Using singing as a storytelling tool in games

edited April 2019 in Story Games
This past week in my regular Fall of Magic session, we had a pretty stunning moment where a long-running villain, a siren who has it in for our party, confronted another character with an ominous promise about trouble coming for the party and everything changing. I described him as singing an eerie song as he walked away, clearly performing magic through his song, and one of our players thought about it and said "I know what he's singing," and spontaneously sang us Nina Simone's "Tomorrow Is My Turn." Given our history with that character, it was a startlingly perfect song — it references how no one knows the future (when this character does, because he's seized control of an Oracle), and how we can try to erase the past, but "It's too late to regret, what is gone will be no more." (Which could be read as a reminder that the party took his lover from him and hid her in memories, where she'll never be found, but he's forging onward anyway.) And it repeatedly comes back to what sounds like a threat: "Tomorrow is my turn," which sounds like foreshadowing for his next move.

We've had a lot of fun in this game with singing to each other — when my character was badly injured, the party found her hiding in darkness and recovering, singing Bill Caddick's "John O'Dreams" to herself as a comfort lullaby. A bard battle between that siren and our bard had both players writing and bringing songs to the game, with very different tones — hers an upbeat singalong about life on our ship on the Sea of Salt, his a dark, threatening warning about the Magus leading us into peril. We've gotten to the point where we encourage each other to sing, and talk a lot about how music could shape specific scenes.

I've run across RPGs where music was a mechanic or a theme, but this is the first game I've been in where singing was a regular feature and storytelling tool solely because of the people involved. I'd be curious to hear about other people's experiences with incorporating real performance or recorded music into their games to assist in telling the story, especially for conveying emotions.

Comments

  • That’s a fabulous story. My only experience with singing in an RPG setting is the online D&D game “Critical Role” where the bard character sings actual songs every time he uses some bardic powers. It’s intended more as humour, though.
  • It's hard to do, because most people would shy away. It's not only the first player who sang, it's also the quality of listening and benevolence at your table that strikes me.
  • First of all that story is so cool! It's great hearing about people playing Fall of Magic too, I've been wanting to try it for a while.

    I actually do have a player in the D&D fifth edition game that I run at my office who sings during some of our sessions. Like in @Paul_T 's example she's a bard and sings whenever she uses her bardic powers, but unlike the player he mentioned she's actually pretty serious about it. Usually it comes in the form of a ballad about the deeds of the adventuring group. I was absolutely shocked the first time she did it in a session because she rarely even speaks as her character.
  • It's great hearing about people playing Fall of Magic too, I've been wanting to try it for a while.
    It's a tremendous game, and I highly recommend it, if you have a group of players who can run with storytelling prompts and are good with a freeform, rules-light environment. The game I'm currently in is one of the best RPG experiences I've ever had.
    I actually do have a player in the D&D fifth edition game that I run at my office who sings during some of our sessions. Like in @Paul_T 's example she's a bard and sings whenever she uses her bardic powers, but unlike the player he mentioned she's actually pretty serious about it. Usually it comes in the form of a ballad about the deeds of the adventuring group.
    Is she writing these songs as she goes? That would be amazing. I just assume there are groups out there with actual musicians who put their talents into making songs about their groups, just as gaming is full of artists who create fan art, but I've seen surprisingly little evidence of it.
  • It's hard to do, because most people would shy away. It's not only the first player who sang, it's also the quality of listening and benevolence at your table that strikes me.
    They're a really good and generous and creative group, which helps a lot in Fall of Magic, and helps explain why we're still playing the same campaign after 9 months, when apparently most people play the whole game in a single session.
  • Yes! We do this! We don't have background music on but we put on specific songs (or I sing them). For many of the NPCs or other situations I've made my own mashups or remixes of songs (I've culled from pop songs, metal songs, jazz standards, classical music). I have a little gadget that can put on any song instantly. Like Jayani the pirate queen; first time we played her theme song was when she kicked down the door to one of the PCs.

    Right now they're in a dungeon where there are a lot of Full Metal Frankensteins walking around and when they here this song they know that such a Frankie Boy is nearby. These are just examples, it can also be something much better.

    We also have an opening theme song and an ending theme song.
  • edited April 2019
    Bric, wow, that's interesting running FoM so long— do you know (or can make a rough estimation) how many sessions?
    I actually do have a player in the D&D fifth edition game that I run at my office who sings during some of our sessions. Like in @Paul_T 's example she's a bard and sings whenever she uses her bardic powers, but unlike the player he mentioned she's actually pretty serious about it. Usually it comes in the form of a ballad about the deeds of the adventuring group. I was absolutely shocked the first time she did it in a session because she rarely even speaks as her character.
    Wow! She is my new idol!
  • Like Jayani the pirate queen; first time we played her theme song was when she kicked down the door to one of the PCs.
    Oh, I love this! I'm also in a long-running Lady Blackbird game where now I'm thinking the PCs really need their own theme songs.
    Right now they're in a dungeon where there are a lot of Full Metal Frankensteins walking around and when they here this song they know that such a Frankie Boy is nearby.
    This is even better! Using music as a foreshadowing tool and cue to a specific villain proximity is a great idea, and seems entirely designed to train players to a certain instant dread or excitement as soon as they hear a sound cue. I'm going to have to think more about that one.

    For what it's worth, I often forget about music during games, but whenever I run Dread I like to put on Google Music's "Something Terrible Is About To Happen" playlist , which is just ominous background music.
    Bric, wow, that's interesting running FoM so long— do you know (or can make a rough estimation) how many sessions?
    Yup, we've been chronicling it because there's so much going on, we need to keep careful notes — 19 sessions, averaging about 2 1/2 hours each. That counts our two-session sidebar where we tried out the "Fugitive's Song" expansion from the FoM Kickstarter. We're currently on the back side of the map, just approaching the Forest of Karst.
  • I'm a professional musician who never uses music in any way in my gaming. This thread is inspiring and exciting! So lovely to read about all this going on.
  • I'm a professional musician who never uses music in any way in my gaming. This thread is inspiring and exciting! So lovely to read about all this going on.
    Do you have any idea why? I'm a professional writer and I use writing skills a TON in my games just because it's a natural thing to me. Why wouldn't you automatically put your music skills into your games?


  • I read that most movies only are scored for around 40% of the time. Like when they're walking up a stair or driving a car or something. Not all the time as some DMs do it. Which becomes exhausting to me. I was very inspired by the movie Pulp Empire btw. A re-edit of Star Wars but with music cues
  • In our Misspent Youth game about illegal teenage magick, one session was on a player's birthday. So the players decided it was also the birthday of that player's character. And as a birthday gift, the other PCs cast a ritual so that everyone at their high school believed they were in a musical. Everyone would spontaneously burst into song and choreographed dances to express their feelings. (My favorite part was the school bully NPC, who had an amulet protecting him from mental magic. So he was the only person in school who recognized that it was odd for everyone to be singing and dancing and all that. He thought he was going insane, and everyone else thought he was being weirdly standoffish.)

    The players improvised songs throughout the game (later reprising previous songs in new contexts just as a musical would). Different songs exposed people's personalities and emotions in ways we wouldn't have seen otherwise.

    It worked really nicely, in part because we agreed early on: people can sing well, or sing badly, or describe characters singing without actually singing themselves. All methods were acceptable and encouraged, because that way every player could be happy and comfortable. Forcing someone to sing when they didn't want to would have been terrible.
  • I'm a professional musician who never uses music in any way in my gaming. This thread is inspiring and exciting! So lovely to read about all this going on.
    Do you have any idea why? I'm a professional writer and I use writing skills a TON in my games just because it's a natural thing to me. Why wouldn't you automatically put your music skills into your games?
    That's a good question, and I'm not sure what to say, because it's never even occurred to me before. I suppose part of it is that I don't play (games) with other musicians, part is that one is work and the other is play (playing games happens as a way to get away from professional pursuits, after all), and part is that I am not a singer. Getting a bunch of instruments ready and tuned and set up while playing a game... sounds rather complicated and unnecessary. And, even then, what would I do with them?

    I'll have to ponder this further, I suppose. Hmmm.

    Writing skills are used a whole lot in gaming anyway (in most contexts, that is), so it's not a stretch. But I've never seen anyone bring an instrument to a game session.

    If I was playing games with a bunch of musical theatre types, on the other hand, I would be absolutely shocked if no one ever broke out into song (that's just what those people love and tend to do at the drop of a hat, after all!).
  • In our Misspent Youth game about illegal teenage magick, one session was on a player's birthday. So the players decided it was also the birthday of that player's character. And as a birthday gift, the other PCs cast a ritual so that everyone at their high school believed they were in a musical. Everyone would spontaneously burst into song and choreographed dances to express their feelings.
    I love this story. It sounds amazing, and like exactly what I'd like to see more of in games. Reminds me of a World of Darkness crossover game I was once in (we had one Hunter, one mage, a familiar, and a couple Changelings) where we had a musical episode for similar reasons — a siren had come to town, and everyone was spontaneously expressing themselves through song, more or less like the Buffy musical episode. The GM invited us to bring in recorded music to play as songs we were singing, and he also assigned songs for us — like my changeling and the mage were always arguing over whether to charge into something or research it and consider it first, so when we inevitably ran into that situation, the GM pulled out Elvis Presley's "A Little Less Conversation" for him, and Madison Avenue's "Who The Hell Are You" as my response. But we didn't do any spontaneous singing or reprises. Your version sounds more fun!
Sign In or Register to comment.