As was the case last year, I’m going to take another look at the albums I reviewed for my 2015 “Music to Haunt By” article series with an eye on their use in tabletop role-playing games. But they could also be used while playing certain board games as well. Seeing as how Midnight Syndicate is preparing to release Zombies!!! this September for use with the board game of the same name, it just seemed appropriate to bring up. But said soundtrack could also be used with RPGs like All Flesh Must Be Eaten or Zombiepocalypse. But I digress. The order of the albums once again reflects the order in which I reviewed them and does not reflect personal preference. Although I had to remove some tracks for spacing purposes, you can find the complete tracks in each of the links.
Midnight Syndicate – Whether you’re looking for an album to play continuously or to play select tracks from, The Dead Matter: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack is perfect for horror and fantasy RPGs. That said, those wishing to play it on a loop might want to avoid the track “Sebed Suite” (due to the use of a dialog sample from the film) and the various rock tracks during the final portion of the album if such things clash with your gaming scenario. The tolling bells, vocals and piano work on display in “‘The Dead Matter’ Main Title” should remind the listener of death and ghosts. “Dangerous Meeting” will enhance encounters with wandering monsters thanks to its unnerving music and roaring sound effects while “Entering the Dusk” is a perfect pairing for encounters with creeping insects and the like. Are your players running away from something? Then play “Unexpected Company” or “Possession,” both of which work just as well as “Hollows Point” does for anything involving a lurking evil presence. But if you need a track which combines both of the previously described feels, then “Trilec Labs” and “Seance” are just what you’re looking for! “Late Night Snack” starts off soft and eerie, but quickly becomes more intense. The occasional footsteps and flapping bats make it a must for dungeon crawls. The menacing “Death is the Answer” will spice up any situation involving a cult, especially since it includes the sounds of chanting in Latin and a woman screaming “stop.” I love the spectral voices in “Sleep” but “You’re So Funny Frank” is my favorite since it combines such voices with soft music and evil laughter.
Jeannie Novak – Things start off with the Horrorshow: Mad House albums. Yes, “albums.” Each of the installments in Jeannie Novak’s “Horrorshow” series are available in synth, piano and ambient versions. However not all versions of each track are the same length. The frantic “Descent (synth)” conveys both nervousness and descending (of course). Naturally, I suggest using this when players have to journey down a flight of stairs or deep into the lower levels of a dungeon. If you’re running a horror RPG and something goes down at a funeral parlor, bust out “Requiem (synth).” “Lament (synth)” creates a sense of just what its name implies and the wordless female vocals and wandering synth work of “Visitation (synth)” create the feel of a visitor from beyond that’s great for séances and summoning rituals. For more specialized scary music, “Phantom (synth)” is quite elegant, “Fugue (synth)” is ethereal and “Solitary (synth)” should remind you of a music box. The next Horrorshow: Mad House is made up of piano music and while most of it is more beautiful than scary, there are a few exceptions. Both “Descent (piano)” and “Nightmare (piano)” would work wonders for a situation where a piano starts playing itself while “Requiem (piano)” is quite mournful. “Descent (ambient)” delivers the sense of unbalance and would work best when paired with a scenario where player characters have to cross a bridge over a seemingly bottomless pit. Ghostly wailing wind forms the bulk of “Requiem (ambient)” and I found “Nightmare (ambient)” to be much more chilling than its synth version. Similarly, “Lament (ambient)” is now less mournful and more chilling. The otherworldly “Visitation (ambient)” could work with an alien realm and “Phantom (ambient)” makes it perfect for any spooky situation.
Horrorshow: Big Top starts off with the (mostly) cheery calliope-sounding music of “Fanfare (synth)” and “Clowncar (synth),” but things become more subdued and slightly mysterious with “Grinder (synth).” “Labyrinth (synth)” has a sneaky feel and “Carousel (synth)” fits in with any situation involving a merry-go-round, scary or otherwise. “Fanfare (piano)” is plodding, yet still happy. It’s like something out of a silent comedy film, so there is potential for use with the Toon RPG. That description also applies for the rest of the piano tracks. Both the synth and piano tracks are neutral enough to work in either scary or normal circus scenarios, while the decidedly scary ambient tracks have almost no musical connection to the circus. The only exception is “Clowncar (ambient)” thanks to both its peppy tone and evil clown laughter. “Grinder (ambient)” is eerie, “Menagerie (ambient)” is very disturbing and “Coulrophobia (ambient)” is otherworldly enough for sci-fi RPGs. “Odditorium (ambient)” is creepy and soft while the similarly soft “Labyrinth (ambient)” has more of a pounding feel. With a name like Horrorshow: Ghost Town, you know you have the perfect soundtrack for a Deadlands session! “Badlands (synth)” offers spooky western piano work, “Rotgut (synth)” brings in the banjos and “Goner (synth)” is a bouncy tune with just a hint of creepy synth tones. “Headless (synth)” is soft and sneaky while “Deadend (synth)” really picks things up in terms of volume. The piano tracks are fairly neutral and sound like something from a saloon or silent movie (just like the circus piano tracks). But there is one exception: the darkness that is “Deadend (piano).” “Badlands (ambient)” is soft and spooky while “Rotgut (ambient)” is made up of winds and distant noises. “Goner (ambient)” is incredibly unearthly and “Venom” has an appropriately slithering feel that’s begging to be used when your players have to fight a giant snake. The wind effects of “Tumbleweed (ambient)” can work in a desert or haunted mine shaft. I love the creeping feel of “Boneyard (ambient).” Why not use it with a situation involving scorpions or spiders? Said creeping also reminds me of rattling bones, so this can also be paired with their discovering a skeleton hanging from the gallows. The winds and creaking effects in “Deadend (ambient)” also make it a must, as does its distant harmonica.
Sam Haynes – With its numerous samples and 80’s horror electro feel, The Incredible Dark Carnival definitely brings something new to the world of spooky circus music. You can easily loop it in the background to create an overall feel or use it on a track by track basis. Using tracks with dialogue samples is tricky, but the carnival theme does allow one to pass it off as an announcer talking through a loudspeaker. You could even use the sample on display in “Carnival of the devil” to set the moody of an adventure at a circus or carnival. “At Midnight,” “Death’s Minstrel,” “Nightfall” and “Electric Freakshow” can be used in non-circus horror settings, but the feel of a circus or child’s room is still present in that last one. Even without the samples, both “Here come the clowns” and “Switchblade sideshow” make the presence of evil clowns obvious. The term “eerie” doesn’t even begin to describe “Parade” thanks to its soft lurking tone and wordless female vocals. “Behind the mask” begins with a soft, lurking feel and gradually builds up like a Jack-in-the-box while the buildup in the eerie “Boneyard” is much more restrained. Musical moans form the beat of “Ringmaster” and are soon joined by lighter touches and a circus march you can dance to. The militaristic drums which often appear in this album show up as well. “Funland” has a very soft and slow opening build, but drums kick things up. “Curtain Call” combines a sample with quiet piano music to conjure up an air of sadness. Those who prefer not to use samples can get away with turning down the volume low enough to hide said sample and still get the sense of grief. “Lost Souls” is a must for any situation involving the supernatural. There’s a heavy feeling of dread in the opening, but it does get somewhat lighter when the dance music and chimes put in their appearances.
Michael Hedstrom – I think Nightmare Chronicles was practically made for using its tracks individually. “Enter Dreamland” is just plain creepy, especially the sounds which vaguely remind me of sirens. “Lost Wandering” also uses a “siren,” albeit one which goes in and out of the track. The guitar work feels somewhat medieval and the organ work (plus other spooky touches) add to the overall effect. Why not try it with a trip through a haunted forest or castle? “Ballerina Vallassa” alternates between a relaxing and dangerous tone. Even at its most beautiful, there is always a sense of darkness. Although it includes some wailing wind effects, “Creepers” is dominated by the constant musical sensation of things creeping and crawling around in the background. In other words, it just screams “insects.” The strange cries also add to the overall feel. While its name implies use in a haunted nursery, “Mother” has enough soft screeching bats and bells to allow for use in a vampire’s lair. The plinking tones and bursts of loud music of “Living Dolls” will remind everyone within earshot of music boxes and running cartoon characters. The chirping and “high tech” sound effects of “Stranded” are the perfect backdrop to any exploration of an alien spacecraft or secret facility, while the energetic “Nano” is great for both clubs and labs alike. If you need some gusts of wind, just play “Frozen.” “The Pit” is extremely atmospheric, especially the wordless male vocals and dripping effects. It works with settings like caves, dungeons, sewers, and the like. There is so much to love about “The House on the Hill.” The wind and mournful string work, the spooky organ music and the constant storm effects are all fantastic. Said effects are as varied as the organ, which makes things seem more realistic. The ethereal “Recital” is a must for a séance or battle with specters and the clanking metal of “Solitary” gives it an industrial feel. What haunted boiler room, factory or storage room wouldn’t benefit from this?
Music For Haunts – Before I get into The Dark Rift itself, I want to list all the tracks which feature a woman singing “La la la” at some point. These tracks are “The Dark Rift,” “Gate of Hades,” “Demon of Hades,” “The Dark One Rises,” “Golgotha” and “Flight of the Crows.” I mention this not only to save myself time, but to also help those who want to establish a running musical theme in their RPG sessions. In addition to the singing, “The Dark Rift” uses ghostly wails, singing in Latin and even a rock music section to create tension and unease. The sense of menace lurking just underneath the cheery stuff in “Clown Castle” is just perfect. The wordless vocals are a great touch. Those in need of more circus stuff will enjoy “Bobo the Clown’s Porcelain Nightmares” from later in the album. It opens with the distant sounds of people at circus and although there are the usual evil circus touches like evil laughter and a crackling loudspeaker, the way the music deteriorates into unevenness makes this truly unique. The eerie opening of “Gate of Hades” calls back to the first track. I just love the ghostly effects and piano work in this. Its melancholy nature and music box segment allow for its use in tons of RPG situations. But if you want a heavier and rockin’ version of this track, just play “Demon of Hades” instead. It may be shorter, but the distortions and twisted vocals make it so worth it. Don’t let the name fool you, “The Witch’s Woods,” can be used in any setting. The haunting vocals and music should make it very clear to players that they are in a place of danger and mystery. Similarly, the eerie tones and chanting voices of “Hydra’s Lair” make it obvious you shouldn’t pick music to use with certain locations based on the name alone. Strings are the thing in “The Dark One Rises!” and they get quite the workout. The sudden transition to subdued guitars and wordless vocals is very effective. “Osiris’s Underworld” effortlessly combines tribal drums, sneaky strings and male chanting voices to create fear and dread. It’s perfect for use with dark ceremonies and “Storming Vampire Castle” is best used with either a vampire’s lair or storming a castle. I can even see it being used as general battle music. The exotic, yet folksy “The Witch’s Curse” and “Haunted Backwoods” are destined for use in bayou excursions. “Golgotha” seems practically designed for use in games like Little Fears and Kidworld. “Flight of the Crows” is fast and intense, with plenty of cello work and female chanting to enhance any brief chase players might find themselves involved in. If players find themselves in a faraway town or traveling encampment, just play “Freakshow” and “The Bard’s Tale” to set the mood. Just ignore the name of that first track and trust me on this. The dreamy “Only In Dreams” might seem out of place at first, but it’s here to set up the much spookier remix “Ghosts of the Great War Triage” later on. Why not use both in Call of Cthulhu or other period game? It could be something played on a haunted phonograph or the lyrics could provide a clue to solving a mystery.
Sinister Sounds – Gothic Nightmares is the first entry in Scott Karan’s “Prelude to a Nightmare” side project and I’m sure you will love it. The chanting monks, distant tolling bells and wind effects of “Hey, Hey We’re the Monkeys” will liven up any meeting with evil clerics or cultists. “Subterranean Terror” uses unnerving noises and dripping sounds to transport the listener into an underground realm where strange creatures cry and skitter about in the darkness. Haunted caves, dungeons and mine shafts could all benefit from your using this. This originally appeared as a bonus track on Carpe Noctum but was left off of the reissued version. However, this version is much longer than it was in its original presentation. Tolling bells and creepy whispers are the stars of “Demonic Confessions,” but there are other effective little touches as well. Tolling bells make another appearance in “Gravedigger’s Alarm Clock (Ambient Mix)” and its heavy musical tones and wailing winds are downright chilling. The lengthy “Tales From the Crypt” is a disturbing audio tour through a dank and vermin infested crypt which must be heard in order to be truly appreciated. “Zombie Brunch” is a soundscape of groaning zombies messily chewing on human flesh and “Smoldering Sanctum (Ambient Mix)” takes us back the underground realms of terror. If the name doesn’t clue you in as where to use this, then the digging and heavy breathing of “Graveyard Shift” should clue you in. If you play all the tracks except this and the zombie track, you have an amazing soundtrack to your next dungeon crawl.
Other albums of interest:
Axe Giant: The Wrath of Paul Bunyan: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack – Thanks to its subject matter and being inspired by Max Steiner’s score for King Kong, this album is filled with music which suggests a huge beast chasing people. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other uses for its tracks. In “Axe Giant Main Title,” the pounding music provides a sense of something large and dangerous while the lighter notes and wordless female vocals add to the sense of mystery. It could also work as a battle theme. “Minnesota 1894” is a folksy and calm banjo track that’s ideal for rare moments of peace in Deadlands (or even a regular RPG set in the old west). Although it was presumably intended to remind listeners of Native American music, “Babe’s Grave” seems “Asian” in feel. “S.T.U.M.P. Medley: The Adventure Begins/Meeks’ Theme/Sgt. Hoke’s Theme” is divided into three distinct parts, the first of which uses drums to create a feel of laid back frontier adventure. The next segment has some banjo strummin’, but is more serious than the last track to feature the instrument. Finally, militaristic drums and a reprise of the adventure music close things out. The mournful “Bunyan at Babe’s Grave” could be used when a tragic moment leads to imminent danger. Whether it’s fighting music or just something to play when players run into a giant monster, “S.T.U.M.P.s Meet Bunyan” is the track for you. Bunyan’s footsteps are conveyed musically once again in “No Escape,” where percussion and string work creates a low key sense of dread. Both it and the musical roller coaster of shifting moods that is “The Legend of Paul Bunyan” are ideal for dungeon crawls. You could even play one of those tracks on a loop for an entire session if you wanted to. Since it feels fast paced and frantic, “Zack’s Last Stand” works for chases or while your players are trying to make an escape. “Bunyan’s Cave” revisits lots of elements from previous tracks to create a suspenseful and uncertain feel. The fast-paced tone of “Bunyan on the Move” will easily make someone think of a chase and the fearful violin buildup of “Final Showdown” create a feeling of death. “Legend’s End” is appropriately majestic and mournful for when players win a victory despite some losses. Unless you plan on running an adventure where Paul Bunyan goes on a killing spree, I suggest avoiding “The Ballad of Paul Bunyan” due to its lyrics. But if it fits your planned game, you can pass it off as something a non-player character (NPC) sings to your players’ characters.
Godzilla: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack – Although the idea of using this with kaiju RPGs is obvious, I think it has other uses as well. The low, almost mournful opening of “Godzilla!” creates a sense of uncertainty which builds to that of power and purpose. The use of an electric guitar is an interesting touch which brings in a mild rock feel. Elements of this track return several times throughout the album, so observant listeners will hopefully appreciate this as they play. The use of flutes and/or taiko drums in “Inside The Mines,” “To Q Zone,” “Back to Janjira,” “In The Jungle,” “Vegas Aftermath,” “Ford Rescued,” “Entering The Nest,” “Two Against One” and “Back To The Ocean” means they should be paired with RPGs or adventures with an Asian setting. Cyberpunk games often feature Japanese corporations, so there’s some potential for those RPGs as well. Speaking of cyberpunk, “The Power Plant” brings us a great moody buildup and musical tones which are used to imply a high tech location. There’s some great string work on display here along with plenty of danger and panic from the brass performances. There’s also some sadness later on too. If a cyberpunk adventure leads to things going incredibly wrong (like a potential nuclear meltdown), this is the track you need! “Inside The Mines” will make you think of mystery and unease. Its use of drums should also bring the footfalls of a huge monster to mind. “Vegas Aftermath” has a similarly pounding, plodding feel. “To Q Zone” offers both a feel of quiet suspense and something breathing (or sleeping). If players have to try to sneak past a slumbering monster, play this. Then play one of the other tracks if they accidentally wake it up. “Back to Janjira” starts off soft and sad, but the feeling of devastating menace returns soon enough. The music on this album is best suited for something more than your average adventure. Think of a superhero movie or sci-fi epic and you’ll have the right idea.
“Muto Hatch” initially reminded me of something from the Tron: Legacy soundtrack, but that changed that real quick. In addition to the overall feel of scrambling, I love the eerie insect-like wails created by the electric violin. “Following Godzilla” is another selection with such a feel whose use of brass and woodwinds adds to its sensation of urgency. These can be used in just about any adventure, but I imagine most will opt to save them for a modern day or futuristic setting. “The Wave” offers massive grandeur and danger while “Airport Attack” offers excitement and frenzy. Although the soft, slow opening of “Missing Spore” gives the listener a break, it quickly revs things up to create plenty of excitement and danger. The eerie electric violins are a fantastic touch. If you time your narration just right, this can really add to the effect of telling players how their seeming victory doesn’t mean the game is over. Like if they uncover a clue about another villain they had failed to anticipate. “Golden Gate Chaos” also brings a feeling of urgency, but also adds in a feeling of dread and battle. We get a musical crawling sensation which cries out for use with insects and cosmic menaces from beyond. “Let Them Fight” starts soft at first, but the listener gets a HUGE increase in our sense of battle and dread. Using drums to represent fighting and the musical chirps are clever touches. In “Two Against One,” the clashing musical notes battle for supremacy and the final wind down signifies someone being overwhelmed by facing multiple foes at once. This flows into “Last Shot,” which reworks material from the opening track to be much more frantic in feel. “Godzilla’s Victory” is appropriately bombastic and “Back To The Ocean” makes for great triumphant victory music.
Last year’s installment of Music to Haunt By and Sounds to Scare By: The Return has tips on using music (along with some free music downloads).
Episode 160 of this site’s official podcast has several of the tracks noted above (along with material from other musicians whose work might be perfect for your next gaming session).