Music to Game By

Although Free RPG Day has long since come and gone, I have still decided to revisit the use of music in gaming sessions. Since I last discussed the subject, I have found that the amount of RPG tie-in music is much larger than previously thought. Some soundtrack albums seem to be inspired by games rather than intended for gaming use, while others are definitely meant for use during play. There’s also music designed without any particular role-playing game in mind. I even found a case where the RPG scenario and soundtrack were never released, a case where the planned RPG was never released, but the soundtrack was and a case where an RPG adventure was written around a preexisting CD!

In the past, I have reviewed numerous spooky music CDs under the banner “Music to Haunt By.” While my reviews focused on their use in haunted houses and Halloween displays, the albums they covered could also be used during RPG sessions. With that in mind, I am linking back to those articles here, in addition to making game-related suggestions and observations. Of course, your mileage may vary.

Midnight Syndicate – This group is a natural first for the list, given that they recorded the official Dungeons & Dragons soundtrack. The first of the albums reviewed in that link, The 13th Hour, is a collection of soundscapes and atmospheric music perfect for an adventure set in a haunted mansion in just about any roleplaying system (with the track “Return of the Ancient Ones” also allowing use with The Call of Cthulhu and other such RPGs). In fact, I would recommend playing the first two tracks prior to even letting players role-play setting foot in the house. Some purists might avoid using “Hand in Hand Again,” a track made using a real song from 1919, for games set before then, but I doubt most players will know or care (unless you’re playing such an adventure in a Dungeons & Dragons-type setting). Does your adventure have a haunted nursery, kid’s room or playroom? Then “Footsteps in the Dust” has you covered.

The Dead Matter: Cemetery Gates is an album inspired by the movie The Dead Matter, but is not actually the soundtrack. While The 13th Hour’s tracks can work either played one after the other or mixed and matched to the game master’s needs, I feel that The Dead Matter: Cemetery Gates is best harvested for tracks. “Cemetery Gates” is perfect for graveyard or funerals. “Entering the Crypt” effectively combines sound effects and piano for an “old, dark house” setting. The ancient feel of the harpsichord in “Alchemist’s Chamber” works great for castles and, despite the name, “Forging the Scarab” creates the feel of dwarves mining. The rest are mostly good for general spooky environs, save for the last three bonus tracks. Their industrial feel seems better suited to club settings in games like Vampire: The Masquerade. Speaking of which, they also have another CD that could go well with that game, including various other albums great for use in creepy gaming adventures.

Nox ArcanaBlackthorn Asylum is not only suitable for scary adventures set in haunted asylums (or other haunted locales), but its plotline involving a resonator will surely please fans of Lovecraft-themed games like The Call of Cthulhu. Some might take issue with the creatures summoned from beyond being referred to as “demons” and speaking backwards, but let’s not forget this could just be another case of eldritch forces pretending to be something else. Some might opt to leave out the album’s first track, “Legacy of Darkness,” due to its spoken word nature, but others may choose to use it as a scary way of setting up the adventure. The liner notes are another potential playing aid, as they are designed to look like the head of the asylum’s coded journal. If soundscapes are your thing, the presence of “Shock Treatment” and “From Beyond” will both delight you and add to planned encounters involving electroshock therapy or creatures being summoned from another dimension. The other tracks are perfect for conjuring up the feeling of antiquity, madness and/or being chased. Nox Arcana has produced many other albums that are well suited to use with RPGs, especially Blood of the Dragon and Necronomicon.

Buzz WorksZombie Influx is the perfect soundtrack to any zombie-themed RPG, such as All Flesh Must Be Eaten. Similarly, “Ground Zero” is the perfect track to start of your zombie gaming session. The use of technological sound effects in “Satellite Radiation” allow it to be used in non zombie-themed, futuristic games. Many tracks either have a slow, eerie feel (like “Creeping Death”), while others are fast and get your blood pumping. One such track is “Doomsday” which has an “exciting hopelessness” feel to it. Most tracks have lots of zombie and siren effects, along with weapons being fired and snippets of news bulletins. In fact, said bulletins detailing the virus-based zombie plague are available as separate tracks (“Defcon Six,” “Warning Signs” and “The Panic Spreads”), complete with static that adds to the effect of having your characters desperately scanning a semi-functioning radio for help. “The Feeding” is perfect for a scenario where more and more zombies pour out of the shadows, especially if your players have machine guns. “Dead Run” is great for ties when players have to run for their lives, while “Dead Life” can work in non-zombie science fiction RPGs. If your players have to flee from an area before a bombing run starts, “Armageddon” is your go-to track, while the siren and zombie moans in “Flesh Eaters” can work in many types of scenarios.

House of Nightmares is the group’s second and most recent album, whose submit matter is perfect for both haunted house-themed adventures and Lovecraftian games. The titular track “House of Nightmares” is great for use while starting gaming sessions and “Night Closes In” gives players the sensation of time running out or being chased. The music box-like chimes also allow for use in a haunted nursery scenario. In “Book of the Dead,” the moaning and male vocals make it perfect for use with encounters with evil cultists or when someone examines an evil spellbook. Sound effects like a beating heart and ticking clock play large roles in “Darkness Rising” and “Dead Time” respectively. “The Ruins” makes you feel like you’re exploring an ancient, haunted place during a storm, while “The Forgotten Crypt” can be used in many a spooky setting.

The medium, pounding buildup of “Well of Souls” is great for descending into deep pits, while “The Descent” works better in factories or boiler rooms in more modern adventures due to its industrial feel. The effects and spoken chant of “The Summoning” work wonders in evil cult rituals. If your players fail to stop the ritual, then play “Ancient Evil” to help create the proper mood of a powerful being rushing into our world. The Black Abyss” is particularly well-suited for use with caves and bottomless pits, especially due to the monstrous groans and dripping. “Shadow Dwellers” evokes the mental image of something creeping around while on the prowl. The rock-style opening of “Bridge Between Worlds” does have an otherworldly feel thanks to its sound effects and interesting musical variations, but it might be better suited to sci-fi adventures than dungeon crawls. “The Nether Realm” transports listeners to another world filled with danger. The bubbling-like effects that pop up at times might seem odd, but could work with a portal leading to a lava-filled area. “Unleashed” creates the impression of something being freed and chasing someone (or something). The rest of the tracks work in a variety of scary settings.

Hollywood HauntsMonster Movie Haunts! offers a variety of music and sounds rather than focus on one particular theme. The length of the tracks makes them ideal for looping, but the album can’t be played in full unless you’re playing a Waxwork-inspired adventure. “Pirates!” throws in lots of sound effects, such as the creaking of ships and thunder, in addition to the music and pirate vocalizations. It can work with both ghost and regular pirates, although it’s probably best suited to standard pirates due to the segment at the pirates’ lair (complete with a bubbling pot of food). An evil laugh and loud, scary music kick off the eerie chanting of “Mad Mummy’s Tomb!,” whose tone later shifts to a general “Egyptian” feel using flutes, gongs and the like. Due to the constant shifts between “Egyptian” music and sound effects, it’s probably best to only use the segments you like for your mummy-themed adventure rather than play the whole track. “Dragon Slayer: The Sorcerer’s Realm!” has more of a modern feel to its music than most music aimed at use in fantasy games, but could still work in such adventures. The music starts with a tiptoe feel and soon graduates to a rock atmosphere, along with the sounds of swordfights and various monsters. In other words, it’s perfect for use for a long journey to a particular destination in your RPG sessions. “Black Forest Vampires!” is an excellent soundscape that’s easily the scariest track on the CD. Amidst the ever-howling wind, we hear flapping wing and the echoing, screaming yell-like bird calls…or are they really some type of vampire? They even sound like they’re coming closer and closer to you at times. There’s also the constant sound of creaking, perhaps from a coffin or door of an abandoned house. That said, this track could be used with many haunted house setups and not just for vampires in a forest.

“Fright Night Sci-Fi: Planet X!” features old school video game-style music, an evil-sounding robotic voice speaking in an unknown language and other spooky space effects. It’s perfect for just about any scenario involving aliens, especially if the scene involves walking through a dark and malfunctioning crashed spaceship. “Dr. Frankenstein’s Lab: Midnight Madness!” is best left unplayed in my opinion and, despite what the name might imply, “Bait’s Motel!” does not mimic the Psycho theme song. Instead, it features plenty of spooky music and sound effects great for an adventure involving an actively haunted hotel, especially in games like InSpectres and Ghostbusters, as is the case with “Theater of Horrors!” Despite the name, this track could work in any haunt setup or scene devoted to an old place that has seen better days. “Child’s Play!” can be used in both haunted nurseries and evil clown encounters. Unlike most haunted nursery tracks out there, this starts off soft and eerie and soon becomes very intense and scary.

Dronolan’s Tower – Although Legends of Kitholan Vol. 1: Tales of the Long Forgotten (the debut album) was themed towards general RPG use, Journeys in Darkness Vol. 1: Those Who Dwell Beneath was designed especially for dungeon crawls without any particular RPG system in mind. The music of Dronolan’s Tower has a very epic, “big budget Hollywood fantasy film soundtrack” feel and instantly transports the listener to another realm. You can’t go wrong by starting of your adventures by playing “Prelude – The Hand of Fate.” “Tomb of the Cursed” starts softly, but gets more intense. The use of chanting could also allow its use in cult scenarios. “City of the Ancients” has an epic, but subdued mood while “Where Men Dare Not Tread” works when when players try to sneak around and are caught and forced to flee. The use of drums towards the end makes me think a fight has broken out. “Those Who Dwell Beneath” is very moody and effective while also providing a feeling of danger and menace while “Glories Lost” has a feel of elegant sadness, like exploring a once-great fallen empire. While almost every track on the disc is all well-suited toward creating the sense of exploring, “Mysteries of the Deep” works especially well. “O Darkest Knight” is the spookiest of the tracks and works well for encounters with cultists or evil knights “Realm of Shadow” offers a break from danger while “Escape from the Depths” provides a quite energetic feel of escape, with players fighting at some times and hiding at others. The music of Dronolan’s Tower is designed for both individual track use and playing the entire album in a loop, making it perfect for RPGs. I’m looking forward to the upcoming second volume of Legends of Kitholan, as I hope you are after reading this.

Michael Hedstrom – His debut album Midnight Circus is perfect for any horror game involving encounters with killer clowns or haunted circuses and carnivals, such as ones appearing in Dungeons and Dragons’ Ravenloft setting and Little Fears. Spooky clown laughter and creepy circus music appear in tracks like “Clown Alley” and “The Tunnel of Fun,” while clowns are absent from tracks like “Midnight Midway” and “The Carousel Phonograph.” However, a circus is more than just clowns. Tracks like as tracks like “Temple of Temptation” and “Temple of Temptation II” have a vaguely Middle Eastern feel to them that allows use in RPG adventures in such settings, in addition to running into evil fire-breathers and other twisted sideshow acts. Speaking of which, there’s plenty of the coughing and hacking in “The Dancing Firebeasts” and the spooky “Museum of Oddities” also has a sideshow feel. A visit to the animal cages would be perfect with “Wild Animal Cages” while “The Tunnel of Fun” is an effects track that compiles all of the effects previously used in other tracks that would be of use in exploring a funhouse. There’s also a preview of the next album, “Clive Manor,” whose use of march-like drums and cymbals allows its use in a circus setting.

Clive Manor starts off with trip through the “Forest, ” followed by Hidden Passage.” It’d perfect for any scene needing a spooky atmosphere). “Dungeon” uses both music and the sounds of dripping and chains, while “The Lost Steps” is great for adding atmosphere to climbing hidden stairs or any other spooky area. Seeing as how I already covered “Clive Manor” in my Midnight Circus review, let’s move along to “Big Game Trophies,” which features amazing tribal drumming that are well-suited for use in jungle settings and haunted trophy rooms. “From the Mist” works best for encounters with floating orbs, spectral or otherwise, floating about and I think you can guess what to use “Nursery” with. “Hall of Portraits” is is perfect for use with just about any creepy setting, not just the classic “hallway full of spooky paintings.” Similarly, “Widow’s Walk” can be used with both the architectural feature allegedly used by the wives of sailors and any other spooky area. “Storm” is a serviceable effects track filled with thunder, rain and howling wind. A sense of urgency kicks in as the “Fleeing the Grounds” begins. It’s a great way to end the album, along with the added bonus of being useful in situations where players have to run from something.

While an odd fit for most haunted houses and Halloween setups Demagogue is perfect for both fantasy RPGs and wargames. The mysterious-sounding “In the Beginning” is good for a wide variety of scenarios. Both “Awakenings” and “Basic Instinct” are very moody, while “Sanctuary” and “Isolation” are both great for dungeon scenes, basements and the like due to both their lonely feel and dripping sound effects. “Epiphany” musically recreates the sensation of thinking something over until a realization suddenly occurs, so it’s great for use when a player makes a successful Wisdom (or equivalent) check. “Demagogue Emergent” is good for representing both wicked rulers and clerics. The use of chanting in “The Word,” “The Order,” “Sister Mary Katherine,” “Idol Worshipers” and “Victory Prayer” make them perfect for scenes involving cults or altars. “Holy War” gets the blood pumping during battles, with musical notes simulating the clashing of armies. Naturally, “Mourning” follows such a battle. As expected, it’s great for any situation involving death. “Afterlife” makes for a fitting close to the album, given the theme.

Other albums of interest:

Witches In Bikinis – “Cave Fire” from the band’s self-titled debut album Witches in Bikinis is spooky instrumental track that can work in just about any horror scenario. The rest of the tracks are not well-suited for RPG use, but are still wonderful to listen to. “Witches Theme” from A Scary Kind of Love is both spooky and comedic, making it good for humorous horror games like Ghostbusters.

Chaino – The not politically correct cover art aside, Eye of the Spectre has lots of music perfect for encounters with jungle tribes or visits to haunted trophy rooms.

The Shadow Over Innsmouth – Being an audio drama, the entire CD can’t be played while gaming, although some effects can certainly be used to spice up gaming sessions of The Call of Cthulhu or Trail of Cthulhu involving Deep Ones. It (and other installments of the Dark Adventure Radio Theater series) also comes with free props that can be utilized in tabletop gaming sessions. Why describe a clue your players find when you can actually hand it to them?

“Music to Haunt By: An Introduction” might be of use due to its tips on using music and sound effects, along with its free sci-fi soundscape download. Speaking of which, this episode of our podcast includes many of the tracks mentioned here. The thread “How to use Music in Horror Gaming” is also recommended for those interested in the subject. In case you’re wondering why I didn’t discuss the albums I covered in this year’s installment of “Music to Haunt By,” I left them out both for spacing issues and for use in next year’s “Music to Game By II.”

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