FIIIIIIGHT! Drumroll for initiative.

The most powerful changes in mood in my games are marked by the moment an arena is revealed on the mat, the minis are laid out, and whatever grumpy beasts the party have managed to vex with their shenanigans finally have their patience exhausted and strike. I like to tip this over the edge with the sudden introduction of dark and dramatic music.

Most of the very best composers of startling and aggressive music are, for me, those Russians writing on the cusp of and then the first half of the 20th century. It’s almost like there was some sort of series of deadly upheavals that influenced their art… Shostakovich, Korsakov (who mentored a lot of the others), Mussorgsky and the peerless Stravinsky all feature heavily in my combat playlist with great punching orchestral stabs, blaring warlike horns, thunderous timpani, the works.

Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring blew people’s minds when it was first shown; stories of riots breaking out may or may not have been apocryphal, but it’s certain that people didn’t get it and a fair few of them made a fuss. It was like taking a bunch of One Direction fans to a Slayer gig. I was delighted to read recently that it upset Puccini, doing the Lord’s work as far as I care. It is still a challenging listen today but is packed full of deeply vivid scenes; I’ve picked out a couple of movements in my playlist list but please do listen to it all and read about the story it tells, tonnes of inspiration there. There’s a bit of a shaky recording of it danced here.

Stravinsky had a huge influence on Shostakovich, the 4th movement of his 5th symphony in D Minor is at the front of my playlist and if in doubt it’s the one I hit; I think I could probably startle a few of my players into violent Pavlovian response if I snuck up on them in their daily lives and played it on a boombox. Thematically, it’s just huge – less abstract than The Rite, but still hits some beautifully dangerous points. It does wander a little emotionally, although the underlying menace is constant, and I’ve often found that by magic the action has synchronised with the piece. The last section shifts to a triumphal major key which, if you can manage to tie to the moment of victory, feels just majestic.

You’ll hear more of the others in the list, but I also wanted to highlight some pieces from other countries and eras. Bruckner’s 8th symphony has been called “The Apocalyptic”, which is probably all you need to know, the last movement is colossal, you can really tell he was an organist the way he hits the opening, massive, heroic blasts. Totentanz by Liszt, trans. the dance of the dead, is dripping with macabre menace and uses a theme from plainsong about the day of judgement, hitting it all home hard with tumbling and aggressive piano work, very Lich. 

If you want something a bit comical try The Devil’s Gallop by Williams: he was writing music for film and radio and it’s ideal for a quick moving, but not especially terrifying, light encounter. You’ll have heard it before. For a one on one duel try some Spanish guitar, Asturias by Albéniz features lunging stabs and lots of tension.

When looking for this type of music for your own lists one of the key words to look for is “minor”, minor keys are broadly associated with negative emotions. The challenge that comes with much music of this sort is that the mood can shift dramatically, so it is imperative that you listen through to any piece before using it rather than have a surprise little jolly moment halfway through a grizzly death – don’t assume that a bombastic intro tells the whole story of the piece!

If you have any recommendations for addition to the list, questions or corrections to what I’ve written, please do get in touch. I’d also love to know if there are any situations or scenarios that you need music for but just can’t find the right thing.

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