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The Sound of the Unknown Part 3: Creating the Music

To celebrate the release of our three suites of Musick for Unknown Armies, composer James Semple wrote three blog posts about commissioning, collaborating on, and creating music for roleplaying games. This is the third post in the series.

Often when starting a new project I will try and define my palette, the range of instruments and sounds that will be used for the music. Sometimes this will be definitive but often it will just be the core sounds. With Unknown Armies I didn’t really do this. Instead, I defined the kind of sounds I’d gravitate towards but I’d begin my template afresh on each track. This definitely ended up being more work but I feel that it kept the tracks sounding more original and unique.

There are a whole lot of influences on the Unknown Armies music but it never really sits comfortably in a single, definable genre. For instance there are orchestral and choral sounds in there, but they're usually mixed with synthesizers or strange abstract noises, and often contemporary drums or bass. Even the alternative rock tracks include soundscape elements and unusual production tricks.

Most of the music was realised within a computer and honestly I used an enormous number of different virtual instruments to create the three suites. I also used a fair amount of live guitar, sometimes overtly and often as an effect in the background. I played acoustic, clean electric, distorted electric, slide guitar, reversed guitar — pretty much anything I could think of, really. It all went in there. I also used the wonderful cellist Deryn Cullen on the track "Lament for the Incorrectly Processed." The cello was so exposed and sensitive that I knew I needed a live player and her sublime performance truly lifted that track.

One reason I love working on RPG music is the chance to help define a genre and put a stamp on an original setting. The setting here was so original that I had a massive amount of freedom to come up with something new and I’d like to think that now Unknown Armies has its own musical identity.

If you haven't already, check out The Sound of the Unknown Part 1: Commissioning Music and The Sound of the Unknown Part 2: The Collaboration Process, the first and second posts in this series.

Rejected Schools of Magick in Unknown Armies

Of all the elements that make Unknown Armies stand out from other roleplaying games, it's probably its strange, postmodern take on magick. Imaginative, engaging, even hilarious schools of magick make kewl powerz that are actually cool. There are dozens of fan-created schools, each of them a singular vision of a certain type of character who has the specific obsession that gives rise to their magick.

This got us thinking: Is there anything that can't be a compelling Unknown Armies school of magick? We gave it our best shot to come up with schools too goofy, too weird, or too dull to be interesting. But actively trying not to be awesome was harder than it seemed! Did we succeed at failing, or do these still sound like interesting schools of magick?

Pagotomancy—The magick of ice cream. Minor charges involve creating new flavors of sweet, cold confections. Of course, the blast involves really bad brain freeze. Like, actual, literal freezing of brains. A secret war rages between the Gelati and the Soft Serve.

Esorouchurgy—The magick of underwear. Acquiring the underwear of the famous and powerful could be a source of charges, but so can acquiring the underwear worn at historic events like Game 7 of the 2016 World Series. Spells include things like "Down on Skid Row," "Four Days Good," and "Hyperwedgie." But would esourochurges be required to go commando themselves?

Videofelimancy—The magick of cat videos. Their hypnotic quality and unfailing ability to improve people's moods must surely come from a form of magick. For a significant charge, track down the original video file of the first Internet cat video. The annual cult meeting takes place in Saint Paul, Minnesota at the International CatVidFest.

Ozomancy—The magic of terrible smells. Naturally, high schools are great places to acquire minor charges, from the concentrated stink of a locker room to the weaponized scent of cheap body spray. The paradox is, of course, that the ozomancer must be meticulously clean and devoid of any scent whatsoever. If they acquire any of the scents they work with, good or bad, they must immediately clean up to avoid the taboo.

What can you come up with? Remember, the Statosphere is coming. Unknown Armies 3rd Edition has and always will thrive on the creativity of its audience.

The Sound of the Unknown Part 2: The Collaboration Process

To celebrate the release of our three suites of Musick for Unknown Armies, composer James Semple wrote three blog posts about commissioning, collaborating on, and creating music for roleplaying games. This is the second post in the series.

One issue that you may have as a games designer when commissioning music is how to tell the composer exactly what you want. Unless you are also a musician, you may find it difficult to definitively describe your vision. So many words mean different things to different people. For some, "epic" means a grandiose piece that tells a story. To others it means really loud drums.

There are many ways to get around this problem. Reference tracks are a useful way of explaining what you like. Also, conversations with the composer can help really narrow down what you like about the reference tracks you've chosen. For Unknown Armies, we started with conversations about the kinds of feelings the music should evoke and from these discussions surfaced a manifesto where we defined terms that we felt applied to the music. While these terms can never be perfect, they did give a baseline theme to keep me on track while writing the music. Each piece of music was of course signed off by the creative team at Atlas Games.


One of the great aspects of this project for me was how much freedom I was given to experiment and explore when writing the music. I could spend time searching for new unusual sounds or work with challenging harmonic ideas without the sense of being limited by existing genre expectations. Unknown Armies is a very original game and that gave me the room to write some of my most original and personal music to date.

If you haven't already, check out the first and third posts in this series, The Sound of the Unknown Part 1: Commissioning Music and The Sound of the Unknown Part 3: Creating the Music.

Americana and Unknown Armies

It's been said that Unknown Armies is distinctly American in its outlook. Perhaps some will find Third Edition less so—not because the approach to its cosmology is so different, but because the lens with which we view 2016 is so different than the one through which Unknown Armies designer John Tynes saw the world in 1996. With every passing day, the borders among global powers become blurrier, and Unknown Armies has always thrived on fuzzy logic. Mak Attax is an international phenomenon, after all.

Unknown Armies finds a lot of both love and fear about the American landscape. And why not? Our characters in other games have been to the scary old house in England, the moldering castle in the Carpathians, or the ancient ruins in the Yucatan. In the context of roleplaying games, we think of distance as equivalent to exoticism, but the mundane and familiar where we live is less explored. What about the burger joint we all known and love, or the back of our local post office? Unknown Armies plays upon the past, but it's the recent past of abandoned Blockbusters and Radio Shacks. It finds ample fuel in the tabloids, the strip malls, the pawn shops, and throughout the rotting carcass of the Midwestern Rust Belt. That gothic church over there might be creepy, but more so than the truck stop off I-94?

Unknown Armies' seediness owes much to film noir and the writings of folks like James Ellroy. But these aren't unique to America. Noir films in general, while an American genre, were deeply influenced by German Expressionism and the sensibilities of displaced European filmmakers emigrating to the US during or after World War II. These artists' profound ambivalence about the human condition contrasted starkly with the traditional Hollywood "happy ending." For example, designer Greg Stolze cites the more recent Spanish film Intacto as a near-perfect Unknown Armies story.

There's a grottiness to Unknown Armies, like an old VHS copy of Basket Case that's been viewed ten too many times. But you can find manifestations of that aesthetic all around the world, both in native forms and as an American export.

The Sound of the Unknown Part 1: Commissioning Music

To celebrate the release of our three suites of Musick for Unknown Armies, composer James Semple wrote three blog posts about commissioning, collaborating on, and creating music for roleplaying games. This is the first post in the series.

Having recently completed 45 minutes of music for the Unknown Armies suites, I thought it was worth taking a moment to reflect on why a game creator might want to commission music for their RPG or board game.

I’ll be honest and say I think there’s a sense of prestige associated with your game having its own musical theme, but also, it’s useful from the point of view of brand awareness. You now have identifiable music you can play for promotional videos or at live events. It can help to reinforce the mood of the game by calling on evocative musical touchstones that subliminally (or even explicitly) suggest eras, regions, or genres.

It’s worth taking a moment to consider how you'll use the music when you commission it. Is it simply for listening pleasure or inspiration? Do you have a specific utility in mind? While it’s exciting to define short catchy themes for elements of your game, usually the most useful type of music for players is long and ambient. Music that sets a mood but isn’t interesting enough to distract from the session in play. Often this is little more than long drones and abstract sounds but it can use melodic ideas as well. While this is very useful during games it can get a little dull as a listening experience in itself and doesn’t really "sell" the music. In the long run I usually find I’m asked for a mix of themes and ambient music perhaps with some other elements such as short three- to five-second "stings," or maybe loopable action music.

In the end it all comes down to a good working relationship with the composer, setting out your goals and together creating something unique and inspiring for your game. With Unknown Armies I had the distinct pleasure of working with very original source material and some amazing creative people who helped me discover their sound. I think together we’ve come up with something quite unique that I called Americanoir. I hope it does justice to their vision.

If you haven't already, check out the second and third posts in this series, The Sound of the Unknown Part 2: The Collaboration Process and The Sound of the Unknown Part 3: Creating the Music.