Music is important to tabletop gaming. (Don’t believe me? Then read Making Music Mandatory. Do it. I DARE you!) Okay, we’re on the same page now? Excellent!
Personally, I like to choose the “Soundtrack” for any module I’m preparing for ahead of time, with links to the songs embedded directly in my virtual notes, so a new track is only a click away. But, let’s face it, unless it’s something you like to do while writing the module, it’s unlikely that you’ll have every song ready to go at the touch of a finger. Granted, you usually don’t need unique songs for each session played of an entire campaign, instead think of it more like a season of a show, you need a Soundtrack, with regular songs ready-to-go.
Each episode contains a minor story arc building into more overarching stories. Within these episodes, are different scenes, which also usually switch tracks trying to invoke a different emotion. Now, if you think of your campaign as a TV series, a play session as an episode, scenes are any time the tone changes in a play session. Unlike a TV Series that has a much longer time to choose the appropriate song, you’ll likely have only seconds. No pressure.
Music should serve a purpose. It should either set the mood or be used to expand the scene. Categorizing songs based on situations and emotions are a great way of organizing your music to be at the ready. Now, there may be more categories needed for your specific campaign, but I’ve found that each of these categories usually needs between 3-5 songs at the ready right out of the gates.
- Downtime – These sounds are mostly a spacefiller. They convey no immediate danger, invoking only light emotion in the listener. Perhaps it’s the background music at a club or a light background melody. You could also use ambient sounds, like “Pub Chatter” instead of direct music as well.
- Hijinks – This is the lighthearted music. Get ready for shenanigans, delightful banter, and excellent NPC Interactions! Usually, I’ll use this to show the characters that the danger level is minimal, this is your time to make jokes and be silly.
- Traveling – A classic. On the Road Again. Usually, I like to let this have a slow, epic feel. It can make the boring event of traveling a bit more exciting, building their anticipation for the new location that they’re traveling to.
- Tension – Probably the hardest to find good songs for. You want to use creepier music or something that puts you on edge. This is great when adventuring into somewhere littered with traps, or if there is a major twist coming up. Foreshadowing is never a bad thing.
- Outta Time – Move Faster! Sometimes it’s best to let the music do the work for you. This one is all about creating urgency in your players. Really, it’s a perfect mix between Tension and Gettin’ Down to Business.
- Gettin’ Down To Business – Be it a bar brawl, car-chase, or good ol’ fashioned shootout, this is the music for that scene. Action it up.
- Aftermath – This is the catch-all group for music after a fight, it’s the natural fall in any tensioned situation. They should be calming in nature, and perhaps even melancholy.
Themes are a song that will be repeated in a certain location, or with a certain character. Although they aren’t necessary, it’s important to point out what they can do for player immersion. Are you playing an Edge of the Empire Campaign, on the run with a stolen ship? Well, choose a song to be played anytime that the characters have downtime lounging around their Corellian Corvette. Every time that the PC’s are interacting on their ship, let this song play, it will come to define the ship itself, and when the song plays again, perhaps even years later, it will still be tied to their old Star Wars campaign. Themes can have a powerful emotional impact. (And don’t tell anyone, but choosing them makes your job easier!)
What to look for
There are a few things to note when looking into music for tabletop, you never want it to overpower the players or distract them. This means that you’ll usually be looking for songs without words (Trust me, they’re almost always too distracting unless you can’t pick up individual words.) and have to turn down the volume a bit. Luckily there’s a ton of music available that fills the criteria!
- Original Soundtracks (OST’s) are a staple of background music for tabletop, because well, that’s what they were designed for. However, you don’t need to discount any of the Musical Knowledge you already have.
- Instrumental Versions of songs can also be very effective. Try running any session set in the 90’s without wanting to hear “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, impossible! But instead of distracting everyone playing the original, an Instrumental version is easier to tune out, while still getting into the time.
- Original Music is always being created and some of it fits very well into Tabletop sessions. I find there are many techno artists that fit the bill for Outta’ Time and Gettin’ Down To Business songs. Not to mention, there are artists creating background music purely for role-playing games!
- Ambient Sounds has been a rising trend for the tabletop gamer. There are many new services and soundtracks based around many different settings, sometimes being completely customizable.
Where to find it
- Tabletop Audio (https://www.tabletopaudio.com/) – An amazing and completely free resource for background sounds and light music, made specifically for Tabletop RPG’s. They’ve recently added a soundboard feature as well, which can be awesome to use when tensions are high, or as an attention getter. It’s a must-have resource for any game.
- Bandcamp (https://www.bandcamp.com/) – There are many talented musicians on this website, and there are many songs available for download on a pay-what-you-want model. This is a great place to search for Instrumental and Ambient music. Occasionally you can also find albums dedicated to epic music for tabletops!
- Soundcloud (https://www.soundcloud.com/ambientmusicalgenre) – Though it’s a bit harder to find then on Bandcamp, Soundcloud also has many ambient music tracks available.
- Listen on Repeat (https://www.listenonrepeat.com/) – This has been a staple for me over the years. Ever want a youtube video to loop indefinitely? That’s what this website does. Excellent!
- Syrinscape (https://syrinscape.com) – Syrinscape is unique in the fact that it is your personal scene creator. It randomly generates background noise based on different scenes that you can purchase and different parameters that you set for each scene.
Now, you can just fly by the seat of your pants in terms of music. I’ve done it, all GM’s that use this as a resource have done this. What matters most in these cases is to be semi-prepared so the game doesn’t come to a screeching halt while you look up a new song. Remember, you don’t have to be prepared for every possible scenario your players throw at you, you just need to make them believe that you are.
How do you create soundtracks for your campaign? Do you have any favorites you like to fall back on?