Sunday, 1 February 2015

Review - 13th Age Soundtrack

Soundtrack coverMusic by James Semple, Marie-Anne Fischer, Thery Ehrlich, Chris Nairn, Tristan Noon.

Released through Pelgrane Press

I like to think that I know something about soundtracks. I grew up with them on my favourite films, favourite TV shows and favourite games. I have a collection of 300-plus soundtracks covering every genre, from the cinema classics to the modern blockbusters, from the first faltering bleeping notes to the great gaming scores. By their nature, scores are written to suit the mood and atmosphere of the product being created. Soundtracks, if done correctly, can highlight the impact of the moment and invoke waves of emotion and memory when listened to again outside of the product they’re designed for.

This makes them difficult to use when running a game. I like to use music in my sessions as I feel it adds to the atmosphere, and as my games are generally cinematic in their construction I like to have soundtracks that suit. If I’m gaming in a licensed world that already has a score associated with it then so much the better; the music itself will enhance the mood. However, if I use music that the players recognise in a setting that does not have a dedicated score then it can ruin the session somewhat. The players tend to associate the tracks with the product it was written for and not with the game I’m trying to run, and that can be distracting.

You’d think it would make sense to have music written specifically for a game setting, but this in itself is a difficult thing to do. The mood of a game setting is decided by the gaming group’s style, so if the music is too dark for a light-hearted game, and vice versa, then the atmosphere is lost straight away. Gaming is subjective and so the music can’t always capture the feeling the GM is trying to invoke, even more so if the music is written specifically for that setting.

Alternatively, the composers of such music could create something that not only suits the themes of the game itself, but mix up the content so that there’s something that everyone can use; mystical, light-hearted, fast-paced, thunderous… if there’s something for everyone, then the soundtrack is going to be useful in whole or in part.

And this is what the 13th Age soundtrack does – it delivers an overall theme that suits the atmosphere of the 13th Age setting and rules as well as offers a large number of different themes and styles that you can use to enhance the atmosphere of your game. In fact, there’s 30 tracks here of varying lengths and styles, and each one can be used to play and create by.

There’s a lot of tracks on this so let me talk about how the music will help you in your game. First off, let me be blunt – if, like me, you’re a lover of music in your game then this soundtrack is fantastic whether you intend to use it in a 13th Age game or not. The themes stand out and once the group hears them during their first few games then they’ll forever associate the music with the sessions, up to a point where an evening’s play will feel peculiar without having the music playing in the background. Let me explain why that is.

There are tracks on here that evoke atmosphere in any given location; there’s music for creeping through dark and dangerous dungeons (‘Exploration’) to visiting great cities (‘Starport’), and plenty of material in between. There’s music to inspire the players to travel the lands (‘Dreams of a Lost Age’) and make them feel like they’re in over their heads (‘The Demon Coast’).

It’s an amazing selection of music and I can’t see any gaming group not getting something out of it. More than anything, it’s unique; there are no movies, shows or games that have this music so the player’s will not have heard any of it before and will always equate it with their 13th Age games, or whatever ongoing RPG setting they’re gaming in. If that’s not perfect for a gaming group then I don’t know what is.

My favourite tracks are:

‘Dreams of a Lost Age’ – The 13th Age Theme is excellent and I’ll play it when I’m setting up the game so that everyone knows where they’ll be for the evening, almost like an overture, but this is the music I’ll use to start the game proper. It feels epic yet personal, and as the game is primarily about the individual characters at the gaming table it’s nice to have something less bombastic to bring the players into the session.

‘Crusader’ – This is an amazing piece that I’ll use for epic battles. Chase or one of the Escalation loops is great for personal fights and encounters, but when I want great expansive battles with hundreds of combatants, or when I’m narrating the scene regarding a castle siege or a cavalry charge, this is the track I’ll use.

‘Escalation Loop’ – These are great as they reflect the ever growing intensity of the escalation die in the game, which raises the tension and excitement. As the encounter progresses the music becomes more intense and driven, and that works well when used in a fight (especially when the combat isn’t going in the PCs favour!).

‘Exploration’ – This a fantastic track and really enhances the atmosphere of a dungeon delve, or a trek through ruins, or just wandering into a deep, dark forest where you know you shouldn’t be. It’s creepy – really creepy – and when used sparingly, especially when the players know that where they’re going is dangerous and deadly, it can be truly effective.

‘Tales From Around the Fire’ – The absolute perfect downtime/tavern/camping music. It’s a light, folksy piece that’ll suit pretty much any tavern or inn as the players take a break from the epic adventuring they’ll no doubt be inspired to do by the rest of the tracks. Left on loop in the background it makes for some very atmospheric music, especially when the PCs are visiting a town, a marketplace or village, and even more so when there is no immediate threat… or when you want the players to let their guard down.

As well as locations and atmospheric music, the tracks cover the great Icons in the game and this in itself gives a level of atmosphere I’ve not experienced before in a session. Using the music of the Archmage, for example; it’s an airy, mystical theme that glides from gentle into ominous, but it starts with a thunderclap. That sound alone is enough to merit a huge scene of introduction and when played, the players will know straight away who’s presence they’re in. Every great character in any movie or TV show has their own theme, and this soundtrack gives an Icon character an iconic piece of music. I listened to each of the tracks as I read the Icon’s entry in the core rulebook, and each one suits wonderfully.

And that, at the end of the day, is what this soundtrack does – it delivers iconic music that not only suits the epic atmosphere of 13th Age but is so varied it contains a style of music that will suit most games in pretty much any fantasy setting. Left on loop in the background it’s perfect for any gaming session and has enough variety to help enhance the atmosphere of many playing styles.

The team of composers and performers on this album have done a sterling job on this soundtrack and they should be commended; I’ve got a few game-centric soundtracks and this is, by far, the best one yet. If you’re looking for an album that’ll help to take your games up a notch, or if you feel that your games are missing that little something that’ll take it to the next level, then this album is an absolute must.

On top of all of that, it’s just a great album filled with solid, wonderfully crafted music. It’s a soundtrack waiting for a movie to be put to it.

Very highly recommended to players of any epic RPG.

From the Pelgrane Press website, where you'll also find some samples of the music: Track Listing

1. 13th Age
Prophecies fail. Demons invade, living dungeons rip towards the surface and the Empire’s protectors falter. A sweeping anthem for the heroes who will save the world, or die trying.

2. Archmage
He has preserved the Empire for centuries and created astonishing new lands. He has also threatened the fabric of reality with experiments you’d have to be brilliant or hugely arrogant to attempt.

3. Crusader
He’s the armored fist of the dark gods, crusading against demons — but happy to stomp out virtue or innocence if they’re stupid enough to get in his way.

4. Diabolist
Unlike the demons she controls, the Diabolist doesn’t necessary want to destroy the universe. She wants to play with it, as a tiger plays with a troupe of monkeys. Those who dance best may not be eaten.

5. Dwarf King
The Dwarf King remembers when his kingdom in the deeps was the mightiest in all creation. Forced towards the surface by elven treachery, he guards the Empire from threats such as the orcs while calculating how to claim the Empire for his own. Or maybe he’s content to mine the treasures of the earth, and build great things that his ancestors would have coveted. Maybe.

6. Elf Queen
Once upon a time, the Elf Queen united the dark elves, wood elves, and high elves as one people. Now she is the only thing they have in common.

7. Emperor
The ruler of the Dragon Empire holds his Empire together with armies, magic, force of will, tolerably wise rule, and grand squadrons of dragons. You may not agree with him, but you’re not going to mistake him for someone who does things halfway.

8. Great Gold Wyrm
This great gold dragon is the champion of the oppressed and those who fight for justice. Unfortunately the Wyrm is stuck holding the gates of the hells shut against the demons, so the Wyrm’s champions must do its work in the world.

9. High Druid
She is the champion of the resurgent Wild, and the spiritual and magical leader of spirits of nature and the elements that were chained by the Emperor and Archmage but are now working themselves free.

10. Lich King
The Lich King is the not-quite-insane lord of the undead, a fallen tyrant who plans to conquer the Dragon Empire. He mostly understands that ruling a kingdom is not the same as destroying it.

11. Orc Lord
The leader of the hordes. An apocalyptic icon of war, disease, and endings that could be worse than death.

12. Priestess
The gods are distant but she hears all the gods of light and speaks for those who please her. Part oracle, part mystic, and part metaphysical engineer, since she created the Cathedral, an ever-expanding temple with rooms or entire wings for each of the faiths she favors.

13. The Three
Three ancient dragons cooperate to become one of the dominant evils of the world. The red dragon embodies fury, the black masters stealth and betrayal, and the blue has used sorcery to become a legally appointed governor of the Empire as well as an evil mastermind!

14. The Eyes of the Stone Thief
The Stone Thief is a terrible centuries-old living dungeon that cuts through the earth, surfacing to swallow people and places that the heroes love.

15. Tales Around the Fire
For the rare moments when nothing is trying to kill you.

16. Exploration
Descending into the ruined temple. Opening the gates of the living dungeon. Moving in the dark down a corridor that might be made of stone, but then why is the stone breathing? Wind from up ahead, but it’s not the wind from the surface. Welcome to the underworld.

17. The Demon Coast
Coastlines can be bad business on the Midland Sea, home to all the evil things forced out of the ocean by the Empire’s magic. The coast just north of the Abyss is even worse, hit by tides of evil from both directions.

18. The Fangs
The rivers that feed into the Midland Sea are dangerous places and this is the worst of the bunch, fast moving forks of water populated by sahuagin and sea devils and other creatures forced out of the Midland Sea by the Blessed Emperor. Another great tune for ramping up the tension.

19. High Dock
There aren’t any actual docks in these rolling western hills, and the name may or may not be a joke. For magical reasons no one understands, all the flying realms of the Empire eventually drop low and bump up against the hills or take out big chunks of the terrain in terrible skidding ‘landings.’ Eventually the realms lift off again. If you want to hitch a ride into the overworld, head to the High Dock and take your chances.

20. Omen
This island started small. It’s growing like a cancer in the center of the Midland Sea, bulking up the worst way possible as living dungeon after living dungeon tear up to the surface, depositing their payloads of monstrous weirdness. On the bright side, there’s nobody competing for space on the beach, you should be able to catch a good thirty minutes of sun before the monsters smell you.

21. Starport
The stars come to this mountain for repair and refitting. What does this mean, you ask? We don’t know — we left it open for each game table to decide for themselves.

22. Dreams of a Lost Age
Every culture in the world has its own version of this song. The world is ancient, all have lost things they would have wanted to preserve. They summon the dreams in song.

23. Chase Music
Who is chasing who? Doesn’t matter. Put it on loop to cue frantic backward glances, quick changes of direction, and short cuts that lead to greater peril.

24-30. Escalation 0 through Escalation 6
You can use this music to accompany the escalation die, starting at 0 and topping off at 6; or loop the low levels for relatively normal situations, then switch to high levels when power makes the air hum.