Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Dungeons, Dragons, and Soft Rock

"You are not allowed to play music at my place ever again."
Music while gaming is a subjective thing. RPG messageboards are full of topics advocating Hollywood blockbuster soundtracks; Dimmu Borgir; and Midnight Syndicate as gaming session soundtracks.

I have obscure musical tastes, and even though I'm intellectually aware that my records with The Devil or mushroom clouds on the cover do not contain music that is any better or any worse than any other music, I can't help being enough of a snob/jerk to read the aforementioned threads for the *giggles* factor.

Years ago the gaming space that my circle of gamers use was located in my apartment; before one session an unnamed, but otherwise sterling, participant played us a sample of what he thought would be good music to listen to while playing D&D. It sounded like slick European symphonic black metal crossed with slick industrial rock, like Dimmu Borgir crossed with KMFDM. My immediate, unthinking reaction was "You are not allowed to play music at my place ever again."

When I first started DMing again in my adult years, I could not handle music with vocals (aside from some "abba dabba" nomad chanting and the like) while I was DMing; I found it too distracting. In a similar vein, although I listen to lots of music by guys that wear belts made out of bullets, I couldn't handle DMing wile metal was playing. I also found both annoying while playing, but hey, I gotta take my lumps when I'm not wearing the Viking Hat.

Nowadays I've come around, and can handle pretty much anything while playing or DMing, even descending deep enough into madness to use Jon Bon Jovi's "Blaze of Glory" as the theme music for a brief western-themed D&D campaign, not to say that there aren't exceptions that grate mightily upon my nerves.

One thing I've come to hate is signature, epic, genre-appropriate Hollywood Blockbuster orchestral soundtrack music. The Lord of the Rings, Gladiator, Braveheart, etc. Not only do I find most of it plodding and tasteless, but I've also observed an emergent behavior among players while such music is playing.

I call is the "Desperate Battle" effect; the party is fighting some desperate battle, meanwhile this booming symphony is playing the background music for some movie heroes iconic death. Somehow the movie soundtrack affects the players judgments, and instead of fighting smart and tight they engage in poorly executed heroic blunders that put their character, and others' characters, in serious peril.

I still love the Conan the Barbarian soundtrack, even though I find it disgustingly overplayed at this point; the Robocop score is awesome; and Morriconne's Fistful of Dollars trilogy is some sort of audial mana emanated from the extradimensional redoubt of the eternal champion...

Anyways, while Dudebird is DMing his Wilderlands AD&D campaign, he will call an intermission to grill up some sausages. A couple of times lately he's put on some "soft rock" music for the break. It's a nice change of pace from the Star Trek fight music on repeat and German Oak of the previous hours.

And after we gorge ourselves on cruel, delicious meat and get back to the D&D table, Pete (another player) and I find ourselves intensely petitioning DM Dudebird to keep playing the soft rock. Don't get me wrong, the DM is the DM and pretty much has the right to chop of someone's hand for unauthorized ipod meddling; we just try to present a compelling case: We're usually in a dungeon, usually beat up or in peril, people are making rash decisions, and Pete and I opine that what the party needs in that sort of circumstances is some optimistic, calming soft rock.

And you know what? It seems to work; instead of catastrophically bumbling our way through the rest of the night like a pack of Chris Farley's, despite perhaps being tipsy and bong-addled, we tend to play a smart, calm, well-oiled game when provided a soft rock soundtrack.

As a DM, I love playing German Oak, Hellhammer, Hawkwind, Sleep, Bone Awl (the long song on bog bodies!), as well as Morriconne and all sorts of arty-fartsy stuff, when running a delve; but as a player, I can think of no better soundtrack for my imaginary swords & sorcery adventures than some smooth soft rock!


  1. Summer Breeze by Seals & Croft? I'm a pretty big music snob too, that could be the worst song in the history of rock music. I'm not even sure that song should be described as "rock n roll music!" But, I'm only bitchin' to get the comments going.

  2. Ipod of delusion

    The ipod will convince the listener that it is some other sort of ipod, playing music the listener will equate with beneficial effects. As the listener will be completely convinced that the ipod is actually one with such magical properties, he or she will unconsciously use his or her abilities of any sort to actually produce a result commensurate with the supposed properties of the delusion ipod. As a referee, you will have to be most judicious in determining how successful the self-delusion can be, as well as how observers can be effected and what they observe. The ipod can be turned off at any time.


  3. Yes! I hit upon this idea a couple years ago: Dungeon Lounge! There's something about mellow music and dungeon crawling that goes together so well.

    Unfortunately I hit upon my epiphany at the precise moment when I stopped running games featuring dungeon-exploration-type adventures (at least face-to-face, where I could utilize mood music). I have my playlist on iTunes ready to go for when I do happen to host a dungeon crawl at my table again, though.

  4. Man...wish I could play music while I run a game.

  5. I strongly dislike music during a game. I prefer to think of the game as "real life in a fantasy world" not "a fantasy movie/novel", which is what the music always seems to suggest. The only time I used it was with a Star Wars game, and even then it was not too loud and was going in the other room. Just enough to remind everyone what kind of universe that really was.

  6. Soft music for dungeon crawling? HMmmm must try sometime with group! Thanks for the tip & all of the help from PLANET ALGOL

  7. "One thing I've come to hate is signature, epic, genre-appropriate Hollywood Blockbuster orchestral soundtrack music. The Lord of the Rings, Gladiator, Braveheart, etc. Not only do I find most of it plodding and tasteless..."

    Abso-friggin-lootly. I can't stand grandiose-sounding tripe either, and it especially irks me at the gaming table.

  8. My favorite was the soundtrack to Aliens. Unfortunately the crescendos often happen at unfortunate times -- like when a character is buying new armor, and suddenly feels the need to draw his sword and smite the armorsmith...

  9. I'm fond of Petros Tabouris, who does ensemble pieces with analogs of ancient Greek instruments, often using extrapolations of historical fragments. Understated by "soundtrack" standards, he's a great accompaniment to Homer or Pindar, for example. I imagine he'd work well for any campaign with a vaguely Mediterranean influence.

    I've thought about blogging about him, but I'm not feeling particularly creative or e-talkative these days.

  10. German Oak rule.

    I used to occasionally put on some ambient stuff (Lustmord/Sleep Research Facility) but as a general rule I'd say I steer clear of music and RPG's. It's a distraction because a lot of the time there is some dude singing/playing his instrument in your shared imaginative space!

    I also tried with some "weird" metal like Pan-Thy-Monium but same problem really. The only stuff I can stand is music that seems made without human intervention. The biggest problem of all though, is that due to the time telescoping nature of roleplaying, where 4 hours goes by in what seems like 10 minutes, I'm always jumping up to put on a new disc or flip the record.

    But if you want mellow dungeon crawls, may I recommend Hugh Hopper and Alan Gowen's album "Two Rainbows Daily:

    or any of the other less frenetic Canterbury prog related dealies.

  11. Did not expect to read a D&D blog with a mention of German Oak today....fucking brilliant. Heavy shit. My gaming group has less eclectic taste than I, so we usually stick to trad metal/punk (Amebix/Bolt Thrower/Coffins/Parabellum/etc/etc) but if I had control we would listen to nothing but awesome tapes from africa and "My War" side II on repeat.

  12. @ Chris: The riff [i]crushes...[/i]

    @ Mercer: Now I have to have a magic ipod in my game; although it'll be a 1950's sci-fi version.

    @ Sirlarkins: Lounge exotica is a genre that I've been meaning to try out in-game; it works for me, and we've used Star Trek music in the past.

    @ Anonymous #1: I understand and sympathize with your position; there's been plenty of time when I could have done without the distraction!

    @ Anonymous #2: Thanks and you're welcome!

    @ Greg: It can have it's time and place, but that time and place is not when a bunch of greedy adventurers are fighting giant dung beetles in a cave.

    @ Stu: Hohoho!

    @ Scott: I checked out a couple of his songs and wasn't feeling it, do you have any specific reccomendations?

    @ Andrew: As with Anonymous #1 I understand and sympathize with your position. Playing vinyl LPs while playing? That's hardcore! I'll check that stuff out.

    @ JJ: What awesome tapes from Africa? I'm intrigued, although your group's playlist works for me!

  13. Also, German Oak is the monolith that my D&D music revolves around!

    My favorite as of this moment (though there's a ton of shit to work through still, listen while in a mellow mood and fully appreciate) is Jil Jalala.

  15. I dig that this discussion was partially inspired by my A.M. Gold compilations. It's been so fitting for "Summertime in Malikarr".

    Although in hindsight it might've made me a tad generous on the flooding of adventure locale hooks. Easy Trip to Treasure Town Alert!

    I wholeheartedly agree that too epic sounding stuff makes people do stupid things tactically. Experiments with Ecstasy of Gold on repeat have proven that.

  16. And I'm seconding that German Oak is the pillar upon which all is built. Hawkwind is up there for me too.

  17. @ Scrounger: I'm bemused that your AM Gold inspired post has become one of the most commented posts on this blog! :D