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Vurt Articles

Ear-Candy for Gamers

(c) Kris Wilson 2000 - jaris@alphalink.com.au

"The relentless GM is now applying the finishing touches to the formidable gaming room. The otherwise mundane coffee table has been transformed into an archaic podium for dice, candles, books and perhaps incense. Heavy black curtains warp the curtain rail; the last bastion against the ebbing sunlight outside, and whatever arcane ornaments could be found at the local op-shop now strategically adorn the room demanding atmosphere. Happy with the proceedings, our determined GM senses the need for some stirring music and turns to their collection of CD's: Beethoven?, some Pink Floyd perhaps?, maybe that old Black Sabbath track would do the trick?

3 hours into the game and, despite a finely crafted adventure, skilful story-telling and the elaborate decor, the players can't help but notice the abhorrent collection of music their tone-deaf GM has chosen to ruin their game."

Need some aural augmentation for your campaign? Then read on for suggestions and reviews of gaming music.

Time after time gaming publications recommend classical music as the finest source of mood music for roleplaying. My personal collection is oozing Bach, Mahler, Vivaldi etc, all of which is nice enough to sit back and pretend to enjoy with a smug, semi-intellectual smirk, but when it comes to gaming.... it's not really the right stuff. Such compositions were never crafted as background music and can suffer in a gaming environment. I have found that the most suitable music and soundscapes come from World music and Film soundtracks.

Artist
Afro Celt Sound System
Title
SOUND MAGIC
Find under
World Music, Real World labels

Afro Celt Sound System is a modern band utilising traditional instruments in an energetic journey through some of the indigenous music of the world. The majority of music on this Cd is beautiful and inspiring, but the individual tracks are too distinct to form the consistent atmosphere required in a gaming environment. Another minus is the production; this album is noticeably clean and studio manufactured, and even as background music it doesn't feel authentic. I really enjoy listening to this music while I'm writing up a game, reading source-books for inspiration or preparing for a game, but I wouldn't use it during play.

Artist
Angelo Badalamenti
Title
TWIN PEAKS
Find under
Soundtracks (Television)

The soundtrack is half-filled with slow, haunting ballads by the singer Julee Cruise, the remaining half going to similarly laid back and surreal jazz tunes. Overall, this music delivers an atmosphere that would suit a detective genre of modern games. The constant repetition of descending double-bass lines and finger-clicking rhythms is typical of the 50's film noir private investigator era and if this is what you are after then you can lap it up for all it's worth.

Artist
Danny Elfman
Title
BATMAN
Find under
Soundtracks

Years after purchasing the "Batman Returns" soundtrack (see below) I invested in the original, "Batman", hoping that I would be blessed with another hour of spine-tingling sensation. I personally believe that, purely as a role-playing backdrop, this recording is inferior to its sequel. The dynamics are a little too extreme, leaving the poor GM fumbling with the volume control rather than concentrating on the game. Also, the soundtrack is prone to leaping into a waltz or an incredibly quickly-paced battle-theme at the worst possible times. On the whole, however, this soundtrack is generally good for an action/horror game.

Note: Make sure that, if buying the original Batman soundtrack, you are getting the right disc. There are 3 soundtracks for this film, two of which involve an hour of Prince pop tunes that will do little for your gaming experience.

Artist
Danny Elfman
Title
BATMAN RETURNS
Find under
Soundtracks

The Batman Returns soundtrack was the only music I used as role-play backing for the first three years of gaming, this probably gives my opinion a little bias. For fantasy dungeon crawling, gothic adventures and any other eerie situations Batman Returns is a GM's delight. This is truly Danny Elfmans arena: darkly heroic music, interspersed with twisted music box melodies and angelic harps and choirs singing to you from Beyond! Consistency is paramount and the chilling atmosphere is relentless for over an hour, just what the GM needs to keep the players on the brink. If my players arrive at the session to find this soundtrack playing, they're already on edge, which eliminates the strenuous task of building a scary atmosphere with words alone. Five stars, buy it!

WARNING! There is a token pop tune stuck on the end of this album. Take care to avoid the last track during a session.

Artist
Danny Elfman
Title
SLEEPY HOLLOW
Find under
Soundtracks

Ah, sweet Danny Elfman! He who makes the GM's life complete! "Sleepy Hollow" is more subtle than "Batman Returns", and perhaps transcends game genres between "Adventure/Action" and "Roleplaying/Mystery" with more grace. All of Elfmans devices are back, especially choirs, the deep, guttural growls of his brass section and those tinkering xylophone melodies. It is ideally gothic horror music but will translate well in any campaign where darkened woods, abandoned castles and murky undergrounds propose invitation. The music isn't repetitive at all but the clawing atmosphere is constant for its 70 minutes, plus, there's no pop track stuck on the end so the GM can focus on the game rather than what music's coming next.

Artist
Peter Gabriel
Title
PASSION (MUSIC FOR THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST)
Find under
Soundtracks, World Music or Real World Records

Damn fine music. Peter Gabriel has drawn on a vast network of tribal and traditional music from around the globe (Pakistan, Turkey, India, Egypt, New Guinea and most noticeably, Northern Africa), and developed a hybridised soundscape. If your game world uses the flavours of these backdrops then the music will be ideal.

Although the emotional scope of the recording is broad, transitions are seamless and there is a unifying theme of haunting energy that is consistent throughout. Lots of drones and well-mixed percussion, complimented with beautiful, yet subtle melodies and improvisations. Plus, there's nearly 70 minutes of it, so it can be repeated without seeming repetitive....if you get my drift.

Perfect for exotic settings, especially if the characters are out of their element.

Artist
Elliot Goldenthal
Title
INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE
Find under
Soundtracks

A great roleplaying soundtrack with an already established reputation among many gamers. Interview with the Vampire is gothic horror music in the tradition of Bram Stokers Dracula and Sleepy Hollow, yet Elliot Goldenthal has given his work a unique feel. The music is generally unrestrained, and moves like liquid from one movement to the next, whether it be an ebbing lullaby or a ferocious orchestral storm. The fear in the music is consistent and more dramatic than most; Goldenthal often indulges in quick stabs of tension and terror rather than expressing the patience of Kilar on Bram Stokers Dracula. In all, a fantastic backing album for any horror game.

Artist
James Horner
Title
BRAVEHEART
Find under
Soundtracks

This recording has some great traditional, Scottish music on it. There are upbeat reels, with lilting Uilleann Pipe melodies, thundering battle marches and sombre interludes, but across the 77 minutes of orchestrations there is simply too much of the soppy title theme. Just as a movement is reaching a climax, as the atmosphere tenses and hangs in the balance, the melodramatic and eventually tedious love motif rears its ugly head.

I can recommend this release for a game with historic, Celtic roots but I advance the warning that careful listening and then programming will be required if the atmosphere of your game isn't to suffer

Artist
Michael Kamen
Title
ROBIN HOOD-PRINCE OF THIEVES
Find under
Soundtracks

For traditional fantasy RPG's (Ad&d etc), the Robin Hood soundtrack is a must. The opening track is truly inspirational and cannot fail getting Gm's and players in the mood for some heroic adventuring. It is tailor-made for the definitive fantasy genre: Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, Middle Earth and other games where the focus rests heavily on epic adventuring. In particular, city settings with lots of npc interaction and intrigue.

As with many soundtracks, some programming on the Gm's behalf will have to be made to avoid the mood-killing ballad, "Everything I do.." by Bryan Adams. The final track, "Wild Times", may not fit well in the middle of gaming either, but I find it is good background music for writing up games or to have playing during a break in play (for the mandatory munchie pit-stop).

Artist
Wojciech Kilar
Title
BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA
Find under
Soundtracks

Kilar's soundtrack is an evocative, passionate and terrifying work that I believe transcends the film it was composed for. He toys with the audience, exploiting our emotional weaknesses in a dangerous serenade until the confusion is consumed by unrelenting fear...beautiful. Some of this music is simply impossible to listen to in the dark.

This music will work well in a horror game for several reasons. For one, Kilar has implemented child-like instrumentation in certain movements; more subtle than Elfman, and with more effect, the listener somehow identifies with the innocent melodies, and is then open prey for the orchestral darkness. This will hopefully humble your players.

Another plus is the subconscious recognition of the soundtrack. It is doubtful that players will recognise the music's origins, but perhaps something will trigger in their brains and identify the themes to dark and scary things!

The dynamics are quite pronounced, and unless the GM is willing to ride the volume control, it will probably be best if quieter movements are virtually unheard rather than the crescendos interrupting gameplay. Another minus is the mandatory pop song on the end, but there's still three quarters of an hour of pretty decent music.

Artist
Kronos Quartet (music by Phillip Glass)
Title
DRACULA
Find under
Contemporary, Soundtrack

2 violins, a viola and a cello, and the music of one of the 20th centuries most renowned contemporary composers written for Bela Lugosi's 1931 classic, "Dracula". There is no doubting the fine music on the album, and it certainly recreates the fear of the classic horror films, but it seems to have been crafted scene by scene, making for a vivid sequence of movements that will probably not be consistent with a game. As the music of Dracula has such a rigidly defined script, it is unlikely that the atmosphere will adhere to a gaming session, which is essentially a malleable, evolving story.

This music is excellent; inspirational and authentic in its replication of a bygone era of the horror film, but unless the GM is the hardiest of souls when it comes to manipulating the players actions, Dracula will not fit well into a game.

Artist
Lothlorien
Title
AURELIAN
Find under
World music, Folk music

A band hailing from Melbourne, Lothlorien has taken to replicating the music of the middle ages with authentic instruments and a little artistic license (didgeridoo's aren't very European!). This album has a unique atmosphere to it. Because the players are listening to music that their characters might well hear in the villages and cities of your setting, the game becomes remarkably more intimate and real. Where most of the music reviewed here will invoke an image of heroics, Lothlorien present the common lifestyle of the era, and may well offer the players a new light on their characters. Therefore, this album is not ideal for combat backing, but is incredibly useful when the characters are amongst civilisation. Highly recommended.

Artist
Alan Menken
Title
ALADDIN
Find under
Soundtracks

Not satisfied with the great disappointment of the Lion King soundtrack (see below), I bought Aladdin to teach myself a lesson. I actually thought their might be something useful on it for Al-Qadim, and there is....all ten minutes of it wedged between corny carnival anthems and whiny love ballads. Tracks 14 to 18 are quite appropriate for adventures in the ancient Middle-East but there simply isn't enough. The only plans I have for this music is to use the song "Marketplace" as backing for my characters introduction to Sigil: the city of Doors in the Planescape setting, and even there I doubt many people would agree with my decision.

Artist
Ennio Morricone
Title
WOLF
Find under
Soundtrack

In many of the recordings reviewed previously, love and fear combine to make a disturbing soundscape. Ennio Morricone handles the same material with a noticeably lighter touch in "Wolf". The music is cold and quiet and subtle, with the objective seemingly to unsettle the listener rather than claw the fear from them. Admittedly, the "Wolf" soundtrack will not sit appropriately in a fantasy rpg; it is simply too sparse and cold, but for a modern horror or mystery campaign this music is ideal to unhinge the players. If you want your players wide-eyed and shivering then this is not the music.

Artist
David Newman
Title
HOFFA
Find under
Soundtracks

I bought this soundtrack from a bargain bin for $2 as a bit of a laugh ( no offence to Mr Newman). My cruel expectations were destroyed in one fell swoop as the first track summoned imaginings of idyllic fantasy settings. I especially recommend this soundtrack to gamers who indulge political games or strategic war-simulations. Those of you who have seen the film will know that it is politically-based, if your campaign is similarly inclined then this soundtrack will sit nicely. The only downside of this recording is the volume level often drops a little too low, but for many this won't be a problem: music fading away rarely disturbs as much as crashing crescendos.

Artist
Eric Serra
Title
THE FIFTH ELEMENT
Find under
Soundtrack

Strictly for Sci-fi gamers. There is a lot of music on this soundtrack that would have to be omitted from a gaming session but there must be about 20-30 minutes of decent, futuristic game-backing. The atmosphere changes often as the soundtrack borrows aspects of Arabic and Egyptian music and blends them with traditional European orchestra and liquid-like sound effects of the future.

Artist
Russel Shaw
Title
DUNGEON KEEPER
Find under
PC Game

This is not an audio cd, it is a PC game, thus it will cost an awful lot more than an audio cd and probably shouldn't be purchased unless you have a little interest in the game also. If you have already bought the game you might be happy to know that the cd, when played on a conventional disc-player, makes great dungeon atmosphere. The 1st track is the game data and cannot be listened to, the 2nd track is delightful introduction music for a traditional fantasy RPG, then the music takes us underground, into the soggy underdark. The soundtrack is as much a clever collection of well-placed sound effects as it is music, but this is besides the point; Dungeon Keeper is tense, thick, claustrophobic backing for nothing but underground adventuring. There is however, only about 20 minutes of music on this CD, which is a terrible shame for the gaming environment.

Artist
Bill Whelan
Title
RIVERDANCE
Find under
World music (Irish), Soundtracks, Musicals

Picture the stereotypical, Hollywood image of Ireland......the rolling green hills and picturesque countryside, cheerful alehouses with dancing leprechauns etc. The traditional Irish excerpts of Riverdance represent this imagery very well and translate into fantasy roleplay with merit. There are some beautiful reels, ghostly laments and spirited jigs recorded on this album, unfortunately interspersed with flamenco, Russian Dervish and church-born choir interludes. This adds up to a very patchy album, too diverse to be played straight through during a game, but with some excellent material to be salvaged and compiled.

Artist
John Williams
Title
THE PHANTOM MENACE
Find under
Soundtracks

Great music but too identifiable. How many gamers are there who are not intimately familiar with everything "Star Wars"? "Dual of the Fates", the soundtrack for the final battle between Darth Maul and the Jedi, is absolutely awesome combat music that transcends genres, but this is most likely because regardless of what setting you are gaming in, the players will instantly feel like Obi-Wan as soon as the music begins. If you happen to be playing the Star Wars RPG then of course this music is ideal, but you probably already own it along with the original trilogy soundtracks anyway. For everyone else, this music is too popular to be useful.

Artist
Hans Zimmer
Title
THE LION KING
Find under
Soundtracks or Disney

Granted, not much of this recording will prove useful to many gaming sessions, unless your games are brimming with chirpy, talkative African wildlife. There are four compositions of note (tracks 6-9) that are worth mentioning for gaming. Track 6 is a rich movement that all happens too quickly: sombre on a grand scale and perhaps ideal for the end of an epic, disastrous battle. Song 7 is a furious, operatic theme that works well in battle, and tracks 8 and 9 are both haunting tapestries of music that are too much squeezed into too little. Perhaps these tracks will be inspiring for writing up a game but certainly useless during one.


For the time being this exhausts my tiny insight into the realm of rpg soundtracks. If you have read this far then you hopefully have an idea of what to target as future music to compliment your game, and you can greet the world with open ears. Remember to listen to the music next time you go to the movies, or are watching tv or are dancing around a campfire at a Pagan ritual; good music is everywhere.

COPYRIGHT 2000 This work is the property of its author, who hereby states that he retains the copyright. You may distribute it at will, provided that nothing in the work, this notice, or any of the credits are altered in any way; and that you do not make a profit from it.

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