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!)

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. You can find out a bit more about him on his personal website.

28 Responses to RPG Background Music: 41 Awesome Soundtracks

  1. You’ve listed many of my favorites.

    Here are some other ones that I really enjoy –

    – Conan the Barbarian soundtrack, Basil Poledouris. So epic it’s almost cliche… but it’s SO good.

    – 300 soundtrack, Tyler Bates. Pretty powerful stuff, if you don’t mind the guitars.

    – 10,000 BC, Harald Kloser & Thomas Wander. Good for orcs and war.

    – Beats Antique, Collide. Nice Fantasy marketplace music. Good for steampunk campaigns too. Traveling music.

    – Sherlock Holmes, Hans Zimmer. Solid. Nice range.

    – The Dark Night, Hans Zimmer/James Howard. Intense, remember?

    – Spiderwick Chronicles, James Horner. Classical, with a range from dark to lighthearted.

    – Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Steve Jablonsky. Orc music, with chanting and big drums. Intense, and far better than the movie, I’d gamble.

    – Moon, Clint Mansell. Good for any intense sci-fi adventure… but also still respectable for a spooky c’thulu or fantasy adventure. Subtle, intense, unique.

  2. Great suggestions all around!

    I will only add one: [u]Two Steps From Hell[/u]. The end. Do a youtube search and listen to any of their music. It’s all symphonic and specifically tailored for movie trailers. Their stuff is tight; intense; and very focused on evoking emotional reaction, whether it’s wonderment, amazement, excitement, sadness, tension, etc.

    They also have quite a few albums (compilations, I guess), so there’s plenty to choose from. I have one gamer who won’t play if I’ve forgotten to turn them on for the game. :)

  3. I have to agree with Rafe. I recently discovered Two Steps From Hell and can’t get enough of them! They solve one of the big problems for my group which is that they are mostly huge movie buffs. In your previous post (linked at the top of this one) you mention that it is best to avoid really iconic, recognizable pieces like the Imperial March… well, for my group, almost any soundtrack will spark a movie quote-a-thon.

    To help solve this for a more challenging group, I turn to non-movie music like Epica, TSFH, and Apocalyptica.

    I have also started a Pavlovian experiment by assigning my game a theme song. In this case, “Defenders of the Earth” by Two Steps from Hell. I start the theme when it is about time to quiet down and get to playing, and I’v noticed that my group has begun reacting to the music as though a good TV show is starting.

  4. Awesome! Thanks for this!

    Although I haven’t used music in my gaming sessions much, I do love soundtracks just for background listening.

    There’s several on this list that I have to try out. And it’s inspiring me to see about more background music in my sessions.


  5. Fantastic list, Martin! Your timing is unbelievable as I was checking out http://www.obsidianportal.com/campaigns/gaming-music over on Obsidian Portal just yesterday. While there’s definite parity between the two lists, you included some great albums not listed there.

    Your breakdown of the playlist types is a big help too. I’m a HUGE fan of utilizing music in sessions. If used properly it just makes the whole thing more epic. Organizing can be a chore so setting simple categories makes it much easier.

    You had asked about background music and for modern campaigns my suggestion is a group called Leaving Richmond (http://soundcloud.com/leavingrichmond). They are ambient and downtepmo and just damn good music in general. “Planning for the Routine” is just as the name suggests – perfect for PC’s planning the perfect heist. Songs like “what were we waiting for?” serve as great inspirational/goal achieving scores. Many of these songs are great for lead-ins or just something to play in the background while you game.

    Many thanks for keeping the music alive!

  6. I love the list Martin, except for one small omission:

    The STAR WARS movie soundtracks by John Williams.

    There is nothing better than Williams and the London Philharmonic belting out the Dueling Fates during the fight with the big bad at the climax of an adventure. Well, a Star Wars adventure at least. 😀

  7. Some graet choices there.
    Re. Conan the Barbarian – see if you can get the longer version of this if possible.
    Some others
    ‘Alien’ & ‘Aliens’ – To an extent these are great on all three (Ambient, Action & Sinister – fantastic categorisation!) levels.
    Try ‘To Kill a King’ and ‘Elizabeth’ – very nice ambient pieces, but especially for social/politics sequences.
    ‘Blade’ & ‘Apocalypto’ – Pretty sinister, in fact my players start to get seriously worried if they hear anything from them!
    ‘The Mummy’ ‘The Ghost and the Darkness’ and ‘Gladiator’ have some kick-ass tracks on them.
    If you can hunt it down the original score for ‘Troy’ (by Gabriel Yared) is well worth it.

  8. Just to name a few additions.

    Lustmord – dark ambient stuff. Great for spooky atmosphere and horror.

    Robin Hood (BBC series) Sountrack by Andy Price – A lot of excellent High adventure or piratesque tracks. There are also some fpgreat tracks for romantic fantasy or plots.

    Doctor WHO series soundtracks (5 seasons and counting) by Murray Gold – Murray has amazing diversity. From high adventure, to mystical, to action, to soft moody tracks.

  9. Music is something I’d love to add to my games… but man, I feel like I have so much to deal with already! Those of you who use tunes in your games–do you DJ & GM at the same time? How much prep goes into it?

  10. Okay, my night of work now looks much less attractive than listening to samples of everything that’s been mentioned so far. MUCH less.

    Thanks for the excellent ideas, and keep ’em coming! When I have time to pull the Amazon links, I’m going to add a Reader Favorites section to this article, crediting the folks who’ve made suggestions. That will roughly double the amount of awesome music ideas — and that’s just so far!

    @cwhite – Check out the linked article at the top — I do almost zero DJing. I set my iPod to shuffle + repeat all, queue up the right playlist (one of three) for the scene, and leave it alone. New scene, new playlist if appropriate. So, so low effort!

  11. @JohnnyBravo – Holy shit, that OP wiki is awesome! Wow, wow, wow.

  12. Kurt "Telas" Schneider

    Pre-fatherhood, I DJ’d by setting up three playlists: Combat, Exploration, and Suspense. Simple is good.

    FWIW, I have an Android phone and a home theater PC, and use Gmote. Previous to that, I had a BeyondMedia remote, with playlists set up to hotkeys.

  13. @cwhite – I take a different approach to soundtracking. I tend to use specific tracks for scene setup or plot points. I use my iphone’s ipod playlist feature to setup a playlist of appropriate tracks for a given episode (session of play).

    Generally, I use betweeen 3 and 6 tracks for a session, depending on how many plot point events occur, or how many dramatic scenes I am setting up. Generally, I only set music tracks to the scenes that need it. This has helped in a few ways.

    First, when a soundtrack plays, the players listen. They sit up in their chairs and lean in for the description that follows. When I looped tracks, it was never as effective, because it was always on. Even when the playlist changed, it wasn’t always obvious, especially if it was a subtle difference.

    Secondly, I have found that over the life of a campaign, it doesn’t really require more work than a playlist. At the beginning of the campaign, there is some more work to get things started, but the longer the campaign runs, the less I have to go digging for tracks. If the big bad showed up with a given track, re-use it. If every time the players are thwarted by their enemy the same track plays, great! The consistency serves to build in expectations and continuity (of which, as a storyteller GM I am BIG on).

    One final bit to add that I learned helped. When setting a scene or a plot point, the volume can be up a bit, since you as the GM are speaking clearly, and hopefully with little or no interruption. Once the scene is set, I usually turn the volume down some (around 50% or so) so that the mood music is still running, but it isn’t disruptive to the players roleplaying or working through a scene.

    Volume of the soundtrack can make a big difference. If you do nothing else, when you set a scene, turn up the volume of your track (Maybe this is the most important tip in this whole post). Slide it down once you have set the mood.


  14. I find most of these selections to be far too iconic for use. Anthems from Star Wars, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, etc. immediately pop the immersion bubble and have people getting into a memory in their head of that show they’ve seen rather than what you’re trying to narrate.

    I find obscure music far more useful. Never saw King Arthur? Perfect. Never played Lord of the Rings Online? Excellent. Every time someone recognizes a song I take it out of the rotation and find something else.

    I typically crawl the classics and RPG soundtracks (Jeremy Soule’s stuff is brilliant and typically obscure enough) and then rename them to fit a given mood (tension, surprise, pastoral, traveling, combat). When the mood strikes, stick to the same song – building your own soundtrack (especially useful for suspense). Let it run out and then let it go (or fade out when appropriate). Don’t fiddle with the song, tell the story. Don’t worry about timing the music to your tale, it will never fit properly.

    And never loop – especially for combat. In D&D in particular it takes far too long and you may be listening to the same thing for a couple hours. Bores people to tears fast and takes the drama out of the moments when there is music.

    The rests between notes should be just as important as the melody.

  15. @kossowankenobi – I take the most iconic songs (like the Trek opening titles) out of my main playlists. For my Trek game, of course, they fit just fine.

  16. This isn’t meant to sound as confrontational as it might come off, but: I’m disappointed by how narrow-minded everyone’s soundtrack choices are. Contemporary, lyrical music can do things instrumentals can’t. My brother’s managed to do some REALLY great foreshadowing with songs like “The Man Who Sold the World” by Nirvana, and I used “Paranoid Android” by Radiohead for a character who later discovered he was a spy invented by a smithing god.

    @kossowankenobi – I agree wholeheartedly. Recognizable stuff already used in movies is just really distracting. It’s got an association. I guarantee that violin bit from the LOTR soundtrack is going to make them think of Rohan, and regardless of how you describe the town they’ll see straw-thatched roofs on a mountainside. I second your “never loop” advice.

    @lomythica – It sounds like your approach and mine are pretty similar. I time my narratives to key points in the song where music changes– builds, breaks, drops. I use shifts in characters’ perspectives or sudden twists in narrative that coincide with the music. My friend actually did a great example of this when he introduced his character: He used “Don’t Fear the Reaper” for his assassin, and he was surveying his holdings, and then when the violent guitar kicked in he flashed back to a particularly gruesome assassination which he narrated… and when he mellowed out again it cut back to present day. Perfectly timed, perfectly executed.

    I also use music sparingly: Once every few sessions at most. These narratives can be a lot of work, but players are REALLY into them when they happen. (You also have to be willing to either ensure it’s a scene that’s going to happen, or put in work to something they might never see.)

    @Rafe – Thanks for the suggestion. I also strongly recommend E.S. Posthumus– they’re the same idea. Epic, well-paced trailer music; many will recognize a few of their tracks, like Pompeii. They’ve got 3 albums. “Unearthed” is the first and the strongest, “Cartographer” is the second (with two discs; the second is an entirely instrumental version of the first disc, which has non-language vocals over top everything), and “Makara” is the third, which sounds more like Unearthed than Cartographer.

  17. @ouzelum – I don’t take that the wrong way — soundtracks are the easy option, not the only option. There might be, say, a handful of Nirvana songs across all of their albums that work well for most games and most GMs, as compared to plunking down $8 and getting an entire usable soundtrack album.

    I’d love to be able to do the more targeted DJing you and a couple of other folks have mentioned — that sounds nifty (but too much work for me).

  18. Two that i enjoy using:
    – Age of Conan (the MMO) soundtrack:
    Works best for an outdoorsy, fantasy feel for most of the tracks, but there are some good ones for combat.

    – Fable 2 soundtrack:
    Danny Elfman. ’nuff said.

    One of my old friends and DM’s swears by the Batman(1989) soundtrack.

  19. Ouzelum does have a point – but I think everyone agrees that iconic tracks are potentially disruptive.

    Off the beaten track:
    Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai (with some great short read passages from Hagakure)
    La Reine Margot (Some outstanding choral pieces iwth an unusual style)
    The Thin Red Line (not your usual Hans Zimmer, with some nice ethnic touches from the south-west Pacific)

    If sci-fi is more your style, maybe take a look at Final Fantasy and Event Horizon, The Matrix and Underworld (both of these last ones have better known soundtracks, but the scores are quite good)

  20. I’ve been working on tracks for my new DnD group, and I’m finding myself somewhere between the “music for every scenario” and “three playlists max” groups. I build my tracks more like I would hear in an MMO or video game. Specific tracks for different areas or scenes, but general tracks for suspense, battle, action, etc. It’s working well so far.

  21. The best soundtrack I’ve found for my sessions is the Shadow of the Colossus soundtrack – it has a ton of area themes that are really ambient and beautiful, and the battle tracks are like if Beethoven wrote music for an action movie.

    Otherwise good list.

  22. I would like to add the Battlestar Galactica soundtracks (new series of course). they have alot of great tunes for alot of different situations and the best part is, the mood rarely swings mid-song.

  23. For Deadlands (or other Wild West games):

    Various Ennio Morricone spaghetti western scores

    Ravenous Soundtrack (Damon Albarn $ Michael Nyman)

    Dead Man Soundtrack (Neil Young)

    The Civil War Soundtrack (Various)

    Various Pray for Rain songs, including ‘The Killers’ from Straight to Hell and the Roadside Prophets Soundtrack

    Various airs and marches (eg ‘Garryowen’) performed by the U.S. Army Field Band and Soldiers’ Chorus

    The ‘official’ Deadlands soundtrack CDs aren’t too bad either…

  24. @rednightmare – I’m so glad you added this one. Bear McCreary’s soundtrack to this series is epic beyond description. Season 4 is especially gripping and there’s some great battle music on there applicable to any genre.

    Bear is currently handling the soundtrack for AMC’s “The Walking Dead” and it’s another fantastic outing for him. If you’re looking for eerie, this will set the tone nicely.

  25. A little late to the party, but I use Pandora. I made a “Howard Shore” station and just let it do its thing.

    Best soundtrack I can find.

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