Turn It Up To 11: Music In Tabletop RPGs

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I don’t think I’ve talked a whole lot about my relationship with music, but while I’m basically totally tone-deaf and am utterly incapable as a creator, I have a very deep and special appreciation for music in media and pop culture. Specifically, I’ve found that I’m always a sucker for a very stylish usage of music that I have trouble vocalizing. While there is no shortage of franchises known for their music, my focus lies less on things like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings which just, y’know, have good soundtracks, and more on media that embraces its soundtrack and maximizes it.

Instead, my love goes out to pieces which make music an active element of the storytelling. The earliest time I can remember recognizing this was during a musical performance of Romeo and Juliet I saw at the Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth. During a fight scene between the Montagues and Capulets, the actors timed their sword collisions with the music. Since then, I’ve seen other clever uses of music, from the adaptive soundtrack in Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, the synchronizing of the Reaper horns with the soundtrack early in Mass Effect 3, crossing into Mexico in Red Dead Redemption, the way the music soars upon climbing a Colossus in Shadow of the Colossus, and recently, the way the soundtrack is used to such great effect in Baby Driver.

So, of course, since it’s a major focus for me recently, I was left wondering, how can I use music like this in tabletop RPGs? The idea of bringing music to the table isn’t novel. Plenty of resources are available which provide background music for tabletop games, and many GMs, including one of my own and myself, will create playlists befitting certain situations. For example, my Shadowrun game, which frequently features characters getting into assorted niche bars, has spawned a half dozen playlists ranging from industrial punk to Frank Sinatra.

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And were I playing Vampire: The Masquerade, I’d presumably just put Marilyn Manson’s discography on loop

But that’s not what I was looking for. That’s just cool background music, some light window dressing on the mood that usually just comes to conflict with the lighthearted tone with is present at the table 99% of the time (after all, most tabletop groups are just a group of friends sitting around a table hanging out, usually with snacks).

The problem, in my eyes, was that for music to be used the way I wanted it to be used required foundational work in the mechanics themselves, it couldn’t just be slapped on to a session in hopes that it’d work. So, because I’m an insane person who doesn’t already have enough on his plate, I made a game: Leitmotif.

Leitmotif is my answer to the question, and ideally, an inspiration for others to consider using music in their game design as a more active component. I won’t post the rules, because they’re a half-edited mess, but the core principle is this: every character in the game has a small set of stats, typical of any RPG, but also has a playlist, consisting of real world songs. The songs in this playlist are tagged using a system of tags presented in the game, ranging from genre tags (“punk”, “EDM”, “country”) to descriptors of lyrical content (“love song”, “fight song”, “about cars”) to more general descriptors (“sad”, “fast”, “loud”). These tags grant characters statistical modifications. Load your character’s playlist up with love songs, and they’ll be more personal, more of a charmer. Load them up with heavy metal and gangster rap, and you’ve got more of a bruiser on your hands. The idea is that the playlist should be a reflection of the character, an effect sort of cheated into existence by actually forcing the reverse: the character is a reflection of their playlist.

The key of Leitmotif is what I call the Juke, which is just the game term for a physical object on the table playing music, be it a phone, bluetooth speaker, radio, computer, whatever. You see, not only do songs have effects on their character, but like spells, songs with specific tags will have global effects on the game when they’re playing on the Juke. Play The Trooper by Iron Maiden, and a global combat buff will be bestowed upon every character present in the game scene. Play some Barry White, and everyone will get a charisma bonus. The core principle is the same as before: make the music always fit the scene, but do so in reverse, by having the mechanical effect of the music encourage players to play according to the song.

The key, though, is in Quarters.

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Quarters are a fictional metacurrency in the game (although I suppose you could use real quarters) given out by the game master and generated via character abilities. You use Quarters in game the same way you use Quarters in real life: to play a song on the Juke. Specifically, to play one of your songs, a song on your character’s playlist. When a song on your playlist is going, it’s your time to shine, your triumphant scene. Your Rules of Nature is playing, your Imperial March. When you spend a Quarter, the effect of your song only affects who you want it to, so those global stat buffs become yours. It’s time to reload your shotguns, come out of cover, and just blast everyone.

Now, some interesting design considerations come out of this design skeleton. First off, the tagging system needs to be robust enough to handle someone picking relatively obscure music (“I think my character is best summarized by Tibetan throat singing”), or multiple people picking similar songs for their playlist (Ensuring a character whose playlist is full of the Sex Pistols is mechanically different from one whose playlist is full of, say, KISS, two bands which are musically distinct but could be tagged similarly). Furthermore, to maximize the effect of the music, dice rolls and combat need to be clean and fast. After all, it would be a bummer to spend a Quarter, blare Kickstart My Heart, and have the song end while you’re still calculating your first dice roll.

Anyways, that’s Leitmotif in a nutshell. It still needs to be playtested (traveling for a month and a half straight is a real nightmare to schedule around!), but it’s my entry into a conversation I think should be had. In a modern design space where it seems like tabletop RPGs are trying to bring new and interesting things into the game itself, from playing cards to candles to a Jenga tower, I think music is so ubiquitous at the table already that we designers should be seeing what we can do with it.

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