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Music

Source Horror Adventures pg. 204
Used well, music can be a powerful tool for creating atmosphere. Handled poorly, it can be a major distraction that irreparably warps, or even completely ruins, a game’s mood. When a GM uses music in her horror game, the goal is to create a subtle but ever-present auditory undercurrent that reinforces her descriptions of settings and events. The music fills in gaps in the action with content that supports the story’s atmosphere. Often breaks in play get filled in with distractions, but effective musical choices can counter that. Consider the following tips when selecting music to include in a horror adventure.

Avoid the Familiar: Music should evoke a theme, but not a specific scene or character. Therefore, be wary of using immediately recognizable songs. Players who identify a particular theme will naturally associate a game with the source’s events, often to distracting ends.

Keep It Simple: Don’t let tinkering with audio devices or searching for the perfect song get in the way of a game. Assemble a playlist before the game. Select a theme for major NPCs and significant events, a few for prominent locations, one or two for battles, and one for a final battle. If a GM can run her music from a computer or phone, preferably linked to a wireless speaker, she can readily switch between tracks without leaving the game table.

Repetition: RPG scenes usually last longer than a typical music track. Rather than assembling dozens of pieces of music for every event or location in a game, find songs that work well in repetition. Video game scores work well for this as they’re often designed with repeat listening in mind. Set a music player to repeat a track, changing it when the scene or story demands. Avoid songs that have an obvious element to them, like a particularly dramatic crescendo—so players don’t notice the same section every time. In the best cases, players will notice the music for only a few moments at a time before their attention shifts back to the game.

Steady Mood, No Lyrics: A GM shouldn’t have to compete with the music for the players’ attention. When selecting music for a game, instrumental music that fades into the background is ideal. Avoid music with lyrics, as language distracts from what’s being said and is noticed more readily when it repeats. By the same token, a GM wants songs that inspire a consistent mood. If a piece jumps from somber to upbeat, it won’t serve when needed for one or the other.

Volume Manipulation: Most times, a GM wants background music to be low and subtle so players focus on the game. That said, manipulating volume allows her to create a number of special effects. Try using the music’s volume to manipulate player attention. If the players’ attention drifts, a GM can slowly turn up the volume until their focus shifts back to her. Once they’ve noticed she’s waiting or has begun speaking, she can turn it back down. This is a fantastic way to end breaks and signal that play is restarting.

Volume Matching: In action-packed scenes, a GM can turn an energetic track up and raise her voice over it, quickening her speech’s tempo to evoke a sense of urgency. If everyone has to speak louder to be heard over the music, it’s easier to envision the hectic or dangerous nature of the accompanying scene. As with all narrative special effects, this technique works best when used infrequently.