(Or “Hey, Mystical Throne Dudes! You Should Really Give Me a Review Copy of ‘Mythos’ Because I’m Totally the Target Audience For the Game But I’m Not Exactly a Huge Fan of Your Work and Getting a Positive Review From Me Would Be a Coup.”)
I’ve used background music for RPGs since discovering d6 Star Wars in the early ‘90s. It establishes the mood with a minimum of verbal exposition and helps keep most players I’ve known immersed in the setting (there are always exceptions). The key is using instrumental music.
(A problem I’m having with the current Marchland campaign is that while grunge rock invokes the Pacific Northwest for us, we also find ourselves having to talk over Eddie Vedder like we’re at a noisy club; I’m tempted to dig out our old karaoke CDs instead of the original albums.)
Instrumental music is generally going to mean classical music, electronica, jazz, or soundtracks and most RPGs practically demand orchestral film scores. The problem that arises here is that few film soundtracks sound much alike. If you don’t mind the style of the music jumping all over the place, this is fine, but if you like some uniformity in the style (which, frankly, helps keep the music from being too distracting and helps maintain a consistent tone for the game) then you’re generally stuck using the music from a specific series of films (like Star Wars).
The exception to this is the modern sword and sandal film. The original soundtracks to practically every film or TV series of muscular guys in short skirts that’s been made since 1995 have shared certain components: haunting wordless (or at least non-English) vocals, heroic brass, world music percussion. From “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys” to “Spartacus: War of the Damned,” from “Gladiator” to “Wrath of the Titans,” you can (and I have) cut together a mix CD of tracks from a dozen different movies and shows and have it all maintain a consistent mise-en-scène.
Of course, the fact that these scores have all been composed by practically the same two guys has a lot to do with it.
The musical style associated with modern English-language pepla began with Joseph LoDuca and “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys” in 1995. LoDuca is one of my favorite composers – his score for “The Brotherhood of the Wolf” is one of my favorite albums in any genre – and I’m always amazed whenever I see a sword and sandal movie and discover during the credits that he didn’t compose the soundtrack.
(Seriously, I was shocked – shocked! -- to find out some dude I’d never heard of before had composed the score for “300.” Obviously, this similarity leads me to recommend Tyler Bates’ scores for “300” and “Conan the Barbarian” (2012) as well.)
The pepla discography of Joseph LoDuca is easily available on iTunes. There’s four albums of “Hercules” music, six of “Xena: Warrior Princess,” one of “Young Hercules,” and three of the various “Spartacus” series. The “Hercules” OSTs contain a lot more synthesizer than the later series so they don’t match quite as well, but there’s some wonderful, Dionysian dances in there that should be mandatory for any scenes of maenads or satyrs. I recommend the first two discs for both “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys” and “Xena: Warrior Princess” the most; the main characters in the later seasons of both shows turned into world travelers and later scores feature intrusions from Celtic, Chinese, Indian, and Japanese music. The “Spartacus” scores feature a sexy and exciting blend of decadence and action that make them perfect for duet play.
(And a couple of the “Xena” OSTs are just showtunes. Yes, “Xena” did the musical episode way before “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”)
Another television soundtrack is that is by turns erotic and violent is “Rome” by Jeff Beal. Like LoDuca, Beal has a background in jazz and it shows in the funky, flowing suites for scenes of seduction and murder. While obviously indebted to the ethereal notes Lisa Gerrard brought to her collaboration on the “Gladiator” score, “Rome” has its own unique (yet compatible) sounds to lend to a Greco-Roman remix.
Motion pictures scores for modern sword and sandal all live in the shadow of the distorted drums and melodic brass of Hans Zimmer and his partners and protégés at Remote Control Productions. Besides the obvious suggestion of the “Gladiator” soundtrack album (though not “More Music From Gladiator” which has a bunch of dialogue snippets mixed with the music), my personal recommendation is Ramin Djawadi’s score for the remake of “Clash of the Titans;” dark and fluid with a beat you can dance to, this soundtrack album is better than the movie it accompanied.
Remote Control Productions also does video game scores, and it is amongst video games that we can find my last major recommendations: the “God of War” series soundtracks. Featuring the same world music + electric guitar approach found in Joseph LoDuca’s “Spartacus” work and Tyler Bates’ pepla OSTs, the “God of War” scores round out a need for action music to accompany ferocious battles between demigods and monsters (Bates even scored the most recent game).
One of the great joys of my recently-finished Savage Worlds “demigoddess in Mythika” campaign was being able to play several times a week with game music on but not listen to the same albums every night. Frankly, it was probably moving away from the Middle Sea and stumbling over the mood music that sent it off the rails just as much as the Late Unpleasantness. There’s been a resurgence in using classical antiquity or some sci-fi spin on it in RPGs over the last few years, so I know I’m not alone in enjoying the Greco-Roman vibe. With Mythos for Savage Worlds coming up this month (or next) from Mystical Throne* and Mazes and Minotaurs, Hellas, Dogs of Hades, and Olympian Breed (to name a few off the top of my head) already available, I hope other GMs can benefit from the scene-setting power of music.
*Seriously, dudes, you are practically guaranteed a positive review if you hook me up with a review copy. I am so there with the Mystery Cult thing.