The Soundtrack to Your Game

Since I’m on an RPG-design kick, let’s talk music in RPGs. I’m fairly certain that, in this age of custom playlists and easily accessible music players, most modern GMs try to incorporate some kind of background music into their games. If you’re one of the ones that don’t, I’m going to try and convince you to. If you’re one of the ones that do, I’m going to suggest some ways you may be able to enhance its use and give you some pointers for tracking it down.

I’ve used music in RPGs ever since I returned to GMing regularly, which was in the early 2000s after a general hiatus in college (the odd one-shot here or there, but no campaigns). I started using it because RPGs always seemed to run like movies in my head, anyway, and a soundtrack made sense. Also, I found it added a nice flair to the mood of the game and, furthermore, I could even get my players on edge or get them to relax depending on the music I played. In a 7th Sea campaign I ran for years, everytime I played the theme music for the main villain (the nefarious ex-Kreuzritter, Gavin Fell), my players would literally shudder, and that was awesome. As the campaign wore on, certain player characters also earned theme music for particularly awesome feats (Helmut Dauben Kohb, for instance, basically owned the theme music to Conan: The Barbarian; remind me to tell you about that character sometime–absolutely most badass PC ever). It became a thing, and I made it a point to do similarly in all my campaigns. All you really need is a playlist and some kind of music player that can play a single track on loop (that’s important, mind you–a single track on loop). Being well behind the times, I still burn CDs; you, I suppose, could use one of your newfangled digital music whatsits or doohickeys.

What Makes Good RPG Music?

Well, in my opinion, there are three things to consider for any given song you want to use in an RPG–an appropriate style, a consistent mood, and a useful theme.

Style: Pick songs that fit with the kind of game you’re running. If you’re doing medieval fantasy, stay away from jazz or techno music; if you’re running a cyberpunk game, lay off the slow classical and opera. Western games should sound like western soundtracks, space opera games should sound a bit like Star Wars, and Cold War thrillers should take a cue from the James Bond flicks. This general style umbrella gives you plenty of different moods and themes underneath them (or they should), so it ought not limit your selection by much. It does, however, make the game sound like it ought to play.

Mood: A song should create a certain mood, and that mood should remain consistent throughout the song. Most songs are somewhere between 2 and 6 minutes long and the vast majority of RPG sequences are at least two or three times that long. So, if the song starts creepy, you want it to stay creepy the whole time. Nothing kills the usefulness of a song more than having the nice, quiet, pastoral sound change, suddenly, to frightening military music. Suddenly your touching reunion on the farm is being broken up by goblin invaders! Booo! This why, incidentally, you want to be able to loop a single track.

Theme: A song should themed to be useful in certain situations. I usually split my music into action themes, creepy themes, and environmental themes. The first is usually the easiest to find–fast paced, loud, exciting, dramatic. The second it the next easiest–slow, menacing, spooky. The last is the hardest to find, since it can vary dependent upon the kind of environments your campaign is going to spend time exploring. If the players a riding across the plains, what kind of music do you have? Sailing pirate-infested archipelagoes? Walking through a crowded marketplace in a foreign city? Try to cover as many bases as possible, since your players will often surprise you. I find myself frequently without appropriate music, despite my best efforts, and some tracks I thought would be useful are almost never played. Ah well…

In addition to this, it isn’t a bad idea to have an array of basic soundeffects you can play on loop. I got a sound effects CD ages ago and have used the campfire, rain, noisy tavern, and howling wind sounds a lot. When I ran a Star Trek campaign, I tried to get the general roar of the warp engines to be playing in the background whenever on the ship, and also tried to get the hum and beep of the bridge computers when players were sitting on the bridge. It made the whole experience that much more immersive and fun. 

Know Your Score

It’s not only important to get good music, you also have to know that music very well. You don’t have a lot of time to remember which song is which on your playlist when the action is about to start–you should know which one fits and play it immediately. Furthermore, if you really know your music, you can cue certain reveals or certain moments in play to certain dramatic crescendoes in the song. There are a few songs I know really well, and if I detect a big crescendo is coming as I’m explaining something, I’ll try to drag it out a few seconds so I can time the reveal to coincide with the big BOOOM of the drums–this kind of stuff nets you major brownie points from your players (it’s not always possible, sadly, but I always try).

Also, if you’ve got a battle that’s really dragging itself out, it’s a good idea to shake the music up from time to time or even just turn it off entirely. The same song on loop for 90 minutes is going to drive people nuts–throw in some variety. Furthermore, if the campaign is running very long, consider shaking up much of your music, as well. Keep it fresh as best you can.

Some Suggestions

What follows is a list of movie soundtracks and bands that I’ve found very handy for producing useable RPG soundtracks. Check them out:

Fantasy Campaigns

  • Braveheart Soundtrack 
  • Kingdom of Heaven Soundtrack
  • Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring Soundtrack (and the others, too; careful, this one is very noticeable and so robs some originality from the game)
  • Conan the Barbarian Soundtrack (big time awesome–one of my all time favorites)
  • Gustav Holst’s The Planets
  • Music from Hercules: The Legendary Journeys
  • The Score by Epica
  • Gladiator Soundtrack

Swashbuckling/High Seas Campaigns

  • Master and Commander Soundtrack
  • Pirates of the Carribean Soundtrack
  • The Red Violin Soundtrack (super creepy; great for horror games, too)
  • Cuthroat Island Soundtrack
  • The Score by Epica

Science Fiction Campaigns

  • Any Star Trek movie soundtrack
  • The soundtrack from any Metroid Prime video game
  • Most techno music
  • (A lot of the fantasy stuff works here, too)

Modern/Cyberpunk Campaigns

  • Underworld Soundtrack
  • Blade Soundtrack
  • The collected works of The Offspring
  • AC/DC
  • Most Techno
  • Whatever else floats your boat

There’s more, besides, but this is a lot of it.

If you haven’t tried music in a game, try it. If you have, keep it up and I hope some of my little tricks are helpful! Good luck! (Oh, and please give me suggestions myself–I’m always looking for new tips)

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About aahabershaw

Writer, teacher, gaming enthusiast, and storyteller. I write stories, novels, and occasional rants.

Posted on November 22, 2011, in Gaming and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Bond–the all-female rockin’ string quartet–is also great, for a lot of settings but largely swashbuckling & fantasy.

    Did I ever get you a copy of the soundtrack for The Silver Lining? Well, if not, it’s free to download and has, IMO, some great environmental music. http://www.tsl-game.com/soundtrack.php

  2. This is majorly helpful since I am the downloader of all music in our house, gaming soundtracks included (and since John is musically inept). Gaming music is somehow fascinating to me even though the actual gaming I’m not sure I could get into. Nice post!

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