Why Music is a Must in Roleplaying

8 Oct

Music really improves a roleplaying session. It can help transition players to the tone of a new scene, increase the tension  as a creature of shadow stalks the PCs down dark alley, up the adrenaline for a high-stakes action sequence or give the right amount of demonic punch to a dire ritual going on the Plateau of Leng…

Nowadays, putting together music for a session is easy. It’s a far cry from laborious task of switching out vinyl on the turntable mid-session or picking tracks to burn out on to a CD. MP3 players and playlists  make the GM’s task of organising a selection of nuanced, mood-enhancing music a real joy.

Lustmord Heresy Fire cover artGenerally, I avoid using music with lyrics unless I’m planning on a ‘night club scene’ or a campaign theme song/ lietmotif. I find lyrics tend to distract the focus away from play. I often avoid using soundtracks for a similar reason. If they’re a popular soundtrack like, say, Hans Zimmer’s awesome Inception score they might BWWWWWA evoke synergies and memories that BWWWWWA work counter to your carefully structured session BWWWWWWWWAA). Soundtracks from films are often scene specific, which means they have a range of emotional peaks in the one song. This can force you to try to match the song’s timing rather than building your own drama.

The best music tends to be tracks that loop and repeat well — so that you can play them for 20+ minutes without anyone noticing. If they have a consistent metre without sudden crescendos they’re even better as they’ll avoid jarring with the scene you’re trying to  evoking. For me, low key is best.

Creating the Playlist

I have two approaches to creating music playlists.

1) Broad categories

Geared towards less structured games or when a flexible approach is required (who knows what those players might get up to?).

I tend to break these kinds of playlists into the following:

  • “tension” for research/investigation/sneaking around — music that is exciting but not too demanding
  • “action” for battles/fight scenes — front and centre, fast paced, “we’re up to our knees in trolls” stuff
  • “atmosphere” for general setting and mood — the backbone of a session, loopable, not intrusive, evocative
  • “period” if 1920s Jazz or Medieval string music — what ever works for parties, salons, meeting NPCs in their preferred environment

This approach gives you a ready supply of songs that you can improvise with depending on the player’s choices.

2) Scene by scene approach

This is a bit more labor intensive and requires you to know what locations/scenes the session will take place. An example from a recent Ars Magia playlist included session music broken up into the following:

  • “Octavius is missing”
  • “The den of Abdan al-Rashid”
  • “Visiting Spinoza”
  • “Imran of the Pillars”
  • “Ghul chase”

Music was then based around what the scene required — a courtly interaction, a mystical location, being pursued by demons, etc. This approach has the added benefit of acting as a handy session breakdown.


3 Great Dark Ambient artists

Shinjuku Theif Witch Hunter cover artLooking at my iTunes library, the stuff that gets the highest rotation tends to be dark ambient music as it sits nicely in the background and doesn’t challenge the players for their attention.

Shinjuku Thief
Darrin Verhagen is a Melbourne-based composer. His first Shinjuku Thief album, The Witch Hammer changed my roleplaying experiences immeasurably. It’s dark stuff but dead on for horror-themed games.

Great low-fi soundscapes that have a growing sense of menace and dread. Heresy and Purifying Fire are fantastic general roleplaying albums that I’ve used in fantasy, historical and modern settings.

Composer Graeme Revell’s band from the 1980s. Leaning towards the ‘ethnological’ with lots of warm sounds, SPK suits fantasy settings more than modern ones but is still  stellar stuff. Songs of Byzantine Flowers is seminal.

3 Great Computer game soundtracks

Quake album coverComputer game scores are another great source of roleplaying material  because they are specifically designed to be looped and played on repeat.

Trent Reznor’s Quake Soundtrack
Modern/sci-fi. Covers the whole gamut from heavy ‘action’ to low-fi soundscapes. I had to work hard not to include more Reznor/Nine Inch Nails goodness this list. The new Social Network soundtrack looks to be a stellar modern score while Ghosts I-IV is excellent for contemporary settings as well.

Robyn Miller’s Riven soundtrack
Love this for fantasy/mystical-type games. One of my high rotation discs.

Kow Otani’s Shodow of the Colossus soundtrack
A bit more in the epic fantasy vein, but the cross cultural tone means that it works well for these settings.

3 Great Bands/Artists

Musicians who’s albums tend to suit my criteria for good roleplaying music.

Dead_Can_Dance_albumSquaremetre (M2)
Minimalist glitch that works nicely for modern and futuristic games. Aswad is an excellent album, everyone should own a copy.

Lisa Gerrard
Worth a look in either of her incarnations — as member of  Dead Can Dance or as a composer for film soundtracks. She has a fantastic intensity and drama to her voice.

Peter Gabriel
As far as modern film composers go, Peter Gabriel rewrote the book with his soundtracks for Birdy and more notably Passon: The Last Temptation of Christ. Two must haves.

3 Great Composers:

Hans Zimmmer
The master composer. Films are always better when he’s on board. You can thank him for the BWWWWWA Inception soundtrack among others and the new Sherlock Holmes film’s score which is also great.

Jerry Goldsmith
He seems to get picked for a lot of sword and sandal stuff (Troy, 13th Warrior, etc). Go to him for fantasy music.

Clint Mansell
He can be a bit operatic at times, which doesn’t work well with my ‘non-distracting’ criteria, but I like his stuff nonetheless. I often try to wedge him into session.

Experimenting and finding your style

Recently, I’ve been experimenting with ambient soundscapes from from SFX albums to help create a mood. Although storms are a mainstay for horror games, in two recent Call of Cthulhu sessions set in Innsmouth, I played the sound of the waves on a loop from my iPod speakers while I mixed in the low-fi growlings of Lustmord from my laptop. It worked a treat, but did involve an extra level of complexity. It wasn’t distracting for me, as I tend to DJ as I go, switching tracks with some regularity. That said, other GMs  might find that a ‘set and forget’ playlist of unobtrusive music might be preferable, allowing them to concentrate on the elements of the game that interest them the most. At the end of the day, the best approach is to think about your style as a Game Master and choose playlists and music to match.


11 Responses to “Why Music is a Must in Roleplaying”

  1. Omnos October 9, 2010 at 6:19 am #

    I were just looking for good soundtracks to run my CoC games, thanks a lot! Heresy is very amazing, especially the first track, around 3:44 where you can hear that creepy wail… my players were exploring the house in The Haunting and when they heard that sound got really, really, scared. That was awesome! XD

    I would also suggest Silent Hill soundtrack: altough it is almost universally known, it is still very scary. Resident Evil 1 & 2 soundtracks are also damn good in haunted mansions.

    • RPG Plotter October 10, 2010 at 6:11 pm #

      I would also suggest Silent Hill soundtrack: although it is almost universally known, it is still very scary.

      I haven’t listened to the Silent Hill Soundtrack (well, not since I saw the film). Thanks for the tip, I’ll check it out.

      Resident Evil 1 & 2 soundtracks are also damn good

      The Resident Evil 1 score is quite interesting (composed by Marilyn Manson). It’s a bit too heavy industrial for use in a range of settings but could work well for the growing genre of sci-fi/space horror: Eclipse Phase and Maschine Zeit

      • Omnos October 10, 2010 at 9:15 pm #

        Sorry for the mistake but I was referring to the videogames, not the movies XD

  2. David Witteveen October 9, 2010 at 1:50 pm #

    Music does a lot of scene-setting, too. It’s a lot easier, as a player, to imagine the characters in a Levantine souk if there’s Arabic music playing in the background.

    Although I did read about one group that used to play death metal dring their Lord of the Rings battle scenes. Seems to be spectacularly missing the point, but each to their own…

    • RPG Plotter October 10, 2010 at 6:12 pm #

      A very good point. I think I might have glossed over that part in my eagerness to get onto pushing those albums 🙂

  3. Jason Badower October 29, 2010 at 11:22 am #

    I’m a big fan of video game soundtracks. They tend to love low key, background, ambient looping sounds. And they’re usually appropriately labeled.

    For the fantasty game I’m running I can’t recommend the old Baldur’s Gate soundtrack enough.

    I also tend to listen to everything and relabel it according to your above four sections and then sub genre.

  4. PIC Programmer : November 1, 2010 at 7:23 am #

    i like computer games that are first person shooting and strategy games .

  5. Russ November 13, 2014 at 2:02 am #

    I use Final Fantasy music a lot. It has the right feel. As well as Braveheart, Lord of the Rings and even some Princess Bride music. A good soundtrack to use (especially if you want that epic feel) is First Knight. When the players are brand new to the world and you want to have a grand introduction to the main city/castle of your world, nothing beats that feel.

  6. The DM everyone fears November 14, 2014 at 6:28 am #

    I need a good ambiance, for a dungeon session. I’m just looking fur the songs of doing water, and creepy scittering sounds, not so much “music”

    • The DM everyone fears November 14, 2014 at 6:28 am #

      That’s *dripping* water

    • The DM everyone fears November 14, 2014 at 6:29 am #

      Wow auto correct really screwed that one up…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: