I love background music when I’m GMing and when I’m playing — for me, it’s an integral part of the gaming experience. It’s been two years since I wrote about background music here on the Stew (Creating Simple, Deep Playlists for RPG Background Music), and it’s time for an update.
The advice in that article, which focused on building playlists, still holds true for me today — that’s still what my RPG playlists look like. But I’ve added quite a bit of new music in the intervening two years, and I’d like to share some soundtrack recommendations from my current playlists.
Hold on to your hat — a hell of a lot of excellent music is incoming!
Roll 1d41 on Table 2.23: Orcish Showtunes
I use three playlists — Ambient, Action, and Sinister — that cover 99% of what I want during any given session. Most of the soundtracks I’m going to recommend have tracks in all three categories, and I find that those categories are broad enough to account for almost every track.
I favor background music that’s suitable for most RPGs, so I don’t have to worry about whether or not my playlists will work for the game I’m playing — they will. (I also create game-specific playlists, like the ones that feature all Star Trek movie and TV soundtracks for my current Star Trek campaign).
Here are the fruits of several years of tracking down, and regularly using, some really good RPG background music:
- Assassin’s Creed – I’ve never played the game, but the soundtrack is atmospheric and action-y, with an Eastern vibe that stands out without seeming out of place.
- Avatar – This is my favorite James Horner score, and it’s packed with sweeping strings and great action music. I never get tired of this score.
- Battlefield 2: Modern Combat – Another game I’ve never played, but man is this a good soundtrack. It’s full of techno, and it’s almost all action pieces.
- Braveheart – This is a big, sweeping score that goes great with fantasy games (but won’t spoil non-fantasy sessions, either).
- Casino Royale – There are several tracks on this one that don’t work for gaming, but the ones that do are excellent (and mostly action).
- Diablo II – Because most of the tracks on this soundtrack are tied to a specific Diablo II area, they all sound different; it makes for nice variety. It’s also one of my all-time favorite soundtracks.
- Drag Me To Hell – Ranging from spooky to moody to “throbbing horror action,” this one is a star on my Sinister playlist.
- Dragon Age: Origins – I think this came with the game (which I hated), and it’s fantasy oriented without being jarring for other games. Nice and action-y, too.
- Dungeons and Dragons – Midnight Syndicate makes some excellent gaming soundtracks, of which this is my favorite. Despite being made for D&D, it works well for other games and genres, too.
- The Fountain – Clint Mansell always does a great score, but this is his best. Moving, emotional, and powerful, it’s not like most of the other stuff in my RPG playlists.
- Gears of War – A mix of sinister tracks and action tracks, with a bit of ambient stuff thrown in for good measure. Pound for pound, this is just a great soundtrack.
- Halo – The choral elements are what set the Halo soundtracks apart from me, though the underlying music is excellent as well. Surprisingly, a lot of good ambient tracks.
- Halo 2, Vol. 1 – Like the first one, only not quite as good. Still, “not quite as good as ‘fucking awesome'” is still well worth owning.
- Inception – As soon as I got home after seeing the movie, I downloaded this score. It’s big, ominous, and incredibly compelling.
- The Indiana Jones Trilogy – I think you can get these separately, but this compilation hits a lot of high notes for a reasonable price. Great action/adventure music.
- Iron Man – Strip out the couple of vocal tracks, and this is a pulse-pounding action soundtrack that works great for gaming. It’s mostly rock, but soundtrack-y rock — which is different than almost everything else on this list.
- Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring – This is my favorite of the LotR scores, and it’s an awesome mix of ambient and action tracks. A bit quiet in places, but overall excellent for gaming.
- Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King: The Complete Recordings – There’s a shorter version of this soundtrack, but it’s worth getting the super-jumbo one — this is the most moving of the LotR soundtracks, and it’s amazing. As with Fellowship, there’s some stuff that’s kind of quiet for gaming, but that can be a nice break when it pops up, too.
- Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers – I’m always surprised at how many of the songs I associate with the movie trilogy come from this album. It’s not as moving as RotK or as good as Fellowship, but it’s compelling in its own right.
- Mass Effect – This is simply a stellar soundtrack, and especially well-suited for sci-fi games (as well as epic games in general).
- Metal Gear Solid – Pretty hard to track down at a reasonable price, but worth it for some great espionage-themed music. It’s full of delicious tension and anticipation, and it works for any genre.
- Metal Gear Solid Snake – I think this is based on one of the earlier games (which I’ve never played), and it’s a bit repetitive in places, but overall it’s a solid gaming soundtrack with a modern, action-movie feel to it.
- Pandorum – The movie is generic sci-fi crap, but man is this a good action/sinister soundtrack for gaming. A bit repetitive for casual listening, but in a playlist context it works well.
- The Princess Bride – This is just a great, fun score. It’s a nice counterpoint to all the heavy action and big, epic soundtracks on this list.
- Shards of Eberron – I’m pretty sure this came in the Sharn sourcebook for D&D 3e Eberron, which could make it hard to find, but like the D&D soundtrack it’s awesome for fantasy games. The Eberron flavor means there’s some diversity to the themes that’s not present in the D&D soundtrack, too.
- Star Trek – I’ve listening to a shitload of Star Trek music, and the soundtrack to the J.J. Abrams movie is consistently one of my favorites. I tear up every time I hear “Labor of Love,” and there’s not a bad or boring track on here.
- Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – The Emissary – Pull “Cucumbers in Space” and the crappy jazz vocal track off the list, and this is perfect for gaming. It’s got some darker elements too it, without being too dark (hey, it’s still Star Trek).
- Star Trek: First Contact – Solid through and through, and like all the Trek albums on this list it’s all orchestral — there’s nothing about any Star Trek soundtrack that prevents you from using it with other games or genres.
- Star Trek: Generations – Alongside the 2009 movie soundtrack, this is my favorite of the Next Gen soundtracks. Not a bad song in sight, and awesome from start to finish (unlike the movie). If you do happen to be running Star Trek, this one also has a ton of sound effects from the show (as individual tracks, not mixed in).
- Star Trek: Insurrection – This one’s breezier and more ambient than most of the Trek soundtracks, but it still has a few action tracks in the mix.
- Star Trek: The Next Generation – Encounter at Farpoint – The music from the Next Gen pilot set the stage for the whole series, and it’s just fantastic.
- Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Best of Both Worlds – Another episode that was scored like a movie, the Borg theme means that this one’s full of kickass action music.
- Star Trek: Voyager – Caretaker – I’m not a Voyager fan, but damn if they didn’t produce a good soundtrack for the pilot.
- Sunshine – I can listen to this soundtrack non-stop, repeatedly — it’s amazing. It’s a moving, emotional soundtrack with a modern/sci-fi feel.
- Symphonic Suite Akira – There are a couple versions of this floating around; mine is called Symphonic Suite Akira, but I think it’s the same as the soundtrack. Anyhoo, strip out a few of the weird, movie-specific tracks and you’re left with some stellar haunting and action tracks.
- Tenchu – For a game about sneaking up on people and murdering them, Tenchu has an amazing atmospheric and melodic soundtrack. It’s got a Japanese feel that makes a nice counterpoint to the rest of this list.
- Tron: Legacy – I can’t say enough good things about this soundtrack — it’s unbelievably good. It’s equally awesome to prep to as it is to game to. Buy it.
- Wanted – The Wanted soundtrack has a thumping undercurrent that makes it ideal for fight music, as well as some solid ambient tracks.
- World of Warcraft – As you might expect, the WoW soundtrack is mostly two things: fight music and ambient tracks related to the game’s specific zones. Both are excellent for gaming.
- World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade – Funkier in places than the original soundtrack, TBC is packed with great music that breaks down roughly the same way.
- World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King – This is the most foreboding and creepy of the WoW soundtracks, befitting the setting and theme of the expansion. Excellent across the board.
Thanks for reading, and I hope you wind up enjoying some of these recommendations — they’ve served me well over the years.
I’m always on the prowl for new RPG background music, too — if you have suggestions to share with Gnome Stew readers, fire away in the comments!
(Two quick notes about this list. First, there are obvious gaps. Why did I recommend Halo 1 and 2 but not 3, ODST, or Reach? Because I have the first two soundtracks, and I love them, but I don’t own the other three. I assume they’re just as good, but I wanted to keep this list personal.
Second, the links all lead to Amazon, where Gnome Stew earns a small percentage when you buy something (anything, actually) after following one of our links. That revenue helps pay for our new server every month — if you happen to buy something, thanks for supporting the Stew!)