Trying to find the right music for a tabletop roleplaying game is a pain in the ass. You have to find something that evokes the right emotions in people other than just yourself without asking your audience since that would risk revealing something. You need to figure out how to incorporate it for the right dramatic tension if it applies to what you’re doing. You need something that either no one will recognize or that will evoke the right feelings even if it is still recognized. Not to mention finding enough music in the first place, equalizing it all so a song never comes on that completely interrupts the tension you’re building, and knowing the songs well enough that you can time things out. Or just finding stuff that can repeat endlessly.
As someone trying to build an occasional spooky mood for my dark fantasy/mild horror D&D campaign (or at least, the latest chapter in my D&D campaign), I have spent so much time trying to find good spooky music. Everything I’ve found so far is climactic or stereotypical. I’d say there isn’t much out there for what I want, but I know the fault lies in myself. Most horror-adjacent stuff I’m experience has been delivered via the written word in a single-media experience. I don’t much care for horror movies and am new to dread-filled podcasts, so I know familiarity will come in time. I just have to listen to more true-crime podcasts, apparently.
True crime is very good at building tension (or popular true crime is, anyway), so that has been a fertile field to mine. It carries a lot of baggage with it, though, since true crime is very popular. I can’t dig through it with reckless abandon since there’s no telling what people might recognize from popular media these days. This is, of course, complicated by the fact that I can’t stand true crime for a lot of reasons I don’t particularly feel like getting into right now. So I don’t have the stomach to go cherry picking through the less popular stuff for good tension songs.
Most Googling and searching on YouTube is fruitless as well, since I keep running into “epic” type scores, covers of popular songs done in spooky vibes, and discordant stuff. Which I get works great for horror movies and video games and whatnot, but I am incapable of talking over it if there’s discord or no steady rhythm. Like when my neighbors watch a movie with the bass turned way up. I lose the ability to focus since the heavy bass cuts through everything. For those of you thinking “oh, that sounds like he gets overstimulated,” you’re right on the money. Well, half the money. The other half has to do with why I can’t stand true crime and is a story for another day.
In order to meet my needs for music, I’ve turned to spooky-adjacent video game music done in a spook-enhancing style. And real-play podcasts or streams dealing with spooky tension and light horror. After all, they’ve done the work of finding good background music, these streams, podcasts, and video games, so why should I have to reinvent the wheel? While there’s still a lot I have to avoid in order to stay out of the “super recognizable and evoking emotion contrary to the vibe I’m targeting” zone, it has been the place I’ve been able to find more than one or two results an hour.
TTRPG podcasts that have spooky seasons or companions or chapters are such a fertile field. Since I’ve gotten super into them, I’ve learned that only one or two of my players actually listen to any of these podcasts. Most of them have heard of them at this point (thanks to social media or my own ravings), but few are active listeners. And none of them go deep into anything they can get their hands on like I do (it’s not for nothing that I listen to an average of 7.2 hours of spotify a day). I, of course, support the artists who create the music and only use tracks I can legitimately purchase, and I can avoid most feelings of guilt or theft since I’m not producing a show. I’m just entertaining my friends. I do try to avoid using songs in the same sort of situation, though, just so I don’t feel like I’m lifting the entire thing wholesale. That’s not particularly fun or interesting to me. I’d rather come up with my own dramatic moments and create tension using songs that communicate tiny, insignificant details to the listener if they recognize the song and figure out what it is being used in this specific context.
So far, not a single player has ever figured these out, even though I’ve put a bounty on my songs (they get Inspiration for every song they identify). They’ve gotten the names of several of the most repeated ones, but none of them has stopped to really think about why that song is showing up in this context. For instance, no one has figured out why a cover of “Stay the Night” from Earthbound is in my “waiting” playlist. Or why “No Dogs On The Moon” from The Adventure Zone season 1 is right next to it. It’s a tiny, obscure, dumb little thing that I will take to my grave if no one figures it out because I did it for me and that’s enough. Just like my “Off to Adventure” for one specific campaign playlist starts with “Green Greens” from Kirby’s Dreamland and ends with the “Route 113” music from the original releases of Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire. They haven’t even figured out what those songs are.
Anyway, if you can figure it out and guess correctly in the comments or whatever, I will give you one (1) Inspiration you can request to be recognized by other GMs. I can’t promise they will recognize it, but I can promise I will send positive vibes your way for a couple days after you get it.