Dungeon cheese

Musical digression: Apparently there’s a genre of black-metal-influenced electronic music called “dungeon synth.”  According to the Dungeon Synth Wiki:

Dungeon synth is a genre of music characterized by its strong use of atmosphere and melody to create a sonic reality usually pertaining, in concept, to the fantastic or historical periods.  The genre draws influence from the Dark Ambient music genre, while encompassing musical structures that are relatable to medieval and folk music.  Many artists within the genre have been known to draw inspiration from a variety of other musical styles such as film music, video game music, and classical music.

To each their own and all that, taste is subjective, bla bla, etc., but after listening to about a dozen artists randomly selected from the wiki list, I can confidently say that Dungeon Synth music does not transport me to an alternate fantastic or historical sonic reality.  If “atmospheric” simply means using lots of minor keys and occasional nature samples (especially rain) and bestowing your work with Lovecraftian/Norse Pagan/fantasy-themed titles and art, then I guess it’s pretty atmospheric.

The generally simple harmonic progressions are “relatable” to folk music, but how the musical structures of Dungeon Synth are “relatable to medieval music” is a total mystery, since I haven’t heard any chant, dance forms, or musical techniques that were, you know, actually used by medieval composers…  The melodies, harmonies, and rhythms are OK, but pretty forgettable, about what I’d expect to hear on a SyFy original movie soundtrack.  That said, what really grates on me about this music is the common use of some of the cheesiest of cheesy faux-orchestral timbres (flutes, oboes, horns, strings, percussion) that I’ve ever heard, straight from a circa-1996 Casio keyboard soundbank.  I get the impression that this is part of the aesthetic; fans of Dungeon synth expect cheesy 1990s synth-orchestra sounds, sort of like how “chiptune” fans expect everything to sound like lo-fi 8-bit video games from the 1980s.  Maybe there are some rogue Dungeon Synth composers out there who defy the aesthetic by incorporating actual medieval musical structures and techniques and using high-quality instrumental samples.  If there are, I’d really like to hear them because I might actually dig that stuff.

Again, it’s all a matter of taste.  I’ve reluctantly passed on albums by bands I normally enjoy only because I didn’t like the snare drum, cymbals, keyboards, or other sounds, so I’m not just nitpicking to be mean.  Given the genre’s fantastic bent, I can only assume there are significant numbers of D&D players in that community who are inspired by dungeon synth.  If so, that’s cool — don’t let me pee in your cheerios.  Surely there’s music I listen to that someone else would find ridiculous or objectionable…




Happy birthday, Caress of Steel!

On September 24, 1975, Rush released their third album, Caress of Steel.  Poorly received, it was nearly their last album — the supporting tour was dubbed the “Down the Tubes” tour.  As the story goes though, the great band went back into the studio, recorded 2112 as their swan song, and ended up saving their career.  I like just about all of Rush’s 1970s discography, but I would say Caress of Steel is my favorite Rush album (closely followed by Hemispheres.)

I first heard Caress of Steel in 1993 as a senior in high school, but it wasn’t until college that its favored position solidified, due to its mix of progressive rock and hard rock and resonant lyrics: specifically, the epic fantasy of “The Necromancer,” the protagonist’s quest in “The Fountain of Lamneth” — whose search for meaning in adventure, romantic love, and Bacchic excess both mirrored my own life in that season and brought to mind some of Solomon’s musings in Ecclesiastes — and the mellow, nostalgic “Lakeside Park.”

Still a fantastic album that holds up 40 years later!


Gaming Soundtrack: Nunatak-Teimo-Permafrost

If you’re one of the 5 people who regularly read this blog, you’re probably already aware that when it comes to dungeon delving, I generally prefer ambient music at the table — the darker/creepier the better — and when I post something in the “gaming soundtrack” it’s inevitably an album or artist that falls into that category.  That said, I’d like to share with you my new appreciation for the music of Thomas Köner, a German ambient composer and multimedia artist perhaps best known for an early-1990s trilogy of albums now considered classics of electronic drone music: Nunatak Gongamur (1990), Teimo (1992), and Permafrost (1993).  These three albums were re-released in 2010 as a box set, which is good news for those of us who want physical versions but weren’t able to get our hands on the original CD imports…

koner nunatak

I first learned of Nunatak Gongamur in an early-2000s magazine article on drone music (possibly in the short-lived Grooves?), and the experimentally-minded percussionist in me was captivated by the idea that the entire album was created from electronically-transformed/manipulated gong sounds!  I found the mp3s online, enjoyed the album for a while, and then moved on to other things.  Fast-forward to this year, when I randomly revisited Nunatak and Teimo… WOW!  Are these some dungeon crawling atmospheric sounds or what?!!!

Many reviews of Köner’s work that I’ve read inevitably use adjectives like icy, cold, bleak, lonely, etc.  His titles and artwork often suggest images of frozen northern landscapes, but the sense of otherworldly isolation invoked by the soundscapes is just as appropriate for dungeon crawling.  After all, what could be more isolating than exploring the dark depths of an alien underworld that is quite often hostile to human life?  As is common in the ambient genre, the tracks on each album flow smoothly from one to the next, eliminating any potential disruptions of the sinister, eerie dungeon atmosphere at the table.

I’m not yet familiar with TK’s later albums, but I highly recommend checking out his early trilogy.  Enjoy!

Karlheinz Stockhausen on dungeon design

Sort of, at least.  Remember the prediction I made in my last post about my brain making connections between Stockhausen’s score for Mikrophonie I and dungeon design?  I’ve only scratched the surface of my analysis of the piece, but the connections started to form almost immediately.  Here’s a snippet from a 1965 introduction to the piece by Stockhausen himself:

“The score consists of 33 independent musical structures, which are to be combined by the musicians for a performance according to a specified connection scheme.  This scheme indicates the relationship between the structures.  The relationships between these structures is determined in each case by three elements: the following structure should, in relationship to the one that precedes it, be similar, different, or opposite; a relationship should remain constant, increase, or decrease; the following structure (which in fact generally begins during the preceding one)) should support, remain neutral to, or destroy the preceding one.  Thus in each case the connection scheme gives three indications for each pair of adjacent structures; for example, similar should support in a constant manner, or opposite should destroy increasingly, or different should remain neutral decreasingly, and so on.  The musicians thus choose the order of the composed structures — which were themselves also composed in a similar way — according to these predetermined criteria.  Although the relationships between the structures, in other word the connection scheme, always remain the same for every performance in order to ensure a strict and directional form, the versions of the order of the structures can be completely different from one another.”

Mikrophonie I is an example of Moment Form, in which the various musical events are composed as discrete units or “Moments”(each, according to Stockhausen, “recognizable by a personal and unmistakable character”) and then arranged together to form the larger work.  Mikrophonie I is one of several of Stockhausen’s Moment Form works that does not have a fixed order to the Moments.  Instead, the piece’s performers individually rehearse and evaluate the 33 Moments and put them in order according to the unusual “connection scheme” mentioned above.

So what is the equivalent of a Moment in dungeon design?  A room?  An “encounter area” within a level, such as a kobold lair or Chaos temple?  A full dungeon level or sub-level? I suppose it could be any of these, providing it has the “personal and unmistakable character” to differentiate it from the adjacent Moments.  One of my experimental goals for my new Dungeon project is to apply Moment form techniques to its planning and design.  My normal procedure for dungeon design has been to draw a map first and then populate it.  I may have a theme or partial layout in mind ahead of time, but oftentimes the map drawing is largely random (for better or worse) and subject to later revision.  This time, I’m going to work backwards…  For the upper levels of my Dungeon, I am going to work on the assumption that Moments are encounter areas or sub-levels.  These Moments can be generated through brainstorming or extrapolating from random table results. For example:

  • Level B (Monastery Basement): Cellar, Crypt I/Ossuary
  • Level 1 (Dungeon proper): Crypt II, Tunnels of the Rat Lord, the Brewery (Cellar II), Kobold Warren, The Covered Well (shaft to level 3, giant spiders), Bandit cave (near alternate entrance), etc.
  • Level 2: Crypt III/Evil Priest, Goblin Mines I, Giant Cave Spider Nest, Troll Bridge, Moon Pool, etc.

Each Moment is stocked and mapped on its own, as one might prepare a One-Page Dungeon, keeping in mind that connecting passages must be added later.  Once the Moments are completed, how then to best determine their placement on the map without the benefit of a correspondence scheme like that in Mikrophonie I?  Intuition suggests laying them out in a way that makes sense logically (or maybe dramatically?), but the thought occurs to me that one could create a “correspondence scheme” for a random dungeon by creating a proto-map of a number of squares equal to the number of Moments, laid out in the desired shape.  For each line/side shared by two squares, roll 1d3 for each of the three relationship axes (see below.)

1. Corresponding ( = ) / Different ( * ) / opposite ( # )
My first thought is that this refers to the general relationship between the “alignments” or natures of the Moments; this could include proper Alignment (for creatures), potential danger, or other factors.  The kobolds and ratlings on Level 1 would be corresponding ( = ) since they are both Chaotic humanoids.  Although the Covered Well and the Brewery are both  non-threatening Dungeon features, the Moments are different ( * ) because the room containing the Covered Well has giant spiders in it — definitely more dangerous!

2. Supporting (+) / Neutral ( | ) / Destroying ( – )
The relationship between Moments.  The kobolds and ratlings may have a mutually beneficial ( +) relationship, there could be bad blood between the two ( – ), or they may be indifferent to one another ( – ).  The goblin shaman on Level 2 might bathe in the Moon Pool to recharge his mojo ( + ), the goblins may be terrified of the strange lights that sometimes flicker in its depths ( – ), or it could just be another water source ( | ).  This relational layer may be more of a stretch for two “features” (i.e. Brewery and Covered Well).  If both are magical, then the nature of the enchantments bestowed by drinking from the magic keg or well could affect one another (sort of like drinking multiple potions) — effects might be doubled ( + ), negated ( – ), or have no effect ( | ).

3. Increasing (^) / Constant ( C ) / Decreasing ( v )
This axis is the most challenging for me to translate to the Dungeon.   This could refer to the power level of Moment A relative to Moment B — which is stronger?  Is one waxing or waning due to the other’s influence?  This kind of breaks down when it is applied to non-inhabitant relationships, but I’ll keep pondering this one…

Whether or not I use random methods or devise my Moments more deliberately, Stockhausen’s three relationship axes can be very helpful when it comes to fleshing out the relationships between various groups and breathing life into the Dungeon as a setting.  I’ll probably post more on this as I play around with “Dungeon Moment Form” some more.

Undoubtedly, much of the conceptual ground I’m covering that’s directly related to dungeon design has been covered by by authors and pundits more experienced or eloquent than me.  They’ve probably also done it in much more direct and efficient ways, but there’s something fun about using avant-garde music composition processes to design my dungeon…  Like I said at the beginning of this post, my brain is making the connections — I’m just running with it!

Any thoughts or suggestions on any of this stuff?

megadungeons & mikrophonie

These are the two items vying for the top spot in my creative process right now.  The former is purely for fun, and the latter is mostly not for fun.

Megadungeons: Lately I’ve been thinking about starting a pick-up Labyrinth Lord game, advertised to all my local friends/neighbors/co-workers who are gamers, as well as those who have expressed even a modicum of interest in D&D.  In the interest of avoiding the sort of scheduling conflicts and absentee player issues that have been the bane of most of my past game groups, the emphasis of this campaign will be upon the (mega)Dungeon.  Whoever shows up gets to play.  PCs enter the Dungeon at the beginning of the session and come out at the end of the session.  More on the Dungeon, the Base, and the Wilderness in future posts.

Mikrophonie: Specifically, Mikrophonie I (for tam-tam, 2 microphones, and electronics), the 1964 live-electronic work by Karlheinz Stockhausen.  I’m analyzing this piece for my music history M.A. exit exam.  I’m sure that at some point, my brain will attempt to make connections between the piece’s graphic score and dungeon mapping.  Here’s an image of a score page to give you an idea, sorry for the small size:

mikrophonie score page




Stockhausen is one of the giants of electronic music history, and Mikrophonie I was one of several “live electronic” pieces of the 1960s that proved to be extremely influential on some of the artists and albums featured in my occasional “Music for Dungeon Crawling” posts.  I’ve never used Mikrophonie I itself as dungeon-crawling music, but as I listen to it this morning, I can imagine that players might be pretty freaked out by it…

Here’s some awesome footage from a 1966 performance of the piece by Stockhausen and his ensemble (Stockhausen is seated, controlling the electronic filters):

music for dungeon crawling: Pike, Shot & Sorcery edition

I’ve found a wealth of inspirational music for Twilight 1634, but not so much when it comes to an in-game soundtrack.  Period music (late 16th/early 17th C.) can be good if carefully selected, but, as with rock music, the wrong song at the wrong time can easily wreck the mood and atmosphere; the same goes for inspirational electroacoustic ambient groups (Rameses III, A Broken Consort, et al) and mostly-acoustic psych-folk groups (Fern Knight, In Gowan Ring, Six Organs of Admittance, et al).  When it comes to the sort of atmospheric/ambient music I love for gaming, I don’t want electronic-sounding timbres and textures, just stuff that sounds like it could have been generated by period instruments (strings, lute, organ, harpsichord, recorders, voices, etc.)  The only one that comes readily to mind is The Electric Harpsichord by Catherine Christer Hennix:

If and when I come up with more creepy, eerie stuff that works for this kind of setting I’ll be sure to post it here.  Until then, I’ll settle for this and augment with works by Gesualdo, Lassus, M. Franck, Dowland, Frescobaldi, et al.

RIP John Barry

I just read that the film composer John Barry died yesterday.  He scored some great classic Bond movies and won five Oscars for other projects.  One of my favorite Barry scores is from the largely-forgotten 1971 Thirty Years War film The Last Valley, starring Michael Caine and Omar Sharif.  Rest in peace Mr. Barry, thanks for all the great music.

Buskers vs. Headphones: A Strange Interface

On days when I work at SFPL, I get off the train at Civic Center station and make my way down the long, fluorescent-lit hallway to my preferred exit.  Along this route I usually see and hear a busking musician plying his (or, less frequently, her) trade.  As one might expect, there are a variety of musical styles represented and the musicianship ranges from execrable to excellent.  What makes the experience particularly interesting for me is to hear how the busker’s singing or playing blends with whatever I’m listening to on my headphones.  I never let the headphone volume totally overpower ambient sound, so there’s always some kind of overlap.  Yesterday’s listening experience combined one of the better buskers — a country singer/guitarist with an amazingly pure, strong high tenor voice — and “Interface,” from the Heldon album of the same title.  What a combination! Over Heldon’s steady, ominous electronic pulse and clattering percussion (~4:30 or so) floated this angelic major-mode singing that somehow perfectly meshed with (and utterly transformed) the former’s rhythmic droning.  Unfortunately I can’t really describe it further, but suffice it to say it was one of the most pleasant “busker vs. headphones” combinations I’ve heard so far.

RIP Ronnie James Dio

The man who gave the “metal horns” to the world passed away today after a battle with stomach cancer.  I’m personally more partial to his work with Rainbow than his later efforts with Sabbath or his own band, but whatever one’s preference it must be said that the man was a great singer and performer.  What’s more, he always came across as very intelligent, humble, classy and down-to-earth in all the interviews I’ve seen and read, and never seemed to fit the “rock & roll bad boy” tabloid mold.  I don’t know if he was a man of faith, but I hope that he is in a better place.  He will be missed.

I sure wish I had a record player at my work desk…

I found this 10″ gem in the box of LPs I’m cataloging, and now I’m dying to hear what it sounds like:

Alto sax player/bandleader Elgart composed this disc of jazz-inflected avant-garde program music in 1953.  Weird sci-fi program music, from the looks of things.  The program, written by Samuel Mines (editor of the pulp magazines Startling Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, and Fantastic Story Magazine), describes a journey from Earth to the mysterious “Purple Planet” beyond Neptune, and the perils and wonders along the way. 

From the cover, one would expect an army of theremins, vibraphones, and other “novelty” instruments of the ’50s; maybe also some of the homemade “cybernetic circuits” used by the Barrons to score Forbidden Planet.  Not so!  From the back cover: “The Elgart Ensemble consists of five saxophones, trombones, piano, string bass and percussion.”  No electronics mentioned here or anywhere else in the program, although I’d bet there’s a vibraphone somewhere in the percussion section. 

My first thought when looking at this record was that Elgart must have heard a Sun Ra record and agreed that space really is the place.  After further investigation, I was surprised to see that this album predates Sun Ra’s first LPs (Jazz by Sun Ra and Super-Sonic Jazz, both 1956) by three years.  Now I have to wonder if Sun Ra had heard Impressions of Outer Space, and if he was inspired by it in any way…  Hopefully I can find this online somewhere or I can borrow the record so I can actually hear what it sounds like.  If/when that happens, I’ll be sure to update this post.