How to Build Soundtracks for Your Roleplaying Game

I blame Will Hindmarch. It was his article for the Escapist, which I read over six years ago, that set me down this track. It started with a couple of sessions of experimentation, before it became the mantra I always live by. For every game in an RPG campaign I run – and every one-off game, where I can get away with it – I have a soundtrack that plays alongside the game.

Music does a great job of directing players to a consistent tone. It adds depth to emotionally charged roleplay. Played at the start of the session, it attracts focus; played in the middle of a session, when players don’t have much else to do (a long combat, say), it provides entertainment. And its ability to condition players – to play a villain’s theme, and instil a sense of dread, even when that character isn’t there – is a remarkably powerful tool in a GM’s arsenal.

Recently, a friend whose about to start running her first campaign asked me about my process for preparing soundtracks for RPGs. I realised I had a lot to say about it, and hadn’t really talked to anyone else about it before. This is probably very familiar stuff to people who already use music in their games, but to anyone else it should be a good enough start.

 

THE BEGINNING

I usually start by deciding how many playlists I want for the campaign, and what they’re going to be. Each game’s requirements are different, but usually I’m doing 1-4 sets, divided into the distinct core activities of each game. Some games, usually adventure settings, can get by fine with just one soundtrack filled with upbeat, moderately inspiring stuff. If I do two playlists, it’s usually a combat one and a non-combat one; three playlists will usually be combat, nice non-combat, and spooky/mysterious non-combat. Some examples from campaigns I’ve run recently…

Watcher (my 70s-set Buffy game): Separate soundtracks for Combat, Horror, Drama and Investigation (Investigation came later – I tried just using Horror, but it was too intense for library scenes). Plus a theme tune, a 70s showtune for each session, and other specific themes later.

CAMELOT Trigger: One soundtrack filled with generally heroic, action-oriented stuff.

Star Wars: One big soundtrack full of general Star Wars music, one mid-sized soundtrack for combat, two small soundtracks specific to the Light and Dark Sides of The Force, plus character themes.

Cure (zombie horror Drama System): Two soundtracks, one for Violence in procedural scenes, one for Unease in dramatic scenes. And a theme tune.

The One Ring: Separate soundtracks for Journeys, Fellowship, Battle, and The Shadow.

Ferrymen: Separate soundtracks for every planet plus space, and separate combat soundtracks for every planet plus space. Ferrymen is stupid. Don’t do what I did for Ferrymen.

 

POPULATING PLAYLISTS

This step is just a matter of listening to lots of instrumental albums, mostly music from film, tv, and video games (personally I use Spotify). If you’re adapting an existing fandom, the soundtrack from that fandom is a good start, but you need to be careful with anything too familiar – fans associate those with moments in the original source material, not with your game. As you’re listening to a track, sort it into the relevant soundtrack based on gut instinct of what feels right for certain types of scene. Many tracks will contain varieties of tone that don’t neatly fit into any category. Ditch them entirely.

In addition to the main soundtracks, I like to use specific tracks to add in amongst the usual shuffle – either to focus attention (starting the game with a theme song), or to trigger an emotional response. Conditioning is the intended goal – to remind people of a character’s tragedy, their relationship with another character, or transformation over time. If you’re lucky, you’ll trip over these as you’re putting your playlists together.

This part of the process is extremely time-consuming and requires little (but some) concentration. You’ll probably want to give your mind something else to do at the same time – travel, exercise, prep for the game, or work.

And you want a lot of content. The players will hear this music over and over again, so any main soundtracks less than forty minutes long will start to sound very familiar over time – but you don’t have to do everything before the first session. You can even do it during the session if you’re feeling confident: put everything into one big playlist, and sort it into your soundtrack genres as you go.

Here are where I got music for each of the examples above:

Watcher: Music from the Buffy TV show to begin with, and some action beats from the terrible Van Helsing movie for combat. Supplemented later with the Twilight movies, I Frankenstein, Cabin in the Woods, Two Steps from Hell, and the video games Alan Wake and Metro: Last Light. A grab bag of anything sad and spooky basically, much of it only discovered through Spotify’s recommendations. Then a different 70s pop hit for every session, and “Rebel Rebel” by David Bowie as our campaign’s theme tune, thanks to an inspired choice from a player for their character’s Trouble aspect.

CAMELOT Trigger: Two Steps from Hell and the Warcraft movie.

Star Wars: 100% drawn from the seven John Williams Star Wars movies for the soundtracks. For character themes, I used tracks from other movies composed by Williams – it still sounds consistent amongst the Star Wars tracks, but isn’t associated with other characters or events in the same way.

Cure: The Grudge, The Ring, The Omen. Lots of bits in all those movies that aren’t just life-or-death struggles; creeping dread make perfect accompaniments to the tense struggles and emotional battles of life post-zombie apocalypse. Zombie U provided the theme tune.

The One Ring: 100% from Howard Shore’s soundtracks to the six movies. I keep the overly familiar tracks in a separate playlist, so that I can slip in, say, the Lothlorien theme, at appropriate moments.

Ferrymen: Everywhere! The non-combat space playlist, which is probably the most commonly used one, derives music from Prometheus, Moon, and the remake of Solaris. But everything from Green Zone to Mass Effect to obscure Scandinavian concept work has appeared elsewhere.

 

PLAYTIME

When running the game, and the scene changes, that’s often a key to change to a different soundtrack. If you need a bit of breathing space, there’s nothing wrong with asking players to pause the game for five seconds whilst you make sure you’re using the right playlist for the scene you’re going into. Inevitably, especially at the start, songs will start playing that contrast sharply with the actions in the game (sometimes comically). If that happens, no sweat, just skip the track. And make a note to delete it from the playlist if it keeps being a problem.

Good luck!

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