I’m a big fan of having music in the background when I GM (and when I play, too), and have really gotten into it over the past four years. In that time, I’ve learned a few things that I find useful; they’re all based on having a digital media library (in my case, on my iPod):

  • No vocals. When the primary activity of the evening is sitting around and talking, having an extra “person” singing in the background is incredibly distracting. The only exception is chanting and the like — if it doesn’t make you pause and try and catch the words, it’s all good. This is a pretty basic tip, but it’s a good starting point if you’ve never used background music when you GM before.
  • Soundtracks are your friends. Movie, TV, and video game soundtracks are generally the best source of RPG background music. They’re already geared to being played in the background, they usually contain a mix of ambient and action-y tracks, and you can probably identify different types of tracks pretty easily without having to listen to every moment of every song. Midnight Syndicate also makes some great gaming-specific soundtracks (I particularly like their D&D and Eberron discs).
  • Create playlists. Think about a typical session: What are the two things you likely spend the most time doing? In most games I’ve run or played, that’d be “stuff” and action scenes. “Stuff” is more or less everything that happens that isn’t action, and is well-matched with a nice big ambient playlist. Action needs it’s own pump-you-up playlist, suitable for both combat and other fast-paced scenes.
  • …But not too many playlists. As the GM, you have a lot on your plate — you don’t need to be juggling 20 playlists on top of that. For the most part, your players will just enjoy the music without paying too much attention to it, so you don’t need a playlist for every emotion or every agonizingly specific scene. I currently have four RPG background music playlists: Ambient, Action, Foreboding, and Triumphant. The Foreboding playlist is for sinister, suspenseful scenes; Triumphant is for when my players win or accomplish something major.
  • Make them deep. You don’t want to hear the same five songs over and over for the entire night — if you have the library to do it, add as many songs as you can to each playlist. Mine clock in like this: ambient, 11 hours; action, four hours; Foreboding, five hours; Triumphant, 45 minutes. Ambient sees the most play time, so it needs to be the longest; Action needs to get you through at least one long combat with no repetition.
  • Avoid major geek touchstones. If the Star Wars Imperial march comes on during your game — and you’re not playing a Star Wars campaign — chances are it’s going to take your players out of the moment and make them think of Star Wars instead. I find this distracting as a GM and as a player, so I usually steer clear of music along those lines. That doesn’t mean the Star Wars soundtrack is off-limits, just that avoiding the biggest, best-known songs is probably a good idea.
  • Avoid overly quiet tracks, too. Some soundtracks work great in the theater but suck for gaming, generally because they’re too quiet. Casino Royale (the new one) is a good example: It’s a fantastic soundtrack, but large chunks of it are so quiet that you’ll never hear them in the background at the gaming table. I build my playlists by skimming each song for just this reason: to weed out the duds.
  • Include some surprises. Especially with soundtracks, a single track will often contain ambient, sinister, and action-y elements. With the exception of my Foreboding playlist, I don’t mind if there are occasional quiet, ambient elements in my Action playlist, or vice versa — because they make nice surprises. Sometimes an oddball track will sync up perfectly with what’s happening in the game; and if not, it’s easy enough to skip to the next track.
  • Pay attention to your players. If your players all look at you funny when certain tracks come up, chances are they’re too distracting. Next time you sync your iPod, take those tracks out.

Here are the mainstays of my playlists:

  • Movies/TV: Wanted, Casino Royale, Akira, Iron Man, LotR: Fellowship of the Ring, The Fountain, Dexter, Braveheart, the Indiana Jones trilogy, Sunshine, Halloween
  • Video games: Mass Effect, Tenchu, Silent Hill, Metal Gear Solid, Metal Gear: Solid Snake, WoW: The Burning Crusade, Castlevania: SotN, Halo 2, Diablo II, Gears of War
  • Other: Adam Hurst, Midnight Syndicate, NIN: Ghosts I-IV

I first tried this approach with my recently-completed Mage chronicle, and it served me very well. After spending a year running that game, I went back in and re-tooled my playlists a bit; the tips in this article represent my current approach. I hope they work as well for you as they have for me.

How do you tackle RPG background music in your own games?