Edward Lockhart is an aspiring Pen and Paper Roleplaying Game Designer, a Giant Nerd, and former frontman of a terrible High School Punk-Rock band. He also enjoys craft beer, single malts, and fine cheeses (and writes Violent Media). Thanks, Edward!
Almost everyone’s thought about it, even if just for a moment. When you’re watching old footage of Mick Jagger swaggering around a stage, looking on with awe as Geddy Lee’s hands blur on his bass guitar, or just feeling that exciting buzz fill a pub as a local favorite steps on to play, you’ve thought, “I should do that.” Well, we’re all RPG nerds here, and your role as a game master is a perfect way to sublimate your inner rockstar.
Music is huge part of the human experience and one that isn’t often played up in RPGs (at least not without the words “background” or “bardic”). People define themselves by the music they listen too. New subcultures develop around a few influential, avant-garde bands. Hymnals sit next to Bibles on the backs of church pews. Athletes have to listen to certain songs before they’re in the right mindset to play. No trip to the local pasta place would be complete without hearing Sinatra overhead. The commute to the office is a little easier to tolerate with the radio cranked up to 11. Music touches almost every part of our lives and can help improve our hobby too.
Imagine an assassin who times every beat of his stealthy mission to the swaying rhythms of reggae. Without me describing him any further, I bet you’ve got a pretty good mental picture of the fellow already. Music is a great way to connect to a character or a setting.
A world without music just feels artificial. In any present or near future setting there ought to be small time rock bands, raves in warehouses, and spoiled, drug abusing pop stars. It’s a part of the world we live in and can help you and your players feel the world of the characters.
Below I’ve listed a few examples of some artists and plot hooks that touch on them and their music.
- RPG Genre — Modern Fantasy.
- Musical Style and Image – Street Punk. Eat! tends to think of themselves as working-class, punk purists. Known for their abrupt, frenetically energetic, and confrontational stage shows, Eat! has earned a small but devoted following. They take the DIY stance of punk to the extreme refusing to sign even to independent record labels. Eat!’s only “albums” are lo-fi, cassette recordings of their live shows. On general principle the band wears nothing but second-hand clothing, covered in patches, spray paint, safety pins and studs. They play impromptu shows in abandoned buildings, warehouses, back yards, and even studio apartments in exchange for booze and food.
- Members — “Bust” Brinkley (guitar), “Bleak” Williams (bass), Brick Todd (drums).
- Best Known Songs – “Break it Up? No! Burn it Down!,” “Lead Pipe”
Weird Plot Hooks
The Setup: Within a few days a small time punk band which previously had only been known to a few dozen people will become the center of attention for three seemingly divergent factions. By Tuesday Brick, Eat!’s Drummer, will be flagged by the local supernatural community as a potential threat. On Monday morning a divine prophet sees “the shadow of death” carried by “he who drums with the sky in his hair.” Brick has a sky-blue mohawk. Monday night, a local bookie makes a mistake in his calculations. This is no ordinary bookie, though. He’s a seer who gets his visions from calculating probability equations. When looking for the mistake, he discovers what turns out to be Brick’s social security number to the power of 666. Early Wednesday afternoon, the police have a warrant for the arrest of all three members of Eat! concerning allegations of an anarchist plot to blow up City Hall. By Thursday night, a local crime syndicate has a price out on the heads of all three band members. Depending on whom they know, the PCs may get some or all of this information as it occurs. Eat! has been the heart of the local scene for years so local punks, already leery of authority figures, quickly close ranks to protect their own. The punks keep quiet concerning the whereabouts of Eat! despite the increasing hostility on all fronts.
The Truth: A local warlock is behind all of it. Years ago, he cast a spell to bring an amulet of great power within his grasp. Through a long and surreptitious series of events, the amulet arrived in a local pawn shop leasing a building owned by the wizard. It was promptly purchased by Brick, thinking the battered, leaden skull looked pretty damn cool. The amulet is currently pinned to his spiked leather vest. The warlock had feels the amulet’s presence on Monday and puts two and two together while having drinks with the mystical bookie that night. He magically charms some random bar flies into filing false police reports and pays for a hit on Eat! a few days later. If the warlock does get the amulet he may advance to malevolent godhood, or whatever sort of McGuffin works best in your campaign.
The Ass Bandits
- RPG Genre – Supers
- Musical Style and Image — Queercore/Pop-Rock. The AB typically play short, punchy tunes with chantable choruses. About half their songs are about their personal experiences of growing up gay in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. They consciously dress blandly in jeans and t-shirts to avoid common stereotypes concerning the supposed “outlandishness of homosexual dress and behavior.” They chose their name carefully in an attempt to shockingly grab folks’ attention and then subvert the audience’s expectations by avoiding the extremes of gender identity.
- Members — Steve Wiedeker (Vocals, Rhythm Guitar), Tim Lowman (Lead Guitar), Eric Brookwell (Bass, Keyboards), Sally Middleton (Drums, Vocals).
- Best Known Songs — “Love with Anyone Else to Blame,” “Rub It Out”
Weird Plot Hooks
The Setup: Proposed Local City Ordinance 712, which would ban the performing of same sex marriages within city limits, is causing quite a stir. A local LGBT advocacy group has a protest planned outside of City Hall for this Sunday, with The Ass Bandits as a headlining act. Meanwhile local church groups are planning to protest the LGBT protest on the other side of the parking lot. Police and Emergency Personnel, seeing a high likelihood of trouble, are going to be on-site to quickly respond.
The Real Trouble: A new super villain, The Rabble Rouser, intends to make sure there’s trouble. With his strange ability to amplify the negative emotions of those around him, he intends to make sure a violent altercation occurs. Once the police are tied up trying to prevent a full-blown riot, the Rabble Rouser’s true plan will commence. The Rioteers, Rouser’s henchmen, will begin a series of bank robberies far away from city hall. Will our heroes be able to stop them in time and save the protesters from themselves?
- RPG Genre – Investigative Horror
- Musical Style and Image – Blues/Country. Johnny’s just a plain-looking, polite young man with calloused hands, a worn-out cowboy hat, and a dusty flannel shirt. You’ll find him most days in the corner of a honky-tonk singing softly to the strumming tune of his immaculately-kept 12-string Fender. Johnny’s only ever been recorded once, a self-titled album, “Sweating Whiskey”. Years ago a local label bought him some studio time and the use of some studio musicians. The label went bust pretty quickly but Johnny typically has a few of his old CDs for sale at his gigs. He tends to be very partial to anyone who buys one or even asks about the album. Johnny’s also excessively polite, to the point of seeming anachronistic. He never wears a hat indoors, always says “sir” and “ma’am”, and holds doors for ladies. He cannot stand any sort of rudeness or crudity especially in the presence of women or children.
- Members — Johnny Dixon.
- Best Known Songs – “Hoodoo Hand,” “Lost Ain’t Runnin’ Away”
Weird Plot Hooks
The Setup: A Cyclopean Horror from Beyond the Ken of Man – which evil cultists are trying to summon for some stupid reason- can only be stopped by an ancient, Native American totem located in the treacherous reaches of a nearby swamp. In the tiny communities surrounding the swamp, all the PC’s probes will point to Johnny as the only source of information on the subject. Inquiries about supernatural phenomena in the area (when not met with angry disbelief) will also point the way to Johnny. Even the local library’s maps of nearby wilderness areas were hand drawn by Johnny Dixon. When the PCs track Johnny down, observant characters may notice the leather thong he wears around his neck which points to a slight bulge under his shirt. This is his Conjure Hand, a talisman he wears to give him luck and ward off evil spirits. The PCs may also notice he keeps a worn Gideon’s New Testament in his back pocket. Johnny doesn’t respond well to threats and is a modestly powerful Hoodoo magic-man. Forcing him to help against his will could really harm the PCs in the long run. Johnny will volunteer straight off if told the truth about the expedition, but otherwise he’ll refuse to enter the “Godforsaken Ol’ Sinkhole” for fear of getting the PCs and himself killed.
The Twist: The totem at the center of the swamp causes the area to manifest whatever expectations people bring into it. So whatever the PCs have overheard about the horrible place and think may be true, will be true. Ironically this means that the more the characters postulate, consider, and investigate beforehand, the harder their path will be. The totem will separate the party as early as it can to heap its horrors upon them. Only the glowing talisman of Johnny’s New Testament will serve to light the way forward. As soon as anyone of the PCs can actually touch the totem, the craziness stops. Then they can use the power of the artifact to put the Cyclopean Horror into a semi-permanent dream state in which it believes that it already conquered the world.
Skull Crush Crash
- RPG Genre — Action Horror/ Modern Fantasy
- Musical Style and Image — Death Metal. Five hulking Nordic brutes, who can barely speak a word of English, make up the horror-show that is Skull Crush Crash. More so than most Death Metal acts, Knut’s vocals consist of almost nothing but wordless guttural growls, snarls, and rumbles. They dress exclusively in black leather, denim, and chains, typically covered in dried stage blood. Most who know of them give SCC a wide birth. They have quite a reputation for swift, terrifying violence.
- Members — Knut (Vocals), Finn (Rhythm Guitar), Kjell (Lead Guitar), Olaf (Bass), Egil (Drums)
- Best Known Songs — “Grrrowl,” “Crush You Face!”
Weird Plot Hooks
The Setup: There have been three savage murders over the past month. The victims have all been severely beaten, pulled apart limb by limb, and tossed into random dumpsters all over town. All three deceased had stamps on their hands from local metal clubs. Careful investigation will reveal that at two of the venues Skull Crush Crash were playing the night of the murders. However, they were never seen inside the most recent victim’s club.
The Weird: Skull Crush Crash is actually a pack of shape-shifting, Scandinavian trolls that feed on anger and fear. Death metal tends to bring out anger in many of its fans. This had made performing the perfect way for the fiends to feed in plain sight. After a while, though, the hors d’oeuvres just weren’t enough. They needed the thrill and sustenance of the kill. Claiming to have some killer bud, they lured their victims into nearby alleyways. If directly questioned by the PCs they will positively radiate dark magics. Should the trolls suspect that they are in danger of being caught, they’ll attack with superhuman speed, strength, and violence. The trolls not only feed upon fear, but grow more powerful in its presence. If at all possible, they’ll attempt to shift a fight into as public a place as they can. They’ll then draw upon the power of the bystander’s emotions granting them even greater strength and endurance.
How about you? Sound off. How has music intersected, influenced, and become a part of your roleplaying experience?
I really enjoyed that Edward!
I wish there were more set piece and muse oriented posts designed to get the brain juices flowing.
Thanks for submitting!
Agreed! Part of why I liked this article is because I’m apparently not wired to write this sort of thing myself.
I’m glad you enjoyed it and always happy to be a part o’ the Stew!
I think there’s a sweet spot of detail that most rpg related material misses. It seems you either get a couple sentences or novella’s worth of information. In between that, though, there’s enough set to set the mood and spark the mind in a certain direction. Yet, you still have room to make it your own. When you only have a bit of flavor and the bare-bones of an idea, I find you feel more encouraged to change the idea to your own tastes and needs. Partially because you’re required to finish the idea to use it anyway. That’s the level of detail and type of stuff I like to read in gaming texts so it’s what I try to produce myself. (Not incidentally, it’s also why I enjoy _Masks_ and _Eureka_.)
Oddly it’s one of the few things Rifts got right. The adventures in most world books were usually a paragraph-or-three-long, half-finished ideas. I expect that this is simply because Mr. Siembieda was too busy making up awesome robots, kewl powerz, and badass pew-pew lazrs.*
*In all due fairness though, I’ve never not had fun playing Rifts.
We had a tavern in D&D that had a cover band by the name of “Glass Canon”. In the old Traveller game the punk-ish band was “Chainsaw Abortion”. Last but not least, the D20 modern game had the band “By Hive Majority”.