Crafting an RPG Soundtrack: A Battlestar Galactica Case Study

Martin Rayla has a great thread over on Treasure Tables about using music in your game. He’s not talking just about having something going on in the background, but also crafting a soundtrack that matches the expected actions, fights and drama that the players will be experiencing.

I’ve used music in my games before, but I’ve never made a concerted effort to sync up what was playing with the “on screen” action. That said, it’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while, and our recent playtest of Battlestar Galactica gave me an excellent opportunity to try my hand at hobbling together a score of my own.

The Battlestar Project

My Battlestar Galactica playtest was setup as a one-shot that echoed some of the themes of the mini-series and first season, namely a desperate band of humans seeking to flee a pursuing Cylon fleet and striving to find meaning in the sprawling abyss of deep space. The action focused on an ancient battle cruiser known as the Cerberus that served as a rallying point for refuges form the Cylon genocide that destroyed the Twelve Colonies. As Galactica and her ragtag fleet headed out on a quest for Earth, the Cerberus decided to find the descendants of Phobos, a son of one of the Lords of Kobol who was banished during their Great Migration. Read my Game Day column for more background on the adventure

Going into it, I knew I would want to draw upon Battlestar Galactica’s rich musical history; watching the series one of the things that stands out is the diverse selection of music that runs from traditional to tribal and back again. Fortunately, I have the soundtracks for Season 1 and Season 2 of Battlestar Galactica, and having listened to them a bunch of times, I had a good idea of which tracks I wanted to use.

Given the nature of the Cerberus — a warship that predates even the Galactica, with a warrior tradition almost as old — I knew that I wanted to give it a sound that evoked Galactica, but also struck more overtly martial tones. For that, I turned the 300 soundtrack, which matches the tone of some of the Galactica tracks (particularly those that turn East in search of inspiration) and had the added advantage of being familiar to — and much appreciated by — my players.

I strove to find one or two tracks for each scene that matched its expected pacing. Of course, players can surprise you, but a song like “Something Dark Is Coming” did a great job of setting the tone as the players slowly made their way through the deep ice canyon that led to the Headwaters of the Styx. Similarly, “Fever Dream” captured the fury of the accretion disk of the black hole that threatened to consume the Cerberus and matched the dramatic surge as the ship broke free of its constraints and launched an all out attack on a Cylon basestar.

The final result was a playlist that’s 2/3rds Galactica, and 1/3rd 300. Was it worth the time I put into it? I’ll have to let my players weigh in on that, but from my perspective, the answer is yet. It helped reinforce the atmosphere I was shooting for, particularly during the cut scenes when I would narrate what was happening to the Cerberus offscreen.

I created a playlist for the songs in iTunes, and then threw them onto my iPod. I hooked up my iPod to a set of external speakers, which allow me to easily control the music without having to have my computer in front of me. It wasn’t as graceful as I would have liked; I set the iPod up to loop individual tracks, and while most of them worked well enough, I think having two-to-three tracks for every scene would have been better.

This process worked well enough that I intend to use it again during my Mutants & Masterminds campaign. I used superhero music during Issue #0 of the campaign, drawing heavily upon the Spider-man 2 and The Incredibles soundtracks, but I didn’t take the time to key the music to specific events. The opening of Issue #1 of the campaign will feature a savage storm pummeling freedom city, and the ensuing battles and challenges would be served well by background music.

The BattlestarPlaylist

1. Briefing aboard the Cerberus
“The Wolf”, 300 Motion Picture Soundtrack

The players receive their mission briefing aboard the Cerberus, including an overview of the black hole/red giant binary system they’ve entered, the icy planet that orbits the binary and is believed to hold the Headwaters of the Styx, and the possibility that Cylons will arrive.

2. Dogfight
“Starbuck Takes on All Eight”, Battlestar Galactica: Season 1 Soundtrack

As the players head to the planet, they’re jumped by Cylon raiders. Their Viper pilots must drive of the attackers.

3. Touchdown at the Canyon
“Dark Unions”, Battlestar Galactica: Season 2 Soundtrack

The team touches down on the planet and begins offloading their gear when suddenly their Raptor exlodes, taking out one of the Vipers and most of the Marines that had come with them.

Cutscene: The Jackals Arrive
“Scar”, Battlestar Galactica: Season 2 Soundtrack

Flash skyward, where the Cerberus is being attacked a basestar, and is forced to flee into the accretion disk of the system’s black hole, which is slowly ripping apart the neighboring red giant.

4. The Darkest Depths of the Canyon
“Something Dark Is Coming”, Battlestar Galactica: Season 2 Soundtrack

The adventurers press deep into a canyon that leads to the Headwaters of the Styx, where they spring a grenade trap that destroys an ice bridge (with some of them on it). Unknown to them, the trap was set by one of their own.

5. The Cylons Attack
“Escape from the Farm”, Battlestar Galactica, Season 2

Centurions landed on the planet from the basestar before it left to fight the Cerberus attack the party. The heroes are forced to destroy part of the canyon to save themselves.

Cutscene: The Black Storm
“Fight in the Shade” 300 Soundtrack

The Cerberus struggles to stay alive in the plasma storm swirling around the Black Hole.

6. The Headwaters of the Styx
“Lords of Kobol”, Battlestar Galactica, Season 2 Soundtrack
“Epiphanies” Battlestar Galactica, Season 2 Soundtrack

The heroes find the long lost cathedral that serves as the Headwaters, and are challenged by its guardian.

Cutscene: Out of the Firestorm
Track: “Fever Dream” 300 Soundtrack

The Cerberus breaks from the accretion disk, destroys the basestar with its powerful, if troublesome, railguns (a trick alluded to earlier in the episode)

7. The Final Battle
“To Victory” 300 Soundtrack

The Centurions arrive at the Cathedral, sparking a showdown … and the revelation that one of the adventurers is a skinjob traitor. Bullets flight as the two sides battle for the secrets of Phobos.

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