I love using background music when I run an RPG. Before I got into gaming I was already a big fan of film scores, and after becoming a gamer my fondness for games and cinematic music have supported each other in a way that I find extra satisfying. When I get a new RPG, I feel the need to find just the right music to accompany it, and when I get a new movie soundtrack, I just have to find a way to use it in a game.
Today I’d like to celebrate the Conan the Barbarian soundtrack by Basil Poledouris (1982). Its use as background music for a fantasy game like 13th Age should be obvious, but the album is also useful in supporting action games in general. Despite its origins in the 80s, the music isn’t too dated.
One reason I like the Conan the Barbarian soundtrack is that it isn't strongly branded. Some fantasy soundtracks are riddled with themes that most listeners easily recognize if they've seen the movie. You don't have to listen too long before you realize you're hearing a Lord of the Rings or a Harry Potter soundtrack. That can be fine, but I prefer my background soundtrack to blend in well enough that it could have been composed specifically for my game.
Here's a list of the tracks on Conan the Barbarian, along with any comments I have about each one. I also list a few keywords to describe the music (such as its mood and tempo), plus my ideas about how a GM might use the piece in a game.
(Note: while writing this, I noticed that a Blu-Ray combo pack of the 2 Conan movies (Conan: The Complete Quest (Conan the Barbarian / Conan the Destroyer)) is coming out on June 14, 2016. I don’t get a cut if you order it from that link; I just wanted to point you to it in case you’re itching to see the movies now like I am. I also discovered a 3 CD version of the soundtrack that I didn’t know about. Dammit.)
- Anvil of Crom. I skip this track because of the chronicler's voiceover. The music is good, though, starting at 1:04. I do like the voiceover when I'm listening to the soundtrack in a non-gaming context. I just don't want my game interrupted by someone else talking.
- Riddle of Steel/Riders of Doom. This track is light, fast, and somewhat whimsical. It features chanting vocals and sounds heroic. Useful for traveling music or marching into battle.
- Gift of Fury. This one is sad and serious, with Latin-sounding vocals.
- Wheel of Pain. Slow, serious. Good for a non-combat dramatic scene, or to indicate something menacing drawing inexorably nearer.
- Atlantean Sword. Slow, mystical, wondrous. Good for exploration, or to convey a sense of wonder. Would work well for visiting some new place, especially if it's magical.
- Theology/Civilization. Slow, peaceful, with flutes and chimes. Good for traveling through or visiting a village or kingdom.
- Wifeing (Theme of Love). Slow, serious, begins somewhat mournful but progresses to a more happy theme. (Or maybe that's just my interpretation.)
- Leaving/The Search. Slow, serious, but not too somber. Picks up a bit at the 2 minute mark. Might be good for traveling, or background to a dramatic conversation. Or for a travel montage.
- Mountain of Power Procession. Driving, serious but upbeat. Good for battle preparation or visiting a martial location like a gladiatorial arena or a throne room.
- Tree of Woe. Tense, suspenseful. Good for a scene of approaching danger. At the 2 minute mark the track turns peaceful and happy, so watch out if that's not how your suspenseful scene ends!
- Recovery. Slow, serious but peaceful. Good for representing down time.
- Kitchen/The Orgy. Upbeat, cheerful. Good marching music. Could easily represent dwarves heading into battle. When I think of the Conan soundtrack, I think of this piece. "The Orgy" starts at about 2:20, and continues the upbeat, cheerful mood, but in a less-marchy, more peaceful mode. Which is probably appropriate for an orgy.
- Funeral Pyre. Somber, as you'd expect from the title. In addition to accompanying sad moments, this track would be useful during dramatic scenes or exploring the ruins of a previous age.
- Battle of the Mounds. Driving, serious, orchestral music with vocal chanting. Good for battle music, as you might guess.
- Death of Rexnor. Serious, ominous, with some vocal chants. Would be suitable for a momentous occasion (such as a funeral), or for exploring somewhere dangerous.
- Orphans of Doom/The Awakening. Slow, peaceful, with a dramatic ending. This would work great as background for exploring a faerie village, or meeting a princess.
Have you done any gaming to the stirring melodies of Conan the Barbarian? What’s YOUR favorite gaming soundtrack?