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Using ambience to create campaign continuity

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When coming up with ways to make a roleplaying game more immersive with music and visuals, movies often provide many ideas. Much of the time, however, a roleplaying game is actually closer to a TV series: both consist of adventures (or episodes) that are part of a longer campaign (or season). As such, TV series can provide ideas on how to use music and visuals to not only heighten immersion, but also to create continuity in a campaign.

Below are two ways of doing so, with examples taken from a Trail of Cthulhu campaign set in the post-war 1940s United States.

Opening sequences

There are countless examples of great opening sequences from TV shows that immediately place the viewer in the show’s setting. Notable ones include The X-Files, Firefly, and The Simpsons. Perhaps the most famous opening sequence of all time is the Star Wars opening crawl, which is actually from a movie—but it’s not a coincidence that the movie in question is part of a series.

An immersive opening sequence can be the single best way of getting players back into the campaign world after a week or more of not playing. It is also a part of the session where you can be sure that all players are listening closely, which enables you to weave threads through the campaign and emphasize important concepts that you want the players to pick up on.

At the start of every adventure in my Trail of Cthulhu campaign, a short opening sequence was played: white letters fading into view on a black background, accompanied by ominous music and narration foreshadowing events to come. The same music, font, and narrative style was used for every such sequence, clearly signaling at the start of an adventure that the players would now enter the world of Cthulhu for the next few hours.

On occasion, you can carefully break the continuity provided by an opening sequence in order to surprise the players or set the stage for particularly important adventures. While the opening sequence in my Trail of Cthulhu campaign usually contained the same music, I intentionally changed it during the campaign finale to something more dramatic, foreshadowing the crucial events to come. An example of this from TV is The X-Files, where certain episodes subtly replaced the famous opening line “The truth is out there” with something tied to that specific episode.

Musical themes

Musical themes (or leitmotifs) can be a source of continuity for a campaign. While they are closely associated with opening sequences, there are many other ways of using them. An example of a soundtrack that weaves a theme through many different tracks is that of Baldur’s Gate, which has the potential to uniquely connect a campaign to the Forgotten Realms.

Epic adventure movies like Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and Pirates of the Caribbean provide many ideas on how to use musical themes to tie different parts of the series together. In movies like these, they are frequently tied to specific characters, locations, and concepts. Introducing a villain with intimidating music is effectful enough, but announcing his appearance in subsequent adventures with the same music has even more of an impact. Eventually, merely playing the music will make your players think of the villain, whether he has appeared or not.

For campaigns set in the real world, popular music from that period and region can be used to place the players in the setting without having to spell out when and where the adventure takes place. In my Trail of Cthulhu campaign, each session featured music by artists like the Rat Pack and Count Basie. These songs, while technically somewhat anachronistic, reminded the players of the setting’s time period in a more effective way than narration alone.

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