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  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 “), 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:
- They’re designed to compliment and accompany something (originally a movie, now your game) without distracting from it.
- They often don’t have any lyrics (I find lyrics to be pretty distracting).
- They can often work equally well with different genres.
- Even tracks that don’t fit the action in your game at that moment don’t usually detract from it.
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 , 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.
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:
- Black Hawk Down
- The Chronicles of Riddick
- Halo: Original Soundtrack
- Henry V (1989 film)
- The Last Of The Mohicans
- The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
- The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
- The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
- Metal Gear Solid
- The Rock
- Under Siege
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?