Gerard). I recommend both; they are exceptional, adding an interesting layer to the beginning and climax of a game session. However, I would skip the song ‘Minstrel Boy’ due to its easily recognizable Earthly reference. (Take care with Bakara as well, the rap-like vocals and the rhythm of the song stand out from the other parts of the album.)
The highly praised Deus Ex Human Revolution is a must for you if you plan hightech environments or story elements. Classical instruments and strange, aetheral sounds with some female charm give the album a characteristic, modern, dense feel. Only one track stands out with a pulsating, dance-like sensation: HongHua Brothel is a bit off, but might have its role: a crowded scene where the majority is having fun, but our protagonists must watch out for something important or dangerous.
John Murphy’s Sunshine is going to close the current article. It is a classical sci-fi soundtrack with creepy overtones and recurring sudden changes in the volume. Despite the fact that I do not like the latter effect, the album works really well for the alien, lonely atmosphere of space. The tracks are short and restless, with only a couple of peaceful, drifting melodies that provide some really interesting surprises for the listener.
When planning the playlist for the game session, it is important to avoid those tracks that might ruin our mood. Be careful especially with those players who will bring up memories and vividly show and tell what the scene looked like in the film the score of which is playing. They will probably ruin the mood you plan to set with the music.