For many years I lovingly crafted soundtracks for my sessions, occasionally even adding sound effects. Done well, music enhances immersion in the game and kicks engagement into a higher gear. Done so-so, it still adds to the game, but ends up serving as little more than pleasant background noise. Done poorly, it distracts from the game as people grumble about the incongruity of the music and the game being played.
Thankfully that last option hasn’t happened to me during an RPG (once or twice during board game nights, but that’s a different story). It does highlight a key aspect of using music in your game, which is this: you need to think about it and put at least some effort into executing it well (particularly if you want to key specific music to particular themes).
For my part, I like to create music that serves as a good background to the events that I expect to happen during a given session, but I don’t usually sync up the music and the action. Instead I let it flow organically, and try to avoid having anyone one track stand out against the others. If I want a stand out track for a particular battle, I’ll create a playlist just for that and switch away from the general playlist at the appropriate time.
I used soundtracks most heavily during our Star Wars campaign because there was so much source material to pull from and I knew it well enough to pick just the right mix of music for a session. The biggest challenge was familiarity — what was true for me was also true for the rest of the group. My solution was to reach for lesser known Star Wars music like that from the Clone Wars television series or the soundtracks for the various video games. They were thematically familiar enough to fit the game without being instantly recognizable (and tired).
I’ve frequently used music with Dungeons & Dragons as well. For years our tried and true soundtracks were Conan the Barbarian, the Dungeons & Dragons soundtrack (the game one by Midnight Syndicate, not the movie one), and the Lord of the Rings movie soundtracks. In recent years we’ve added in The Hobbit as well the occasionally thematically appropriate superhero movie sound track (Batman Begins, Thor, Guardians fo the Galaxy, etc.). Originally I purchased each of the albums — and still do if it’s something I really enjoy — but I’ve also been leveraging Spotify for my playlists.
My use of music has declined over the last two years or so, partly because we’re not playing at my house (and thus, in my game room) as often and partly because even if we were in my game room, my speakers broke. I’d like to get back to using music though and I’m mulling getting a nice Bluetooth speaker. That would solve both problems nicely.
Example: The Verdant Expanse
The Verdant Expanse is a region of the Pomarj in the World of Greyhawk filled with rampant growth and unusual beasts. In our Obsidian Frontier campaign it was ruled by The Green Blight, a green dragon, who transformed the region into a fey-infested land after he conquered Viridescent Keep and opened the Feywild portal it protected.
My goal with this playlist was to mix traditional fantasy tracks (provided by Thor: The Dark World and The Hobbit) with more ethereal, otherworldly tracks (mostly the Avatar tracks) representing the fey.
- “Pure Spirits of the Forest” – James Horner, Avatar
- “Morag” – Tyler Bates, Guardians of the Galaxy
- “As the Hammer Falls” – Brian Tyler, Thor: The Dark World
- “The Bioluminescence of the Night” – James Horner, Avatar
- “Battle Between Worlds” – Brian Tyler, Thor: The Dark World
- “Scorched Earth” – James Horner, Avatar
- “Beginning of the End” – Brian Tyler, Thor: The Dark World
- “A Thief in the NIght” – Howard Shore, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
- “Quaritch” – James Horner, Avatar
- “Courage and Wisdom” – Howard Shore, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
You can listen to the playlist on Spotify.