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.
Generally, 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
Looking 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.
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
Computer 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.
Minimalist glitch that works nicely for modern and futuristic games. Aswad is an excellent album, everyone should own a copy.
3 Great Composers:
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.
He seems to get picked for a lot of sword and sandal stuff (Troy, 13th Warrior, etc). Go to him for fantasy music.
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.