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Creating Simple, Deep Playlists for RPG Background Music

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):

Here are the mainstays of my playlists:

I first tried this approach with my recently-completed Mage chronicle [2], 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?

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29 Comments To "Creating Simple, Deep Playlists for RPG Background Music"

#1 Comment By questing gm On January 27, 2009 @ 6:10 am

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 Comment By koranes On January 27, 2009 @ 7:01 am

Conan the barbarian has the best roleplaying soundtrack ever!

#3 Comment By zacharythefirst On January 27, 2009 @ 7:21 am

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

#4 Comment By timgoh0 On January 27, 2009 @ 7:29 am

May I suggest the stuff at [3]? 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 Comment By John Arcadian On January 27, 2009 @ 7:52 am

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 Comment By Rafe On January 27, 2009 @ 8:06 am

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 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On January 27, 2009 @ 9:59 am


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 Comment By Balam Shimoda On January 27, 2009 @ 12:12 pm

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 Comment By Tommi On January 27, 2009 @ 12:24 pm

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 Comment By jasales On January 27, 2009 @ 1:02 pm

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 [4] has some free tracks.

And you don’t want to miss some more ambient at
This is the Celestial Aeon Project – made for RPGing.

#11 Comment By John Arcadian On January 27, 2009 @ 1:21 pm

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


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 Comment By sealer04tx On January 27, 2009 @ 2:24 pm

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 Comment By Swordgleam On January 27, 2009 @ 6:06 pm

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 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On January 27, 2009 @ 11:10 pm

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 Comment By The Stray7 On January 28, 2009 @ 9:36 am

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 Comment By wampuscat43 On January 28, 2009 @ 1:41 pm

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 Comment By Martin Ralya On January 31, 2009 @ 9:22 am

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

#18 Comment By troilus1 On January 31, 2009 @ 9:45 am

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 Comment By Hawkesong On February 3, 2009 @ 8:14 am

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 Comment By Martin Ralya On February 4, 2009 @ 7:50 pm

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

#21 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On February 4, 2009 @ 8:27 pm

[7] – 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 Comment By LordVreeg On February 5, 2009 @ 8:44 am

Try this for ‘in town’ and ‘in the temple’ music.

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 Comment By John Arcadian On February 5, 2009 @ 12:39 pm

[7] – The insignia sport seems to have multiple issues with play lists. Here is something that I found on it:

#24 Comment By Ineti On April 10, 2009 @ 11:33 am

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 Comment By decadence On April 14, 2009 @ 10:07 am

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 Comment By Ineti On April 14, 2009 @ 10:54 am

[10] – 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)
Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe
Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

#27 Comment By decadence On April 14, 2009 @ 6:15 pm

[11] – Thank you so much; I will check some of them out!

#28 Comment By lomythica On June 1, 2009 @ 9:01 am

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 Pingback By February’s First Weekly Link Round-Up « Jonathan Drain’s D20 Source: Dungeons & Dragons Blog On November 20, 2009 @ 7:15 am

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#30 Comment By unwinder On November 22, 2009 @ 7:28 pm

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.

#31 Pingback By The Three Playlist System for RPG Background Music: A Step-by-Step Guide | Gnome Stew TESTING On February 3, 2012 @ 8:47 pm

[…] subject that’s near and dear to me, and I’ve written about it before here on the Stew. Creating Simple, Deep Playlists for RPG Background Music was the genesis of the Three Playlist System, and goes into more detail about how to build each […]