Using Music in Tabletop RPGs

Background music can make or break a scene in a tabletop RPG. It enhances the atmosphere and helps you control the pace.

You can’t just slap any old music onto the scene, though. Actually, you can, and even that will still probably set a better atmosphere than nothing. If you just set the Lord of the Rings trilogy soundtrack on shuffle, it’ll probably be fine. But we can do better. Here are three ways how, because the Rule of Three is my waifu.

First, pick a soundtrack based on the mood it sets, not the words in the title. Sometimes, when I’m fishing around for a soundtrack for a forest, or underwater, or a pirate battle, or some other situation, I’ll ask people on the internet, and they’ll answer with a song that has related words in the title. There’s using Wake Me Up Inside during a sequence where the party is trying to escape a dream world as a referential pun, which is fine and funny and the song only lasts 4 minutes and then the joke is over, but then there’s using Jesters of the Moon for a visit to a moon temple, because, y’know, it has “moon” in the title, so it must be appropriate music for all things to do with moons, right? Or they’ll suggest Leafblade Woods for a wood elf ambush, because it comes up when you type “wood elf music” into YouTube. Jesters of the Moon has a strong circus vibe and should be limited to actual clown- or carnival-themed situations. Leafblade Woods is calm and sedate and is just as usable for a temple, an underwater journey, or a wise and sagely character, none of which have anything to do with leaves, blades, or woods. What matters is the music’s mood, not the words in its title.

Second, use video game music. There’s exceptions to this rule, of course, but it’s generally a good one to stick to. Video game music is designed to blend into the background and be looped for 30+ minutes. It doesn’t demand so much attention that it grows tedious after you’ve heard the same thing over and over again, which means instead of finding a four hour playlist of material in case the players stay in the cave the whole session, you can just loop the Overlord tower underground track, and after the first few loops (provided you keep the volume low) it will become easy to ignore instead of agitating. They also almost never have lyrics. Some players find lyrics distracting, and you don’t want half your group muting you because they can’t focus with Evanescence shouting about their inner demons’ narcolepsy.

Third, moderate intensity. Having maximally intense music playing in the background all the time will not make your game more epic, it will either fatigue your players or else they’ll just tune it out entirely and you’ll lose your ability to affect the mood. You can’t use Nobunaga’s theme to punch up the intensity for a final boss if you’ve been looping it in the background for the last three hours. Even for players who are perfectly happy to listen to that or other tracks of similar intensity for four hours straight, keeping things at that level means you are out of notches to crank up to for your finale. There have been enough video games with enough final bosses that every encounter in your campaign could have the likes of One-Winged Angel and Guardando nel Buio playing in the background, but while you can rank these kinds of tracks in order of most to least intense, the differences between them are minute enough that switching from one to another barely makes a difference. The utility of tracks like Final Fantasy XII’s boss theme is not that you can’t find something more exciting for your first boss, it’s that you can find something more exciting for your last boss.

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