Listen, I know some of you like to game in complete silence. Just your game master’s dulcet tones, some pencils, dice, and quiet. I’m not insensitive to this. For those of you that fit the above description, I’ve arranged for some alternate content this week. Click here if you don’t like background music.
For the rest of you, I’ve been thinking about good music to have playing in the background while you’re enjoying a fine TTRPG. First off, I want to say there’s nothing wrong with slapping on Gustav Holst’s The Planet Suite, The Lord of the Rings Soundtrack, or whatever video game OST you’ve got handy. But when I’m running a game, I don’t want any subliminal reference to some other work in the player’s minds. Music tastes have become varied that I’m fairly confident one or fewer of the below options will be familiar to your players.
It should go without saying, but play it just loud enough to be heard and low enough that the music never has a chance to overwhelm a player’s speaking volume. Aside from that, let the needle drop and enjoy the following albums.
Dead Can Dance – Gothic Spleens
Genre: Any Fantasy
Dead Can Dance is probably the most well known group to appear on this list, and frankly, they deserve it. For gaming background music, I usually don’t like vocals because I feel that it draws attention. However, Dead Can Dance tends towards chant-like lyrics that almost meld into the instrumentation. In some cases, they opt for glossolalic singing (meaning the vocalizations are deliberately unintelligible). Owing to their unique blend of world music styles, almost any of their albums make for a great soundtrack for gaming, but Gothic Spleens has this kind of nonspecific medieval feel that works for any fantasy setting. It’s sort of like if somebody made every background track of Age of Empires II into an absolute banger. Every song oozes with mythic goodness, so pop this on and your next D&D group will not be disappointed.
Shiho Yabuki- The Body is the Message of the Universe
Genre: Mystery, Supernatural Horror
Everything about this album just oozes mystery and intrigue. Remember that bit from The IT Crowd wherein Richard Ayoade plays a music stinger hoping his D&D game will find it “ruddy mysterious?” Well, this album knocks that out of the park. From what I can glean, this record was first released in Japan in 1987 and became instantly coveted by collectors in the US. Every track is both unobtrusive but tantalizingly enigmatic. This synth driven masterpiece has the rare quality of being at the same time striking and unplaceable. Other critics have remarked about Shiho Yabuki’s penchant to eschew melody for atmosphere and texture, which is why I think it makes for such incredible background music. Even if you’re not playing this for people in your game, I’d recommend you listen while you’re prepping. It just has a sort of indescribable way of wrapping itself around your brainstem and taking your mind places. It’s on YouTube, so check it out.
Umberto – Outskirts of Reno
Genre: Cyberpunk, SciFi
I don’t know a lot about the band Umberto. There’s no results that match them on the first page of Google search, so I’m comfortable labeling them mythical. Regardless, this driving synth album makes me feel like I’m living in the “Big Weird” of a William Gibson novel. There’s no vocals and positively determined drum, bass, and synth sculpting every track. It’s positively mesmerizing. If you’ve got an average story to tell set amongst a dystopian mega-city, this album will carry your session over the edge. There’s a sort of undefinable sinister mood undergirding this album that will make even the most timid players feel like they’re in a high-tech, low-life setting. If ever there was a soundscape to communicate a John Wick vibe and bi-sexual lighting this is it. You should be able to find this album on Spotify without too much trouble.
Claus Morlock – Bethany’s Cradle
Genre: Dark Fantasy, Lovecraftian Horror
From what I can tell, this album was composed as a soundtrack to a folk horror movie of the same name. The story goes that the film was financed by the shadowy Lupus Pictures, apparently known for obscure movies like “Blood Of The Limping” and the “Seduction Of The Beast.” I’m nearly certain none of the aforementioned movies actually existed, but nearly is not completely. So there may have been a semi-haunted movie studio pumping out cursed pictures with awesome soundtracks in the 70s, but we’ll never know.
(Just between you and me this is absolutely a gimmick)
In spite of its dubious provenance, this album reminds me of a dark, inverted version of the Ocarina of Time OST. None of the instrumentation makes it immediately tied to any particular musical genre, but it gets a hold of you as instantly and deeply as those YouTube “beats to study/chill/vibe to” channels- and with waaaaaay better quality too. Every song is worthy of being sampled by some trip-hop obsessed musician in their basement. I can’t legally say there’s an ancient curse that makes anyone who hears this album love it, but what’s it worth to you to find out?
A Hawk and A Hacksaw – You Have Already Gone to the Other World
Genre: Anything sorta fantasy
When I was in high school, there was a resurgence of “cool celtic” music- specifically the Wicked Tinkers, Tempest, and Flogging Molly. This band does this but for Eurasian folk music. From what I can tell, this is another soundtrack to a movie that may or may not have existed. The story I’ve heard is this is a soundtrack for a lost soviet visual masterpiece. I’m not here to decide if this actually happened or not, but boy, would I want to see the movie that inspired this. It’s both barrels of rock-infused, steppe tribal music pointed right at your face.
It’s pretty difficult to describe this album, but I’ll venture to say that it sounds vaguely foreign to American ears, but definitely badass. The album somehow sounds bigger than a Motley Crue arena show and more intimate than a coffee house ukulele player. It’s intoxicating. It give you the feeling that you’re in the middle of an important story, even if you can’t quite tell if it’s the beginning, middle, or end. You and your players will feel like you’re centerstage of a grand, eternal show with this in the background.
I’ve got to be honest, I’ve been listening to these albums as I’ve been working in this piece and I got no less than 6 new campaign ideas. I’m all sorts of brimming with energy now.
I’ve got to do some deep breathing to calm down, but you should check these out and see which ones fits your current campaign best.