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Suggested Gaming Music

 

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Introduction

Some gamers prefer to play without background music because they find it distracting, and it certainly can be. But many others search far and wide for sounds that will suit their campaigns, and there have never been more options at our fingertips as there are right now. Some folks aren't that picky about what they play, so long as they have something in the background. Others just want music that will keep them feeling good and alert, and won't be disruptive. Some gamers, myself included, are pickier about what they play, when, and why.

Setting

The first consideration you might have is your game's setting. If you're running a medieval game, will it be jarring to your group to hear electric guitars and other modern sounds? Do you want to hunt down reproductions of historic songs from the period and place, or would your group be fine with songs that sound like they were made for fantasy films? If the PCs are in a traveling campaign (or even a time-hopping adventure), do you want the music to change to match each new location? Whatever you decide, you'll probably want some level of consistency. It will probably seem strange to the group if you just shuffled all the music you own, regardless of genre. If you want to specialize, you'll need to set up playlists to reflect that.

Ambiance

The next thing to think about is if you want to spend time and energy on setting up particular the ambiance for scenes via music. Do you want to have spooky songs ready for those moments when an investigation leads to dark places? Do you want epic battle music just for combat scenes? Services like Tabletop Audio provide loops of music with particular ambiances in mind, and you can filter their offerings by genre. With services like Syrinscape, you can add a variety of sound effects while the game is in progress, as well. Either way, this is going to take extra work from the DM to set up. If you want to do this for free, you can use free offerings like Tabletop Audio. You can set up a budget to buy albums, songs, or to subscribe to a service; you might also ask the group to pitch in. As above, you'll want to set up some playlists or at least learn where to easily find the tracks you'll need for the next session. Basic themes like town, battle, and sneaky/spooky might be all you need. A benefit to playlists is that you can arrange tracks however you want and let them run until you need to change the ambiance of the scene or move on to the next.

Possible Distractions

Musical preferences can be personal and touchy subjects, but you'll want to figure out what's comfortable for the whole group to hear. The thing is, you might not know what to ask about when it comes to gaming music. To that end, I'd like to bring your attention to some aspects that can be distracting and annoying to some folks.

Lyrics

One thing I've noticed is that songs with lyrics are more distracting to me, and I know I'm not alone. Our minds will recall lyrics as songs play and even run ahead so we know what's coming up. Some people will sing along with songs they know or love without thinking about it, which might get in the way of paying attention to what's happening at the table. And it's easy for the group to be derailed into talking about a song or album, interruping the flow of the game. Is it bad if these things happen from time to time? No, of course not. It can even be fun. But if you find that your group is paying more attention to tracks than the game, you may want to choose music without lyrics.

Overall Noise Level

The level of noise a person enjoys varies not just person-to-person but sometimes day-to-day. If someone is often in loud environments and feeling stressed, they may want a little more quiet in their gaming time. This could mean they don't want any music at all or that it will help them to lower the volume. It's not because they're trying to be rude or squash the group's fun, it's because overstimulation affects how we feel and function in different ways. It can become difficult to concentrate or hear other players. Keep in mind that the noise level during a game can ramp up quickly as people get excited, laugh, and even talk over each other. It's likely that music or sound effects will be turned up so they can be heard at all, which can be overwhelming for some. One thing that can help is using lighter, softer sounds for some scenes, to give everyone a little break before the next swell of combat sounds.

Repetitive, Shrill, and Other Sounds

Another aspect that can be very uncomfortable for some people is when the same sound plays over and over. Another issue can be high-pitched or sudden loud noises. Some tracks feature these things and can pull people right out of the game. You may want to keep this in mind when you choose music, and you might want to listen to whole songs before a session so you know what they sound like the whole way through.

Talk It Over

As with everything in tabletop gaming, sound is a shared experience and people have different desires and thresholds. It's important to try to be respectful of everyone at the table and make compromises that lead to shared good times. So ask your group about music and sound effects. See if they have suggestions. If everyone is okay with what is (or isn't) being played, great! If there are issues, work on strategies to overcome them together rather than ignoring one or more people's desires.

Services & Apps

General

Made for RPGs

Amazon Prime Music: If you have a Prime membership and aren't using the streaming music service for gaming purposes, you're missing out. A lot can be streamed without having to pay extra.

BattleBards: Scores, effects, and different genres are available to play and mix, but you need to buy tracks to use them or sign up for monthly streaming.

Ambient-Mixer: Community-created soundscapes (along with sound effects) are royalty free here via the Creative Commons Sampling Plus license, and you can also mix your own online. You can also download tracks you like, and there's a category for RPG environments.

DMDJ: Mix music and sound effects on this phone app with a one-time low payment (about $5) and no ads.

MyNoise: You can use this browser service for free to mix sounds in many categories, from Japanese Garden to Medieval Village. Free to use but payments keep it running ad-free.

Melodice: Look up a board game and get a playlist you can play right away online for free.

Soundcloud: Stream tracks on playlists or posted by creators for free.

Roll20's Jukebox: Upload your own music and sound effects or use their audio libraries.

Soundimage.org: Original music and effects in MP3 that you're free to use with attribution to the creator.

RPGSounds: This is a tool on Steam for storing your gaming music and sound effects. It's free, with optional sound packs available for purchase.

Spotify: As with YouTube, many people are already using Spotify for gaming playlists, and you'll want to subscribe to avoid ads.

RPGSounds: Fantasy: Provides a soundboard for mixing, playlists, and the ability to import files via an app for iOS. You can use it for free but there are also in-app purchases, including a PRO tier for a one-time cost.

YouTube: Does it need to be said? You can find all kinds of tracks and playlists here and create and share your own playlists easily. The only issue is that if you don't subscribe, ads will play and ruin the mood.

Syrinscape: This app blends different music and sound effects for thematic scenes and it lets you control the different elements (so if you want more ghostly moans, you can just toggle them up). It can be tried for free and comes with a few sound sets to try out but the full benefit comes with the range of sets you can purchase.

 

Tabletop Audio: This web site has thematically arranged, originally produced loops of music to provide backgrounds for different types of games, from medieval to sci-fi and many things in between. It's made specifically with roleplaying games in mind, streams well, and is free to use (though you can always donate).

 

Tabletop Tunes: Pick a category of music and play seamless loops through this phone app. There's a separate system for combat music (choose mild, tense, epic, boss), with an intensity slider. It appears to be free for iphone.

 

Tabletopy: Ambiance and sound effects you can mix right in your browser.

 

Old Favorites

Film Soundtracks

47 Ronin [2013, movie soundtrack]: Gorgeously atmospheric, nicely dramatic, with some awesome buildup for battle scenes. A must-have if you're running in Asian-themed settings.

Gladiator [2000, movie soundtrack]:  Some of the songs are rousing, others are lulling and lovely, while others are meant for more dramatic scenes. All of the songs are beautifully done. I would suggest taking the album apart and remixing it if you don't want fight music coming up during a peaceful town scene.

300 [2006, movie soundtrack]:  This collection offers some very strong battle music, with just the right epic and fantasy feel. There is a particular style of singing that occurs in some of the tracks that might not appeal to some listeners (and might remind many of the Gladiator soundtrack), but I haven't found it too bad.

 

Highlander [1986, movie soundtrack]:  This soundtrack works pretty well for medieval games, even if it has some more modern sounds. You can let it run all the way through without having to fuss with it. The song Who Wants to Live Forever seems to come up at the damnedest times in our games...

Aliens [1986, movie soundtrack]:  This is a soundtrack that my gaming group has used for years and across genres. Aliens has several slower, darker tracks that are good for suspenseful scenes, like the exploration of a forgotten ruin. It also has some tracks that evince more fear and panic, good for nasty discoveries. There are some wonderful, high-paced tracks on here for running and fighting. Sometimes the DM will be able to time a description just right and the music will swell dramatically.

House of Flying Daggers [2004, movie soundtrack]:  This soundtrack is lovely enough to listen to on its own but is the perfect complement to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for gaming music. It has less obvious fight pieces than Crouching Tiger and works well for town play.

Apocalypto [2006, movie soundtrack]:  If you want jungle-themed music, this soundtrack is for you. It has some high-energy, exotic rhythms that make you think of hunting in the jungle and the album is good from start to finish. It is a pretty consistent collection, too, and probably won't need rearranging.

Lord of the Rings (any) [movie soundtracks]:  The music from Peter Jackson's LotR movies was produced with excellence and runs the gamut from the light-hearted sounds of the Shire to urgent battle songs. Since these pieces are well-known and use common themes that can get repetitive, you should probably intermix them with tracks from other sources.

Avatar [2009, movie soundtrack]: This soundtrack has some wonderful pieces that always remind me of high fantasy and flying. If you have an aerial campaign, this is the choice for you. If you have some big wars or devastating battles, there are some tracks that you'll want to check out, as well.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein [1994, movie soundtrack]: This is light on fight music but has some fine pieces for spookier and slower scenes, as well as town pieces.

Batman Begins [2005, movie soundtrack]:  This album has a deeper, driving sound that may or may not fit with your D&D games. You can pretty much play Batman Begins as it was packaged and have a good experience the whole way through. One or two tracks get louder part-way through, in a way that might interrupt anyone who's speaking. You might have to get to know the soundtrack so that you can set your volume to the right level.

Record of Lodoss War [movie soundtrack]:  The Record of Lodoss war series was a D&D style adventure in anime format. It is utterly classic and well done, and its music is quite beautiful. If you don't mind vocal tracks then leave them in, but if singing distracts your group you may want to remove them.

Battlestar Galactica - The Plan/Razor [2010, tv film soundtrack]: This particular entry in the Battlestar series of soundtracks has more of Middle Eastern influences and less of the Celtic that's heard in the other music for the show. It's a solid set, with only the last live track varying from the whole.

Rome [2005, television soundtrack]:  This is a lush and gorgeous soundtrack; I listen to it while reading or studying, not just during games. I found that the album has a kind of Middle-Eastern sound in most of its songs, so it might not work for all campaigns and locales. It is definitely worth a listen and if you find a way for it to fit, then you are in for a treat.

Bram Stoker's Dracula [1992, movie soundtrack]:  This disc rarely leaves our stereo during game night. In a way, it can work as a good companion to Aliens. The spooky, slower songs in Dracula make for a good lead-in to the higher-energy music of Aliens. But the album is strong on its own, with one exception - the last track by Annie Lennox doesn't fit the mix at all and sticks out like a sore thumb.

Shakespeare in Love [1998, movie soundtrack]:  This entire album can be of use to medieval games. Some of the songs are light, others are more dramatic, but none of them are really fit for battles.

Braveheart [1995, movie soundtrack]:  The Braveheart soundtrack is beautiful, stirring, tender, rousing, battle-ready and epic. It's a perfect album for many D&D games. It may or may not need rearranging depending on your preference; we've been able to just listen to the album as it was packaged.

The Mummy [1999, movie soundtrack]:  This is yet another of those great soundtracks that has limited application due to its heavily themed music. If you're running a Middle-Eastern flavored campaign or a desert location, then by all means put this album to good use; you won't regret it.

Carnivale [2003, television show soundtrack]:  A smooth and interesting blend of some Southern American and Middle Eastern tones, this soundtrack blends more easily than I would've thought. It works best for town music but might also work for some more desolate places.

The Ninth Gate [1999, movie soundtrack]:  This is a soundtrack that's largely made up of spoooooky music. The songs tend to be slower so you might not want to play them too much late at night, during a long session; I've found myself starting to get lulled to sleep by them. There's limited vocal work here, with one woman singing notes rather than words. Since most of the songs run along a common theme, it might not be a bad idea to mix this up with spooky music from other soundtracks to break the monotony.

Conan (The Barbarian or The Destroyer) [1982 & 1984 movie soundtracks]: Many gamers swear by the music of Conan and use it regularly in their sessions, and I played the soundtracks at length to see how I could use them. Much to my surprise, I discovered that the songs did not fit well the other music we tend to enjoy and were so distracting that I opted not to use them. They could enhance your game a great deal; our games haven't missed these soundtracks.

The Princess Bride [1987, movie soundtrack]:  Even if you don't like the movie (and I can't imagine why anyone wouldn't!), you can find some wonderful songs on the soundtrack. The music is generally upbeat and friendlier in tone, with a few exceptions. Since this isn't a lengthy album, you'll probably want to mix it into a compilation.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon [2003, movie soundtrack]:  This soundtrack is a boon to those with Asian-flavored games. It is very well put together and the music is wonderful, but like Apocalypto, the Asian theme might not work for casual listening. It has a light enough sound, however, that you might want to give it a try as background music even if your game is not in an Asian setting.

The Sixth Sense [1999, movie soundtrack]:  There's some great spookier music on this soundtrack that works well mixed with other spooky songs.

Fullmetal Alchemist (any) [series soundtracks]:  The music from FMA is beautifully done and if you find the soundtracks for both series and anything extra, like the films, you'll find that there's a lot to choose from. A few of the pieces don't sound particularly medieval and a couple have a more Asian flavor, but overall the songs have a sound that will work for many genres.

The Tudors Seasons 1 & so on [2007, show soundtrack]: There are some fine pieces for town play and dramatic moments in fantasy and medieval settings, and none of the tracks are boring. Some of them have ominous overtones and a few have some driving beats, but most aren't really for combat.

 

Video Game Soundtracks

Baldur's Gate I, II, and III [video game soundtracks]:  Not only were the old Baldur's Gate PC games excellent, but they also had amazingly well done soundtracks. Since the pieces were made specifically for the games, they cover the usual situations that most roleplaying games tend to cover. There's some town music, some good exploration music, some creepier tracks and rousing fight music as well. It's worthwhile to take these albums apart and regroup the songs by theme, though.

Elder Scrolls (any)[video game soundtracks]:  Strong and sometimes stately pieces in these soundtracks should suit medieval-ish settings. It tends towards a more serious sound, so it might not be suited for all campaigns.

Chrono Cross [video game soundtrack]:  This is one of the loveliest video game soundtracks you're likely to run across. The album has the sounds of high adventure and movement, as well as tracks that are more touching. Most of its tracks make good town music, while some of them fit for spookier/sneakier themes and a few make decent fight music. The entire album is beautifully made with utterly professional sound and arrangement. It's something you can listen to for pleasure as well as gaming, like many of the other soundtracks here.

Icewind Dale I & II [video game soundtracks]:  These albums mesh pretty well with the Baldur's Gate soundtracks and make for excellent gaming music. Since they were made for D&D roleplaying games, they have a lot of the themes that such games touch on. You'll probably have to remix the discs to get them just as you'd like them.

D&D Online: Stormreach [video game soundtrack]:  I was pleasantly surprised to discover the good quality of this soundtrack. It has some rousing tavern music, and some darker, lovlier tracks. This compilation will work best for town and tamer scenes, since it doesn't really offer rousing fight music.

Neverwinter Nights (any) [video game soundtracks]: NWN 2 shares a number of tracks in common with the original NWN game but once you sort them out, the songs tend to be good for a wide variety of fantasy games. The Hordes of the Underdark sountrack is rather short, with only 14 tracks. The Mask of the Betrayer soundtrack is particularly rich and long, however.

Diablo (any) [video game soundtracks]:  At first, this soundtrack was a little distracting, because everyone in my group took a moment to reminisce about all those hours playing Diablo. After a while, however, we got used to it, and it fit our campaign perfectly. Try mixing this with The Mummy.

Planescape: Torment [video game soundtrack]:  As far as I'm concerned, Torment is one of the very best RPG games ever made. Its music is no exception. This is one of the more unique gaming soundtracks that you're likely to hear and yet you can just let it run without needing to pick it apart by theme. It can add a surreal sense to a session but doesn't have to; it can blend into the background nicely. Fall From Grace's theme is one of the loveliest tracks I've heard for a game, and there are a few others that are more town oriented.

Dragon Age (any) [video game soundtracks]: There's a nice selection of music on these soundtracks, from town to fighting music, and even if you've played Dragon Age before, it's not distracting. If you mix the tracks with others from different sources, they should blend seamlessly.

Prince of Persia trilogy [video game soundtracks]: The tracks are smooth, with limited vocals and none that really get in the way. The Middle Eastern-y sound will suit many locations, including those in ancient historical settings, deserts, and the like. There are some faster-paced moments without too much in the way of epic battle songs (so you might want to supplement it with something else, like some of the fight songs from Diablo, perhaps).

Dungeon Siege (any) [video game soundtracks]: This collection is heavy on music for fight scenes, but it also has a good number of tracks that you can weave into sneaky moments and town background ambience.

The Longest Journey [video game soundtrack]:  Most of this soundtrack will apply to the bulk of roleplaying games. You may want to remix the tracks and/or mix them with other soundtracks. A few of the songs are a lot more modern-sounding but they are easily identified and, if desired, you can weed them out (or add them to a compilation for modern-sounding music). Just look for the songs named after animals.

Dungeons & Dragons [2000, movie soundtrack]:  Okay, so the movie sucked, but the soundtrack is salvageable!  This album often changes tone drastically from one track to the next, so you might want to disassemble it and reassemble it just the way you like it.

World of Warcraft [2004, video game soundtrack]:  The music of WoW is evocative and rich, and was obviously produced with care. A few of the pieces have a very grand sound that might not sync well if you're running in a small town, but you'll probably find something you like in this collection.

Final Fantasy (any) [video game soundtrack]:  The earliest music might be a little dated, but overall the music from this series can work well for lighter-hearted fantasy campaigns and scenes.

 

 

Miscellaneous

Celestial Aeon Project [2005+]: For years now, Maati Paalanen has created music specifically for use in tabletop roleplaying sessions, and has offered that music for free without fail. There are multiple tracks under each project, and CAP's projects include: Divinity, Essence, Frozen Silence, Roomful of Emptiness, Warehouse of Distant Dreams, Miracle, Empire, Epic, Fable, and Mind's Eye.

Scott Williams:  As a masterful user of the hammered dulcimer, Scott Williams has produced several CDs that scream "MEDIEVAL."  Many of the songs are lovely and upbeat but others are slower and more somber. Not much in the way of battle music here, but a rich collection of sounds for other types of scenes in medieval games.

 

 

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