Way back in an earlier column, I made mention of a friend of mine (one John R. Phythyon, Jr. --current President and Head Honcho in Charge of Event Horizon Productions, in fact) who, some 7 years ago, went to the trouble of composing original soundtracks for our long-running James Bond 007 campaign.
For the first couple of sessions, we had been using Bond soundtracks for the background music--but we both felt as though something was missing. Our campaign wasn't about James Bond--why were we using his themes, then John, a talented musician, came up with an idea. He began composing three pieces of music for each of our "films" (as each adventure was another film in our series about Agent 001, Richard Deming)--a title track (complete with vocals), an action theme (for use during combats and car chases), and a slower piece (which was, depending upon John's mood, and what teaser info I would provide, either a "sneaking around theme" or a romantic theme).
Instantly, our sessions became the stuff of legend. Our friends would come over to WATCH the game being played. That's right--we had people actually wanting to spectate at a one-on-one game session. Soon, those friends also began to request the ability to play guest roles in the "films" we were creating. I still think that the music John composed for the adventures of Richard Deming 001 had a great deal to do with the success of that campaign.
Sooner or later, if you are in the habit of using music during your sessions, and one of your gaming group is musically inclined, someone's going to toy with the idea of composing original music for the campaign. This is a form of artistic expression that seems perfectly reasonable, given the context. I mean, after all--most game groups have an artist who gets roped into drawing character portraits, right? Well then, a musical equivalent doesn't seem that far out of the question.
Several people who have had this very idea have taken this concept to the gaming public, offering CDs of original compositions, created expressly for the purpose of gaming soundtrack material.
If the ad is still running, you can look at the top of this page to see a banner linking to the site of the Sojourn CD, an original composition by Christopher B. Merritt, and released through MMP. I received a review copy of this CD from Mr. Merrit, and I have used it already, in my own campaign. The music is a symphonic suite (composed on what I can only assume is a top-end synth, unless Mr. Merrit has access to a symphony that he's not telling us about!) tailored specifically for fantasy campaigns. Samples (in .aif, .wav, and RealAudio formats) are available on the website--take a listen.
The production quality is excellent, and I found that the tracks blend nicely into a continuing background for campaign play. My only real criticism of the CD is that the tracks are named for what I guess are characters that have appeared in Mr. Merritt's personal campaign. There are tracks entitled Jaxon, Brandrick, Silvermoon, etc. The problem with this is that we have no prior knowledge of who these characters are--and so, there is absolutely no indication to be had as to the mood or feel of each piece of music.
Without knowing who "Jaxon" is, for example, I have no idea if the track bearing his name is a heroic action theme, or a dark, villanous dirge, without listening to the entire CD and making notes (which is what I did, actually). I would recommend to Mr. Merritt that in future, he either titles the tracks more expressively, or simply gives us some liner notes, to clarify things. Other than that small drawback, however, I found the Sojourn CD to be a worthly addition to the library of any gamemaster, especially those who play in fantasy settings.
Several companies have put their toes in the water, so to speak, releasing CDs specifically intended to accompany their own products. When Deadlands premiered at GenCon 96, I was one of many who rejoiced at the release of such a kick-ass game, and had my socks blown off my the accompanying music CD, filled with spooky, wind-blown western themes and the like. (As far as I know, the CD is no longer available--I couldn't find any reference to it on Pinnacle's website, which is a damned shame--since I'd like to heartily reccommend it!).
This year saw the premiere of the RPG Obsidian, from a new company called the Apophis Consortium. With the release of the game (for lack of a better word, a gothic, post-apocalypse, industrial horror game), they also had a CD called "biomechanical disintegration" by Cruciform Injection (aka the game designer, Micah Skaritka). This CD has been a constant companion on my morning subway commutes here in NYC at least 3 times a week since GenCon. The music is gritty, angry post-industrial (almost Mansonesque) neo-gothic--and, to put it bluntly, it kicks several distinct varieties of ass. Go to either the game website, or the site devoted to the band and CD to check it out.
Peter T'Sas and the guys at Orion were also at GenCon, selling their CD soundtracks for games such as Call of Cthulhu and Shadowrun--but every time I went by the table, he wasn't there, and so I didn't manage to get review copies, despite Sandy's best efforts schilling on my behalf. I already own one of their older compositions, a generic horror soundtrack entitled The Hunter, the Hunted--a really creepy bit of musical niftyness that I would use a lot more if I played more horror games (hmmm. Gonna gave to do something about that...). The website, featuring all of their current releases, is here (although it is in Belgium, so those of you who are language-impaired be warned!) and has samples for your perusal.
Sadly, most other game companies that dabble in CD releases seem to be fixated on the idea of CDs that are the equivalent of the old "DM's Boxed Text" from the ancient modules we all used to play. Precedence Publishing released a CD for their Immortal game that was essentially audio clues and sound effects for the adventure that it came packaged with, back in 1995...and of course TSR had its foray into CDs as well, along the same format.
Hopefully, eventually we'll see more games that come complete with their own soundtracks--and with the affordability of imprinting CDs, this is within the budget of even the smaller game companies. I for one would love to see (and hear) that.
Next time, we'll look into whether or not commercial music, rather than instrumentals, can make effective gaming soundtracks, as well as a look at genres where this might be appropriate.