Music is a powerful emotional tool. There’s a reason you can hum the theme music of your favorite movies. It’s invaluable for establishing tone and setting the mood in roleplaying games. Over the years, I’ve picked tracks from my favorite soundtracks and created a library of music with almost 600 tracks in it. I’ll share with you some of my favorite tracks, and help you create a playlist that works for you and your roleplaying group.
The point of using music is to give your players cues to let them know how they should be feeling. Should they be scared? Intrigued? Excited? Because of this, music is divided by common feelings or situations. I title each folder by the mood I want to set, sometimes with a few subdivisions, so I can quickly find the perfect track for any given situation.
An easy pitfall is to use music that is overfamiliar. You want to establish a new character as totally evil? You may want to go with “The Imperial March” from Empire Strikes Back but watch out- unless your baddie is Darth Vader levels of scary (and let’s face it, they’re probably not), you will have created an association for your players that distracts from your actual goals.
Different groups have different favorites. My usual group was more familiar with movie soundtracks than video games, so I usually went for my favorite video game music. After a while, they associated certain tracks more with playing RPGs than they ever could with the original source material. Below, I will list all of my different categories and share one favorite track that I think embodies the mood it is trying to set.
Originally, I had a category called “Combat” this category quickly grew and grew, until I needed to divide it into all sorts of different subcategories that would get my players riled up and throwing their dice in desperation.
Action- Chases and Escapes
A lot of times, players aren’t trying to kill something, they are trying to catch it or escape with their lives. That needs a slightly different tone that captures a sense of forward momentum. The motorcycle chase from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade has been used in my games for chases on foot, by boat, by spaceship, and all manner of other modes of transportation.
In some situations you want the players to feel empowered, but a lot of the time you want to sell them on the high stakes and danger of an encounter. Ilan Eshkeri’s “Zombie Fight” is slow and adventurous, but it lets your players know they should take a threat seriously.
On the other hand, there are times when you want the players to feel utterly cool. They are, after all, the heroes in this story, and this is when they are doing whatever it is that they do best. I have too many favorites here to pick just one, but I find myself coming back to the soaring strings of “Resurrected Power” from Shadow of the Colossus. It captures the feeling of a challenge that’s huge, but not too big for the players to overcome.
Action- Huge Problem
Similarly, enormity is something that you want to capture, whether it’s for an epic boss fight, a Kaiju attack, or a steampunk train turning into a six-story mecha. Something about the “Star Wolf Theme” from Nintendo’s Starfox series pushes my players a step beyond simple desperation, into panic. When you see them looking at their character sheets for an ability they’ve never used before, you know this song has done its job.
I know it seems like I’m splitting hairs here, but this one is meant for one of those endless encounters. This isn’t just a dangerous fight, it’s getting out of the enemy base before the charges go off, it’s holding off an endless horde of goblins never knowing when- or if- backup will arrive. I love the slow buildup of the “Theme From Metal Gear Solid 3,” I use the first 45 seconds to establish the tone and the threat and then those drums come in and my players freak! Out! I love it.
Action- Vs. Evil!
I found I needed one last category of music, for when the players were facing something truly evil. This is meant to capture not just the danger to their characters, but to the narrative. This is the Bad Guy, the one who threatens Everything. I love Star Wars music, so I went with the lesser-known Knights of the Old Republic soundtrack by the very talented Jeremy Soule. It lets your players know this bad guy means business, without inviting those obvious Vader comparisons.
You wanted your game to be a serious struggle between good and evil, but then that one player had to go and be wacky. The orcs were supposed to be a real threat, but he rolled poorly, and now he’s badly trying to quip while simultaneously crawling into the snarling jaws of the enemy orc to mess him up from the inside. You want to indicate that you know he’s being a clown. Do it with music! “Vamo Alla Flamenco” became the unofficial theme to one of my sillier player’s characters.
Badass- Dramatic Reveal
When you want to reveal that the favorite NPC is less dead than the players thought or that they are finally coming up on the lost temple or finding that Important Amulet of Whatever, you need a dramatic music cue. Nothing gets me more worked up than “Normandy Reborn” from Mass Effect 2, which is nostalgic, heroic, and totally cool.
This is distinct from Heroic Action in that it may or may not be action. It’s a little slower, a little more deliberate, and as empowering as you can get. It’s used for highlighting the accomplishments of a single player. You can use it to encourage a usually quiet player to do something huge, or you can give one awesome player a theme song. The mind-meltingly cool theme from Pacific Rim by the superstar team of Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello and Game of Thrones’ Ramin Djawadi become the theme song of my one Paladin every time he fearlessly faced down evil and made them blink.
Badass- A Single Perfect Tear
This is the track of self sacrifice, of a tragic but monumental decision. When you want the players to know that the NPC who told them to go ahead, he’ll be right behind them may not be right behind them, you use one of these tracks. “Sunshine- Adagio in D Minor” by John Murphy in the movie Sunshine is so effective at this, it’s been used in a ton of movie trailers and was even borrowed in The Walking Dead, despite being from an underrated 2007 sci-fi film.
Badass- The Coolest Thing In the World
I basically have one track in this folder, and I only bust it out when a player is doing The Coolest Thing In the World, and it’s the main theme from Skyrim (also by Jeremy Soule, that dude works hard!). When you are playing Dungeons and Dragons and the player is fighting a dragon and winning, you gotta let them know they have the soul of a friggin’ dragon! This is the track you use as a reward, maybe once a campaign.
Creepy and scary are two tones that need to be set with music. They are so important to so many different kinds of games, and even the best Game Master can only capture so much detail of the spooky mansion, creepy tunnel, or abandoned wherever. I have over 30 tracks in this folder because it’s a tone I use so often, but I’m rather partial to the otherworldliness and rising tension in Bear McCreary’s “Heeding the Call” from Battlestar Galactica.
Dark and Brooding
Sometimes you don’t want bombast, you want introspection. The players need to think about what they just did, or what they are about to do. When you want to capture guilt, or make the players somber as the consider their actions, you go brooding. I love the weirdness in the “Ending Theme” to the first season of Orphan Black by Trevor Yulie. The distant screaming choral noises let the players know that they something bad is happening and it’s their job (or it was their job) to stop it.
Exploration- Caverns and Caves
A lot of time is spent in roleplaying games walking around, and when you are trying to establish setting, the right kind of music can do wonders. You’ll want to tailor these categories to your most common settings, but here are some of mine. D&D and other games send players underground a lot. Something about “Inside the Deku Tree” by the legendary Koji Kondo from Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is totally atmospheric. It’s claustrophobic but also sort of wondrous.
There are many kinds of cities, and many things might happen there. You may play an entire game in one city. I use this for establishing moments. The players have been in the wilderness, they’re hurt, low on supplies and now they are returning to civilization. I love to use “Terra’s Theme” by the great Nobuo Uematsu from Final Fantasy VI. It’s grand and has a lot of forward momentum. The song sounds like you are passing by spectacular sights, too many to describe — it’s perfect for the busy crowds of brand new cities.
There’s something I just love about deserts. They have their own tone to them more than any other environment. That’s personal to me, you may be a fan of tundras or mountains or something, but I have a dozen or so tracks for that desert feeling. I love the excitement in Greg Edmonson’s “Atlantis of the Sands” from Uncharted 3.
One half of Dungeons and Dragons is the dungeons, right? Well, I’ve run tons of dungeons in my time, and there are countless different tones you may want to set, but I keep 30-odd tracks for the ambient tension of exploring a place where you don’t belong. I often use “Overgrown With Vegetation” from Super Metroid. As a sidenote, the Blake Robinson Synthetic Orchestra, who did this particular arrangement, does phenomenal covers of old video game music.
Exploration- High Seas
I also love pirate stuff, and bring big ‘ol boats into my games as often as possible. Pirates of the Caribbean is great, but my players knew it well. Less well known is the theme from Assassin’s Creed IV: Blag Flag, by the prolific Brian Tyler. It’s great background music for taking a boat out of port, seeing a majestic creature of the sea, or a distant island, or buried treasure.
When your players are hearing a legend from the creepy old NPC, or finding a clue that doesn’t quite add up, you need to create a feeling of mystery. This is another one of my big categories, with over 30 tracks. I often use “Crocodile Locke” by Michael Giacchino from the first season of Lost. It’s not too in your face, but let’s your players know that the seemingly innocuous dagger they found is more than it appears.
It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes your players earn a break. It happens in an inn, in a town, on the side of the road, in a camp, under the stars, but you want them to know that there is no danger coming at them. I use “Tifa’s Theme” by Nobuo Uematsu from Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children to broadcast to my players that yes, now is the time they should exchange their tragic backstories that they’ve been working on in the weeks between sessions.
Planning can really drag a game down, when players start speculating on what could happen instead of making things happen. Still, lots of games reward good planning, so when it happens, you better make sure it happens right. I like to create just a bit of urgency, like with the opening credit theme to Sense8.
Sneaking is empowering in an RPG, knowing things the NPCs don’t. How better to empower your players than with some good old fashioned James Bond music? “Kill Them First” by Thomas Newman from Skyfall has that signature chromatic creeping that lets players know what they are doing is cool, but subtle.
When your players need to feel some ambient sadness, you hit them with the Forlorn track. This is when they wander through the town, oppressed by the evil regime or see something beautiful and natural devastated by evil. “Sarah Connor’s Theme” by Bear McCreary from Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles is sad, with just a twinge of hope, and then it ends with those drums, as if to tell your players “well you better do something about it!”
Somber- Straight Up Sad
Or maybe there is no hope.Evil has triumphed, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. I only have a couple of tracks here, and every one of them is devastating. The first couple of notes of “To Zanarkand” by Nobuo Uematsu, from Final Fantasy X get my players misty-eyed. And who can blame them?
So that’s how I like to do it, but obviously there are lots of games out there, and lots of gaming groups. Music is an entirely necessary tool, but the specifics are best left up to a discerning game master. Take my list, or start from scratch, up up your game by becoming a great D&DJ!