Soundtrack Smorgasbord

You want to add a little musical magic to your games in the form of background tunes, but you don’t know where to start? Stay a while, and listen! The Obsidian Portal Research Department (one guy who spends way too much time online) has you covered! Below are all the basics to boost your Lo-Fi games into immersive experiences, in stereo.





The first question to answer is a technical one – how are you playing music during your game? If you’re playing live, experiment with speaker or device placement and volume control so one person in the room isn’t getting their eardrums blasted out while the other side of the table can barely hear the tunes. The goal is background music, not chest-thumping rock concert. You might even want to put the sound system under the table or in the next room over to help keep the volume low enough. And keep in mind that some players just can’t concentrate when there’s too much sensory input, so you may need to make adjustments on the fly. For online games, do a sound-check before the session starts to get everybody’s levels just right. The voices should take precedence over the symphonic accompaniment.

The next questions concern playback – are you letting a single soundtrack run automatically or are you cueing up tracks to fit the mood? The single soundtrack is supremely easy to manage (after you’ve done all the work compiling one), but it also means you may occasionally get a peaceful love theme during the epic battle at the climax of the game. Don’t forget to put it on a loop. Separate playlists divided by mood or theme (or any other means of distinction) give a more “movie-like” experience, but require that someone push the button to start them up at the appropriate time. This can be managed by a GM who is really on the ball (and who has their laptop or stereo system remote close at hand), but I highly recommend allowing one of the players to serve as the sound engineer for the night if they are so inclined. It saves you work and gives them one more reason to pay close attention.

The trickiest part of game soundtracks is not managing them during the game – it’s preparing them ahead of time. There are loads of pre-made playlists, collections, and websites that generate ambient background music and/or sounds. But if you’re going for those extra GM points, you might want to build your own playlist from scratch. The first thing to do is to decide how you’re dividing up the tracks. I usually split them by mood: “Peaceful” for friendly towns and overland travel, “Stressful” for negotiating traps or risky obstacles, “Dark” for facing down haunted mansions and abandoned ruins, “Combat” for regular battles, “Epic” for the big fight of the night, and even some “Victory” music for when it’s time to hand out the XP and gold. If you want to really ramp it up, consider doing intro music when it’s time for everybody to quiet down and listen, special tracks for each recurring location to reinforce the type of place it is (or how it’s changed thanks to the heroes), and custom theme songs for each character – when they do something impressive, play their track. Or, cue up the Price is Right tuba when they botch. It all depends on what kind of group you’re running for.


What follows is a sampling of the kinds of music I would assemble for various genres of games. This is just a starting point – think about how long your game sessions run and try to aim to have enough music so you’re not repeating songs more than a few times. Or, just do what video games do and play the same combat track over and over again until you sing it in your sleep forever (thanks, 8-bit Final Fantasy grind-fest). I’ve included a mix of classical music, as well as soundtracks from movies, series, and video games, but you could easily get by with a single album from one movie if you wanted to – it’s already arranged to go together!

Prehistoric Tribal Soundtrack

Fantasy Adventure Soundtrack

Anime Adventure Soundtrack

Comedy Adventure Soundtrack

Wild West Soundtrack

Romance Novel Soundtrack

Turn of the Century Soundtrack

Great War Soundtrack

Modern Drama Soundtrack

Comic Superhero Soundtrack

Space Opera Soundtrack

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