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Music for Your Game

Up until about a year ago, I wasn’t into using background music when I ran games (though I enjoyed it as a player). The tipping point was my friend Don’s Stargate SG-4 [1] game, which used music so effectively that now I can’t imagine not having something on in the background.

This post covers a few considerations about using background music, and it lists some of my favorite multi-purpose gaming soundtracks.

So why would you want to use background music? For one simple reason: it’s fun! Soundtracks can have the same impact on your game as they do on the movies they come from — accentuating what’s happening during the session. They’re also nice for filling up quiet moments between the action, or when the players are deep into planning, for example.

Also, if you’re using movies to inspire or describe your game (as discussed in the TT post “Inspiration from Movies and TV Shows [2]“), choosing a highly-recognizable movie soundtrack is a great way to reinforce that.

As far as the “how” goes — by which I mean what you use to play your music — let’s start with the cadillac option: a digital music player. For our Stargate game, Don plugged his iPod into a set of speakers and played background music from a custom playlist.

This is a fantastic setup: it lets you customize the music for each individual session with a minimum of effort, and it’s very easy to change things up on the fly. For one of our best sessions (which was set aboard a derelict spaceship), Don filled his iPod with creepy, atmospheric tunes, and cued up individual songs for particular events — which intensified an already-intense gaming experience. (This setup can also be run through your computer, assuming it’s in your gaming room.)

Assuming you don’t have an MP3 player, though, the next best thing is a stereo that accepts MP3s as data (which many newer models do). This allows you to burn a custom CD for your campaign, or even for individual sessions, that includes dozens of songs — enough to last for several hours with no repetition.

If that’s not an option, you can do what I do: stick a few CDs in your stereo, and just switch between them when they run out. Some CDs work better than others for this, and — no surprise — soundtracks are pretty much ideal. They’re ideal for several reasons:

With that in mind, I’d like to highlight three of my favorites — all of which fit that list very well — and then recommend a few other good options.

Dungeons & Dragons Official Roleplaying Soundtrack: This is hands-down my favorite soundtrack for fantasy games — and note that it has nothing to do with the D&D movie! It’s composed by the folks over at Midnight Syndicate [3], who’ve been doing spooky gaming soundtracks for several years.

This is a mix of suspense-building and action tracks (including one battle scene complete with clashing swords), with no jarring moments whatsoever. I can see it working fine in other genres as well, but there’s something about it that just feels right for fantasy, and it’s definitely strongest in that context.

If you’re in the market for a gaming soundtrack and you only buy one, make it this one! (And if you’re interested in their horror-themed CDs, check out the other Midnight Syndicate titles.)

Gladiator Soundtrack: Another standout that can be played repeatedly, and that’s also pretty genre-neutral. Like the movie, it’s epic and exciting — but also haunting at times, which is a good mix for some games.

If you like this CD, there are a number of other epic movie soundtracks that are also excellent, like Braveheart, The Last Samurai and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.

Batman Begins Soundtrack: This one has lived in my CD player for most of my recent sessions, and it’s great: moody and suspenseful, but with plenty of sweeping “action-y” music as well.

I’ve found that using a mix of differents types of soundtrack tends to work the best, and Batman Begins stands out nicely from the ones mentioned above (as well as many of the ones mentioned below). Even moreso than the D&D soundtrack, this one would work for nearly any genre.

Other Suggestions

This list is by no means definitive — in fact, it’s pretty personal: I like all of these soundtracks, and most of them fit my criteria for ease-of-use fairly well. With that in mind, here are some more movie and video game soundtracks well worth considering for your library:

Those are just a few of the many titles that fit the criteria I listed above, though — what are your favorites? Are there any soundtracks that you’d recommend avoiding, even though they seem like they’d be good choices? This also isn’t the only way to use music in your game — how do you handle things?

12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "Music for Your Game"

#1 Comment By Frank Filz On September 14, 2005 @ 8:20 pm

I’m in the camp of not using music. The primary reason is that cuing music up is yet another piece of prep work, which I just don’t have time for. There was a period of time when we did have music because the players would handle it, but that just hasn’t worked out recently.

Back when I was first getting into D&D, playing of music during the game probably contributed to my total disinterest in music (my younger sister player her stereo overly loud was another contributor). I strongly remember the game coming to a halt when my friend’s favorite Jethro Tull tune came on. Of course these days, I’m really into music (though I no longer listen at home very much) and have an 800+ CD collection.

The D&D soundtrack sounds like a neat idea – except 1 hour of music doesn’t cut it for a 4 hour session…


#2 Comment By Martin On September 14, 2005 @ 9:03 pm

Both of the issues with using music that you mention — pain in the butt to cue up, one CD won’t last for a whole session — used to bug me as well. That’s one reason I focused this post on ways to get around that, the simplest and cheapest being the solution I use: a 6-disc changer (under $200) loaded with 3+ soundtracks. It’s minimal effort with good results, and that’s part of why I made the switch. 🙂

#3 Comment By Frank Filz On September 14, 2005 @ 10:35 pm

Now that I run 4 hour sessions, not 8 hour sessions, the changer would work better (except my stereo died, and my boombox changer chokes on the last couple disks). But there’s still the prep issue (I should point out that I’m usually madly prepping to the last minute, to the point that I usually haven’t started preparing dinner for myself until the game starts [I can do that during the 30 minutes of chit-chat – I can’t prep encounters during that time – as last night proved]).

But that’s just me and my disorganization, and doesn’t negate the technique overall.

Probably what I need is an available PC with a game oriented cuing system (perhaps with a ton of music supplied with it [I don’t go for file sharing services, I would want to use licensed music]). Then I set the genre as a program preference, and when I start the program, it launches off appropriate music. When a fight starts, I can click a button and it brings up a simple dialogue for me to choose from a few parameters and then it launches appropriate music. Oh, and it needs a button to say “this piece is not suitable for the selection I’ve made.”

It’s interesting to me that music reached a point of importance for me that I played it nearly all the time at home, work, and in the car, however, at home has now dropped out of the equation (but here’s another factor with at home – I’m much more mobile at home and I hate to miss the music, so if I leave the room, I want to either still be able to hear it, or pause it – when I upgraded to a 2 story apartment, it became impossible to still hear the music – plus my receiver was dead, and the CD changer dying). In my one bedroom apartment, before moving, I had started to use the music less and less because of the pain of getting up and changing the music (a 5 disk changer may not last a whole evening for me, and the way I listen to music, once it’s loaded in the changer, I generally want to hear it, so if one evening I got through 3.5 CDs, the next evening, I’m going to get 1-2 hours of music, and then I’m going to be interrupted), and especially as the apartment started to pile up with stuff.

But I’m just really weird with music…


#4 Comment By Pedro On September 15, 2005 @ 11:27 am

I’ve thought about using music, but haven’t yet. So, have you found it distracting at any points during your games.

Thanks for the tips on possible sound tracks to use.

I have the LotR sound tracks, and I enjoy listening to them most of the time when I’m working because it’s background music that doesn’t really interrupt my flow of thought.

#5 Comment By Catsclaw On September 15, 2005 @ 3:49 pm

I’ve been taking my CDs and burning MP3s out of them and then making a single disc of MP3s. Put these in a 5 CD/DVD changer and this gives me over 12 hours of music (we usually play a 10-12 hour session every other week).

Some interesting bands for a dark, forboding feel:

Nox Arcana

Also the 13th Warrior and Conan soundtracks are good as well.

#6 Comment By Martin On September 15, 2005 @ 8:32 pm

(Frank) But I’m just really weird with music…

To each their own — at least you know what works for you! 🙂

(Pedro) I’ve thought about using music, but haven’t yet. So, have you found it distracting at any points during your games.

Occasionally, getting up to start the next CD will be a bit distracting — but at most, a few moments out of a 4-6 hour session.

Catsclaw: Your setup sounds a lot like my second option — I’m glad it works for you. Thanks for the band and soundtrack recommendations! 🙂

(And welcome to TT, Catsclaw!)

#7 Comment By Abulia On September 16, 2005 @ 11:33 pm

I own a couple hundred of soundtracks, not for gaming but because I like musical scores. Very evocative.

In one Fading Suns game I had an encounter planned out and the speech from the major villain *timed* to coincide with the track in question, so that as the music reached its crescendo the villain reached the “and I will take over the Known Worlds!” portion of her speech. I practiced in my car on the way to the game several times. It was nifty. =)

Most GMs tend to frown on music because it’s just another thing to keep track of. I view it as another tool in my arsenal. Yes, it’s one more thing to prep for, but the payoff is typically worth it.

Favorites not mentioned:
Icewind Dale Soundtrack
Indiana Jones
Mulholland Drive
Emperor of the Fading Suns (wow!)
The Last Samurai
The Game

and the two greatest soundtracks of all time


#8 Comment By Abulia On September 16, 2005 @ 11:34 pm

Oh, and skip the Gladiator follow-up soundtrack; it’s a mess and has dialog voice-overs. It’s craptacular. =(

#9 Comment By Martin On September 17, 2005 @ 12:30 am

Good list, Don — thanks for sharing! 🙂 There’s some stuff on there I’d really like to hear (or hear again, like Sahara).

#10 Comment By Frank Filz On September 17, 2005 @ 11:18 am

Just to throw in a few thoughts from my own collection:

Rick Wakeman has a number of instrumental (or mostly instrumental) albums, many with a medieval sort of sound (Six Wives of Henry VII, Sea Airs, Country Airs, Night Airs, 2000 AD Into the Future (for an SF feel), Seven Wonders of the World (has commentary between tracks that should be skipped), Heritage Suite, The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table (some with lyrics, could be used to set the tone for a King Arthur game though)).

I listen to a lot of organ music and some of the following piecesare nice (not necessarily just on organ):
William Walton Crown Imperial (march written for King George VI’s corronation – similar to Pomp and Circumstance but less instantly recognized)
Richard Wagner Ride of the Valkyries
Elgar Pomp and Circumstance
Karg Elert March Triomphale

Other classical type:
Verdi’s Triumphal March from Aida
Harpsichord music (sounds more period than piano or symphony)
Classics go to the Movies I (a bunch of popular classical movie sound tracks, including Sprach Zarathustra from 2001)

Other artists
Sequentia (liturgical music sung in latin)
Jon Anderson (Olias of Sunhillow – has lyrics but brings a Lord of the Rings feel)
Hedingarna (1989-2003, The Heathens, traditional Swedish folk music)
Ian Anderson (Rupi’s Dance, Divinities: Twelve Dances with God – a bit of a non-Christian feel, flute [of course])
David Arkenstone (lots of cool themed new age albums)
Ayman (new age, some Arabic influence)
Solaris Nostradamus (Hungarian band, some latin)

Celtic/Gaelic Artists
Clannad, Enya, Mair Brennan (some w/lyrics, but often in Gaelic)
Steve McDonald (Sons of Somerled, Spinfield, Stone of Destiny – Scottish, lyrics)
Mary Jane Lammond (all lyrics in Gaelic)

I’ve listed a bunch with lyrics, but when the lyrics aren’t in English, they are much less distracting to me.

Certainly the size of my music collection makes it daunting, but the above are some things I would look to pretty quickly.


#11 Comment By Frank Filz On September 17, 2005 @ 11:25 am

A couple questions I have though:

1. How do you control pacing? What do you do if you’re not in a climactic scene and climactic music comes on (or is about to come on)? With a computer based MP3 player, you could have different tracks for different pacing. That would also work with a disc changer that could take MP3 discs.

2. Has anyone ever used the music to pace the game? When the climactic music comes on, pick up the pace and force a major conflict?

I guess my biggest hurdle is the pacing more than the logistics of actually picking music. Since I don’t do MP3s, I am at the mercy of the pacing within individual albums, and a 5-6 disc changer.


#12 Comment By Martin On September 18, 2005 @ 10:12 am

Awesome list, Frank! 🙂

In answer to your questions:

1) My method is incredibly lazy — in 6 sessions of my current campaign, last night’s game was the first time I’ve skipped a track because it was too jarring. I load stuff that isn’t distracting even if it doesn’t match the mood, and leave it at that.

2) Pacing by the music is an interesting idea — I’ve certainly never tried it.