Theme song for a fantasy RPG setting!
November 1, 2016 3:13 PM   Subscribe

Inspired by the fact that episodic TV shows have brief theme songs, I want one that I can adopt for the D&D setting I've been DMing. Something to set the mood during the first ~2 minutes, during the previous-session-recap phase. Help me find the perfect track.

I believe that, on a possibly subconscious level, it will help get my players in the zone—and that if I play the same theme at the start of every session, it will develop a certain Pavlovian response. At minimum, it should help transition everyone's minds (my own included) away from whatever day-to-day crap they brought to the table, and into the business at hand. (Not that such distractions are a big problem for us; I just think this could enrich the experience. I have no plans to play "battle music" or "chargen screen music" or anything like that during the sessions.)

The perfect song needs to:

1- not come from any recognizable soundtrack. No Conan, no anime, none of that. I'd accept something from, say, a terribly obscure video game (and this is why I come to you, Metafilter).
2- lack vocals of any kind. Even chanting or "aaaahhh"s will be distracting.
3- not sound heavily synthesized or otherwise "cheap." An actual orchestra is preferred, and definitely no recognizably-contemporary instruments or effects.
4- be fairly subdued, so as not to overwhelm the recap and resulting discussion. (So no DragonForce / Dio / Tenacious D.)
5- possess a "hook"…some sort of recognizable musical motif, maybe repeating two or three times.
6- be stark, tense, exciting, even pessimistic, but not quite depressing—in other words, tonally similar to the first couple minutes of the Fellowship of the Ring soundtrack. Nothing too twinkly and tra-la-la-y.
7- be fairly campaign-tone-agnostic. I've run a lot of campaigns in this setting during the last 15+ years, and each one has its own feel to some extent, but the one thing they all have in common is a certain seriousness. Even the most light-hearted, puckish PCs still operate in a world where their actions have consequences. I intend for this theme to be tied to the setting, and thus to be used in every campaign.

Prominent solo cello is a plus. It seems conducive, somehow.

So far, candidates I have found that come close are
- the "Eternal Forest" track on this guy's website (click Downloads), but it's TOO subdued, and too optimistic and twinkly;
- Sephiroth, but what I've heard from them so far is too dark and lacks a hook;
- the solo cello stylings of Adam Hurst, which would be close to perfect if this was a Vampire: The Masquerade setting or something. But my setting just isn't quite baroquely-tragic enough for this to fit.

If it matters, the setting in question is a pretty standard fantasy realm—one continent on one world, but with other worlds and planes and such—with elements of realism, moral ambiguity, occasional WTFedness, and a low-to-mid magic level. So, it's not characterized by Gleaming Armored Badasses Using the Slightest Pretext to Slay a God.

I realize that's a lot of parameters. We'll see where this search goes! I'm also curious to know if any of you have ever adopted a repeated "theme" or "fanfare" for their tabletop RPG.
posted by CheesesOfBrazil to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
MyNoise offers several ambient generators specifically targeted at RPGs, plus all kinds of other noise/soundscapes.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:20 PM on November 1, 2016

The first thing that comes to mind is the soundtrack for Journey, especially the orchestral version. It fits all of your criteria except for the first: it's not exactly obscure (nominated for a Grammy!).

Perhaps the Phillip Glass / Kronos Quartet's score for Dracula? Good motifs, and not nearly as gothic as the subject matter would suggest.
posted by Paragon at 3:54 PM on November 1, 2016

Danse Macabre
Shadow's Bride
Trio in E-flat by Shubert
If you just type Spooky Cello Music into youtube you'll find lots to choose from..
Also, when I did yoga and meditation the smell of the incense would bring me into a receptive mindset as soon as I smelled it. There are incenses that smell like campfire that may add another layer to the effect you are trying to achieve. Pine or cedar, something along those lines.
posted by BoscosMom at 4:10 PM on November 1, 2016

It may not tick all your boxes specifically, and some folks may have already have it imprinted as a Western theme, but nothing says "sprawling adventure" to me like The Ecstacy of Gold

(IF you revisit the idea of ambient sound, Tabletop Audio is a fun resource to play with. It added a lot to our spooky Halloween session on Friday.)
posted by Phobos the Space Potato at 4:49 PM on November 1, 2016

Take a look at Jukedeck - you can customize your algorithmically produced songs pretty easily. Here's one that it built for me in two minutes. Too epic badass? Go simple, then.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 5:19 PM on November 1, 2016

This is making me think of Zoe Keating.
posted by mrgoat at 5:47 PM on November 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

Cello, you say? Have you clicked around the website for Apocalyptica (Google search description: "A band famous for playing Metallica with four cellos") to hear if there's something you like from them?
posted by cdefgfeadgagfe at 8:30 PM on November 1, 2016

Final Fantasy IV word theme—orchestral version. Starts out bombastic for 25 seconds then gets quiet for recap and resulting discussion. Just for fun: original version.
posted by middlethird at 9:27 PM on November 1, 2016

I've always used a lot of music in my table top gaming. I mostly run Vampire and other WW Storyteller games, which makes it a bit easier on me in terms of music, but I've got a few songs I use for certain things. I have a cabaret club that my PCs occasionally visit and it has its own soundtrack, and I change to more intense violent music during combat.

As for your music, I came to recommend Zoe Keating, was not disappoint. Her catalogue is really worth looking into. Julia Kent is another contemporary avant-gaurde cellist you might want to look into.

The Mediaeval Baebes are primarily a choral group, singing genuine Medieval music, but they do are lot of instrumental stuff on period instruments. This is an instrumental interlude that starts out fairly mellow then becomes lively and engaging. This one is more cheerful pub music (Lick the Maypole - subtle!)
posted by Jilder at 3:04 AM on November 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Chilly Gonzales' pop-chamber album Chambers has a lot of good candidates. It's mostly piano + string quartet music.

The Difference (1.58) -- this is the first one I thought of -- it's dramatic and hooky without being too bombastic.

Other options:

Switchcraft (4.19) -- more stirring.
Cello Gonzales (2.53) -- closest to your Adam Hurst example
Green's Leaves (2.43) -- maybe too light-hearted?
Odessa (3.37) -- maybe too subdued.
Sample This (3.11) -- maybe too dramatic!
posted by rollick at 3:56 AM on November 2, 2016

No cello, and a bit livelier than you probably would like, but I love Saltarello by Dead Can Dance as a gaming theme.
posted by DrAstroZoom at 6:52 AM on November 2, 2016

Jukedeck seems promising so far—I'm kind of liking this one that I just made after about nine or ten tries, though it feels a bit contemporary and it does have "vocals". It seems like Jukedeck should have more options. I'll keep trying!

Julia Kent is also promising—a quite suitable mood in the linked track, though the instrumentation is a tad sparser than I'd like. Prominent solo cello, yes, but not necessarily "practically only solo cello."

Rollick, none of the Chilly Gonzales links you provided work for me; Youtube says they are "not available."
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 7:08 AM on November 2, 2016

Rollick, none of the Chilly Gonzales links you provided work for me; Youtube says they are "not available."

Ah, that's a shame. You can hear 30 second extracts on Amazon, or listen to the whole thing on Spotify with a free account. Sorry I can't find better options.
posted by rollick at 7:31 AM on November 2, 2016

Griffin McElroy, who DMs the delightful The Adventure Zone DnD podcast, uses Deja Vu by Mort Garson as their theme song. He also composes a bunch of original music for the show, some of which you could adapt. This all has a feel that's a little more "weird Final Fantasy dungeon" than "high fantasy movie" but maybe it'll pique your interest!
posted by Maecenas at 8:37 AM on November 2, 2016

Check out the music used by Critical Role.

I really like Five Armies.
posted by Shanda at 2:00 PM on November 2, 2016

Thanks Shanda-- I didn't even know there was an "official" D&D soundtrack! Some of it sounds a bit generic, but there are a couple of decent candidates on there.

I also explored the work of Christopher Tin (of Civ IV's "Baba Yetu"), and while some of it came close to what I was looking for, it was all either too bombastic or too happy.
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 2:32 PM on November 2, 2016

There is a great internet radio station called RPG Gamers Radio that plays hundreds of songs from video games. Some of them are instantly recognizable, but many are more obscure or deep cuts from game soundtracks. I'll put it on at work sometime to help me focus, but this also might be a good way to vet a bunch of gaming instrumentals and pick your favorites.
posted by helloimjennsco at 8:34 AM on November 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Reporting in:
Thanks to some of your YouTube suggestions, YouTube eventually suggested to me some very promising tracks in a genre I can only describe as "epic cinematic production music that in most cases hasn't actually been used for anything." These two channels seem to be lousy with the stuff, although a great deal of it violates rule #4, and/or seems like it's trying to be generic movie-trailer music. But, in terms of length, that's not a bad thing.

Some candidates so far are Patrick Digby - A New Beginning, Axel Rosenberg - Farmboy Prince, Onur Tarcin - Jagon Suite, and a few selected tracks by Two Steps from Hell, whose Wikipedia page says they literally do movie-trailer music.

I've got a list of something like 30 tracks to ponder now. One of them's bound to work. Thanks for all the input everybody!
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 12:35 PM on November 5, 2016

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