I'm not talking about gold and platinum pieces, or even bronze dragons. I'm saying throw those devil signs in the air and bang your head to these ten metal songs that are perfect for a night around the gaming table.
Lots of gaming groups use background music to add atmosphere when they game. Film scores and ambient sounds work well (I like the score from Gladiator myself), and there's even an entire niche industry that creates music for gaming sessions. But that's not really what I'm talking about here. This is a list of heavy metal songs that make me think of gaming, revolve around gaming themes, or just make me want to run around in the woods with a sword and armor (I don't actually do that, but it's fun to think about sometimes).
There are, no doubt, hundreds of other songs that could be on this list. Shout out your favorites in the comments section below. If you have Flash enabled on your browser, you can play all the song clips right in the browser just by clicking the play button next to the title (try refreshing the page if you don't see the button).
And yes, those are emoticon devil horns in the title.
Click titles to play.
This song from Rainbow's second album, Rising (released in 1976, album cover pictured above) is about a strange cult devoted to a wizard who promises to lead them to the stars. It's a dark allegory and one of Ronnie James Dio's best lyrics, paired with Ritchie Blackmore's epic baroque guitar work.
All eyes see the figure of the wizard
As he climbs to the top of the world.
No sound as he falls instead of rising,
Time standing still,
Then there's blood on the sand.
Oh I see his face.
Where was your star?
Was it far, was it far?
When did we leave?
We believe, we believe, we believe!
Even after the wizard falls, his followers seem trapped, unable to conceive that the whole effort was a failure, even thinking they've made their journey instead of being stuck in the desert. It's kind of depressing, yet the music of the finale feels strangely triumphant, paired with Ronnie's eerie cries of, "My eyes are bleeding!"
Strange Cousins from the West is one of my favorite albums from last year. This track, from which the album title is taken, almost perfectly mirrors the events in the 4e D&D adventure Thunderspire Labyrinth. The adventure is about a city once built by minotaurs beneath Thunderspire Mountain, and a magical conspiracy to take it over.
In a city of crooked alleys:
Crookeder women and wicked men.
Dim lamps in the rumor mill.
Suspicious kith and unkind kin.
Below the elders conspire
To turn the merciless and massive wheel.
From Black Sabbath's eponymous first album, this song is almost a literal description of Gandalf, although he's made out to be a bit more ominous than he really was. On the other hand, if you were some random hobbit who wasn't best friends with the wandering Istari, you might find his unexpected presence in your town quite disconcerting, so maybe it was written from that point of view. Once everyone gets to know him, all is well:
Evil power disappears.
Demons worry when the wizard is near.
He turns tears into joy,
Everyone's happy when the wizard walks by.
The clunky riff and clunkier lyrics feel a little dated these days, but this is one of the prototypical metal songs, and introduced sword and sorcery themes into the genre.
Yeah, the band is called 3 Inches of Blood. The album is called Advance and Vanquish, and the song's title couldn't be clearer: "Destroy the Orcs." This isn't a band I can listen to regularly (the speed-metal tempos and screaming get very redundant), but if your party is actually killing orcs, this makes great background music. And if your players are feeling a little post-modern about their orc slaying, a quick rendition of this tune will cure that right quick.
Not all RPGs involve swords and wizards and orcs. If you're playing a sci-fi game or some kind of X-Files derived supernatural scenario, check out this track from Judas Priest's 1978 album Stained Class. The protagonist stumbles across an alien spacecraft, and some sixth sense tells him it's not a friendly visit. Immediately, the people of Earth unite to fend off their alien foes.
This is the first of more to come in careful planned attack.
If it is so we must prepare defences to fight back.
The call is out throughout the world:
United we must stand.
To build a line, strategic force, they will not take command.
Invader! Invader nearby.
Invader! invasion is nigh.
Sometimes Priest sounds a little too "pop-metal" to me, but I like the frequency with which sci-fi themes appear in their work. Their cover of "The Green Manalishi with the Two-Prong Crown" deserves an honorable mention for being a trippy, foreboding take on an imaginary creature that, by some reports, is something like a living manifestation of greed.
This iconic song is a literal interpretation of what is sometimes derogatorily referred to as a "galloping metal song." It is specifically about the Crimean War, and appeared on Maiden's 1983 album Piece of Mind. Even if your campaign doesn't involve muskets or cavalry charges, "The Trooper" strongly evokes the frenzy and chaos of battle, not to mention the futility of it all and the fatalistic viewpoint of the individual soldier.
The bugle sounds as the charge begins,
But on this battlefield no one wins.
The smell of acrid smoke and horses' breath
As you plunge into a certain death.
Although the protagonist of the song inevitably dies at the end, this does make a nice soundtrack for any mighty clash of swords. (Random Robot Viking trivia: I once auditioned to be the lead singer of an Iron Maiden tribute band. I actually passed the audition and was invited to join the band, but ultimately declined).
This later iteration of Deep Purple features David Coverdale (yes, that David Coverdale) on vocals. The song, from the 1974 Stormbringer album, no doubt draws its title from the infamous demonic sword featured in many Michael Moorcock novels. However, the song doesn't seem to be about the sword, but rather an evil weather-controlling wizard named Stormbringer.
Ride the rainbow,
Crack the sky.
Time to die.
Got to keep running!
Coverdale's raspy lower register actually sounds pretty cool during the verses, as he chants out Stormbringer's ominous abilities.
Really, almost any song by The Sword could be considered gaming appropriate. They have several songs ("Winter's Wolves," "To Take the Black") based on George R.R. Martin's Song of Fire and Ice series of novels. This particular track, from their second album, Gods of the Earth, seems to be derived from Robert Howard's Conan stories.
How heavy this axe,
Burden carried from birth.
Wrought in Stygian visions
By the gods of the earth.
It doesn't strictly matter what the source material is - it's clearly a song about a massive battle, a warrior's destiny, and avenging the death of a queen. If you can't work any of that into a campaign, then you need to try harder. And if your character wields an axe, try calling out the chorus as you wade into battle. "How heavy this axe!"
Probot was sort of a vanity project for Dave Grohl, who wrote a bunch of metal songs and then had his favorite metal singers guest on them (with Grohl on drums). This is my favorite track from the album, featuring Wino from The Obsessed. It's essentially a theme song for primal characters, especially druids. You have to love the badassery of that opening line, "I do not die…but awaken."
Behold: the falcon surveys the horizon.
Great scribe, let us see your runes of mystery.
Serpent shares your name, the keeper of eternal flames.
Prevail the law of three, the goddess guides humanity.
Right there you've got magic runes, an evil serpent, and vague references to Celtic myth and pagan religion. The song also features shapeshifting into animal form (a falcon, in particular) and a bunch of weird New Agey stuff about the Law of One. But to me, "The Emerald Law" sounds like a good description of angry, vengeful nature spirits.
That opening battle cry? The Hammer of the Gods?! Overlords? Fighting hordes?! No other songs packs as much Norse warrior awesomeness into two minutes and twenty-five seconds. Although singer Robert Plant had a slightly less grandiose vision of the song's origin:
We went to Iceland, and it made you think of Vikings and big ships…and John Bonham's stomach, and bang, there it was: Immigrant Song.
"Immigrant Song" even concludes with a plea for more robust role-playing, along with a nod to anyone who just failed their third death save: "Peace and trust can still win the day, despite of all your losing."
Honorable mention goes to Zeppelin's "Achilles' Last Stand" for being a truly epic depiction of glorious battle, and the weary journey back home.
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