Setting the mood with soundtracks (for your RPGs)

Music has always been a part of my gaming life. My first group, who introduced me to RPGs, always listened to industrial, metal, and goth playlists during our gaming sessions. Rather appropriate for a bunch of nerds pretending to be vampires and werewolves. Those are some of my happiest memories.

TL;DR Check out the links below to enjoy an instrumental, seaside-themed playlist.

Playing background music is a really simple, easy way to evoke an atmosphere or mood. It was one of the first things I did when I took over that vampire and werewolf campaign from our previous GM*. As I’ve run more games, I’ve refined my process a bit, so I wanted to share what I’ve learnt.

First, a few basic principles I’ve figured out for my own experience:

  • Avoid anything with lyrics, because they compete with whatever you or the players are saying
  • Avoid overly dramatic music that completely drowns out contributions from around the table
  • Try to balance the need to be evocative yet specific – you want to use the same playlist in several situations
  • Feel free to use words that describe specific ‘beats’ of a story, like “Combat” or “Tension”, so that you know what the mood is…
  • … but combine this with other terms that refine it. Because the soundtrack during a fight scene in a sci-fi movie is very different from that in a fantasy movie.

Lately, I have been experimenting with playlists that have three components:

  1. a genre
  2. a location
  3. a mood or scene description

For example, I ended up creating several playlists for a fantasy game, according to locations (seaside, towns/villages, forests) and scenes (calm, tension, combat, etc.). I found that it work particularly well when you need to set the scene quickly, like at the start of a new game.

Which is how I ended up creating a whole bunch of playlists meant to evoke the scene of an inn or tavern, in some version of a fantasy location. Say what you like about clichés and tropes, but they persist because they are effective. (You could define genre as a collection of tropes, but let’s not get carried away.) And what is more clichéd than starting an RPG campaign with the words, “You find yourselves in an inn…”

In particular, I wanted to start in a pirate-themed tavern because, well, pirates! Besides, who doesn’t love a good seaside vacation? I tried to choose music that evoked some aspect of the ocean or life on the sea. In other words, expect lots of wind instruments and accordions.

A playlist icon made up of four album covers

And so, I present: D&D Coastal, Inns & Taverns (AKA “Help! I’ve created a seaside-friendly playlist and now I want to run away to the beach for a year. Or run a pirate campaign; either way.”)

Please note: the full playlist is on Google Play (I know, Evil Corporation), so you will probably need an account to listen to the full thing. But you should at least be able to get an idea of what I did.

Alternatively, if you have a Spotify account, you can check out the abbreviated playlist at the following link. The reason this is an abbreviated version is that two of the albums I used are not available on Spotify. These are the soundtrack to Sunless Seas by Mickymar Productions, and the soundtrack to Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire Archipelago by Justin Bell.

(Whatever you do, don’t sign up for more than one streaming music service, unless you absolutely must. There really isn’t a point.)

*GM = Gamemaster.

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