Monday, November 6, 2017

Gaming Music for Jade Regent

I love a good gaming playlist. As I said in my last post, music is an integral part of my Game Mastery style. A really well-orchestrated playlist can help steer your game in the directions it needs to go, and if one has an extensive enough playlist, you can be prepared for when your players take things in directions you hadn't anticipated.

I build a playlist for each game, based on what I suspect the feel will be like. Sometimes, I place alternate pieces next to each other, in case things are less intense or more intense than I anticipate. I always have the media player on "repeat 1." It is better to loop a song than to try to have many different pieces with a similar feel. Trust me, your players won't notice the repetition for about 10-15 minutes if the song is right for the mood. And if they gently remind me "time for a new track," that's not the worst thing that can happen in a gaming session. I usually switch songs every 10 minutes. This is why alternate pieces for similar moods are good. I just find that switching from song to song all the time breaks the focus of the scene.

Building a soundtrack for Jade Regent was a challenge. A Google search for "Epic Gaming Music" will produce some great results for a standard European Fantasy setting. A Google search for "Epic Asian Gaming Music" will mostly get you people suggesting the same things as the first search. But my group had wanted a campaign that was Asian in flavour, not a typical Euro-fantasy setting (more about this in my next post, when I talk about the trouble with The Brinewall Legacy for groups who wanted to be playing Ninja and Samurai from the get-go).

I also try hard to avoid reusing gaming music once a campaign ends. There was a point where "The Bridge of Khazad-Dum" was a regular piece in our playlist - but that was because we were gaming in Tolkien's world. When I ran my Freeport campaign, I abandoned it, but picked up a few Pirates of the Caribbean pieces. I try to limit the number of instantly recognizable pieces, since they tend to take players out of the game, rather than keep them focused: "Hey, this is the part where Johnny Depp is riding on the water wheel..."

So I couldn't rely on others' lists, nor would I draw extensively from my previous playlists. My first step is to check video-game music, which was an initial dead-end. Bioware's Jade Empire, a seemingly obvious choice, is a milquetoast soundtrack, and a good example of a soundtrack that creates Asian music through a Western aesthetic. This is also largely true for Hans Zimmer's soundtrack for Last Samurai. With this in mind, I decided that the majority of music for our campaign would be by Asian composers.

I had already decided I would be using Taro Iwashiro's soundtrack for Red Cliff - however, most of the tracks from that recording are too dynamic - gaming playlists should be populated by songs that are primarily one dynamic, or they don't serve their purpose. For example, if you have a piece that begins very exciting, then drops to a mournful dirge, your players will be taken out of the tension of the battle. So I choose music that keeps its mood throughout, whenever I can. Consequently, most of the Red Cliff soundtrack did not end up in the final playlist. This is also why I couldn't use much from the soundtrack for Hero or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Then I chose to include Shigeru Umebayashi's soundtrack to Fearless, which was a fortuitous choice, since he was the composer for Curse of the Golden Flower and House of Flying Daggers. Using selections from those three albums created a cohesion to the soundtrack. I joke that Umebayashi is the primary composer for the imaginary TV show our gaming sessions are (roleplay inside roleplay).

It takes me weeks and sometimes months to cull the tracks that are really usable for gaming by listening to the soundtracks over and over again while reading the module and imagining possible scenarios. I am always adding songs and looking for new pieces to keep things fresh. But here is what I ended up with for the final working playlist:

The Best of the Yoshida Brothers - Tsugaru Shamisen:
Track 11. Kodo (Inside the Sun Remix): Player suggestion - used for combat where the stakes aren't ridiculously high.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon by Tan Dun and Yo-Yo Ma
Track 4. Night Fight - used for stealthy moments
Curse of the Golden Flower by Shigeru Umebayashi
Track 7. Shadow and Escape - used for stealthy moments
Track 19. Heroic Battle - used for stealthy moments and battles that are less frenetic

Drummers of God
1. Drummers of Vengeance
15. Destroyers of the Sun
I used both of these tracks for intense combat. Soundtracks by Asian composers tended to have more percussion than Western ones, so these fit nicely. You just have to be careful about overusing them.

Enchantment by The Silk Road Ensemble
3. Distant Green Valley - used for either a mid-game break, or for moments where the action is general - wandering around town, journeying with the caravan, etc.
Epic Trailer Impact by Erik Ekholm
7. The Agent - one of several "70s Martial Arts Movie" songs I included. We had one character who was playing to those classic Kung Fu movies which had (at least in their American iterations) great, cheesy '70s soundtracks. This was one of his themes.

Fearless by Shigeru Umebayashi:
7. Huo Yuanjia's Theme - the second half of our "title credit" music. This was the song I chose very early on as the "focus time" for the beginning of the game. Later on, I made a video in iMovie which became the title credits using this song and track 30 - Hasu - Tea Ceremony.
10. Huo Yuanjia and Master Qin - great track to go between moods - very ambient, very subtle. It works really well right before Shadow and Escape from Curse of the Golden Flower. You can play this track for 10 minutes while your players plot and plan, then switch to Shadow and Escape when it's "go time."
11. Yuanjia and Qin - Another in-between low-key track.
12. Qin Enters - In-between low key track with minor tension
13. Sword and Fist - mixed dynamic, but good for tense scenes, not necessarily battles - chases on foot would fit this well.
16. Mother and Daughter - emotional, quiet - gaming playlists are too often one long string of combat songs. Finding pieces for the moments where characters die, fall in love, or learn of the past are more rare. This is one of those emotional spike songs.
21. Moon Explains - Very quiet, rising to an emotional crescendo. I used it for a number of scenes with Ameiko, or for death scenes.
22. A Long Road Home - Quiet, somber. I love this song title, since my PCs were from Tian Xia, and were a long way home, with a long road before them.
30. Hasu - Tea Ceremony - the first part of our "title credit" music. Once I'd paired this with Huo Yuanjia's Theme, I had a grasp of the feel of the campaign as I wanted to see it develop.
35. Fearless Men/Theme of Yuanjia and Moon - this song is a reprise of the themes heard in Huo Yuanjia's Theme, and I used it whenever a key moment of the quest to find the Amatatsu Seal was revealed. I sometimes use songs like this for "cut scenes" like in video games, describing the action without allowing characters to jump in, or at least, tightly controlling the action through NPC speeches and action.

Final Fantasy X - multiple composers
5. Servants of the Mountain - I rarely used this piece, but when I did, it was with the caravan in motion.

The Good, The Bad, and the Weird (or Strange) - Dalparan and Jang Yeong-gyu
(This is a tough soundtrack to get in North America, but worth hunting down - lots of good material here - I've included alternate track translations, so if you get a different version, you'll still know which track I mean)
1. One Map - great for raising tension, or for stealthy scenes
3. 1st Class Room/First Class Space - good for raising tension
4. Black Train/Sword Cryptogram - I used this largely for combat
5. Passenger Quarters/Passenger Compartment: Ambient - good for tension or quiet moments in the middle of tense scenes.
6. The Muzzle Of The Gun/Muzzle Bruise - for dynamics in fight scenes
7. Speeding In Desert/Running Rapidly Through the Desert: This was another of my '70s Kung-Fu style songs. Use these for fight scenes that aren't critical or necessarily deadly.
9. Dreaming Taegu/The Teacher That Dreams - Excellent ambient tune for those quiet moments of static action.
10. Escape From The Tavern/Tavern Escape - We love whimsy in our game - used for moments of tension mixed with humour.
13. Reminiscence Of Changi/Windows of Recollection - could be used for a moment of creepy, or low-key moments when you need to maintain a degree of tension.
15. Gunfight At Ghost Market/Ear Market Gun Battle - I would use for combat or chase scenes - lower intensity.
16. Rainy Ghost Market/It All Kicks off in the Ear Market - Combat
17. Wind Of Sand/The Sand Wishes - could be used for stealth, or low-key moments when you need to maintain a degree of tension
21. Run!/Running - Just what the title says, really.
22. Searching For The Map/Seeking the Map - Journeying in the Caravan, or for low-key moments when you need to maintain a degree of tension
23. Moor Of Desire/Plain of Desire - Good for fight scenes that are approaching a critical point. I like the mix of Western/Asian in this song for evoking that the first AP takes place in Varisia.
24. Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood - A mix of Western style (Varisia is more Spanish in our campaign - spaghetti western, anyone?) and 70s kung-fun styling. Again, only use if you have a character who fits the flavor.
27. Only Once In My Life - good for low-key moments when you need to maintain a degree of tension

Halloween - Two Steps From Hell
28. Burn Baby
40. Twisted Children
I used both of these for a moment of horror involving a child at Brinewall Castle - Those who have read the AP should know what I mean.

Hero - Itzhak Perlman, KODO, Yo-Yo Ma
10. Swift Sword - used for low-key battles or scenes needing tension.
House of Flying Daggers by Shigeru Umebayashi
4. The Peonyhouse - great for stealthy scenes or whenever you need the action level raised without getting crazy intense.
5. Battle in the Forest - very dynamic, but makes for an excellent transition from quiet to intense - I always used it as a transition track, never on repeat.

Kitaro: Digital Box Set
Disc 2 - Track 2: Matsuri - I used this for a break in the middle of a session, or for scenes where the caravan was traveling.

A Playlist Without Borders - The Silk Road Ensemble
9. Night Thoughts - good for scenes where tension is mounting. Long enough that you only need to play once. A strong transition track.

Red Cliff by Taro Iwashiro
1. The Battle of Red Cliff - I used this as our "end credit" music. I started doing this during our Freeport campaign. There's nothing like hitting a cliffhanger moment and then going to the end credit music. The players groan and lament the end of the session - it's good fun.
5. Shoooooot! - Good combat tune that, once or twice, fooled my group into thinking we'd hit the end credits.
7. Secret Stratagem - light hearted stealth piece. I think you always need a sneaky song that isn't deadly serious. Stealth gone wrong is often funny.
8. Closing in Upon the Enemy - combat.
10. Precious One - I used this for high emotional moments, especially those involving Ameiko.
11. Sound of Heartstrings - good for rising tension.

Resident Evil 5 - Kota Suzuki
Disc One
4. New Fear - ambient creepy music for rising tension
7. The Town - ambient creepy music for rising tension
11. Majini II - horror/combat
21. Executioner - horror/combat
Disc Two
1. Majini VIII - horror/combat
The Brinewall Legacy has its share of creepy moments, or battles with undead - these songs were great for those.

Silent Hill: Homecoming - Akira Yamaoka
19. Dead Monks - I think the title says it all. I'd already used the soundtrack to the Ring in earlier games, so I needed some new terror tunes.

Ultimate Movie Trailer Music Collection (Megatrax Music)
9. Eastern Assignment - '70s Kung Fu espionage track

Yumeji OST - Shigeru Umebayashi
1. Yumeji's Theme - whimsical, slightly forlorn piece - good for low-key dynamics.

So there it is! My Jade Regent playlist. I hope it helps you set the mood for your Jade Regent game, or Asian RPG!

NOTE: This post was originally written in 2014, long before I started using Spotify, which has made constructing playlists like this SO MUCH EASIER, and of course, shareable! I'll be building a new Jade Regent playlist and will share the link here when I get it finished. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

An introduction to Geomancer's Dungeon

Last week, I wrapped up the first installment in the Jade Regent adventure path, and wanted to pass along some of the things I did to make the game work for my gaming group, Geomancer's Dungeon.

I'll start by describing our group's gaming style and the room we play in, so the rest makes sense.

We have seven people in our gaming group: all male, all adults, ranging in age from late twenties to mid-sixties. Everyone has extensive years of gaming experience. We have gamed together with this team since June 2011, but have played in other campaigns together since, in some individual cases, as far back as 1995. Many of us played ICE's Rolemaster up until 2011, when we made the switch to D20/Pathfinder.

We play in the basement of a single academic in his mid-sixties. His name is George, hence the name of our group: Geomancer's Dungeon. We've been gaming at George's since around 2004, and since then, he's rennovated the room to suit our needs. Our DM screen is an old tool bench with a flat-screen mounted on one side so players can see stuff from the computer, and another monitor and keyboard raised above a desk where DMs can put stuff. We are very, very spoiled.

The Geomancer himself, back in 2005, the year of the big renovation.
The room is filled with shelves, which are filled with map packs, flipmats, Dwarven Forge, cardstock models, prepainted, unpainted, and painted minis, and sundry fantasy knick nacks.

There are a ton more figures on these shelves now, and they are never this well-organized once a campaign is under way.

The computer is mostly there for running Combat Manager, which has changed the face of gaming for me. I use Combat Manager to make combat move fast. Fast combat means more time for roleplaying, and my group loves to roleplay. If you need some tips on Faster Combat, take Johnn Four's online course. It is also a game changer.

Our style of gaming is cinematic - we talk about our gaming sessions like they are episodes of a season of television: "The ratings just shot up," or "the fans won't like that." Since I ran a Freeport campaign from 2011-2012, we've begun our games with "opening credit music." It's a way to focus everyone's attention. No one talks during the credits - they focus on getting into character. We also have a system called "reshoot," where we can take back a roleplay moment by "reshooting the scene." We don't do it a ton, but it's helpful when you have a "should have done that" moment.

We use minis and battle maps whenever we can, but don't rely on them exclusively. They just make the question of "am I in the room?" or "where am I in relation to the giant bear?" superfluous.

I have run gaming music since as far back as 1991, the year Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves came out. That was our gaming music back in the 90s, but since then, technology has allowed me to be more sophisticated with how I bring soundtracks to the room. I'll post about that next week, as it is a conversation unto itself, and can best be related by me telling you what I used for the Jade Regent campaign (which was one of the biggest preparatory challenges). We have a devoted stereo in the gaming room, and the sound is controlled from iPhones, iPads, or the computer itself. I used the computer for this campaign, as I was combining soundtrack with ambient noise from a site called

We bought the entire adventure path for Jade Regent late last Spring, while we were running another campaign where we played through a bunch of Pathfinder society scenarios and stand-alone modules, rotating GMs every new scenario or module. Since I stopped being in that rotation in May 2013, I was able to spend six months prepping to run the first Jade Regent module, The Brinewall Legacy. Six months to prepare for a campaign is a gift. A beautiful gift.

It took us 13 sessions with approximately three hours each game to complete The Brinewall Legacy. We game bi-weekly on Tuesdays, and started in January of 2014. As with our Pathfinder scenario campaign in 2013, we will rotate GM duties between 5 of the 7 players. It's the first time we've tried to complete an entire Paizo Adventure Path, and it will be interesting to see how the rotation works out. Inasmuch as running the Brinewall Legacy has been one of the most fulfilling GMing experiences I've had in my 30+ years behind the screen, I'm looking forward to being a PC again for awhile. With our rotation, I won't be back in the GM's seat for at least a year, possibly two, which is why I want to take the opportunity to share what I learned for those who are planning to run the Jade Regent campaign.

So next post, I'll tell you about the first step I take when preparing for a game: constructing a playlist of background music!