The Sound of the Unknown Part 1: Commissioning Music

To celebrate the release of our three suites of Musick for Unknown Armies, composer James Semple wrote three blog posts about commissioning, collaborating on, and creating music for roleplaying games. This is the first post in the series.

Having recently completed 45 minutes of music for the Unknown Armies suites, I thought it was worth taking a moment to reflect on why a game creator might want to commission music for their RPG or board game.

I’ll be honest and say I think there’s a sense of prestige associated with your game having its own musical theme, but also, it’s useful from the point of view of brand awareness. You now have identifiable music you can play for promotional videos or at live events. It can help to reinforce the mood of the game by calling on evocative musical touchstones that subliminally (or even explicitly) suggest eras, regions, or genres.

It’s worth taking a moment to consider how you'll use the music when you commission it. Is it simply for listening pleasure or inspiration? Do you have a specific utility in mind? While it’s exciting to define short catchy themes for elements of your game, usually the most useful type of music for players is long and ambient. Music that sets a mood but isn’t interesting enough to distract from the session in play. Often this is little more than long drones and abstract sounds but it can use melodic ideas as well. While this is very useful during games it can get a little dull as a listening experience in itself and doesn’t really "sell" the music. In the long run I usually find I’m asked for a mix of themes and ambient music perhaps with some other elements such as short three- to five-second "stings," or maybe loopable action music.

In the end it all comes down to a good working relationship with the composer, setting out your goals and together creating something unique and inspiring for your game. With Unknown Armies I had the distinct pleasure of working with very original source material and some amazing creative people who helped me discover their sound. I think together we’ve come up with something quite unique that I called Americanoir. I hope it does justice to their vision.

If you haven't already, check out the second and third posts in this series, The Sound of the Unknown Part 2: The Collaboration Process and The Sound of the Unknown Part 3: Creating the Music.

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