Playlist: Music To Watch Games By

Slightly different this week–I’m assembling a playlist as some examples, rather than a start-to-finish mix tape.

I’m a big fan of ambient music and like to use it during games. After a years of trial and error (a lot of error) I’ve broken game music into 3 types:

Campaign themes, to be played once at the start of the session. I’ve never used these but I’ve observed others doing so. These can be as loud and disruptive as they need to be, since they’re only played at the start to get the group in the mood.

Set pieces, which are played once through–or maybe only partially played–to frame an exciting scene. A couple of GMs I know use these really well–one went to lengths of timing his narrative description so the big reveal coincided with the horn section. These are hard to work in sometimes. They can be fairly disruptive also, but since a dramatic scene will require players to make decisions as a response, they need to be chosen with care–if the GM has to repeat themselves it will probably spoil the effect.

Loops. These form background throughout a scene or set of scenes to provide mood or link themes. These have to have two properties–be unobtrusive with no sudden peaks, and be long enough that a loop isn’t going to be noticed.

There is a fourth kind, used by a friend who would pick a playlist from a particular artist, then structure (some might say stretched, given the number of puns) his game session around it. In that case the music was the game. Ah, that was fun.

This list is a set of examples, some of which aren’t my own but have been played in great games run by friends. 

Campaign Themes

Unsurprisingly most of these are TV themes, so there’s a risk of genre-clash if the theme used has a different association.

Still, who wouldn’t want to begin a session chanting Yo Way Yo?

  1. March of the High Guard, Alex Lifeson (Andromeda, first season from the soundtrack1)
  2. Brunnen-G (from Lexx, composed by Marty Simon)
  3. Mind Heist by Zack Hemsey (from the Inception trailers)
  4. Pollution by Tobias Tinker (from Broken Saints. Guess the sample!)
  5. Hellraiser II: Hellbound theme by Christopher Young (some of the other tracks may make reasonable loops–see below)
  6. The Chad Who Loved Me by Mansun

Loops

  1. Whisper of a Thrill by Thomas Newman (Meet Joe Black)
  2. Crepitata by Tod Dockstader and David Lee Myers
  3. Battles by Clannad (from Legend)
  4. Shalebridge Cradle by Eric Brosius (from Thief: DS; Eric does superb ambient music for the Thief series)
  5. Theme from Battery by Amon Tobin (from Splinter Cell 3)
  6. Death Threat by Death in Vegas (from the Contino Sessions)
  7. Lament by Christopher Young (from Hellraiser)

Set Pieces

  1. Star Trek II Overture by James Horner (the whole piece is long, but it’s not too obtrusive–if it bleeds into the scene you would need to follow with a suitably exciting but upbeat loop)
  2. First Rendezvous by Jean Michel Jarre (from Rendezvous)
  3. In The House–In a Heartbeat by John Murphy (from 28 Days Later)
  4. To Heal by Underworld (from Oblivion with Bells, featured in Sunshine)
  5. Where Are You? by Coil (from Musik to Play in the Dark 2)

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p>That’s enough for now. If you do this too and have favourites, why not comment?


  1. This is a rearrangement of Alex Lifeson’s theme (which is strongest in the last 30 seconds) meaning it’s not commercially available–but it’s just fantastic:

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  • I very much like the fact you use music and I think you choose the pieces really well. Invisibles / Blade Runner is probably my favourite all time game/music combination.

    I mostly use music these days and have a few favourite Loops and Set Pieces.

    The Loops include music from the Myst series (computer games), Donnie Darko, The Lost Crown (computer game), and most of Matrix Reloaded (the background disc) and Icewind Dale (computer game). I particularly like obscure computer game soundtracks because players are less likely to know them.

    Set Pieces include: Temple of the Ancients (FFVII) for a quirky location, Amnesia from 24 for disorientation, Suspended Doll/Nosferatu for boding (the Corrupted Ones in Meteor), Shadow Hearts (fight) for fighting music and St. Anneka’s Well from Adventures in Terror (computer game set) for solitude/sanctuary.

    • Ah, Donnie Darko. Yes, excellent. BTW the S. Darko soundtrack by Ed Harcourt is great too (haven’t seen the film, don’t want to).

      Also you raise a great point about computer games–most of those soundtracks are very effective loops by definition (with some set pieces). I’m listening to Alexander Brandon’s score for Deus Ex: Invisible War right now.

  • I’d add a 4th category; signature themes.

    I’ve used these for both significant NPCs and locations (or cultures). For example, in my long-running, never-quite-getting-anywhere, RQ campaign, I used the Ben-Hur soundtrack whenever PCs entered Lunar territory, and the Gladiator soundtrack whenever they encountered Lunars in the wider world. Player tension started to rise as soon as that music began playing.

    • Excellent point. I kind of joined the signature themes with loops in my head, but you’re right–they are a separate category, especially for a campaign.