As Obi-Wan and Yoda discuss Anakin Skywalker’s future near the end of The Phantom Menace, you can hear the faintest whisper of the “Imperial March” in the background. It’s just a few fleeting notes, but that’s all it takes: you know what’s coming. And when John Williams was composing the music, he knew it too.
Leitmotif is a powerful albeit blunt tool that helps an audience associate a certain person or place in a creative work to a certain fragment of music: when you hear that melody or chord progression, the associated character must somehow be involved.
This is all well and good when you’ve been given the script ahead of time. Dust a little musical foreshadowing here, hint at a long-lost legacy with a French horn there, invert the hero’s melody for her arch-nemesis, and soon — ta-da! People hear your delicious little hidden “Imperial March” nuggets and exclaim, “Oh, wow! I see what he did there!”
Which brings me to The Edge, an experiment I’ve been chipping away at over the past year and a half. The Edge is a collection of music based on a series of tabletop role-playing sessions I’ve been running. Basically, we run a session, and in the next week or so I write music that is tied to the events of that day. We’re into the second volume of music now, which over 33 songs (divided across two albums) documents my player’s continuing adventures in a fantasy world of my creation. One song is released on YouTube each week along with a synopsis of the in-game events that occurred and a couple footnotes on musical decisions I made or issues I encountered while planning or writing.
At first, I approached this as a fun reward system for my players — the actions of their characters would be immortalized in music. As a player, I’ve always loathed the end of a good adventure or campaign and I often suffer the gaming equivalent of a book hangover: an intense longing to delve back into the same world and experience more. The music was intended to be something special for the players to hold on to after all was said and done.This album would be the ultimate keepsake, because it would be shaped by players' own in-game actions. Click To Tweet
But as I began writing the music, I was faced with an interesting dilemma. How could I do all of the sneaky leitmotif stuff without knowing how it was all going to end, let alone whether or not a player was going to light an entire city on fire in the following session? I could plan and plot and scheme until the cows returned to their domicile only to have a character say something really dumb in front of the King of Nimnaren and unexpectedly get his head chopped off.
Suffice it to say: The Edge is leitmotif hard-mode. And so far it has been a highly entertaining and hilariously tragic, musically embarrassing and confusing exercise that I have enjoyed every moment of. There’s little room for subtle “Imperial Marches” in this experiment, and those that do exist are tremendous, terrifying musical leaps of faith. (I’m still waiting to see if some of my earlier leaps of faith will actually pan out.)
The most intriguing result of this experiment so far (50 songs in and counting) is the rough, organic nature of the music. Without a clear knowledge of the future, I’m forced to write about the here and now. Musical themes relating to the region or city the party is travelling through have become more prominent. Musical themes relating to different characters have become more obvious than normal as well. I can’t account for what a character will do at a later time, so I find I have to announce their current actions with gusto. I find I have to reserve the use of a character’s theme for times when they do something truly noteworthy; if I did it every time they appeared “on-screen” and said something, every song would be a jumble of everyone’s themes playing simultaneously. The story is always about the characters and their actions in the world — there are no plot exposition scenes in some far-away land.
The music on the whole tends to be a lot more fragmented at times than one would expect. I do my best to put a bit of gloss over otherwise gloss-less scenarios, but the fact that the characters are controlled by real people — each of whom plays with a very different degree of seriousness — still sticks out like a sore thumb. In some gaming sessions, the characters spend an entire day accomplishing literally nothing because the players themselves are distracted. Most notably this happens in “Illicit Substances”, the third track of the upcoming instalment. I dutifully wrote a somewhat goofy, two-and-a-half minute song that, with the exception of a little bit of the theme for Nimnaren, (the realm in which this session took place) has virtually no ties to any other song on the album.
Of course, I can’t poke fun at the role-playing abilities of my players without looking at my own shortcomings. At times in the first instalment, I made the mistake of trying to do one song per session. A lot can happen in a single session, especially when there’s dungeon-crawling involved: sudden combat will shift to a riddle then shift to more combat and then to a diplomatic encounter. Encapsulating that all in a single, short song seamlessly is difficult, unless every track runs ten minutes in length. An example of this difficulty is found in the ninth track of Volume I, “Portals to Nowhere”. The song shifts pace many times in a very jarring fashion as I try to address a mystical cavern room filled with active portals, a combat situation, a trap, and a difficult puzzle all in three minutes. And I don’t want to just document these events, I want to save space to address how the characters are affected by them, too. Thankfully, I’ve learned my lesson and now I will sometimes devote two or even three songs to a single session if it’s needed.
These kind of mistakes (there are many more like it that will be touched upon in subsequent YouTube videos) are what make this experiment so interesting and unique: not only are you watching the characters carry out their actions in the context of the story (the end of which is unknown), you’re also watching the players settle into the roles they have made for themselves, one role-playing faux-pas at a time.You hear the music wrestle with a game system that by nature creates inconsistent narratives. Click To Tweet
Unless your GM leads you by the nose, or your players are immersive RPers, of course. At the end of the day, the direction the story goes is at the whim of a group of casual gamers, some of whom had never picked up an icosahedral die in their life prior to this campaign.
I see Volume I as an introduction: the players, the characters, and the music are all struggling to settle into a comfort zone. Volume II is the start of the meat of the adventure, and the music — finally having figured out what it is supposed to be doing — is beginning to sound awfully convincing. The stakes are higher, character’s lives are in jeopardy, and the players are really starting to buy into it all.
Now we just have to wait and see not just how the music compliments the story, but how the changing story affects the music.