Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Ads of Dragon: Music for Adventure Gaming

I am not, I readily admit, a very musical person, which no doubt explains my bafflement at the ubiquity of digital audio players in the world outside my home. Unsurprisingly, I've also never quite understood talk about "gaming music," as if what every RPG session was more noise to distract people from what was happening at the table. But, as is often the case, I must be in the minority here, because, for almost as long as I can remember, many of my fellow gamers have been searching for "background music" to play during their adventures. Someone obviously recognized this desire and so produced this advertisement in issue #98 (June 1985) of Dragon:
There are many interesting things about this ad, perhaps most notably that Lotus Records thought Dragon might be a good place to sell belly dancing music. That's right: Ramal LaMarr is (or was -- I'm not sure if he's still alive) a composer of "Middle Eastern" music frequently used by belly dancers, both professional and amateur. Here's the original cover of "Album I" referenced in the ad:
As you can see, the guy in the horned headgear from the ad also appears on the cover of the album. I haven't been able to track down the cover of the second album, but if anyone can do so, I'd be very interested in seeing it.

As much as the Toys "R" Us ad from a couple of days ago, this ad says a lot, I think, about how big a market RPGs still represented in the mid-1980s. Why else would a record company attempt to pass off belly dancing music as "music for adventure gaming" and in the pages of Dragon no less? They must have figured they'd get enough sales from gullible gamers that it'd justify the money spent on the ad. Regardless, it's a very strange advertisement, certainly one of the odder ones I remember from Dragon, even if it is from close to the end of the days when I still subscribed to the magazine (a topic to which I'll return next week).


  1. It's probably not that much of a stretch - it looks like these Lotus Records people weren't exactly behemoths of the music industry. Considering that their primary market for belly-dancing records would have been belly-dancing venues, adding gamers looking for Middle Eastern-themed background music to that would likely have represented a substantial increase of their target audience even with today's numbers in the hobby, let alone when it was in its heyday.

  2. Holy crap! if it isn't already, that album cover should be listed at The Museum of Bad Album Covers:

    Or on the 100 Worst Album Covers EVER site:

    Where you can find gems like Rick James' "Throwin' Down", which is surprisingly appropriate, in this case:

  3. I have a tough time running a game these days without music. It's one of the main things I don't like about running a public game.

    Pandora and Radio Rivendell are getting some experimenting at games, but I still love to spin things like Mike Oldfeld, The Orb, and some classical.

  4. Never, ever ran or played or game with music. Know many gamers, new and old, who do it occasionally or frequently.

    I'd do props (which I also don't ever use, not even for CoC) before I ever incorporated music.

    How does the music thing work? (It obviously does for many.) I mean, do you have to speed up your descriptions if you know the tone of the next song is wrong? Do you hit pause when inappropriate music comes on? It doesn't annoy you when "battle music" comes on during tense diplomatic detentes?

    These are serious questions from a guy who, 30 years hence, still has enough on his hands to keep the game engaging without having to worry about the A/V Club.

    Obviously, some of this has to do with talent and inclination, of which I have none in this regard.

  5. Dan:

    I don't know about anybody else, but I don't use the music as some kind of game prop. It's just background music, like at a party or just hanging out sipping a cocktail. Adds to the overall feel and fun. If it happens to fit whatever is going on in the game, then great (1982 Conan soundtrack for combat works great, old English folk music for taverns, etc) but nothing on purpose really. I love music and am a musician myself, most of my friends are world musicians, so my life is full of great sounds. Why not have it in a game as well? Try it.

    Some DM's find background music distracting, and in most of those cases I think they are taking their own thoughts too seriously. But I have never had a players say "could you turn that down?"

  6. That is an excellent album cover. I love both of their facial expressions. Looks like they're serious about what they're doing.

  7. When I ran the original version of the Star Wars RPG back in the late 80's we would play the John Williams score in the background. If the tone of the music didn't match what was going on in the game nobody really cared because it was just in the background. If were running a campaign now, I'd totally have some ambient background music on just because I enjoy it. When I read, I have to have something on in the background such as classical or ambient and I could not imagine not doing the same if I were gaming. For me, the music shouldn't be loud and obnoxious but just softly and in the background.

  8. You can get software designed to make it quick and easy to cue appropriate music. Unfortunately it requires a healthy library of carefully tagged music. It also can be problematic when you're playing "tense" music intended for 5 or maybe 10 minutes in movies over an hour of an extended combat. At some point I intend to experiment with it, but I haven't gotten to it (stupid tagging).

    I saw one guy at Gen Con this year use music to supplement his Lucha Libre game. He had specific tracks for specific scenes. His players seemed to enjoy it.

    Meanwhile, like most people, I sometimes just have generic music (movie soundtracks work well) in the background. It adds a little to the ambiance, but it's not so loud that if the mood is wrong it's a big deal.

    As for belly dance music, it's a neat idea! A lot of belly dance music has a strong middle-eastern, classical feel that evokes the distant, exotic, and a bit fantastic to a western audience. I'll have to look into it.

  9. Daniel said “How does the music thing work?..... do you have to speed up your descriptions if you know the tone of the next song is wrong? Do you hit pause when inappropriate music comes on? It doesn't annoy you when "battle music" comes on during tense diplomatic détentes?”

    Ideally, if one is to incorporate music into their campaign/game session it behoves them to think about it in detail ahead of time. Or at least, that is the way I have done it. I think of it like scoring a film or t.v. show. Plan to use the appropriate music at the appropriate time. I almost never just have stuff playing on repeat, droning endlessly in the background (learned that one from experience), unless you are trying to emulate a video game imho, I suppose that could work; provided it is a soundscape –type of score being used.

    In this day and age of computers & mp3 players, it’s really easy to be your own musical director, making playlists, cuing them up at the right times etc....And with the internet it is not to difficult to acquire any type of music one would want to set a mood for. That’s my two cents however.

  10. I have never played music during one of my games, for dramatic or thematic purposes, or even as background ambiance. Nor do I intend to ever start.
    I did play in a long-running game where the DM was really into playing music during the game, and he would cue up different pieces depending on what was happening - battle music, villain music, etc. I hated it. The only thing I liked about it was that the game had opening theme music which I enjoyed, as it helped us switch our real-world minds off and get into character, or at least gaming-mode.

  11. Re: the ad, thank you so much for investigating! I figured that was the kind of music it was, but not knowing for sure bugged me for years!

    Re: gaming to music, I think I'd like it, if only to promote more of a flow state. But most DMs I know are the kind of people who really can't listen to music as background. (They are either listening to music with all their attention, or they're not.)

    It's kind of odd to me, as I'm the kind of person who can talk and type at the same time and finds background music a help to almost anything except composing music myself; but I appreciate those folks whose brains work otherwise.

    Re: looking for music, the composer Bax would be good.

    And the theme song idea is cool. :)

  12. "Or they're not" going to be able to do anything else while it's on. Music totally catches their attention and distracts them. They find it hard to understand a conversation while music is on. That's what I meant.

  13. i think this is more a case of a zealous ad-rep or merchant than an indicator of marketability. The fact that the address of the company is in either Madison or Milwaukee (I cant really tell)indicates that it's a local who probably had a networked connection with TSR. It could also be a smart merchant who saw a chance to move some product.
    a little google-jitsu indicates this guy was pretty "big" in the mid eighties for bellydance. If you want to hear a bit of his stuff, its herein podcast #49:

    and it's in the background here:

  14. He and the two models in the first ad were at GenCon in a vendor's booth the year those bits ran in Dragon. It was the first GenCon (85? 86?) that was held in MECCA in Milwaukee. I didn't exactly keep a close watch, but I never saw anyone stop at his booth the entire weekend. I felt kind of bad for him.

  15. I wonder if the distraction, for me, has more to do with the fact that I have a hard time distinguishing between background sounds and foreground sounds. If I'm listening to music, I tend to strain if someone tries to talk to me, and vice versa.

    Or perhaps my ears are poor multitaskers!

  16. A couple of times I played the Conan the Barbarian soundtrack during D&D sessions, and it set the mood perfectly.

  17. If you're the ad exec why not give it a whirl? You never know what might catch on and if you don't give it a shot well it just won't happen.

  18. Maybe the dude liked D&D? Stranger things have happened.