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Friday, 4 June 2021

Scenario Sounds

In November, 2020, S3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, the classic fantasy meets Science Fiction scenario by E. Gary Gygax for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition received of all things, its own rock album. When it comes to roleplaying, music has long been seen as something to add to the experience, to build the atmosphere, but rarely, the other way, the single by Sabbat, Blood For The Blood God, inspired by Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, which appeared in White Dwarf #95, the Traveller concept album by the band, The Lord Weird Slough Feg, and the work of the band, Gygax, being clearly inspired by Dungeons & Dragons, all being the odd exceptions. The Barrier Peaks Songbook, the resulting ten-track concept album from Loot the Body described itself as a psychedelic rock album, though it felt more Prog Rock than psychedelic rock, but to be fair, just as The Barrier Peaks Songbook is an exception in being a rock album inspired by roleplaying, Reviews from R’lyeh reviewing a rock album—or indeed, any music, is also an exception. Nevertheless, The Barrier Peaks Songbook turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable album, adding voice and sound to the weirdness and the contrast of genres at the heart of S3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks.

Fans of Dungeons & Dragons and music inspired by that roleplaying game will therefore be pleased to discover that Loot the Body has returned to that well for another album. Titled, Hex Volume 1, this is not another concept album like The Barrier Peaks Songbook, but rather a collection of songs inspired by classic scenarios for both Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition. There are six tracks in the album and they draw from from a diverse range of scenarios for Player Characters of all Levels. The collection opens with a crash of heavy guitar riffs that the chart the rise and fall of the great evil wizard, Keraptis, whose heinous acts drove the warlords of the north to rise up against him. Thirteen hundred years ago he descended into the volcanic mountain with a company of gnomes and disappeared, the mountain of course, being White Plume Mountain from the special scenario, S2 White Plume Mountain. The track, also called ‘White Plume Mountain’ really works as an introduction to the scenario, telling of Keraptis’ dark deeds and foreshadowing just some of the dangers to be encountered should the Player Characters venture into his lair. Perhaps a bit too heavy to be played in-game (but then a light, lute-based version would probably not be as entertaining), but as a precursor to the scenario of the same name, ‘White Plume Mountain’ is a solid introduction and a good start to the album.

It is followed by ‘Dwellers of the Forbidden City’, a more reflective piece of mystery and horror inspired by the pulpy I1 Dwellers of the Forbidden City. It warns of the fearsome things to be found lurking within the depths of the jungle-bound city, the sacrificial pool, the alien voice of the Aboleth—in its first appearance for Dungeons & Dragons—inside the adventurers’ heads, the glint of evil in the snakemen’s eyes, and worst of all, “There’s something alive, Something alive in the ruins, There’s something alive, Something alive and it calls”. The tone is very much one of foreboding and brings to life the horror which pervades the scenario itself, but which is often slightly lost in the pulp overtones. The mystery and horror continues, but is joined by decadence and weirdness with ‘Castle Amber’. Based on the X2 Castle Amber, the scenario for Basic Dungeons & Dragons, this captures the listener in the slumber that strands them inside Chateau d’Amberville, home to the louche, the deadly, and merely insane members of the strange Amber family. There is some delightful wordplay here, such as “When you’re inside Castle Amber mingle with nobility, They like their magic like their coffee, 
Everything’s a little deadly everywhere there’s lunacy, But they try to keep it in the family” which highlights the insular weirdness of the castle’s inhabitants. From its shimmering start, ‘Castle Amber’ never more than hints at some of the secrets to be found inside Chateau d’Amberville, and whilst the lyrics prove to more than worthy of X2 Castle Amber, the music feels just little too upbeat, a little too much for the delicacy of its inspiration.

On the other hand, no delicacy is required for ‘Tomb of Horrors’, a track inspired by the scenario which set the standard for every ‘Deathtrap’ Dungeon which it inspired—S1 Tomb of Horrors. From the punchy opening “Step into the tunnel past the jackal headed man, Make it to the archway if you can, Into the mouth of the devil you lost another friend, Forsaken in a prison without end”, it is a doom-laden warning to any would be tomb raiders and grave robbers wanting to test their skills and satisfy their avarice against the last resting place of the demi-lich, Acererak. Where ‘Castle Amber’ felt it could have been lighter, ‘Tomb of Horrors’ could have perhaps been heavier, but again the lyrics certainly make up for that. Similarly, ‘Ravenloft’ carries some heft to it, a mournful goth-inspired lament based on what is often regarded as one of the best scenarios to be published for Dungeons & Dragons, which is of course, I6 Ravenloft. And yet, as Count Strahd von Zarovich stands on the balcony of his castle, surveying his domain before him, ruing his misfortunes and regretting the decisions he made in the pursuit of love, the lament is restrained from reaching its full impact. The vocals are simply too positive, too smooth to really reflect the regrets in the lyrics. Had ‘Ravenloft’ been sung by a voice like Trent Reznor* or Johnny Cash, its impact would have been stronger.

* Please note that this reference required the input of this household’s resident Goth.

Hex Volume 1 ends on a more upbeat note with ‘Keep on the Borderlands’, an ode to those guards who stand against villainy out on the frontier and the last refuge for travellers who want to journey beyond the civilised lands. Inspired by the classic B2 Keep on the Borderlands, probably the one module played more than any other, whether that is for Dungeons & Dragons or the Basic Dungeons & Dragons it was written for. There is a strong twang of Americana to this last track, drawing parallels between its fantasy frontier and that of the Old West and edging slightly towards being Country & Western.

Hex Volume 1 does not quite succeed in capturing the feel of every old-school hex map or scenario that it draws its inspiration from, and so is not quite as successful as the earlier The Barrier Peaks Songbook. Nevertheless, the album is still entertaining and will enjoyed by anyone who has played through any of the six scenarios it explores in song. In fact, some of the scenarios which inspire Hex Volume 1 could easily inspire Loot the Body to base songbooks of their own upon them—Reviews from R’lyeh awaits a song titled ‘Bree-Yark!’ for The Keep on the Borderlands Songbook. In the meantime, Dungeons & Dragons devotees and supporters of the Old School Renaissance will find much to enjoy in the lyrics and  references of Hex Volume 1.

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