Over the past couple of years, I’ve refined a simple, lazy, but highly effective approach to RPG background music. I call it the Three Playlist System, and in this article I’m going to show you how to use it.
This approach to BGM balances the desire to set the mood at the gaming table with the need to focus on what really matters: the game. I want background music and my group wants background music, but we don’t want to devote a lot of time to it.
That’s where the three playlists come in. This system will provide you with scene-appropriate background music without requiring much attention at the table.
1. Create Three Playlists
I use the following:
- Ambient for the bulk of the session — anytime I’m not using one of the other two playlists, I’m on this one. The music in this playlist isn’t distracting, but it isn’t boring. There’s the occasional track in there with shades of action or spookiness (TV soundtracks in particular like to group several short songs into a single track that doesn’t quite fit this system), but overall the music in this playlist is designed to fade into the background pretty easily.
- Action for, well, action scenes: combat, chases, and other thrilling escapades. The bulk of this playlist is music that gets your blood pounding — it’s what you hear during movie trailers and fight scenes in movies and TV shows. If a track is a mix of action and ambient, I usually stick it here; it can be nice to have the occasional lull during an action scene.
- Sinister for scenes where I’m trying to put my players on edge, up the tension, or where creepy/scary stuff is happening. This is my smallest playlist because most soundtracks don’t include a lot of tracks I’d classify as sinister. It’s kind of like porn: hard to describe, but you know it when you see (hear) it.
I primarily use soundtracks because, in general, they work for multiple genres. My three playlists are more or less genre-neutral, and should work for most RPGs. (For a slightly more refined approach, see the tweaks at the end of this article.)
That may not sound like enough playlists or enough diversity to cover every situation, but the past couple years’ of gaming have taught me that (for my group, at least), it works well.
2. Take Notes about Your Music
Cataloging your background music can take some time at first, but maintaining that catalog is easy — and even up front, when it’s work, it’s really just an excuse to listen to awesome soundtracks.
The first time you listen to a new soundtrack (or other source of BGM), write down “Action,” “Ambient,” and “Sinister” on a scrap of paper and keep it next to you.
When you’ve heard an entire track (to avoid unpleasant surprises, like a sinister track that suddenly gets cheerful) and know which playlist it should go in, note its track number in the appropriate spot. After you’ve listened to the whole album, drop the tracks into the appropriate playlists.
3. Turn On Shuffle and Play
Shuffle is important because it introduces variety into your background music — doubly so if you don’t have a huge amount of music in your playlists. I also turn on the repeat option so a playlist won’t end suddenly.
4. Switch Playlists as Needed
This step couldn’t be simpler: If it’s an action scene, switch to Action; if it’s a tense or creepy scene, switch to Sinister; otherwise leave it on Ambient.
Tweaking the System
One of the things I like about this approach is that it’s easy to tweak. Here are my two current tweaks:
- For my Star Trek game, I use the same three playlists (Ambient, Action, Sinister), but I have a separate set of them that contains only Star Trek music. There’s so much Trek music that these playlists have a good amount of depth, but if I were running a game — Star Wars, let’s say — with less music available for it, I’d mix in genre-appropriate tracks from other sources.
- I use the same song to open every session, and because I don’t like hunting for things I created a one-track playlist called Opener that contains only this song. For Star Trek, it’s the Next Generation opening theme.
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 playlist and what kinds of music work best.
I hope this system gives you and your group as much enjoyment as it has me and mine!