I’m a big fan of having music in the background when I GM (and when I play, too), and have really gotten into it over the past four years. In that time, I’ve learned a few things that I find useful; they’re all based on having a digital media library (in my case, on my iPod):

  • No vocals. When the primary activity of the evening is sitting around and talking, having an extra “person” singing in the background is incredibly distracting. The only exception is chanting and the like — if it doesn’t make you pause and try and catch the words, it’s all good. This is a pretty basic tip, but it’s a good starting point if you’ve never used background music when you GM before.
  • Soundtracks are your friends. Movie, TV, and video game soundtracks are generally the best source of RPG background music. They’re already geared to being played in the background, they usually contain a mix of ambient and action-y tracks, and you can probably identify different types of tracks pretty easily without having to listen to every moment of every song. Midnight Syndicate also makes some great gaming-specific soundtracks (I particularly like their D&D and Eberron discs).
  • Create playlists. Think about a typical session: What are the two things you likely spend the most time doing? In most games I’ve run or played, that’d be “stuff” and action scenes. “Stuff” is more or less everything that happens that isn’t action, and is well-matched with a nice big ambient playlist. Action needs it’s own pump-you-up playlist, suitable for both combat and other fast-paced scenes.
  • …But not too many playlists. As the GM, you have a lot on your plate — you don’t need to be juggling 20 playlists on top of that. For the most part, your players will just enjoy the music without paying too much attention to it, so you don’t need a playlist for every emotion or every agonizingly specific scene. I currently have four RPG background music playlists: Ambient, Action, Foreboding, and Triumphant. The Foreboding playlist is for sinister, suspenseful scenes; Triumphant is for when my players win or accomplish something major.
  • Make them deep. You don’t want to hear the same five songs over and over for the entire night — if you have the library to do it, add as many songs as you can to each playlist. Mine clock in like this: ambient, 11 hours; action, four hours; Foreboding, five hours; Triumphant, 45 minutes. Ambient sees the most play time, so it needs to be the longest; Action needs to get you through at least one long combat with no repetition.
  • Avoid major geek touchstones. If the Star Wars Imperial march comes on during your game — and you’re not playing a Star Wars campaign — chances are it’s going to take your players out of the moment and make them think of Star Wars instead. I find this distracting as a GM and as a player, so I usually steer clear of music along those lines. That doesn’t mean the Star Wars soundtrack is off-limits, just that avoiding the biggest, best-known songs is probably a good idea.
  • Avoid overly quiet tracks, too. Some soundtracks work great in the theater but suck for gaming, generally because they’re too quiet. Casino Royale (the new one) is a good example: It’s a fantastic soundtrack, but large chunks of it are so quiet that you’ll never hear them in the background at the gaming table. I build my playlists by skimming each song for just this reason: to weed out the duds.
  • Include some surprises. Especially with soundtracks, a single track will often contain ambient, sinister, and action-y elements. With the exception of my Foreboding playlist, I don’t mind if there are occasional quiet, ambient elements in my Action playlist, or vice versa — because they make nice surprises. Sometimes an oddball track will sync up perfectly with what’s happening in the game; and if not, it’s easy enough to skip to the next track.
  • Pay attention to your players. If your players all look at you funny when certain tracks come up, chances are they’re too distracting. Next time you sync your iPod, take those tracks out.

Here are the mainstays of my playlists:

  • Movies/TV: Wanted, Casino Royale, Akira, Iron Man, LotR: Fellowship of the Ring, The Fountain, Dexter, Braveheart, the Indiana Jones trilogy, Sunshine, Halloween
  • Video games: Mass Effect, Tenchu, Silent Hill, Metal Gear Solid, Metal Gear: Solid Snake, WoW: The Burning Crusade, Castlevania: SotN, Halo 2, Diablo II, Gears of War
  • Other: Adam Hurst, Midnight Syndicate, NIN: Ghosts I-IV

I first tried this approach with my recently-completed Mage chronicle, and it served me very well. After spending a year running that game, I went back in and re-tooled my playlists a bit; the tips in this article represent my current approach. I hope they work as well for you as they have for me.

How do you tackle RPG background music in your own games?

About  Martin Ralya

A father, husband, writer, small-press publisher, former RPG industry freelancer, and lifelong geek, Martin has been gaming since 1987 and GMing since 1989. He lives in Utah with his amazing wife Alysia and their awesome daughter Lark in a house full of books and games.



31 Responses to Creating Simple, Deep Playlists for RPG Background Music

  1. I think that the LoTR soundstrack shouldn’t have been in the list because it’s also another geek touchstone. It’s quite recognisable. I generally go for soundtracks that are obsure to my players’ palate.

  2. Conan the barbarian has the best roleplaying soundtrack ever!

  3. Great post, Martin! Very solid advice for soundtracking. I divvy up my soundtracks in very similar fashion.

  4. May I suggest the stuff at http://incompetech.com/m/c/royalty-free/? I’m using some of the tracks available there, and they seem to work. Mostly instrumental, but it can be rather hard to find a specific one.

  5. Great Post Martin! I’ve used music to underscore games for years, and had to come across some of those lessons the hard way. “But, the vocals to this song are really resonant to the situation . . . ”

    Soundtracks are excellent places to find music. I like Battlestar Galactica (new), The Hellsing Soundtrack (Anime, with Jazz influence), Grindhouse, Labyrinth, TV Themesongs for characters theme music, The Fountain, Bioshock, pretty much any modern video game works well for ambient music.

  6. Under video game soundtracks, I’d also add Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning (if it even exists as a soundtrack) and Age of Conan, which is great for more exotic locals.

    Also, although they may be fantasy mainstays, you could also try orchestral versions of the Final Fantasy themes. These are good because they’re very specific to particular situations: towns, wilderness, combat, dramatic combat, exposition, etc.

  7. radiorivendell.com

    This site has links to aspiring composers who have placed demos of their compositions online for free download (think of it as a musical resume). Some of these composers work in the video gaming industry.

    I have noticed that because some of the compositions mimic established works, that the “geek touchstones” effect sometimes comes into play, and it’s just because the composition is similar, not exact. Players want to stop and try and figure out where the music came from. “I know that tune.” It sometimes creates some funny moments.

    I always turn the music off when I know I’m in a strictly RP mode. Even ambient gets distracting.

    But for those battle scenes, man, let the tunes play on … !

  8. The old game “Total Annihilation” had a good combat soundtrack, too. As a bonus, if you can find the original game cd, the music is in redbook audio format right on the disc, so you can rip it like any other audio cd.

  9. In a dungeoncrawling game I am running Dargaard is a large part of the dungeony music. It is vaguely otherworldy and suitably ambient. Often threatening.

    Unfortunately, there is no other music like it.

  10. I have been using music in my games for years. I usually make two cd’s worth of music tracks per campaign. The first one is to get the players in the mood with a theme for the campaign, different regions or specific places and races. The other is for ingame and includes the Theme for beginning and ending the session, travel music, town music, dungeon music, battle music etc that I simply loop during the appropriate moments in the game.

    Make sure you grab some music by Jeromey Soule – simply the best at this.

    David John http://david-john.com/ has some free tracks.

    And you don’t want to miss some more ambient at
    http://www.mikseri.net/essence/
    This is the Celestial Aeon Project – made for RPGing.

  11. A good one if you want “creepy” with a capital C is Unknown Music from Dream Quest of Kadath, by Cyoakha Grace O’Manion.

    http://cdbaby.com/cd/cyoakha

    Any music that can accurately portray the feeling of a lovecraft novel will certainly provide ambient creepy music for a game. I think it was even reviewed by RPGnet as appropriate gaming music.

  12. Great post! I use a lot of video game soundtracks for my background music: KOTOR, Jade Empire, Mass Effect, Heros of Might and Magic 3, and Republic Commando. I used the A-Team theme for some comic relief while the PC’s set up an ambush.

  13. Blackmore’s Night. They have a lot of great instrumental pieces, in addition to the rest of their stuff. I don’t use music in my games, but I listen to Blackmore’s Night a lot when prepping games.. and if I’m not prepping for the game when a song comes on, I soon will be. It’s just that inspiring.

  14. Kurt "Telas" Schneider

    I have to agree with Swordgleam – In addition to being great ambiance, a good playlist can be very inspiring when you’re prepping or writing for a game.

  15. I like using the soundtracks from The Elder Scrolls series, particularly Morrowind and Oblivion, because they were made with this in mind. I also like using the soundtracks for the Myst games for ambient music, since it is good for exploration. But I’ve been guilty of just finding a random CD and putting it on, because I need to have background music to game.

    I like making specific playlists for certain adventures to help set the tone. Not that I always do this, but it’s an occasional thing.

  16. I have one called “Traci Lords – Control (Juno Reactor Instrumental)”. I don’t even know where I got it. My players refer to it as the “We’re about to get our asses kicked” song.

  17. Oooh — good suggestions! I’ll be spending some time on iTunes tracking things down this weekend. Thanks!

  18. Back in the day (my “day” is the mid-1980s), there weren’t a lot of options for fantasy-themed stuff. Basically, we had the Conan the Barbarian soundtrack on rotation. When we played sci-fi (rarely), it was the Blade Runner soundtrack. That was about it.

    I was flipping through channels a couple of weeks ago and Conan was on. I wasn’t even paying attention, but the music instantly grabbed me — it was totally Pavlovian. My dice hand started to itch, and I suddenly craved fun-yuns and Shasta soda. I had to go dig out my dice and peer over them ;-)

  19. Wow this post was so good I registered so I could comment. I also have a question for those of you out there who might be better with tech than me. I attempted to apply some of the advice in the article – found quite a lot of gaming music that we already had including some of the Warcraft soundtracks, the music from the Myst series of games, and a host of folk and New Age instrumental tracks (I’m a big fan of World of Warcraft and Myst, so of course I had those on hand!) – then after I rounded up all my “possibly good for gaming” tracks into one massive playlist, I sorted out two hours’ worth of music to be used as a prototype for my next gaming session. Using Windows Media Player and the Sync function, I dragged and dropped, got stuff all arranged, and got my device hooked up, and as far as I could tell everything was hunky-dory…clicked “Start Sync,” and everything said it was fine…then went to check out my shiny new playlist, and zounds!! The songs are on the mp3 player but not in a playlist, and apparently the particular model of player I have doesn’t have the functionality to build a playlist on the player itself (it’s an Insignia Sport, if that helps any).
    So what do I do to rectify the situation, or did I miss a step somewhere?

  20. @Hawkesong – That sucks, Hawkesong. :\ I’m an iTunes guy, so I can’t help — any other takers?

  21. Kurt "Telas" Schneider

    @Hawkesong – You may need to update the firmware, and depending on what software you’re using to sync the device, you may need to create the playlist on your PC before syncing. Drop me a line at telastx at gmail dotcom, and we’ll see if we can’t get it going.

  22. Try this for ‘in town’ and ‘in the temple’ music.
    http://www.csupomona.edu/~jcclark/emusic/medieval.html

    I think ‘in town’ vs ‘in adventure’ musical cues are great and do set a mood. I tend for more classical stuff, and I will suggest anything by Michael Kamen (Band of Brothers is very good for longer, harrowing combats, as is the original Highlander).

  23. @Hawkesong – The insignia sport seems to have multiple issues with play lists. Here is something that I found on it:
    http://www.anythingbutipod.com/forum/showthread.php?t=23979

  24. On a related note, if you use iTunes to build a playlist, you can alter the start and stop times of each track so that if there’s a piece of music that has a section from say 1:13 to 1:55 that you like but the rest of the track is lousy, you can set it up so iTunes only plays as much of the track as you want.

    And, of course, you can use iTunes to set up looping and repeats and random shuffles and so on.

  25. This is a great post, and inspired me to create my own playlists for the D&D campaign I am starting with my wife and friends (none of us have played before). Incorporating various media into the gaming session can only enhance our experience.

    I followed the OP’s convention of breaking everything down into four categories: action, ambient, triumphant, and forboding. These are my findings after going through many online, movie, and game sources.

    Online: Celestial Aeon Project (hands down the best – great for all categories listed), and David John’s free tracks (posted above, very nice for Fantasy settings).

    Movies: Bram Stoker’s Dracula (quiet at parts, but when it kicks in it can get really creepy – great for foreboding), Gladiator (mainly ambient, but very heroic/epic sounding), Resident Evil (the soundtrack is mostly songs with lyrics, but the last 4 tracks are score pieces created by Marilyn Manson – they are great for action/foreboding if you can fit industrial sounding music into your campaign), The Fountain (awesome for ambient, some really great tracks here), Beowulf (if you want pompous heroic themes, search no further), 28 Days Later (awesome foreboding and ambient tracks).

    Games: Heroes of Might and Magic (mix of ambient, action, and triumphant), Elder Scrolls (same as HMM), the Myst series (awesome for ambient, with a bit of foreboding as well), Silent Hill (very creepy, and great for foreboding, with some ambient as well), Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children (if you can handle some distorted guitar, this is *great* stuff for action, and also has a bit of the other categories), Diablo series (awesome ambient/action), Resident Evil series (foreboding, action, ambient).

    Music: Blackmore’s Night (as Swordgleam suggested, great for Fantasy settings – go for the songs without lyrics for your campaign, though).

    Hope this might help someone narrow down their search! My biggest difficulty was finding music that fit into the triumphant category. Any suggestions there?

  26. @decadence – For heroic and triumphant music, check out some of the following soundtracks:

    First Knight
    Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
    The 13th Warrior (also good for spooky atmospheric music)
    Willow
    Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe
    Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
    DragonHeart

  27. @Ineti – Thank you so much; I will check some of them out!

  28. Thanks for this post! I’ve been working for the last months to enhance my games with background tracks. In addition, I’ve also been working on foley artist type aspects. I take a more involved approach to game audio.

    A great tool (originally designed for podcasters) is CastBlaster. This tool allows you to setup audio tracks so they can be clicked on, or you can use keyboard shortcuts. You can also record things with it, using all of your sound effects to record a meta-track. I’m currently in the process of running the finale sessions of a GURPS space campaign, and built a track that had a good soft epic feel, to play behind a politician giving a speech in a park to thousands of people. I planted huge explosions in the audio track at a pre-defined time. I had practiced up the section a bit to make sure that i wouldn’t run out of speech content, and in the middle, BOOM, the govt. building behind the politician explodes and knocks everyone on the stage down.. I added ambient crowd screaming to the track after the explosion.

    The look on my players faces as a huge explosion sound followed by a crowd screaming was priceless!

    There’s a ton of free sound effects sites online, to get ambient tracks, like nature sounds as well.

    From a background perspective, I am currently really liking Clint Mansell’s ‘The Fountain’ soundtrack. It’s really cool, and doesn’t have a ton of the huge changes in a track, where volume swells and dips dramatically.

    My $0.02

  29. If you’re willing to dig through classical music a bit, you can find battle music which is, in my opinion, even more compelling than most soundtracks. Some of my favorite stuff to use:

    Gustav Holst – The Planets
    Anyone can tell you that Mars: The Bringer of War is awesome for an epic battle. The less-used known Uranus: The Magician is the optimal boss-fight music, and makes your bosses feel twice as evil and four times as dangerous. Use Saturn: The Bringer of Old Age for a battle against an ancient and mysterious creature, and Neptune: The Mystic for mysterious ambiance. Jupiter: The Bringer of Jollity is a good “victory” tune for returning heroes.

    Modest Mussorgsky – Pictures at an Exhibition
    A really great suite with lots and lots of stuff you can use. Gnomus is great for fighting ghosts or vampires. Bydlo is great for an epic dungeon, Le Cabanne sur des pattes de poulle is good for an intense battle, and Le Grande Porte de Kiev is another great “victory” fanfare. If you’re not afraid of using something your players will recognize, Mussorgsky also composed A Night on Bald Mountain, which is almost TOO epic.

    Philip Glass – Glassworks
    This is really weird stuff. You might have heard some of Philip Glass’s similar work in Watchmen when they were going through Dr. Manhattan’s transformation. I like it for weird ambiance, and sometimes for a fight against a strange or alien creature.

    Antonin Dvorak – Slavonic Dances
    These are great for dramatic scenes. They all feel a little bit similar, but they have a pretty huge range of intensity, and are great for a dramatic swell during a major plot event.

    Carl Oorf: Carmina Burana
    Obviously O Fortuna works, but there are a lot of lesser-known Carmina Burana selections that make for great battle music. Fortune Plago Vulnera is good for almost any combat situation. Ecce Gratum is good for a celebration, Tanz is fun for a light combat or adventuresome non-combat situation, Floret Silva is good for a lighthearted, but high-stakes combat, Were Diu Werlt Alle Min is good for victories, celebrations, and introducing epic scenery, In Taberna Quando Sumus is good for any intense situation, and hey, I’m gonna quit there, because I’ve named most of the songs in the suite.

    Anyway, there’s lots of other stuff that I haven’t discovered yet. Try your local library! They usually take pride in having tons of classical music, because it seems like the proper music for a library to have.

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