Toy Soldiers & Music: A Tale Of Plectrums And Plastic

May 13, 2019 by brennon

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My two greatest loves are toy soldiers and music. When painting or building models these two passions are inevitably combined with music playing in the background. Indeed, my new hobby room was not considered finished or ready for use until a “proper” music system had been installed. This is not something unique to myself and many of us turn to music when building our tanks, painting our goblins or even when playing our games.

toys-and-music-coverimage

This article will explore the many shared influences and interesting links there have been between our hobby and the music industry, and how music can play a role in our gaming sessions. Before we do begin, a warning should be given, my preference in music and favourite material for toy soldiers has something in common...HEAVY METAL!

In The Beginning...

We will begin in the 1970s. A new genre of music is being born in England with Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath at the head, that genre is Heavy Metal. In the United States of America, a new type of game was being developed, Role-Playing Games (RPGs), with designers Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson leading this revolution, and Dungeons & Dragons becoming commercially available in 1974. What these new phenomena had in common is they shared a common inspiration from legend, folklore and fantasy literature.

Led Zeppelin’s first reference to Tolkien and Middle Earth is in the lyrics of the 1969 song Ramble On.

T'was in the darkest depths of Mordor, I met a girl so fair.

But Gollum, and the evil one crept up and slipped away with her, her, her....yeah.

Who can also forget their classic tracks like “Misty Mountain Top” and “The Battle of Evermore”? Both Uriah Heep and Black Sabbath had songs titled “The Wizard” and it is not difficult to infer the wizard these songs are inspired by. Of course Hard Rock and Heavy Metal are not the only genres of music that have been inspired by Middle Earth. Prog Rock aficionados have argued that Genesis, Pink Floyd, Rush and Camel all have songs inspired by Tolkien but some of these claims are spurious at best. Middle Earth is also not the only fantasy setting that has inspired RPGs, but the above simply illustrates a common influence in the two genres.

Imitation follows innovation and the late 70s and early 80s saw an explosion in the popularity of RPGs and it also saw an explosion in “Sword & Sorcery” inspired Heavy Metal. Album covers and book covers shared the same artists and in the case of American Heavy Metal band, Cirith Ungol (another Tolkien inspired band name), they used the same art as a legendary fantasy writer, Michael Moorcock. The artist in question is Michael Whelan.

Stormbringer

Interestingly, Michael Moorcock also provided lyrics to a number of bands over the years including Hawkwind (former band of Motorhead’s Lemmy) and Blue Oyster Cult. He also had his own music project called Michael Moorcock and The Deep Fix. The Blue Oyster Cult track, “Black Blade” is about Moorcock’s most famous character, Elric of Melnibone, and his sword, Stormbringer. Indeed an RPG, Stormbringer, based on Moorcock’s fantasy world and characters was published in 1981, and Games Workshop was involved in publishing the 3rd edition in 1987.

A stereotype of RPGers and wargamers being Hard Rock and Heavy Metal fans certainly existed in the 1980s and early 1990s. White Dwarf 95 describes the link between Heavy Metal and gamers as eloquently as only 1980s Games Workshop could.

Games Workshop staff [...] finally caught on that there were a lot of gamers turning up wearing the same T-shirts. They found out that Saxon wasn't the name of a roleplaying supplement for RuneQuest, and that Def Leppard wasn't in the Monster Manual, and they discovered that a lot of roleplayers were into more than one kind of 'Eavy Metal.

A more contemporary reference is in comedian, Stephen Lynch’s parody song, D&D.

I got a big broadsword made outta cardboard and that stereo's a-pumping Zeppelin

Dazed and Confused

It's that time of the night we turn on the black light

Let the Dungeons and the Dragons begin

The neverending struggle between good and evil reflected in both the music and games give many an outlet to escape reality, often drawing one into the other. Those who discovered the fantasy literature from the songs of their favourite bands then went one step further to explore these worlds in the form of games.

One has to wonder how many music albums were sold because the artwork looked similar to that used by the novels and RPGs that people read and played and vice versa. This crossover of fans does not seem as prevalent or obvious today as it was in then. Possible explanations for this would be an article in itself.

Satanic Panic

Other similarities were not so welcome, as during the 80s both Heavy Metal and RPGs were linked to the occult, suicides and deaths as part of a much larger “Satanic Panic” that was concentrated and began in the United States in the 1970s. Some of the most high profile accusations played out in an unsuccessful civil court case against English Heavy Metal band, Judas Priest, who were blamed for encouraging the suicide attempts of two young men with subliminal messages contained in their music. While ultimately the accusations against both forms of entertainment were unfounded, my parents and many parents like them during this period had genuine concerns over the music and games that were in our stereos and on our shelves. Indeed, a few of my school friends were not allowed to play games like HeroQuest and had to hide their Iron Maiden albums because of the hysteria that had been generated.

A quick note about Iron Maiden’s lead singer, Bruce Dickinson. In his teenage years, he was an avid historical wargamer and speaks passionately about it in his autobiography, “What does this Button Do”? Other high profile musicians who have played D&D in the past also include Tom Morello (Rage Against The Machine), Ed Robinson (Barenaked Ladies) and Chester Bennington (Linkin Park).

Inspired & Influenced

The 90s saw a decline in both the popularity of Heavy Metal and tabletop RPGs for many reasons. This did not stop musicians drawing influence from fantasy and sci-fi literature and during this decade and into the present century, you can see a more direct influence of RPGs and the worlds that they were set in inspiring songs by various bands.

Critically acclaimed Heavy Rock band, Kyuss was named after a monster from the Advanced Dungeon & Dragons. Gothic Metal band, Lake of Tears released the song “Raistlin and the Rose” in 1997, based on the character, Raistlin Majere from the Dragonlance setting. Other bands who have recorded songs inspired by Raistlin include Nightwish with their song “Wishmaster” and Blind Guardian’s “The Soulforged”. In 2013, German Power Metallers, Evertale, released a concept album based on the Dragonlance setting called “Of Dragons and Elves” to critical acclaim.

Then in 2016 came a band named Gygax, yes named after D&D creator, Gary Gygax, and whose debut album was titled “Critical Hits”. Their lyrics are mostly inspired by the game, as you would expect, and their second album was imaginatively titled “2nd Edition”. Unfortunately, to these ears, the music is perhaps not as legendary as the man the band is named after.

Other band’s lyrics have undoubtedly been influenced with fantasy RPGs, examples include, 3 Inches of Blood, who have always proudly expressed love for D&D in interviews, and Dragonforce, whose lyrics sometimes read like a fantasy RPG sourcebook. The above is just a small number of examples of how D&D and other fantasy RPGs have influenced the music industry, but what about sci-fi?

Evertale, who we mentioned earlier, also released an album called “The Great Brotherwar”, which contains many songs inspired by the Horus Heresy and Warhammer 40,000. Unlike many of the bands previously mentioned, Evertale are not subtle in showing the inspiration for their music. Take these lyrics from the song “All Hail the Crimson King”.

All hail the crimson king
The keeper of the burning red
The one-eyed seer
Magnus the Red
All hail the crimson king
I am forsaken and forlorn
My fortune did not turn
And now I see
Prospero burn

Another great example of a band inspired by Sci-Fi game are The Lord Weird Slough Feg, whose name is actually inspired by a Celtic folklore-influenced comic book called Sláine. In 2003 they released an album called “Traveller”, which is a story about Baltech Budapest: rogue, mercenary and space pirate.

The story that is told through this album is inspired by the Traveller sci-fi RPG and heavily features the Varyr. It should be noted that sci-fi inspired lyrics pale in number compared to those inspired by the fantasy genre.

Companies Take The Helm

Games companies have also entered the music world and it would be remiss not to mention that Wizards of the Coast commissioned an official D&D soundtrack in 2003. American band, Midnight Syndicate, who describe their music as “symphonic soundtracks to imaginary films that facilitate a transcendental and adventurous escape into the secret dimensions of the mind’s eye”, were charged with composing the first (and there does not seem to be evidence of a second) official D&D soundtrack. While researching and writing this article, this soundtrack was played many times in the background and it is a very enjoyable experience, perfect to play along to a fun night of gaming, more of which later.

Wizards of the Coast are not the only company to commission musicians to produce music for them, and again we have to transport ourselves back into the 1980s and to Nottingham, England and visit the history of a small company known as Games Workshop.

The previously mentioned quote from White Dwarf 95, which was published in November 1987, came from an article discussing the free giveaway that came with that month’s White Dwarf - a flexi-disc. Many of the older readers will remember flexi-discs, but for those younger readers or those who prefer to forget the 80s, a flexi-disc was a thin, light, and flexible vinyl record that could be played on a normal turntable (ask an older relative if that made no sense to you).

As a marketing ploy, the brains at Games Workshop decided to give away a flexi-disc with an issue of White Dwarf. The band chosen, also from Nottingham, was a band called Sabbat and the song they composed and recorded for the flexi-disc was called “Blood for the Blood God”. The articles heralds John Blanche as the man who choose Sabbat for the honour of gracing the front cover of White Dwarf, having met the band at a Slayer gig and having heard their demo on the radio. Games Workshop provided lead singer Martin Walkyier with a large bundle of reading material and that is what inspired the lyrics of the song. Indeed, this flexi-disc is the only official way this song has been release.

The Nightmare Begins
Once the mighty cities now crumbled and turned to sand
Here dwelt the Old Slann (the Masters)
Infinite wisdom (a god given right)
To these genetic scientists forming new life
Yet these powerful beings could never have known
Their seeds of destruction were already sown
(Verse 1, Sabbat, Blood for the Blood God)

Later in 1988, Sabbat released their debut album “History of a Time to Come” with a piece of art painted by John Blanche adorning the cover. This piece of art is titled “Horned is the Hunter” can also be found on page 184 of the Warhammer Fantasy Battle 3rd Edition released in 1991. Interesting this is also the name of the fifth song from the Sabbat album but it is not a song based on the Warhammer universe, nor are any of the others on the album.

This was not Games Workshop’s only folly into the world of music. In the early 1990s, they set up their own record label and according to music website and database, Discogs, they had 14 releases.

Warhammer Records

The first band they had tried to sign were Bolt Thrower. While Bolt Thrower declined the offer and signed with up and coming label, Earache, they did do a deal with Games Workshop and licenced artwork from them and named their second album Realm of Chaos: Slaves to Darkness, after the book of the same name. The album was inspired by war and the Warhammer 40k universe. My favourite tracks from this album are “World Eater” and “Through the Eye of Chaos”. The licence Bolt Thrower had with Games Workshop has now expired and the album is sold with an alternative, yet still 40k inspired cover.

In addition, Games Workshop, as another marketing ploy, published a game called “Bolt Thrower or Bust” in music magazine Sounds, in 1989 to link in with the album, which was also promoted and advertised in White Dwarf. The goal of the game was to play as a Gretchin and be the first one to find a ticket for a Bolt Thrower concert taking place in Talisman City.

Not all the bands on Warhammer Records sang songs relating to Warhammer, but the artwork used on the albums came from previous Games Workshop game releases. The most interesting of the Warhammer Record releases is that by English band, D-Rok, called Oblivion. The main reason this release is interesting is mainly that it features a guest appearance by Queen guitarist, Brian May. Yes, that Brian May! Brian May’s son was a keen wargamer, and legend has it that one day when visiting a Games Workshop store, May meet the band, liked them and offered to play on the album. One song from this album “Get Out of My Way”, which featured May, was also used in the first Space Hulk computer game released in 1993. OnTableTop member, Blinky465 is a proud owner of this album on picture disc!

The label didn’t last long, and Games Workshop didn’t get involved in the music business again until the new millennium. For those who prefer a more chilled or electronic vibe to your music, now defunct label, Art of Perception, released a series twelve vinyl records titled “The Sounds of Warhammer 40,000”. Each record focused on one of the factions of the 40K universe and some of the music did not sound unpleasant to these Heavy Metal ears. The most recent 40K related music release has seen the Dawn of War computer game soundtrack produced on vinyl.

Music In Our Games

So there we have a rather concise history of the ties between our hobby and the music industry. We have focused on the fantasy and sci-fi genres, but much more could be written on the influence punk had on 1980s Games Workshop or the influence Hair Metal and Glam Rock had on the art of Cyberpunk. The list could go on and on but rather than delve back into the history books, let’s concentrate on how music can play a part in our games.

First of all, most of us already have included music in our armies. Our fantasy regiments all have a model with a drum, horn or a set of bagpipes made from the entrails of a previous enemy. In some games, this gave a morale boost or movement bonus. Some of the musicians even carry magical instruments, which would strike fear into the hearts of your opponent when played.

Our historical games are similar with drummers and even bands taking the battlefield. Warlord Games’ Napoleonic French Imperial Guard Head of Column is one of the most glorious Napoleonic releases with its rows of drummers, brass section and even a brave soldier intimidating the enemy with his triangle!

Goff Rockers

Going back to the 90s, if you didn’t pretend your Noise Marines or Goff Rokkers in 2nd Edition Warhammer 40k weren’t killing the enemy with Metallica riffs and Slayer guitar solos, you just were not playing them right!

There has also been some research into the effect of music on games. In 2016, Imperial College, London and the Royal College of Music published research that suggested listening to Rock music may reduce a man’s ability to win certain board games. The board game they tested their hypothesis on was Operation, and men listening to AC/DC’s Thunderstuck made more mistakes than when they listened to Mozart or the background noise of an operating theatre. The same effect was not found in women. So the next time your significant other insists on listening to AC/DC during a board games sessions, they just may be searching for that edge!

On a more serious note, some DMs have tried to use music to enhance the atmosphere of their RPGs sessions. Whether this is successful depends on your gaming group and here are a few tips on doing this.

The music must fit the theme. Estonian folk music may sound out of place as you and your team explore an abandoned space station but think of all the sci-fi movie soundtracks that would fit your game. Similarly, the Aliens soundtrack would not fit in with a Vampire RPG set in 1950s San Francisco.

The music should not dominate the game. Remember you are there to play an RPG, not listen to music. The music should be in the background, it shouldn’t distract players from the game or draw their attention away from what is most important. Music with vocals is more memorable and hence distracting, so perhaps ambient and instrumental music that can be played on a loop will be a better fit for your game. It is ironic that in an article so far dominated by Heavy Metal bands is the last genre of music you should go to when preparing for your game.

The music should scale to the scene. One of my favourite scenes from a movie is the end scene from Last of the Mohicans. While the scene does have some faults, Daniel Day-Lewis’ musket is perhaps too accurate for that period of history, it is the clever use of the music that makes it so memorable. The scene is about seven minutes long and is dominated by one refrain of folk music that is repeated for most of the scene with orchestral parts coming in and out for dramatic effect.

The composer also cleverly changes the speed or fades out the folk refrain to reflect what is happening on the scene, adding immensely to the impact on the viewer. Similarly, your music should reflect what is happening in the game. Tense, energetic music is suitable when fighting a dragon, but perhaps not when you are strolling through the forest.

KISS. No, not the ageing rockers but “Keep It Simple, Stupid”. Be organised and do not over complicate it. If you spend more time changing songs than playing your part in the game, you have failed already. Be organised, practise beforehand and do not be afraid to stop the music if it starts to adversely impact on the game.

By Robert Bell

What music do you enjoy when painting or playing games and have you used music to enhance your games?

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