It was only a matter of time until the parallel revivals of all things analogue collided.
In an age of the digital, ephemeral and disposable, the reactionary embrace of physical media has seen both the Tabletop and Vinyl Record scenes come spiralling back into prominence as people seek to reclaim a sense of ownership and tactile relationship with their media. As a bigtime aficionado of both of these worlds and a believer in supporting artists by purchasing their physical media as a rejection of the ludicrous piss-taking gouge enabled by spotify et al – then the arrival of these strange, experimental artefacts seem uniquely tailored to my psyche. The real-estate offered by the gatefold format seems to scream with possibilities here, aping as it does both a gameboard and DM screen in potential dimensions, but how do they work exactly? And as we drop the needle on them and flip open the cardstock spine, can they offer us more than mere gimmickry?
Well, yes and no.
Death Robot Jungle
The conceptual and musical invention of one Andre Novoa, Death Robot Jungle by Portuguese collective ‘Games Omnivorous’ follows in the footsteps of their quartet of idiosyncratic one-shot zine modules and purports to present the world’s first LP as RPG experience. Put simply, flip open the LP and in the section where you’d normally find a swathe of lyrics about wizards and Roger Dean artwork (depicting wizards), in this instance you’ll be presented with a map, complete with keyed locations such as you might find in the likes of X1-The Isle of Dread. The trick here is than instead of each area being keyed to a paragraph of text and series of stat blocks, it instead relates to one of the tracks on the LP. We’re in conceptual territory here, and as you take your first faltering steps into the forested swamps, marshland bogs and dappled canopies of this jungle isle, the primary questions are- does this work as a concept, and- perhaps more importantly- is the music any good?
The plot, such as it is, is sketched out rather than hammered home in reams of exposition. The island setting -home to skull shaped hermetic crabs, poisonous translucent frogs and squid worshipping tribes of natives- houses within its fronded glades the roaring peaks of twin volcanoes, rich in nutrients and precious ores, from which an army of invading robots seek to extract such bounty to power their ongoing march of automated colonisation.
Set the tone arm to swing and the music immediately evokes this conflict as a succession of harsh alien sawtooth synths duel with infectious Latin American Cumbia beats to evoke the dichotomy inherent in the invasion. The lurching march of the robots and perhaps even the bleating chorus of the frogs is further enhanced by languid stabs of brass, coalescing to evoke an awkward mechanised shuffle as much as a festive corroboree that will duly fire both your imagination and your hips as you are transported to the island.
As the music progresses, we are treated to evolutions of the same overture, punctuated by interludes depicting acid rains, belching magma baths and other geographical anomalies, hinting at the route that might be taken by a party of interlopers and climaxing with the final cut soundtracking the war of machine and men, as players and tribesmen confront the deathless march of progress that seeks to exploit the island itself, mulching this weird utopian atoll in its suffocating iron jaws.
Along the way, players (and listeners) are treated to approximations of Cloud Forests, Squid Calling Ceremonies, Interdimensional Portals and more, across ten tracks and sixteen locations replete with flying stingrays, long-toothed purple monkeys and flamingo shaped robot spies. Both thematically and sonically it’s worlds away from the dreary dungeon synth and corridor crawl that one might imagine would comprise such a project, and this is 1000% to its benefit, proffering something far more unique and rendering it something you can spin for pleasure, or even at a party- rather than say, when it’s raining outside and you’re painting orcs in your basement.
Evocative as it might be however, to turn this into a game is going to require some heavy lifting from whichever tribal elder is assigned the role of GM. Stylistically, the artwork of the map evokes 16-bit console RPG’s with locations divided into neat sprite-style blocs for ease of navigation. Each location comprises four such segments, a single line of text and the associated musical tracks which are loosely assigned across regions, playing double duty throughout numerous areas. Whether you can gel with this approach is largely going to be a matter of mindset. Whilst some may find such swathes of agency freeing, others are certain to be bamboozled by the amount of leeway on offer in place of a more guided and signposted experience. There are no stats here, no system inherent in the story. A handful of prompts on locations, flora and fauna are the bones from which the onus is firmly on you to knit the experience. In doing so, groups will be best served by an ability to rethink the terms of what a traditional tabletop experience can offer. That, and an embrace of the fact that the sheer infectiousness of the beats are probably wont to be quite distracting, as one’s narrative is interrupted by the urge to shake one’s culo upon said tabletop.
Whether this is a good or a bad problem I’ll leave for you to decide.
Dungeon Bastards, the fifth LP from California death-merchants Ghoul, is- by contrast- a far more traditional affair, in the fact that this is primarily an album, and as such it is sold as so. However, flip the LP and then crack the spine and you’ll soon discover a concept album-as-love-letter to old school D&D modules and 80’s roll-to-move adventures such as Talisman. Or perhaps more accurately- Candyland, but with chainsaws and shit. And it fucking rips.
Whilst the opening into track ‘Ghetto Blasters’ skews a little too polite in its Heartwork-era Carcass melodicism’s, once ‘Bringer of War’ vomits out of your speakers we’re in proper goodtime neck-snapping country as old-school Death Metal (complete with Symphonies of Sickness Bill Steer gurgle) crosses swords with Suicidals/DRI/SOD style crossover gang choruses and frenzied chromatic thrash riffing. It’s infectious as hell and fun-as-shit, gets your blood pumping and forms the perfect soundtrack to the beer-chugging, pretzel chewing action you’ll dive into as you straddle the gameboard within.
Creepsylvania is under the control of Commandant Dobrunkum, a tyrannical despot! Having captured the Omicron Bomb from deep within the Catacombs, he has enslaved a fearful and ignorant populace. The hooded fiends known as Ghoul must venture into the city square past dangerous and implausible foes, wrest control of the bomb, and try not to do anything stupid with it!
This classic synopsis sets out the plot of both album and game, and both will blaze by in a frenzied 40 minutes of buzzsaw guitars, blast-beats and shitty snakes n ladders depth roll-to-move action. It’s the trappings that save this one. Yeah, you’ll be entirely beholden to the whims of the d6, landing on spaces that can push you forward or force you to miss a turn,- but you’ll be doing so whilst discovering extra-pointy guitars that compel you to waste your life playing music, hot-wiring busses, slipping in blood and punching black metal bands. So y’know- swings and roundabouts. First player to reach Svatoplunk Square detonates the bomb and everyone dies, but by this point you’ll be too drunk to care. Much like the album itself- it’s not big or clever, but your inner 12 year old will be elated by the contents of both disc and dice-chucker as you dig out your putrid old denim vest for maximum immersion factor.
So yeah, the LP as game? Here we have two wildly different approaches that both work about as well as can be expected given their relative ambitions. It definitely helps that they’re both legitimately good albums, and stand tall on those merits within their respective genres. Whilst Death Robot Jungle is perhaps more original, Dungeon Bastards is a fantastic contemporary take on OG death/thrash that never takes itself too seriously and is scattered with some total fucking bangers, complete with killer musicianship and great laugh-out-loud lyrics that convey the travails of the Ghoulunatics in their tussle with the tyrannical Commandant Dobrunkum and his fascistic forces.
Head in with the appropriate mindset and you’ll find plenty to love in both as albums first, and games second. Plus you’ll be helping to maintain the relevance of physical media, and ensuring that artists can afford to buy noodles and shit. A warm glow will ensue.
Seeding and Breeding
Finally for now – in a cool turn of events, far from being the anomalous blips they might appear- it seems both approaches have now also seeded their successors. If you’re mad or wealthy enough to shell out for the recently unleashed mega-deluxo box-set of the 40th anniversary ‘Ace of Spades’ LP by Motörhead, you’ll find nestled within its cavernous confines a set of snaggletooth branded dice with which to play the nascent gambling game printed on the inner box lid. More interestingly however- turn to kickstarter at this very moment and you’ll find two further attempts at marrying the RPG module with hot wax soundtrack, in the forms of the girth-envious 7” ‘Ancient Undead Spider Wizard’ and, in what could be considered a direct sequel to Death Robot Jungle- Andre Novoa and Games Omnivorous teaming up with the maniacal swedes of MÖRK BORG to bring us ‘Putrescence Regnant’ – both of which purport to offer more fleshed-out takes, complete with booklets to add more details, tables and weight to the thematic fringing on offer.
How the relative buoyancy of Andre’s style will mesh with the cloying doom scented vistas of MÖRK BORG is an intriguing thing to ponder, and so I await its arrival with both baited-breath and sharpened stylus.
So, they sound good and they look dope on your shelf. But is it a gimmick? Hell yeah. And it totally worked on me.
Delve into the Death Robot Jungle.
Rally to the Ghoulunatic banner.
Summon the Ancient Undead Spider Wizard.
Take a whiff of Putrescene Regnant