The OSR and Dungeon Synth, Part 1: A Brief History, The Elephant In The Room, and What To Do About It
I see crossover more and more between two of my main interests in life (music and table-top games), so I feel it’s ideal to talk about them together, as the overlap is real, and there’s some education about both I feel is pertinent.
Heavy Metal and D&D grew up together, both in their formative years from the 70s and 80s and into the modern era. Metal drew heavily from fantasy, and D&D was a game set in a fantastic world. Eventually, the second wave of black metal formed in the mid to late 80s and early 90s, and with it came artists who drew upon the work of electronic musicians such as Tangerine Dream as well as Industrial acts like Throbbing Gristle to form a further sub-genre that would be known as Dungeon Synth. Not that the creation of the genre is or was a straight line, artists now considered foundational, like Jim Kirkwood, didn’t come from that scene. Largely, the genre and scene has seen a revival/boom since 2010 onwards. The music was dark, beautiful, and (in both senses of the word) fantastic.
It was shortly before 2010 when I was first introduced to the OSR. The Old School Renaissance was largely seen as a response to 4th edition and the rules bloat that had accompanied 3e, and was largely driven on blogs and the now defunct G+ social media platform. It was, and still is, grassroots and anti-corporate. This is pertinent: metal, especially underground metal such as death and black metal, was largely influenced by the hardcore and punk scenes. DIY ethos and hearty helping of fuckin’ attitude have always accompanied these spaces. One does not simply walk into Mordor, and one does not wear khakis and a polo to see Glacial Tomb or Spectral Wound.
This is where things get interesting. Both of these things/places/scenes/genres/arts/whatever are steeped in fantasy and DIY ethos, separated by mediums and time, and seem to be meeting up again. WARPLAND and Mörk Borg both announced Dungeon Synth Soundtracks to go with their games. The dungeon synth label Heimat Der Katastrophe puts the OSR logo on their cassette tapes, which each come with a short adventure. Northeast Dungeon Siege (a live DS music event) had a space where people played Dungeon Crawl Classics a few years back. It’s like long-lost twins finding each other after so long: one’s grim, frost-bitten mood matching the other’s harsh, torch-lit atmosphere. Paired swords, raised in moon-light.
Alas, like cursed twins, both scenes aren’t without significant problems, mostly in the creators of some of their content. Early and influential dungeon synth artists like Burzum and Lamentations are literal Nazis, the latter of which makes hate music and the former is a convicted murderer. Prominent OSR creator of the Adventurer, Conqueror, King system worked for alt-reich political puppets and openly supported Gamergate dogshit. The creator of Castle Xintillain made transphobic comments. Old Tower, prominently featured DS artist, has made Nazi music in the past. One of my favorite OSR publishers (the guy behind Lamentations of The Flame Princess) has had photos of himself with alt-reich-darling philosophers.
The point is: there’s a lot of people in both scenes casually comfortable with hate, or actively trying to poison either scene with it.
You may be positing to yourself, why I’m bringing this up. A lot of this is old-news, a lot of this revolves around funky D&D nobody gives a fuck about compared to 5e.
A lot of reasons. Firstly, cross-pollination means you as an OSR reader may go looking for Dungeon Synth music (or vice-versa) , and may get the recommendation to give your money to people who actively wish you were dead, or encourage people to commit violent crimes against you. That’s not fucking cool. I, and now we, have a responsibility to make sure others are informed about that shit. That isn’t to say that all artists within the scene are bigots or scum, but you should definitely do some research on an artist before you buy from them.
Secondly, because I believe that diversity is strength, and that we’re stronger as a species together. No man is an island, and everybody needs somebody. we’re all deserving of equality, equity, and compassion. Those who would see it taken from us are detrimental to humanity as a whole. We have a responsibility to make that space at our table for our brothers and sisters who would be so marginalized.
Thirdly, because hate-group knucklefucking scum actively sees both these scenes as overwhelmingly white, straight, and being willing to entertain their ideals. We have a responsibility to prove them wrong, to uphold and defend our friends and family against those who would try to do us harm from within.
And lastly, because at some point in time, one of your favorite authors or artists is gonna be outed as scum. It’s happened to me a lot over the years. A lot of metalheads and punks and table-top nerds just shrug their shoulders and say, “well, I separate the art from the artist.” and then vomit forth a stream of thoughts that Lindsay Ellis voiced (and refuted) better in her videos on Death of the Author. I’ve struggled with the love of a piece of art knowing the artist is a shitty person. I’ve read a lot about it. And here is what I have to say about the subject:
When you consume art made by a shitty person, what you say is that the product they make is more valuable than those people they have or would hurt.
So what do we do when art we love is made by bad people? What do we do with our books and tapes by bad people? Well, as for the physical media, I don’t know. I’m a firm believer that where books burn, bodies follow. So I don’t advocate for the destruction of such items. As for the influence itself, or your love for the piece, allow me to suggest this: we have a responsibility as creators to make better art. If that means making newer, better OSR elf-games and dungeon synth, then so be it.