While some gamers prefer to play without background music, many search far and wide for sounds that will suit their campaigns. Nearly every gaming message board I've seen has had threads about gaming music at some time or another, and the topic keeps coming up. Plenty of gamers don't like to run music of any kind while they play, generally because it distracts the group. Some folks aren't that picky about what they play, so long as they have something to run 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.
When I run music during my games, I want several things. First, I don't want it to be disruptive. If my group can't hear each other well or if we keep getting derailed to talk about the music, then it's detracting from the flow of the game. Songs with lyrics distract me and my players, so I tend to favor nonvocal pieces. Some songs are too busy and loud, or they have repeating sounds that start to drive me absolutely nuts, so I have to listen to them carefully beforehand. I also tend to enjoy knowing what sort of mood will be set by the tracks on an album. Since I use music to help set the mood for various scenes, it doesn't help me if the mood changes wildly from one song to the next. For this reason, I've developed a habit of going through soundtracks and dividing the songs by theme. I usually use the following categories: town, battle, sneaky/spooky. Town music is lighter, happier stuff most of the time, but sometimes it's just more neutral paced. Battle music is often upbeat, driving, and exciting. Sneaky music tends to be quieter, softer, but with a suspenseful undertone. Sneaky music can lead into spooky music really well.
Unlike other gamers, I don't mix modern music into my medieval games. I don't want to hear electric guitars and synthesized sounds most of the time when I'm running D&D. On the flip side, I don't use medieval music during games that are set in modern times. Due to all of these personal preferences, I usually find movie soundtracks to be the most useful sources; they tend to be nonvocal, well produced, and varied. Sometimes soundtracks are so influenced by a particular theme that I don't use them except in particular circumstances. Apocalypto, for example, is so reminiscent of the jungle that I'm not going to use it or recommend it for general scenes. Most soundtracks have songs on them that I don't want to use, or they come arranged in an order that doesn't suit me, so I remix them freely. I also mix songs from various sources together for the sake of variety. There are a couple of albums that are so well arranged that I have no urge to remix them.
The reason that I'm telling you all of this is because my reviews and suggestions below are heavily influenced by my personal preferences. The albums below are ones that I have hunted down over the years and have actually used on a regular basis during my games. They suit my tastes and style. They could very easily be of use to you - most of them are just excellent in and of themselves - but you'll have to keep your own tastes in mind.
Tabletop Music Services
Amazon Prime Music: If you have a Prime membership and aren't using the streaming music service for gaming purposes, you are missing out in a major way. There are many soundtracks available for films and video games, as well as concept albums that give you familiar kinds of music in high quality - and a lot can be streamed for free.
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).
8tracks: This web site allows you to make mix-tapes and share them with your friends, all while paying royalties to creators, as is their due. Signing up for an account and making mixes is free. You can get one hour a week of free listening, or you can invest some of your hard-earned gold into supporting the site, which removes ads and gives you all the listening you wish. Furthermore, there are many mixes that others have made of their favorite gaming music, which can help you expand your own repertoire.
300 [2006, movie soundtrack]: This collection offers some very strong battle music, with just the right epic and fantasy feel. The slower, tamer tracks are okay, but the battle tracks are the high point. 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.
Aliens [1986, movie soundtrack]: This is a soundtrack that my gaming group has used for years and across genres. It's almost always in our CD rotation, and unlike other albums, we haven't had to pick it apart or rearrange it. 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.
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. One trouble with the music is that it might not fit with a lot of locations; it will likely only be used in particular locations or situations. But for its theme, Apocalypto is very well done.
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.
Baldur's Gate I & II [video game soundtracks]: Not only were the 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. If you play these soundtracks as they were arranged, then expect the music to change theme often. It's worthwhile to take these albums apart and regroup the songs by theme, though.
Batman Begins [2005, movie soundtrack]: This album has a deeper, driving sound that may or may not fit with your D&D games. It is very much worth trying out, however, because the music is so well done and appropriate for 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.
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.
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. We skip right past it, and sometimes wince if the singing's already started.
Braveheart [1995, movie soundtrack]: I can't watch the movie without crying but I can listen to the soundtrack and remain dry-eyed. Lucky thing, too, because I wouldn't want to miss out on this. 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.
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.
Celestial Aeon Project [2005-present]: For a number of 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.
Chrono Cross [video game soundtrack]: This is one of the loveliest video game soundtracks you're likely to run across and it more than makes up for the game's flaws. (And coming from me, that's saying something - I was pretty pissed at the game for falling so far short of its predecessor, the ultimately awesome Chrono Trigger.) 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.
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.
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.
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.
Diablo I, II and Lord of Destruction [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.
Dragon Age: Origins [video game soundtrack]: There is a nice selection of music from this soundtrack, from town to fighting music, and even if you've played Dragon Age before, it's not distracting. If you mix the tracks into others, they should blend seamlessly.
Dungeon Siege II [2005, video game soundtrack]: 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. Another solid album by Jeremy Soule.
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.
Final Fantasy VI / Final Fantasy III US release [video game soundtrack]: It might be a little dated, but the music from this excellent, older video game can work well for lighter-hearted fantasy campaigns and scenes.
Final Fantasy VII [video game soundtrack]: Final Fantasy VII was a milestone in console gaming and its music was finely done, varied, and plentiful. The album has a large number of tracks so that it will take up multiple discs, but it has all kinds of songs available that will suit many roleplaying games.
Fullmetal Alchemist [2004, television series soundtrack]: The music from FMA is beautifully done and if you can find all of the soundracks released, you will discover that there's a lot of it. 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.
Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion [video game soundtrack]: This is a strong and sometimes stately soundtrack that suits medieval-ish settings. It tends towards a more serious sound, so it might not be suited for all campaigns.
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.
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...
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.
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.
Lord of the Rings I, II, & III [2001-2003, movie soundtracks]: The music from Peter Jackson's LotR movies was produced with excellence and it runs the gamut from the extremely light-hearted sounds of the Shire, to the urgent battle songs. These are definitely soundtracks that benefit from remixing according to theme. A possible problem arises with these soundtracks because they are all done along a common theme; after a while they can get repetitive. They can mix really well with other soundtracks that you pick apart, however.
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.
Neverwinter Nights I & II [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.
Neverwinter Nights Hordes of the Underdark & Mask of the Betrayer [video game soundtracks]: The Hordes of the Underdark sountrack is rather short, with only 14 tracks. Still, they are well composed and can add to your arsenal of gaming music. The Mask of the Betrayer soundtrack is particularly rich and long, as far as game soundtracks go. I was very excited when I discovered it since the tracks are of decent length, great quality, and they cover all of my basic categories (town, sneaky, battle). I was also pleased to see how much new music was added by the MotB expansion; it feels like there's more music in the expansion than in the base game.
Planescape: Torment [video game soundtrack]: As far as I'm concerned, Torment is one of the very best RPG games ever made, from the ground up. 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Sixth Sense [1999, movie soundtrack]: There's some great spookier music on this soundtrack that works well mixed with other spooky songs.
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.
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.