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Music is an essential component of my games. When running games set in the Star Wars universe, the music of John Williams adds a new dimension to the experience, both for me and for my players. Now that I'm starting a fantasy campaign, I'm a bit more uncertain about which music to use.

How do I create a soundtrack suitable for using in a fantasy campaign?

Specifically:

  • What sort of characteristics make for good back ground music? What makes for bad background music?

  • What should I look for to get a fantasy feel? Which genres/sub-genres support fantasy games?

  • What are good sources for fantasy background music?

A few notes:

  • Because the music will be used in the background of game sessions, most of the tracks should be one minute or longer, to avoid repetitive loops.
  • Likewise, soundtracks with a variety of themes are preferred, so that they can easily support different modes of the game: exploration, combat, and chases, to name a few.
  • Orchestral or acoustic music is preferred over music with vocals or electric instruments.
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@Jakob -There is a precedence established of Music/Sound questions being off topic as they mostly devolve into lists and are extremely subjective (which is against the FAQ). This is the meta discussing this (meta.rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/1042/…) as well as the two sound questions that have already been closed due to being off-topic. (rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/9048/…) and (rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/9062/urban-sound-tracks) –  GPierce Jul 25 '11 at 15:05
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@Jakob What I think generates strong questions are ones that go into the hows and whys. "How do I select background music for my campaign?," for example, is something that encourages people to elaborate on their answers. More information from the founders: blog.stackoverflow.com/2010/09/good-subjective-bad-subjective blog.stackoverflow.com/2011/01/real-questions-have-answers –  AceCalhoon Jul 25 '11 at 19:00
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11 Answers 11

I am quiet fond of computer game music. It loops nicely, generally is quiet good, and has many themes similar to your game. You can get your travel, spooky, hide and sneak, and of course, combat.

Examples would be Dragon Age (1 and 2), Assassin's Creed (2 and brotherhood), Europa Universalis 3 (although this one maybe a little more renaissance), Jade Empire, Overlord (1 and 2), The Witcher (1 and 2).

How to choose: Pick a game that has similar themes to the scene(s) you want to portrait and use that. Wikipedia or IGN or countless of other sites will give you the synopsis of the game. Game selling sites are good as they give you a break down by genre.

So, if I wanted to run scenes in a haunted house, I would pick something from Silent Hill for the creepy parts and one for the boss fights from Resident Evil for the big fight scene.

One thing to avoid, or rather to be aware of: Some music are so keyed to some settings/character that playing it will generate out of character comments/conversations/out of character knowledge. Just try introducing a Paladin to The Imperial March from Star Wars and watch as neither PC nor players trust him/her ever.

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There are some good posts on this at Gnome stew:

It mainly focuses on movie and game soundtracks which are often a good bet, as they are designed to evoke emotions of a certain type (chase, explore etc) and not overpower the action. I'd also throw in recommendations for Midnight Syndicate and Nox Arcana there, though they tend to be quite dark and not suitable for all situations.

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That's quite a list! Do you have any specific recommendations on your own that would make it easier to sort through? –  Jakob Jul 24 '11 at 23:38
    
For fantasy rpgs I quite like the MMO soundtracks, the WoW and Age of Conan ones have fairly good tracks from memory. Midnight Syndicate and Nox arcana, as I said, are both great. Anything by Hans Zimmer ;) (Pirates of the Carribean soundtrack is good for anything nautical) –  Frater Jul 25 '11 at 0:54
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A couple of years ago, D&D got it's own official soundtrack made by Midnight Syndicate, I think their music in general should fit your needs.

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add to your collection

While I can't use them (any background music makes it hard for me to understand my players), I'll recommend several I've found useful for pre-game mood setting:

Tangerine Dream's music is excellent; the best known piece is "Geometry of Shadows" - the main title for Babylon 5. The Bab5 sound track is a good start, but their other albums are equally as useful. And not all of it is instantly "OOH! Babylon 5!"

For religious settings, there are good collections of religious chant; some is online for free. The Presov Choir (http://www.grkat.nfo.sk/eng/music.html) has some Byzantine-Slavonic chant. While vocal, it's excellent, mellow, and mood-setting. Much gregorian is available as well, but the professional recordings are much clearer, and not terribly pricey. ($9 at B&N last I checked.)

Look for "English Country Dancing" music for that renaissance feel. Most of it is actually late medieval, but carried forth into the Renaissance, and was written down then. That the music matches the description given in the older notations of the dances establishes this. The estabished reference is John Playford; many artists have recorded his collection in whole or part.

New England Dancing Masters has several excellent collections of similar folk dance from New England; the steps and terms are the same as English Country Dance, and the music closely related. Chimes of Dunkirk is excellent for Renaissance mood-setting. (I use these at work, but have borrowed disks occasionally to use to mood-set for writing adventures.)

For Spirit of the Century and other games set in the early 20th Century, Glenn Miller sets the big band quite well - it's 1938-on. Herb Alpert and the Tiajuanna Brass is from the 60's and 70's, but harkens back to the Big Band era as well - many players will think it older, and it's pretty good for 60's and 70's stuff.

Carlos Santana has excellent music as well, and a lot of it instrumental.

Find several electronica collections; Russia Electrochestvoi is an old favorite. Lots of Russian classics done on synths.

Anything by Mike Oldfield is good; much of it for an X-files kind of feel. Be warned, tho: Tubular Bells is notorious Trip-toy music, is musically all over the place, and the CD has two tracks... and is a full CD of music.

Avoid

I'll also mention several to avoid:

Wagner's Ring cycle, Holst's The Planets symphony & Vivaldi's Four Seasons. EVERYONE regonizes them, and lots of people have various movies and TV shows mentally associated with them.

The Music of Star Trek as it's just too heavily associated with Trek. Unless, of course, you're running Trek.

Star Wars sound tracks have the same issue as Trek: most of gamerdom has strong associations with the source, making them useful only for that setting.

Monty Python sound track recordings... tends to trigger silly MP moments. "He's Bleeding Dead Already!"

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Selection

The two factors I look for when choosing campaign music are mood and lack of disruption. Though mood is critical, but I won't delve into that here, because it depends so heavily on preference and situation.

Lack of disruption:

  • First, avoid music with vocals. Having another voice going on in the background makes it almost impossible for my group to talk to each other. We tried just turning the music down, but voice is usually the most prominent part of pop/rock music. No matter how far we turned it down, the vocals were always more noticeable than the music.
  • Second, avoid music that is too abrupt. While I love music with sudden changes, in this case the soundtrack should serve as a background, not the foreground. Choose for ambiance, not for catchiness.

Use of Music

Music can add a lot to a scene, but can be a chore to manage. I sparingly choose music for specific events that I want to highlight. Some good times to use music:

  • A special place or setting. For example, the adventurers have stumbled into an buried shrine, painstakingly crafted to please an ancient god. A piece of music can give a unique feel and attachment much better than me saying "this place is unspeakably beautiful."
  • An important character or moment. The adventurers enter the throne room of the demented king. As they finally come face to face with the object of their quest, music could highlight the tension hanging in the air - this is their chance.

Specific recommendation:

I've had some success using the "String Quartet Tribute to _" line of albums. Some are better than others, but they fit that blend of "sounds cool" and "not obtrusive".

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@wax eagle: updated for new version of question. –  user1637 Jul 29 '11 at 15:24
    
good answer, deleting my comments. –  wax eagle Jul 29 '11 at 16:31
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I would recommend starting with one or two tracks that you already know and like that you think are suitable, then use any of the number of music services such as Spotify, Last.Fm, Pandora or Musicovery that can provide further suggestions based on these tracks.

The reason I suggest this rather than a specific playlist is that they provide you with the ability to browse artists, songs and albums that are related to the music that you and your players like.

So if you know of a track that is particularly fitting that you want to use, you can use this track as a base to explore a huge library of similar music and build your own playlists.

I've discovered so many new artists and mood tracks for use in my own campaigns by using these tools. Even if you just use these services to find music before buying the tracks on CD, or via another library such as iTunes, it's a great way to find and explore tracks.

(Nod to @wax eagle for the Pandora service).

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For my own games, I've found that the orchestral versions of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd work very well as baseline soundtracks. (High action fantasy and dreamy surrealism, respectively.) From there, I tend to go with ambient music like Scorn or C17H19NO3 for horror games, new age like David Arkenstone (fantasy), Dead Can Dance (fantasy horror), or Sheila Chandra (for Middle Eastern-flavor); and electronica (Juno Reactor, VNV Nation, and Cruciform Injection) for cyberpunk themed games.

Anime soundtracks can also work well. Christopher Franke (of the Babylon 5 soundtracks mentioned above) did one of the Tenchi Muyo soundtracks, which I have used for space opera styled games. And since there's all manner of genres represented in anime, you can pick and choose from there. 80's-flavored cyberpunk? Bubblegum Crisis. Gritty, street level future games? Ghost in the Shell. Jazzy space? Cowboy Bebop.

Personally, I use soundtracks that suggest something to me, and I let that carry through from there. If it inspires some idea from listening, I can use it in my games. For instance, I really liked the ominous aspects of the main theme in Broken Arrow, so I tended to use it in some of my games to foreshadow a confrontation with a main villain in games. I liked the battle sequences in Alexander, Troy and Conan, so I used those soundtracks for war-themed fantasy games.

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+1 for Anime, Juno Reactor, and good wording. –  Sardathrion Jul 29 '11 at 16:32
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Dragon Magazine published two articles on soundtracks, giving specific suggestions as well as how to use the music during the game. A resourceful person can probably find copies of Dragon #275 and #355 for the two articles: "The Definitive D&D Soundtrack" and "iDragon: Modern Music in D&D".

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this is a bit too long to be a comment. So I will post it as a answer

Consider not using background music.
Using background must sound so great. After all it works wonderful in movies.

But there are few key issues:

  • Music is added to music after. During the editing. In a game, to have the right music for a scene, means someone has to find it, and put it on. and it will never fit as a well as a movie, which as a custom score written. Some of this can be avoided with preparedness, but still a scene might not play out, and if you end up wasting time looking for the right song, that is time not spent playing.
  • Roleplay is primarily about talking - sound. Music is also about sound. Music at the wrong volume (and frequency) can make it a bit harder to hear. time/thoughts spent tweaking the volume is time/thoughts spent not role-playing.
  • Sound distracts some people more than others. This is a big one.

I have tried using music a few times. It has not gone well. Twice recently, when i've been a player things have been tried, that went ok.

  • Laughter Track: In a normally serious game, a PC (without intention) ended up putting another PC in a situation, where even though he took logical actions, the results were hilarious. Very much like in a sit-com. A player suggested putting on a laugh track. This was fun. It was very distracting, as everything became way more funny. But it was fun.
  • Ambient battle sounds - gun rattle etc. Recently played a conversion of Amber Diceless to play warhammer 40K Primarchs. We were having a colossal battle - attacking a heavy fortified location. 1.5 million imperial guard and tens of thousands of space marines died. The Ambient battle sounds were not distracting, and did really set the mood.

Some tips to deal with music:

  • make it clear to all your players that everyone has Veto rights over music. If anyone finds it is interfering with the game, then they say the word, and it stops. (and that they shouldn't feel pressured by others.)
  • Name your songs for there uses. Don't have songs called: "Lux Aternia", rename it to: "Dramatic - tension building - Lux Aternia" (also don't use Lux Aternia" too well known.)
  • Absolutely nothing with Lyrics, in a language any of the players/GM speak. You can maybe get away with some Gregorian chanting etc, but anything with words will very muchly distract.

See also: Music during game or not?

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So albeit coming a little bit late, I do believe that there are a few things to add in here.

Start with (sound)tracks that you like

The most important thing, before all others, is that you'll love what you put in the background. If you don't like the music in the background, you'll start to wonder to bad places, with all of your thoughts concerning "when will this thing ever end". With thoughts like this one, it is pretty much impossible to GM, especially if you’re a more improvisational GM like me. If you like the music you may still wonder, true, but it will be for better places and it will give you new ideas to implement which is always good.

More than that, though, we tend to listen more to the things that we like. This helps you to know by heart the shifts in your tracks, thus helping you to GM with it. You'll know instinctively how and when to shift your descriptions and such.

Don't use music with words/vocals

We people are a very wordy species and as such we're drawn to words and vocals. When you or your players will hear those words, even if they're of foreign origin, at least to a (not so) lesser extent will be drawn to those words, or to trying to decipher them, thus removing yourselves from the game. As much as we want everyone to dive into an imaginary world when playing, we want it to be the world of the game and not the one of the song/track.

Think about the tone and mood of your game

Your music should fit your game in order to create the right atmosphere. The right atmosphere is driven by the tone and mood of your campaign, as it should serve both of them. So, in order to choose your background music, you should first and foremost know what it should supplement, what it shall serve.

Think about when you will want to use the music

When will you want to put the music? Will you play it only between battles? Only in battles? All the time? Only in key moments? The answers to each and every one of those answers will also dictate what music you will choose. If there will be no music in battles, "fight-tracks" shouldn't be there. If your music will be only in key moments, you'll have to make it much more dramatic. If it will play all the time you should do much more homework about the amount of fights and their length, the mood and tone of your game and so on.

Start collecting the music

This may sound quite a lot to ask, but by now you probably know what tracks you're looking for. The tracks that you'll find here may not get to the soundtrack, but they should both form the basis of it (well, at least some of the tracks you'll find in this stage) and both present the direction you're headed to. You shall listen to many a soundtrack and decide which tracks (if any) you will add to your collection. A great place to start if you want fantasy music, for example, might actually be this one: Radio Rivendell. Pandora (or similar radios) might be a great place for other genres.

Now choose which tracks will enter your game soundtrack

Now it is time to delete from the list all those tracks that don't serve you, all those soundtracks that don't fit you, and so on. We want here only the best of tracks, those that are most inspiring and best serve your game. Mood and tone shall serve a great factor here, as do the elements of the game: If battles are common and long in your campaigns, you shall have many "fight-tracks" in your shorten list, if you have much more personal and dramatic scenes try to aim for those when you build your shorten playlist.

From those ones build your final playlist

Now you just place the tracks in the right order for you. A general advice when you do that is to change the general mood of the tracks every few tracks. Usually one will play between the faster and louder ones to the softer and slower ones, if one puts it in the background for the entire session without stopping it. It is advisable to allocate the length of each mood according to the type of scene that it should accommodate. So, for example, if you have long fights their part in the soundtrack should be greater, not to mention that they should play immediately into one another.

A long example, or how did I build my Changeling Soundtrack

To better clarify what I've just said, I present here the step-by-step route I took to create my Changeling soundtrack. It may be worth mentioning in advance that I build a new one for each session, so it may not entirely fit your style.

I start with thinking about the mood of my game. It is a Changeling game set in Scotland, so the music shall sound both authentic and magical. Scots are Celtic in their origin, and so is their folk music, so I'll have to search for Celtic music. Irish music is a type of Celtic music which usually sounds more magical. This can serve my purpose, when I think about it more closely, so I decide to search in my Irish music collection.

Then I think about the other elements of my game that I'll want music for. My game will probably be a little bit dark, so I'll need a nice collection of dark tracks too. Maybe the slow ones from "Psycho" will be great for me? How about, if s, adding a few similar ones from other horror movies? "Scream" can be nice, as is "Silence of the Lambs".

This gives me a general sense of what I'm looking for and with that I continue to my next big question: When will I want to put it on? For me, the answer is usually "all the time", as it is here. This means that I need to think about how many fights I'll have in the session before hand (pretty much none) and what moods will I shift through in my upcoming session. There will be many dark scenes this time, as will be many small magical ones between them. There will also be a "big-reveal" one, so I need my soundtrack to serve that too.

Now I can continue to the real work, collecting it. I start with my current collections, going through all those Irish CDs of mine. Lord of the Dance might fit me well, as may Sharon Shannon. I write those names on a paper before continuing now to some darker ones. Psycho is too dramatic, so I'll have to go for another route. "How about 'Halloween'" I ask myself and write this name too. After a few more names I go for Radio Rivendell and listen to some tracks there. A few names also pop to my mind, like "Into the Dark". Then, while sitting in front of my telly I watch an episode of "Once upon a time", deciding to use Rumple's track.

Shortening the list takes me some time, as I have much more tracks than I need. I decide that some of the tracks I will keep for next time ("Into the Dark") and some of the tracks from last session I will bring again as motives. Then I put them in the order I want, building an 80-min soundtrack for my session, a soundtrack that I will play in loops all the time, without stopping it for a moment.

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I feel there are some things missing, especially concerning movie soundtracks. While I admit that some of thes (say LotR OST) will be only useful for a specific setting due to very strong connotation, others are very brilliant for general fantasy type RPGs:

  • Kingdom of Heaven
  • Robin Hood - Prince of Thieves
  • The Pillars of the Earth (BBC mini series)
  • Stardust (2007)
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This is a "teach me to fish" question, not a "please give me some fish" question. –  SevenSidedDie Mar 1 '13 at 17:52
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