Background music is a time-honoured game master tool, perfect for setting the atmosphere of the session. Ideally the soundtrack has to be of the ambient sort, from the Brian Eno gray zone of “as ignorable as it is interesting”. There are many ready-made solutions, which work perfectly (e.g. Cryo Chamber ambient releases for dark fantasy/horror games), but I tend to go the extra mile, and most of my prep time is spent compiling the perfect playlist for the upcoming session.
I love RPGs and I love weird obscure music.
So here’s a sample of what I’d used for an early modern LotFP game. This mix conveys melancholia and a sense of the weird, but it is not overtly dark or oppressive. It features both ambientish materials and a selection of period music. Just make sure you put the playlist on shuffle: too much period music in one bunch leads to a Ren-faire atmosphere. But if the short harpsichord interludes are mixed with brooding ambient, it’s great.
MIXTAPE – “17th Century Schizoid Man”
Mort Garson – Black Mass/Lucifer (1971)
Pioneering electronic composer Mort Garson created several “occult” themed albums (Ataraxia: The Unexplained (1970) being one of the other prominent ones), but Black Mass/Lucifer is my favourite… For today’s listener, this doesn’t sound like a grim & dark “Satanic” album – but it’s wonderfully weird and creative.
Anna Själv Tredje – Tussilago Fanfara (1977)
This Swedish gem is one of my favourites. Atmospherically it goes from mellow and fairy-tale qualities to eerie otherworldliness. Abstract synth music tends to work great, and I find that even if sometimes it sounds “futuristic” (with cosmic beeps and echoes), it blends in perfectly with a pseudo-historical setting.
Henry Purcell – The Suites for Harpsichord [Played by Colin Tilney] (1979)
Tilney is a renowned master of early keyboard instruments, and there are many albums where he plays old harpsichords and organs. Any compilation of baroque music is great, but Tilney is my personal preference.
The City Waites – Sorcery and Spectres: Songs of the Supernatural (1995)
Music from the other end of the social hierarchy: a collection of traditional folk songs, broadside ballads (and some chamber music too). This album is great, but you have to go through the songs first, because some of them can be distracting, and, as such, have no place in your session background music.
Check out also Popular Tunes in 17th Century England (1980) by the Broadside Band, or any other similar compilation.
The Unquiet Void – Scorpio (1999) & Poisoned Dreams (2004)
If the list sounds too up-beat, add some Lovecraftian horror ambient!
Klaus Morlock – The Bridmore Lodge Tapes (2014)
Nowadays there is certainly a revival of “hauntological” music, inspired by the Berlin school of electronic music, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and many other weird apparitions. Check out the Ghost Box label and their ilk, or, for instance, Klaus Morlock. The Devon Folklore Tapes series is great as well.
John Foxx – London Overgrown (2015)
More haunting synth washes, this time by John Foxx (of Ultravox fame). I love London Overgrown, because thematically it depicts a world after the downfall of humanity... But if this sonic vision is too new-agey and soothing, replace it with an unhealthy dose of Lustmord or Atrium Carceri.
The Radiophonic Workshop – Burials in Several Earths (2017)
Closing of the list is a recent release by the revived BBC Radiophonic Workshop... this tapestry of noises, drones, chimes, buzzing synths proves that they are truly the masters of their art.