Friday, 30 January 2009

Metal and Gaming

I think I'm right in saying that, on average, there are more role players who like metal music than in the general population at large. At least judging by the groups I've gamed with in the past and from the role playing blogosphere - which seems like a veritable hotbed of metal fans.

This makes me feel alienated. I hate metal.

Now, I like hard rock, and hardcore, and grunge. My favourite band were The Smashing Pumpkins (I don't count their latest album, or the one before it actually) and I grew up listening to Dinosaur Jr., Soundgarden, Screaming Trees, Mudhoney. It's not an issue with the heavyness. It's just all that screaming, grunting and hair. It's not for me.

But I wonder where the association between metal and gaming comes from. Gamers are by and large an imaginative bunch. Do metal bands also help to scratch that itch, with their songs named after Tolkien characters who live in Mordor and their ranting on about death, doom and destruction? But if that's the case, why wouldn't classical music, which plays with the imagination even more, be a popular choice?

The simple answer might just be that gamers tended to be the 'uncool' kids in school and 'uncool' kids listen to a certain type of music. They like rebellious, moody and resentful sounding music because they are generally rebellious, moody and resentful themselves. And you don't get much more rebellious, moody and resentful sounding than Pantera or Slayer.

I know metal-loving gamers read this blog. So spill the beans. Is there a connection between metal and gaming, and why does it exist?


  1. But if that's the case, why wouldn't classical music, which plays with the imagination even more, be a popular choice?

    Yeah, I like metal and classical, for much the same reasons. They both can be full of pomp and majesty of subject matter in a way that most other genres seem to avoid.

  2. I've never been a big metal fan myself, although I recently picked-up the Dethalbum and it has me hooked pretty good. :)

  3. I blame it on Led Zeppelin and Ramble On.


  4. I'm not a fan of metal (or the subgenres of such), but I do have an appreciation for some bands and songs that would fit in that category, stemming from more exposure to it during college.

    In high school, as well as to the current day, I was a fan of punk from the late 70s to the mid 80s era. Basically from the time when the only "alternative" in that scene was "Alternative Tentacles". But some of what you posit about why metalheads are drawn to gaming is reflected in why the punks in my high school were drawn to gaming. There was a certain "we like it and we don't care about what you all think about what we like or what we do." My gaming table had more mowhawks, fins, and dreadlocks at it than straight haircuts.

    Perhaps reflective of this, my fantasy games tend not to have a lot of grandiose or majestic subject matter. I've always been drawn more to low fantasy than high. I'm more Leiber than Tolkien when it comes to my fantasy flavor. I want my fantasy like I want my music: gritty, stinky, fast, and smart, with a little social consciousness thrown in.

    I think most of the reason that I'm drawn to the old-school revival is that it has a very punk rock D.I.Y. vibe to it. If the business isn't catering to your desires, make your own damn scene, complete with venues, creators, and dress code. Well, maybe not dress code...

  5. Blind Guardian wrote a song about Raistlin from Dragonlance ( ) and an entire album based on Tolkien. ;-)

  6. I was pretty much introduced to metal (Judas Priest, Accept, Slayer, Motley Crue) and AD&D at the same time - in 7th grade a pretty formative time in life. It becomes pretty hard to seperate the two at times. D&D goes especially well with Iron Maiden and Led Zeppelin.

  7. I got into punk rock and what was called "college rock" back then ... most of my friends were into metal. I enjoy it in sort of a nostalgic way, because it takes me back to hanging around getting fucked up with my mulleted friends.

    I also grew up within driving distance of Tampa, so we ended up at a couple shows up there. Tampa took their shit real serious, none of that campy NWOBHM or pop-metal stuff. Florida had some pretty freaky music scenes.

    Rivers Cuomo was asked a vaguely related question in this week's Onion AV Club interview:

    AVC: Chuck Eddy said he thought Weezer was as much a metal band as any metal band. It always seemed like you guys had your guitars recorded in a metal way.

    RC: I think there is a very subtle shift from the metal I grew up on to Weezer. I think the big shift was from a minor key to a major key. That made a huge difference in how it was perceived. Lyrically, we're not talking about fantasy stuff like Dungeons & Dragons so much, although there is a D&D reference on the Blue Album. It's coming, I guess, not from a place of power and fantasy, but rather an acknowledgment of, "Oh, I don't actually have a lot of power. I am a geek." Whereas metal is trying to pretend you are not a geek.

  8. here's one connection.

    it's certainly not true that all gamers listen to heavy metal. I was the only one in my high school gaming group who did (conversely, all but one of my adult friends who are into metal were gamers in high school). but I think that the two activities have a lot in common, as outlets for smart kids stuck in communities where they don't really have a place. they're literary, they're esoteric, they're frowned upon by moralists-- that's pretty much a perfect trifecta for getting the attention of a bright, alienated kid.

    just as an interesting sidebar, here's a quote from Varg Vikernes (the Norwegian neo-Nazi murderer behind the black metal outfit Burzum):

    "What inspired me to make the music itself is kind of weird too. When I was a teenager my RPG friends and I sometimes took some wooden clubs, spears and swords and went into the countryside to fight each other.


    Now, the locals naturally reacted a bit to our presence. One time I jumped our from the underbrush - after laying in wait to ambush the other guys - and surprised a family who was just taking a walk. I had long hair with bits of moss and pine needles in it, more dark grey or black clothes with grim Death Metal imagery and had a club in my hand, so they weren't too pleased to see me. Because of the risk of encountering "normal" people out enjoying the freedom of Mother Nature, we ended up fighting when the risk of running into "normal" people was minimal. In other words, we waited for the late evenings. We sometimes brought torches or built a bonfire, to be able to see in the darkness, and of course Scandinavian summer-nights are not dark anyhow, and we kept fighting."

    I remember reading that when Varg first published it and thinking, "wow, I wish I went to high school with those guys." except, of course, I never got into the whole hating-Jews thing.

  9. While I did indeed once draw inspiration from Meat Loaf's Bat Out Of Hell for a D&D scenario, Pink Floyd has been a far greater influence on me...

    Although, I must admit Wagner's Ride Of The Valkyries still feels more like instrumental rock music.

  10. Jeff: I can see the connection actually, but give me Stravinsky over Metallica any day.

    Will: I have no idea what the Dethalbum is... should I?

    Syrsuro: And there's that song Led Zep did, I forget the name.

    Mike: That's true, you know. OD&D is very punk, very garage rock. Unfortunately I don't think it helps us get girls as much, though. ;)

    Stuart: See, that's what I mean. What other genre of music would have bands writing songs about Raistlin?

    Joseph: Again, over my head. My knowledge of metal extends about as deep as my knowledge of cross-stitching. ;)

    ligedog: Are Led Zep really metal? I have to ask, because I'd classify them as sort of hard rock with proggy aspects rather than out and out metal.

    Scott: You know, that really takes me back to being a teenager. That song, In My Garage, off the Blue Album, was our anthem. "I got a twenty sided die...I got a dungeon master's guide..." It's interesting what Cuomo says about metal being about pretending not to be a geek while Weezer and the college rock bands revelled in the geekhood. That's definitely true of Pavement and their ilk too. Actually if anybody was to write a song about D&D that I'd enjoy listening to it would probably be Stephen Malkmus.

    James: It's difficult to know what to make of that, because on the one hand I wasn't one of the 'in crowd' in school either and was into similar things, but it's scary to think that alienation from ones peers can lead one into, basically, the insanity of Neo-Nazism and antisemitism.

    Mothman's: I can make an exception for Meatloaf. I would love to play in an adventure based on Bat Out Of Hell.

  11. "Will: I have no idea what the Dethalbum is... should I?"

    Comedian and metal nerd Brendon Small (of Home Movies fame) created a tv show called Metalocalypse based on a fictional metal band called Dethklok. It just completed its second season and is probably one of the most awesome things on television right now. I'd check it out if I were you.

    The Dethalbum is a complete "in character" album based on the show. Ironically, it's also the best selling death metal album of all time.

  12. To me: Escape from small-town mediocrity.
    I was the only metal-head in our group, however. One was a Hawkwind/Pink Floyd hippie and another was camp and liked Kate Bush Yet another was a born-again Christian (who eventually turned away from the group because of his fears of Satanism).
    I guess the point is: we were weird, unconvential, bored of small-town life and trying to find ourselves. Metal spoke to the anger, alienation and creativity, D&D to the imagination, the unconventionality and the creativity. And at some point the music and the game met for some people. Metal creates weird spaces that you can go to in your mind, as does role-playing. That's what got me about both of them, at any rate.

  13. Well, I got into metal well after I got into gaming. Gaming I picked up in 4th grade when a friend offered to DM a D&D game (I had seen this in comic book ads and whatnot, but knew nothing about it). I got into metal in about 11th grade, when a friend left a CD with some Iron Maiden songs at my house.

    Re: screaming, grunting, and depends on the band, I'd say. There are some with significantly less screaming, grunting, and hair, and more orchestral sounds. But whatever, I don't think you're interested in metal band recommendations. :P

    I think that part of it is definitely that metal bands help to scratch the fantasy itch you're talking about. The salient differences between metal and classical that are relevant here are length (most metal songs are within the 2-4 minute span which we're conditioned to these days), explicit fantastical imagery, and associations of "classical" with "boring."

    @Scott: NWOBHM is campy? Iron Maiden, Saxon, and Motorhead don't quite ring as 'campy' to me...but whatever.

    @Viriconium: Strangely, Hawkwind goes into the 'metal' space in my mind...primarily because of the fantastic imagery that they use. I mean, songs about Roger Zelazny and Michael Moorcock books!

  14. I was a nerdy middle class white kid growing up in the suburbs in the 1980s. There was no escape, unless you count 1)D&D, 2)wildly escapist heavy metal lyrics about war, death, and destruction.

    For my musings on some recent metal albums that might relate to gaming, click the URL above.

  15. The connection between Metal and D&D, that's easy SATAN! No waitaminiute. That;s just what they want you to believe.

    My own tastes in music range pretty far. Kiss, Queen, Meatloaf and The Bay City Rollers were my first musical discoveries. From ther it was straight into Ozzy, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Metallica, Megadeth and Slayer. Then I got into Grunge and Industrial about at the same time, then slowly into metal again. These days I'm nearing 40 and I love Melodic Death Metal and Sigur Ros among others. Why? Partially for the same reason I read Robert E. Howard and or Lovecraft (Iron Maiden actually introduced me to Lovecraft), blood, thunder and hooks. Like I said, Melodic Death Metal is tits in my book.

    Sorry this rambled a lot. In the end Fantasy Literature/Metal Music comes from the same place for me.

  16. Will: I might check it out. Well, actually I probably won't, but, hey. ;)

    Viriconium: See, for me grunge and trip-hop were the same ways out. I suppose the hole metal filled for other people I just filled with something else.

    Allandaros: Probably not so interested in recommendations, no. ;) It's not that I haven't heard metal. My sister's ex-husband was a massive metalhead. Perhaps that's one of the things that turned me off!

    MetalJim: Thanks for the link. The consensus seems to be that metal and role playing are about escapism, and that's the connection.

    Mkotschi: I never thought I'd get a Bay City Rollers reference on this entry... ;)

  17. It's strange because for me gaming never was about escapism, more about stimulating my imagination. But I have a similar relationship to music, I listen to many different things from metal to classical(Noting is quite relaxing as piano by Eric Satie) going by old french singers(great texts by Jacques Brel always do it for me) and classic rock (I love The Who) with a little bit of Tibetans monks singing sometimes.

    But then I started gaming far later than music so perhaps there's something there.

  18. The connection between metal and RPGs boils down to common influence. A lot of metal bands take inspiration from fantasy and sword-and-sorcery literature, so there you go. The "dark sorcery" themes in RPGs can take a lot of ideas from the supernatural themes in a lot of heavy metal (whether serious Satanism or just annoy-parents faux mysticism).

    But traditionally RPG players and metal listeners have been more-or-less outcasts (well, here in Finland everything's backwards when it comes to that), but I often find the metalheads that play RPGs are more likely to be a bit more casual about it. The "I must find this 1985 demo on the original cassette and buy the vinyl release as well" types don't tend to be into RPGs all that much. There's only room in life for so many total obsessions I guess.

  19. "And the last thing I see is my heart, still beating, breaking out of my body and flying away..."

    Calcified heart, black-grey and almost stone-like in texture, fanged maw where a hole has torn in a ventricle, bat wings sprouting from the aorta, spits acid, undead, victims that die have their hearts tear their way out of the body; can't remember the statistics but I did call it a Beating Heart originally and a Caruvax in later years.

    My brother played D&D for a while in high school, the kind of DM who slaps down uppity players by sealing their characters in a dungeon without flammable objects and with trolls for wandering encounters. His rock band - (tell them Ysgthru sent you) - have recently put out their second album. He says they're inspired mainly by Pink Floyd, but they headline with a headbanging heavy metal band, and the reviews tag them as doom metal.

  20. GuiGuiBob: I think for me gaming is a mixture of escapism and stimulation. In my previous job I was a translator, which sounds interesting but is actually both boring and draining. Playing my PBeM D&D games during my breaks kept me sane - it was all about escapism. But the sheer creativity of gaming can't be ignored. Anyway, it's always nice to meet a Jacques Brel fan. My parents are Brel fanatics and my earliest memories are listening to songs like J'arrive and Jackie in the car on long trips.

    Jim: So in Finland everybody likes metal and RPGs and the outcasts are into Britney Spears and Kanye West? Sounds like an interesting place to live. I actually remember a faux-metal band called Lordie or Lody or something winning the Eurovision song contest for either Finland or Estonia a few years ago.

    Mothman's: I'll give 'em a listen, though I admit the prospect of a subgenre called 'Doom Metal' doesn't fill me with anticipation...

  21. Forget metal, we need more goths and rivet heads in the gaming community (although no emo kids pretending to be goth...I want angst not mopey).

    Joking aside I think Amityville Mike is onto something about punks (and goths and rivet heads are descendants of punks) being into gaming for the same reason you see tons of metal heads (and you are right about that).

    Why more metal heads than the p/g/r crowd. Well, one is RPGs started in the US where metal was more common, D&D broke out hard in the early 80s after punk was mostly spent as a pop culture force but metal was peaking, and the heavy male dominance (goth is a much more mixed scene).

    And I'll also agree with Mike about the DIY aspect. I preach that so hard on my radio show that goth is a DIY scene and buying it at Hot Topic is the sign of a Mall Goth or a Kinder be a Baby Bat you need to move into DIY.

    I suspect that later is why both the Indie and Old School scenes appeal to me much more than "mainstream" rpg culture.

  22. Herb: Our music tastes are probably pretty different, but I'm right with you on the DIY aspect of music and rpgs.

    I think there's definitely a generational gap. Like you say, the heyday of gaming was the 80s, which was also the heyday of metal. When I was first getting into music and rpgs, grunge, trip-hop and later Britrock were in. (I grew up in the UK.) All of those scenes had their DIY aspects too, though, same as punk or metal did.

  23. I *never* thought of metal as DIY, but that's because it required more technical proficiency than I had, i.e., barre chords.

  24. Metal and Classical, both cool. Grunge, not so much. :)