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How to Use the Three Playlist System for RPG Background Music: A Step-by-Step Guide

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

Need Inspiration?

Creating Simple, Deep Playlists for RPG Background Music [1] 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.

If you’re after soundtrack recommendations, here are 41 personal recommendations [2] and 58 reader recommendations and new discoveries [3], all with links where available.

I hope this system gives you and your group as much enjoyment as it has me and mine!

11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "How to Use the Three Playlist System for RPG Background Music: A Step-by-Step Guide"

#1 Comment By Roxysteve On January 18, 2012 @ 9:11 am

Don’t use music. Used to put on something for background, don’t any more as I found it distracted the players.

P1: “Isn’t that the soundtrack to Krull?”
P2: “No! It’s from Willow!”
P3: “Stupid Dykini!”
P1: “Mad Morrigan! Heeeeeelp!”
P2: “Wiiiiiilow!
GM: “Azathoth on a bike! I’m going to 7-11 for coffee while you guys work it out of your system.”

#2 Comment By Tsenn On January 18, 2012 @ 10:13 am

[4] – Oh yeah, I know what you mean. However, I have a decent sized collection of background-style music, not just stuff from movies and the like. My major problem is finding the time to sit down and go through (quick check on Winamp) nine and a half days worth.

Alright, a chunk of that I can take out as it’s songs, or labelled in such a way that I know it won’t work, but it’s still a lot of work. As such, I’ve not got my theme lists properly worked out yet.

#3 Comment By hattymchappy On January 18, 2012 @ 11:08 am

I’ve always wanted to use BG music, and I loved all of your previous articles on it, including the TT ones, but I was lazy. This step-by-step guide is nothing I couldn’t figure out on my own, but it’s definitely gotten my butt in gear. Thanks for the push!

#4 Comment By Roxysteve On January 18, 2012 @ 2:21 pm

But the sound form any portable digital rig like a lappy is crap, even a Mac. You cannot get decent sound from teenytiny speakers, not even for background.

#5 Comment By Roxysteve On January 18, 2012 @ 2:27 pm

[5] – I just looked. I have 16 and a half days of music on iTunes ( which I hate but need to sync with my iPod, which I don’t hate but about which I have some pithy observations on skimping on sensible controls to achieve ridiculous amounts of sub-miniaturization). I regularly listen to about three LPs out of that vast collection of sound. Welcome to the future.

#6 Comment By Martin Ralya On January 18, 2012 @ 7:58 pm

[6] [4] – It’s a lot less distracting if you pick music everyone at the table isn’t intimately familiar with; that’s one of the tips in the linked article.

Re: sound quality, the BGM isn’t the focus, so I’ve never cared. We usually use a single channel computer speaker, but I’ve also been perfectly happy with my $5 portable iPod speaker. It sets the mood, and the nuances in the music don’t matter in that context.

[6] – Yep, I’m not inventing the wheel here — this is simple stuff, but that’s part of why I like it: It’s so easy to do!

#7 Comment By Trace On January 19, 2012 @ 10:22 am

I switched to this method when you wrote your first article, and I’ve never looked back. Although, since over half my group is female, I’ve had to add a fourth playlist: Romantic.

#8 Comment By Martin Ralya On January 19, 2012 @ 7:49 pm

[7] – Nice! I’m glad it’s worked out well for you. Romantic is a playlist I’ve never tried, although I did briefly experiment with Triumphant for climaxes (not that kind…) and victory scenes.

#9 Comment By elder_warlord On January 28, 2012 @ 12:20 pm

Hello all!
What a great idea…it’s always been a pain to have music at a game, but I’ve recently switched to a laptop to run/play, and this is an easy thing to do now!
Thanks for a great idea, Martin

#10 Comment By Martin Ralya On January 31, 2012 @ 8:26 pm

[8] – Happy to help! I hope it works well for your group.

#11 Comment By atomicpenguin12 On August 28, 2012 @ 11:37 am

I agree that using music all the time can be distracting. I really can’t stand using battle music during combat, simply because combat usually takes a long time which leaves the battle music playing for so long that it becomes repetitive and almost comically annoying.

That being said, the right music at the right time can really make a session. I recently ran a Dresden Files session which led the party to a goth/vamp club. While they were in the club, I played an industrial playlist that I found on Youtube. I also cranked the volume up super high when they were in the club proper and turned it to a more muted volume when they went into back rooms and the VIP section. My party had a blast with it and were very impressed with the layer of realism it brought. I plan to hold my next session at an expensive art gala and I’m going to play a playlist of classical string quartet music to set the scene.