Similar to what I did last year, I’m going to take a look at the entries from my 2016 “Music to Haunt By” review series with a focus on their use in tabletop role-playing games. The use of music in gaming sessions has changed a lot since the days when people would crank up some Led Zeppelin while playing Dungeons & Dragons and has even branched out into the world of board games. I know I mentioned the soundtrack to Zombies!!! last year, but it’s actually predated by the soundtracks for A Touch of Evil and Last Night on Earth. In somewhat related news, the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society has produced an officially licensed audio drama based on a Call of Cthulhu role-playing supplement! As you can imagine, there’s plenty of possibilities for working selections of it into a gaming session involving said supplement. But let’s get back on topic and look at material which wasn’t originally intended for use with RPGs. As always, the order of the albums reflects the order in which I reviewed them and does not reflect any personal preference. I had to remove some tracks for spacing purposes but you can find the complete tracks in each of the links.
Psych Ward Psymphony – Given how the band’s self-titled debut album was originally intended to provide a selection of spooky rock music for haunted attractions to use while people waited in line to get in, most of the tracks have a rock ‘n roll feel to them which might not work with your RPG of choice. Especially since many of these tracks also have lyrics. But thankfully there’s a workaround! As I discovered when I had to go answer my front door while listening to the track “Bad Place,” it sounded creepier the further I got away from the speakers. Lowering the volume while playing these tracks results in the creepy music and sound effects being faintly audible and all the lyrics become barely understandable and occasionally screechy. So playing Psych Ward Psymphony on a loop in this fashion is a great way to enhance the atmosphere while playing a variety of horror RPGs. But what if you’re only interested in playing tracks during specific gaming moments? “Jingle Bells PWP” and “Holly & the Ivy” are perfect for modern day Christmas horror scenarios, although the beating sound effects in that last track might limit its uses. Those without any winter plans for their games should skip right to “Turn Back.” A scary organ and traditional Halloween sound effects like a wolf howling and wailing wind join a voice whispering for the listener to turn back while it’s still not too late. But when you hear a vampire welcoming you in with dark piano accompaniment, you know it’s far too late to escape. Just like the poor sap you hear trying to laugh it off as ghostly wails are heard. Having a sepulchral voice mocking him during the guitar segment is an excellent touch, as is the evil laughter which takes us out. This could work as a fun teaser you can play before your gaming group starts an adventure involving a haunted house with a sinister host. The sound of a crackling record brings us into “Death Waltz.” But the static and feedback soon turn into headbanging rock greatness and chilling sound effects. This contrasts nicely with the light (but intense) piano and percussion. It’s just the thing for those wanting to use something a little different when players enter a haunted ballroom. If your adventure involves a haunted museum, you might want to give “The Morrigan” a try. The unnerving (but beautiful) vocals, crying and scary sound effects accompanying the music are also occasionally joined by a voice explaining what the subject of this track is. In other words, it has a built-in tour guide or audio which plays when a player decides to push a button in front of an exhibit. Similarly, players exploring an asylum could have their experience enhanced by your use of “Mama Told Me Not to Come.” The male subject of the track’s moaning and rambling about murders he blames on his mother will provide you with a NPC you don’t have to act out. The same also applies for the doctor who appears at the end. “Hell’s Hell” mixes slow, moody rock with some feedback, static organ work and evil laughter. “The Death Lord” is mostly wailing guitars, screaming and drilling sound effects once the opening musical stingers die down, but the titular character does provide some commentary from time to time. The last of our premade NPC dialogue tracks is “The Survivors?” and it is very effective. Sirens blare and the wind howls as a whispering voice telling us to follow her. Such whispers occur many times under the moody guitars and organ work. It’s so nice to have such a track which isn’t restricted to any particular adventure setting.
Those preferring ambient tracks will enjoy Psych Ward Psymphony 2013, but there is still some rock present for those who prefer that. Case in point: “Taring Hem” starts off with the sound of a man violently enduring electroshock therapy. Other unhappy inhabitants are heard as the vocalist sings about the asylum and the horrors inflicted on its inhabitants. If you want something more flexible, “Release From Pain” is just the ambient track for you! Its mostly eerie piano work and synth touches are perfectly matched with percussion and snippets of guitar work. Since there are some screams heard at times, this can be used during the exploration of a torture chamber or any other horror setting you deem its use appropriate in. The repeated chanting of “awaken” in “Bella Morte” brings summoning rituals to mind, but the backwards masking mixed in with organ work and old school horror touches make its use most appropriate when it’s paired with a 80’s or modern day ritual your players get involved in. “Dead Music” is moody and soft, with the occasional sound effect tossed in for good measure. These effects range from classics like the sound of breathing and blowing wind, to more unusual choices like a woman whispering backwards. If you only want breathing effects with your music, “Self Portrait” combines them with dark touches, soft tones and the occasional use of guitars. Guitars bring us in to the catchy rock instrumental that is “When Evil Calls” while “Haunted” opts for a moody listening experience using slow, deliberate piano work and soft guitars. Its mild sense of tension and unease (and some sneaking notes) allow for use with exploration or thieves. “Into The House” consists of creepy piano work coupled with snippets of wordless vocals and heavy synth tones. The synth work soon takes over, but the piano is always present. You can follow it with “Haunt” thanks to its ghostly tones and whispers. There’s also piano work and synth tones thrown in for good measure. Soft electrical zapping leads to guitars and screams in “Betrayal,” which can be used in a mad scientist’s lab, alien encounter or shock treatment room. Come to think of it, this track also has some cyberpunk potential. Whether you desire static or the sound of buzzing flies, “Self Portrait 7” is the track you need.
Darkmood – Let me say this right off the bat: When Time Ends is an undiscovered gem of role-playing music. As you will see from the following track descriptions, it offers game masters a variety of musical moods which aren’t limited to a single RPG genre. “Blood Moon” will remind you of the opening to a modern day movie. The pounding beats are vaguely tribal at times and I was most intrigued by the use of fluting touches, power tool noises and distortion effects. Occasionally there are some wet noises which remind me of eating and allow for use when players encounter zombies or mutant cannibals. The intense and brooding “After The Fire” uses plenty of wordless female vocals. However, they’re not the kind you usually hear in spooky ambient albums. I love the great use of percussion effects and how the heavy tones flow in and out. The pounding static in the middle brings in lots of other interesting musical touches as well. The opening of “City Black” reminds me of something being transmitted or broadcast. This is further enhanced by the static effects that interrupt an amazingly catchy beat. The rockin’ guitars take over for a segment which should please fans of Blade Runner. So cyberpunk, post apocalyptic and modern day scenarios could potentially benefit from the use of this track. Eerie string work, the sound of a door being opened, wind chimes and vaguely wailing sounds also help add to the tension (but admittedly doe restrict the track’s usage possibilities). Wordless male vocals usher in “The New Dawn.” This has a mystic and tribal in feel thanks to its exotic string work and percussion. The static backing and female vocal solos are nice touches. It’s somewhat relaxing, but not completely peaceful. Whether it’s wandering through a strange land or players recovering from their wounds while hoping there aren’t any encounters with wandering enemies, this is the track for you! “Dystopian Transmission” begins with some wind chimes and low, heavy backing tones. Drums and high tech sound effects soon arrive on the scene. Wordless female vocals and chirping tones soon following, along with a static break which is soon intruded upon by heavy doom. What I said about “City Black” applies here and I also think any situation involving aliens or insects would suit this particular track.
The speedy opening of “Survivors” reminds me of a video game. Male chant-groans appear and disappear throughout track and there’s a surprise appearance by piano work among the drums. Wordless vocals also put in an appearance. Similar vocals are also heard in the eerie “Road To Peril,” along with synth tones and dark, pounding music. It’s amazing how even the lighter touches have an edge to them. Both tracks would benefit from being used in a gaming session for RPGs involving dark futures. If a player having a nightmare is part of your adventure’s plot, score it with “Wake Up.” It starts with high pitched, vaguely siren-like tones, followed by sci-fi sounds, distorted static and a pounding beat. Half-audible comments are occasionally heard, along with soft wordless vocals and orchestral touches. The use of static and other such effects in “Lost Souls” creates the overall feel of something evil breathing in background. There are lots of other unnerving effects and low, heavy backing tones. Even the somewhat “Middle Eastern” dance break at one point quickly gets disturbing thanks to the use of wordless vocals. Why not try it during your next Call of Cthulhu campaign? Don’t let its name fool you, “Ghostly Chatter” is not what you expect. While there are ghostly whispers, they frequently overlap amid the sounds of crackling static and transmission snippets. so it’s less “haunted house” and more “space outpost.” But if you want something to play with the former, “Midnight” offers pounding tones, a creepy backing and noises reminiscent of distant screams which should please horror fans. “Rise From Ashes” is low, pulsing darkness in audio form. The beat and backing touches (such as female vocal solos) will give players the shivers. But there is a tiny bit of hope in this otherwise dark track, presumably to foreshadow the last track of the album. Said track is appropriately called “Hope” and while the introduction is a little creepy, everything else lives up to its name. The synth work is louder and more upbeat than it is in the other tracks. I recommend using it if your adventure has a part where everything seems normal at first. This will let you get away with some of the minor dark touches. But using it at the end of an adventure can also work, especially if you want to suggest the threat the players thought they had defeated once and for all is still out there.
Dulcet Jones – The opening track “Horror, I’m Afraid” (which is also the name of the album) is full of unearthly electric effects and harpsichord-like notes with touches of guitars. Seems like a good match for alien encounters or mad science. The fluting dirge and light touches of “Electric Requiem” do little to cut down on the overall mournful feel of the guitar work. One brief segment has a self-reflective nature to it, but it’s mostly odd and foreboding. It’s a very good way to throw players off guard, either while they explore a funeral parlor (or any scary setting). “Gunslingers Ghost” is like the opening theme to a macabre western. Despite its minor surf influence, it’s fairly slow in terms of pacing. Some portions might make listeners think of galloping hooves, which is also a big plus. This practically begs you to use it while playing Deadlands. While “Evil Robot Army” could be used in an encounter with what its title describes, its use of steam-like variations and clanking metal over a creepy backing guitar allow for use in steampunk games, explorations of haunted boiler rooms or factory encounters. “Blood Ritual” has an ancient, regal feel thanks to its use of a harpsichord (despite using guitars as well). When players enter a throne room, be sure to use this. “Hurriquake” features sirens, rain, rumbling thunder, banging shutters and electrical effects. There’s also a steady percussive beat, but the effects are more important when it comes to pairing this track with a gaming situation. The wind even takes on a ghostly feel at end, so it could potentially be used in a zombie apocalypse setting in addition to its obvious use with a storm. “Lurker” just screams “sneaking medieval eeriness.” Some parts of it might remind you of falling or descending, so why not play it when players go down stairs or cross a bridge over a bottomless pit? The slow, low key “Cadaver Dance” uses lingering creepy notes and wailing wind combined with snippets of “steam” and guitars to create an amazing haunted ballroom experience.
Sam Haynes – Gong strikes and an intentionally distorted buildup start off the first track of Ghost Stories, “HAunTS.” Soft, distant wordless female vocals and speedy piano work usher in more distortions and a great beat. Sadly I’m unable to place the origin of the sample where a man asks someone if they believe the dead can come back to haunt the living. You could try dancing to it, but it just works so much better at scaring people. This works better if players have to investigate a club rather than as general background music. This also applies to “FeAr Of clOWns,” “tHe RetuRN,” “CaRNiVal featuring Ghoulshow” and “13.” The dark drum machine beat and the synth work of “GhoST stoRiES” make it an excellent mood builder. The soft opening is rather creepy despite some lighter touches and the decidely the ethereal synth segment should make players think of the unknown and fear at the same time. Other aspects of this remind me of something floating around, so why not use whenever something (or someone) is levitating? “ThE ChILLS” might start off with light strumming music. What comes next not only changes this, it’ll also show how chimes can make anyone nervous! The dark synth tones constantly lurking underneath and piano work create a sneaking feel. So whether your players are trying to move about undetected or are being silently stalked by something, this is the track to use! This also applies to “The MiDNiGHT SHow,” which also can be used in dance club settings as well.
Similarly, the almost futuristic electro touches go nicely with the piano work and there’s a creeping feel to the lighter tones and music box-like parts of the lengthy “LoST HeARTs.” But in this case, things get much darker in feel when a vaguely orchestral version of the music takes over. The majority of “The OTher SiDe (Prelude)” is mostly made up of a lengthy period of near silence. Thankfully this track is on the short side, so it doesn’t take too long for the otherworldly space noises to be fully audible. If you time things just right, this could also let you add an extra surprise to your game’s alien encounter. “The OTher SiDe” has a much shorter silent period, then steady synth tones form the backbone of track. Said backbone is soon overshadowed by a more dance-like drum machine beat and mild electro touches. Careful listeners will notice how this references material used in earlier tracks. There’s good sized period of near silence at end too, which admittedly leads nicely into the next track. Said track is “MidNight Gets CloSER,” where soft piano work gradually builds up to a most interesting use of bells. They might remind you of jingle bells, but they’re anything but jolly. But I think what game masters will be most interested in are the eerie, heartbeat-like touches. What horror gaming situation doesn’t benefit from the sound of a beating heart? Soft, light synth tones back the occasional stab of heavy darkness in “GrAVE SeCReTS.” Something like “soft and light music” might not seem scary, but you’ll understand once you experience this track.
Verse 13 – An album like Prelude to the Afterlife could be played on a loop while players explore a haunted house, but I personally think it works better to play the tracks during certain situations instead. For example, play “Skeletons in the Closet” when players enter a haunted child’s room or playroom. The sound of a door opening and a music box playing will clue them in to what’s in store without your having to say a thing! Bursts of percussion soon follow and chanting vocals also heard, with the music box occasionally getting a solo. There’s also a sneaking feel at times and the wordless female vocals are an excellent touch. Gong strikes and dark piano work meet bells in “Web Spinner.” The chiming clock and male vocals both add to the overall sense of danger while the steady piano might remind you of crawling things. So if a room has a clock in it or involves creepy crawlies, play this. “Run!” gets the blood pumping with its speedy piano and gong strikes, so it’s sure to enhance a chase sequence. The wordless vocals, synth tones and chiming all add to the overall mood. The gong strikes again in “Hexed.” The heavy string work and the female vocals make things especially chilling. If you want something with a generally scary feel, play this. The sounds of a heartbeat, ethereal moaning, distant booming, breathing and female screams almost make you forget about the incredibly soft music bed in “Tunnel of Nightmares.” You could just play it while players travel through a dark hallway, a carnival’s haunted attraction or if they’ve been swallowed whole by a massive beast. “Monster Under your Bed” features another music box tune, but it’s different from one heard in opening track. Ominous string work conveys lurking danger. The brief bursts of wordless unisex vocals and a ticking clock are also present. “Chiroptera” is a reference to the classification order of mammals in which bats belong to, so the title alone lets you know this track is perfect for caves and vampire lairs. Its distorted tones and speedy piano work are very impressive. There’s a brief pause which soon bursts into louder volume creates the sense of a swarm of flying things surrounding you. The wordless vocals, chimes and (of course) gongs appear as well. “Her Epitaph” is bookended by the sound of crackling to simulate an old record playing. I’ll live it up to you if the players encounter a record player which starts playing on its own or if they have to play it themselves. The slow, steady piano work is very mournful in tone, and the scattered use of chimes and ghostly little girl laughing imply lost youth.
“The Asylum Speaks” features a slow buildup in volume as scary strings and militaristic drumrolls play. There’s some eerie piano work, faint chimes and bursts of wordless vocals during the extra intense parts. This track offers plenty of sneaky menace and the woman laughing at the end adds to the extremely moody closing. Despite its name, it can be used with a variety of horror settings. “Massacre 1985” is so wonderfully 80’s and its synth work goes from slow and ominous to speedy and terrifying. I think its potential use is obvious. “Crossing Over” has a slow, soft and heavy buildup where ghostly male vocals fade in and out. The piano, bells and occasional female vocals add so much to the effect. Use it in any spooky scenario you desire. It also nicely leads into “The Empty Coffin.” Only this time, the vocals and bells are coupled with heavy touches and string work. The sheer amount of musical variations in the bell solo have to be heard in order to be truly appreciated. “Lycanthropy” has wordless vocals, tolling bells, howling wolves and even an organ solo! Piano, guitars and outstanding drum work also kick in for a surprise appearance as well. This all combines to create the sense of something sneaking and stalking. It’s yet another track where the name makes it use in RPGs clear (not that I’m complaining). Gongs and dreamy music that might remind you of a fairy tale open “Masquerade of Malice,” so it has potential for use in any fantasy RPG. Little Fears and KidWorld sessions could benefit from its use as well. Despite the light piano work, the track takes on a much darker quality thanks to use of tolling bells and snippets of wordless female vocals. Although there is music present in “Buried Alive,” it’s mostly a soundscape about a person being buried alive and waking up in a coffin. This situation is bound to come up in a horror RPGs, either to one of the players or as something the players will learn happened to someone. Either way, you should play this during the big reveal. Synths lead up to slow and spooky piano work in “Escape from Cauldron Castle.” It’s the fist of two tracks with some chase scene potential. Gongs, chimes and very unique use of vocals join menacing strings to further set the mood. The doom-heavy opening of “Within the Wax” slowly builds up to some minor appearances by a music box before the frantic chase music starts. There’s some extremely interesting piano work on display, along with bells and female vocals. It’s a fantastic close to an equally fantastic album.
Atrium Carceri – Despite what the name implies, Cellblock offers more than just music that’s suited for explorations of abandoned prisons. But it can be played in a continuous loop on low volume to create an unnerving and desolate feel. I recommend playing it softly because of the use of samples and sound effects which might not work for certain gaming situations. “Entrance” utilizes an effective synth buildup with some neat distortion effects, static and echoes. There’s plenty of other unnerving noises to be found in this track, like breathing. Ambient outdoor sounds and crickets can briefly be heard in the opening of “Black Lace,” but can be easy to miss if you don’t pay close attention. That said, it’s easier to hear the sounds of wind and someone walking. Heavy synth tones are joined by a soft heartbeat and orchestration. The heart sounds increase later on and the sounds of locks being tested come in later. The overall effect is quite disturbing. I can only imagine the panic this track will cause players who note they’re locked the door behind them after entering a room. If you need to create an unearthly feel, “Machine Elves” is the track for you. In addition to the sound of locks being checked, there’s chirping, bizarre electrical noises, rattling, and heavy synth tones. Bursts of steam come in later, along with a rock-like beat. You can use while players explore a haunted factory, laboratory or alien spacecraft. Other tracks with a factory feel include “Blue Moon” and “Halls of Steam,” the latter of which also works in steampunk RPGs.
The static buildup of “Corridor” leads to a distant scream and distorted breathing. The ethereal vocals add to backing musical dark tones while the snippets of half-heard voices and laughter are most unnerving. It’s a must for any lonely, haunted locale. Insect-like chirping and some briefly heard wildlife noises are mixed with beeping, bursts of steam and strange electronic noises in “Stir of Thoughts.” Any encounter with mutated or alien beings in high tech settings would benefit from having this play in the background. Low, heavy beats open “Depth,” along with spacey noises. There are plenty of sounds the listener won’t be able to place, which should creep them out. There’s a masterful use of repetition along with the occasional burst of energy. The sound of someone gasping at the end is a great touch, but could admittedly make including it in a space scene difficult (unless you try the low volume trick I noted earlier). The opening of “Crusted Neon” features moody pulsing tones, metal percussive beats and echoing samples of people speaking in another language. There’s plenty of whispers, heartbeats and soft bursts of steam too! If you have an adventure set on an international space station, use this! Static, bursts of steam and electrical crackles form the backbone of “Red Stains.” There are plenty of other sinister little touches as well. “Inner Carceri” closes things out and its overall sense of desolation is overwhelming. The sounds of metal being struck are peppered throughout and other sound effects will make listeners think of something scrabbling or squirming about. These are definitely not what you want to hear in a supposedly abandoned location.
Christmas: A Ghostly Gathering – This mix of beautiful Christmas compositions and scary tracks could potentially be played in a loop during gaming sessions based around a humorous horror scenario involving Christmas. Having a happy track play during a decidedly unhappy event could make for some good laughs. Otherwise, I recommend only playing select scary tracks depending on your needs. The intense, unnerving and chaotic “Winter Storm” works in any snowy scene, Christmas-related or otherwise. A trek through a blizzard or an ice cave would greatly benefit from having this play. If your players encounter the Krampus, be sure to use “Night of the Krampus.” The mix of jingle bells and dark, dramatic tones works incredibly well. If they run into an evil “Santa Claws,” use “Up On the Housetop.” The pounding, heavy tone of the opening is kept throughout the entire track and its sneaking notes create the feeling of Santa and his elves being up to no good. The band’s mournful and dark take on “Greensleeves” works in just about any medieval setting. “Little Helpers” starts off with a whimsical opening and plenty of jingle bells which makes the listener think of a wacky workshop full of elves putting toys together. But as time goes on, the laughter become more sinister and the sense of menace increases. I think you can figure out a use for this without my help.
Last year’s installment of Music to Haunt By: The Return has tips on using audio to scare people, along with some free music downloads!
Episode 194 of this site’s official podcast has several of the tracks noted above (along with other musical compositions which might be good for your next gaming session).