Inspired By Song: Use Song Lyrics To Generate Adventure Ideas
From PJ Cunningham
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #288
One technique I’ve used when generating ideas for a new campaign or adventure is to look for inspiration in song lyrics. In the past, I’ve used songs from Blue Oyster Cult, Led Zeppelin, Warren Zevon, and Tyrannosaurus Rex. My friends have used songs by Sting, Iron Maiden, and others to inspire their campaigns.
Here are a few tips on how to select, interpret, and use song lyrics to create adventures.
Select A Song
- Look for songs that are thematically related to your game. A heavy metal song about fabled lands, flying arrows, and dark castles (there are more of these than you think) would work great for a fantasy game. For a grim post-modern game, look for a techno-industrial song about decaying cities, polluted rivers, and mind- and body-altering machinery. You get the idea. However, watch out for songs that are too_ close to a particular novel or movie, unless you’re trying to invoke that novel or movie in your game world.
- Don’t choose favourite songs, or for that matter, any #1 hit since you were born. If your use of the song is too obvious, it’ll just look ridiculous. For example, I would not recommend using Stairway to Heaven as a thinly-veiled prophecy. In general, the more obscure the song, the better.
- Songs with enigmatic and dream-like lyrics are more useful than songs that tell a coherent story, since it’s easier to pull different interpretations out of vague lyrics than specific ones.
If you already have some songs in mind, great! If not, you might want to check out a searchable lyrics database. Here are some of the lyrics databases I’ve found to be helpful. (Note: Lyrics databases may contain mature language.)
- Rock Lyrics
- A-Z Lyrics Universe
- LetsSingIt.com (requires multiple word search string)
- Leo’s Lyrics Database
- Lyrics Planet
Let’s choose a song and see if we can generate ideas from it. I searched lyricsfreak.com for the word ancient, and from the list of songs that came up, I selected “Ancient Warrior” from Black Sabbath’s 1987 album Eternal Idol. The lyrics (included in full later in this article) are suggestive of a fantasy adventure, which is what I’m after. It isn’t a well known song, and it’s got plenty of dream- like phrases that can be loosely interpreted.
Interpret The Lyrics
- A great place to start is the people, places, objects, and events mentioned in the song. You might want to make separate lists of these items on a blank sheet of paper to start the brainstorming process. Which of these people, places, objects, and events jump out at you and get your creative juices flowing?
- Don’t limit yourself to the literal meaning of the words. What do they suggest? How might they mean something different? A “crown of stone” might be an actual crown covered with jewels, or it might be a stone fortress crowning a hilltop, or it could refer to a statue’s head or that of a petrified being. A “she-wolf” might be a wolf, a werewolf, a female aristocrat or assassin who uses a wolf’s head as her sign, or a ship named the She-Wolf. Think outside the box. If you need help, consult a thesaurus or dictionary, or visit http://www.thesaurus.com to discover alternate meanings and related words.
- Try word association. For each main word or phrase in the song, write down a few other words that spring to mind as a result, then use combinations of those words to develop further ideas. If you’re stuck, visit the handy word association thesaurus at http://www.eat.rl.ac.uk/.
- Change the names to protect the (not so) innocent. If your song mentions people or places that are easily identifiable or don’t fit well with your genre, just switch them out.
- Don’t be afraid to make changes when inspiration hits. After all, the purpose of the exercise is to come up with good ideas, and the lyrics aren’t set in stone. Feel free to play with them, move them around, or simply ignore ones you don’t want to use.
Let’s go through our example, Ancient Warrior.
Ancient Warrior (words/music by Tony Iommi)
There’s no end / There’s no beginning / To the old man’s story
Does he still remember me / From lives gone by
Oh I see his spirit rising / Upon the back of time I’ve got nowhere to hide / Will he keep a place for me
The theme of this song seems to be an eternal story, an endless struggle, something here is deathless…. Let’s use the title character as a major villain. The words “old man” could mean he’s just that, an elderly but still living person. However, “lives gone by” is suggestive of reincarnation, and the words “spirit rising” suggest that the title character may be undead. Furthermore, “nowhere to hide” sounds like the ancient warrior is vengeful, or at least is searching for the narrator of the song, which could be an NPC or one or more PCs.
So, we have a major villain: a warrior who lived long ago and reaches down through the ages. Lichdom or vampirism spring to mind, but I like the idea of reincarnation, so I’m going to say that the ancient warrior has continuously reincarnated down through the ages, and in each body he is searching for something or someone.
He is the king of all kings / The keeper of light / He holds eternity’s wings
This is the chorus and is repeated a couple times in the song, though I will only interpret it once here. “King of all kings” suggests a politically powerful individual. Let’s say the ancient warrior was an overking from a now-fallen empire. This definitely suggests an epic adventure. I’ll skip “keeper of light” for now. “He holds eternity’s wings.” Ah, here we have a real gem.
Perhaps Eternity’s Wings is some sort of artefact, maybe incorporating the preserved wings of an extraplanar or otherwise powerful creature? Note that we could take a completely different tack with this line by saying Eternity is some sort of flying being or creature, and our villain is imprisoning it, poetically “holding its wings.”
In his eyes an ocean’s burning / Swollen seat of tears Troubled mind the beating / War drums in his ears No one ever hears his warning / Am I the one he calls When they tell me they’re afraid / Some say I’ll be put away
Now we’re getting somewhere. “An ocean’s burning” is literally a sea of fire, which sounds like an awesome fantasy location, or using this line as an in-game riddle, we could place the adventure in a very hot desert. We’ve already established that our villain was a “king of all kings,” so perhaps the “seat of tears” was his throne? Let’s put the seat of tears in a desert ruin. I like the idea of “beating war drums in his ears.” Let’s say when the villain is near, those of his bloodline begin to hear the beating of war drums getting louder and louder, and the line after that makes it clear that no one else can hear the drums.
My blood will spill my blood / My blood will spill my blood
This is interesting. Perhaps this speaks to an atrocity the ancient warrior committed long ago in slaying his kinfolk, though some may have survived by fleeing and hiding from his wrath. Ironically, it might have a double meaning in also describing the villain’s weakness; perhaps he is destined to be defeated by a descendent, and that is why he slaughtered his relatives in the first place.
On the other hand, if we wanted to throw a twist into the game, we could say that the overking was betrayed and murdered by his own kinfolk, and ever since he has been tracking down and slaughtering their descendants. Either way, this begs the question, who is the modern descendant? The most obvious choice is one of the PCs, though this means much of the plot rests on one player, which could cause problems. So let’s say a prominent NPC in the game is a notable descendant of the ancient warrior.
In the wisdom of the prophet’s / Never ending tale Open up the eyes / Within your mind, he says Crowned in his ancient glory / There’s a king within us all Some will say it’s all in vain / That he doesn’t have a name
“Open up the eyes within your mind” could be a subtle hint that there is one or more riddles hidden here. The third line suggests an actual crown, perhaps. “There’s a king within us all” is a great line, and would be a nice epiphany for players at the climax of the adventure. Perhaps the story is that the ancient warrior cannot be permanently slain except by a rightful heir to his empire.
The players might assume this means one of the proper bloodline who is able to don the ancient crown. During the final showdown with the ancient warrior, they remember the line “there’s a king within us all.” Anyone may don the crown and sit upon the throne. The final line, “he doesn’t have a name,” is also a subtle suggestion that any name will do.
Determine How To Use The Song
- DM inspiration. The first and most basic use of song lyrics is to inspire adventure creation. There is no need for your players to ever realise the source of your ideas.
- In-game use. If your song is little known and has cryptic lyrics, you might be able to use it, in whole or in part, as an ancient prophecy, as scrawled notes in an NPC’s journal, or overhead being sung by a particularly well-informed minstrel. Just be sure you’ve made any necessary changes to keep the flavour of your game world, and make sure you have enough other clues so that, eventually, the players will be able to piece together the intended meaning. Riddles and prophecies are most fun if the players can figure it out themselves, so don’t make it too hard.In some cases, you might be able to use the actual song in your game, that is, play the CD at a particular time. This might work well in a modern or post-modern game.
- Campaign theme song. If you build an entire campaign around a song, and if the lyrics don’t give any secrets away, you might consider playing the song at the beginning of each game session, sort of like a theme song. Not only does the song announce the beginning of the game, but as the campaign progresses, the players might begin to identify the in-game people, places, and events hinted at in the lyrics.
- Character theme song. In one campaign, my GM asked each player to select a theme song for their character. When one of us did something in the game that was particularly cool, the GM would play a snippet of that character’s theme song!
Back to our example, I think with a few minor changes the text of “Ancient Warrior” could be used in the game as a mysterious rhyme or song. The descendent NPC seeks help from the PCs in locating the long-lost crown of an ancient empire. He shows the PCs the rhyme and perhaps a few other fragments of other texts that, when pieced together, allow the players to deduce that the crown might be in some desert ruins.
Meanwhile, the NPC seems unusually paranoid. Eventually, the PCs find out that the NPC is being hunted by an unknown being, the reincarnation of an ancient warrior-king from the fallen empire. The NPC might claim he needs to recover the crown to banish the evil spirit forever. The players might discover the NPC is the last of a particular bloodline that extended back to the warrior-king himself.
Granted, all of this needs to be fleshed out a lot more, but I think you can see how it’s possible to develop a unique adventure idea from the creative interpretation of song lyrics.
Now it’s your turn! See if you can develop some game ideas from the following songs (you should be able to find these lyrics in the databases listed in this article).
- Firebrand, by Van Der Graaf Generator
- Hall of the Mountain King, by Savatage
- Les Invisibles, by Blue Oyster Cult
- Secret Journey, by the Police
- The Letters, by King Crimson
- The Magician’s Birthday, by Uriah Heep
- The Miracle, by Emerson, Lake & Powell
- The Scaffold, by Elton John
Good luck and happy gaming!
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Readers’ Tips Of The Week:
Absurd Connections = Campaign Inspiration
From Guillaume Boily
I was sitting half-asleep in my utterly boring statistics class the other day when I noticed something: absurd correlations between two things can be a great source of inspiration for a campaign!
For example: the size of a child’s feet and his ability to solve logic problems. There is a clear positive correlation between the two. As the child’s feet get bigger, his ability to solve logic increases. Now, as educated citizens of the 21st century, we all know that there is no causality between the two, it only means that both develop at the same time. For a less advanced society, however, this might not be the case.
As such, the people of one of your campaign setting’s nations could have all sorts of balms and potions for feet, because they believe that the longer a child’s feet are, the more intelligent he will be.
In the same spirit, I recently read a novel in which a charlatanesque noble had a theory that a lethal poison emanated from the ground. For him, it explained why every living thing grew and why the most important body part, the head, was nearly always the highest point of a creature’s body.
It also happened that the novel’s main character, named Grenouille, had spent the last years in a cave without shaving, cleaning, or changing himself. When he met Grenouille, the noble used him to prove that his theory was true: if Grenouille was in such a bad shape, it was obviously because of the ground’s lethal emanation.
Hope this inspires somebody. And the next time you’re sitting in a statistics class, remember that the stuff you’re learning could actually enhance your D&D experience!
Wing-It NPC Plot Generator
From Paul W.
Recently, in my gaming sessions, we have had players unable to make it with very little notice. So, I decided to run one-off adventures for the players that did turn up. As I have little notice for the number of people turning up, I have had to wing it. Winging it is not too bad for me as I am creative on the fly; however, I have created some techniques to make my job easier.
The main technique that I use is a quick plot generator. With this you assign NPCs to one of 4 categories:
- Plot Giver. The plot giver is the NPC who involves the PCs in the adventure.
- Villain. The villain is the NPC the players are trying to stop.
- Facilitators. The facilitators are NPCs who can help the PC overcome the obstacles in the adventure. 4) Complicators. The complicators are minor villains or other NPCs that tend to make life difficult for the PCs.
You can quickly make an adventure plot by listing an NPC name (or several NPCs) for each of the above categories, then giving each NPC a motivation as to why they are involved in this plot.
Next, link the encounters up in a chain. This is usually:
Plot Giver -> Complicator -> Facilitator -> Villain
If you have more than 4 NPCs, the chain can become more complicated with branchings and such.
Next, create an encounter for each NPC in the chain. You should now have a rough plot that can be used for a adventure.
- Plot giver: Giovan, human, male, commoner.
Motivation: He was ambushed by bandits and broke his leg, and they kidnapped his daughter.
- Liara, human, female, commoner.
Motivation: She is the daughter of Giovan and has been kidnapped by bandits.
- Villain: Shagatha, young, adult, green dragon.
Motivation: Looking for “tribute” from her underlings (the bandits).
- Facilitator: Draman, human, male, barbarian.
Motivation: Has fallen in love with Liara.
- Complicator The Bandits, barbarians. Motivation: Forced out of civilized lands, this tribe has made a deal with the dragon Shagatha to gain protection from her if they supply her with victims (food).
- Encounters Plot giver: The party sees a wounded man struggling at the edge of the forest. If the party investigates, he will explain he was attacked by a group of bandits and they carried off his daughter. He will caution them about the forest being “haunted” by a dangerous beast.
Complicator: The bandit camp. The party finds the bandit camp. There are around 30 or so individuals (it is a small tribe). If the party explores the camp they will not find Liara. If they ask about her, the bandits will not say where she is. They will also encounter Draman who will help them.
Facilitator: Draman. If the party asks about Liara in the bandit camp, Draman will learn of it and gives the party information about where Liara is (in the dragon cave), and will tell them about the dragon. He will accompany the party to help them fight the dragon and rescue Liara if the party allows. If the party does not want him to come with them, he sneaks along behind and attempts to rescue Liara himself while the party is fighting the dragon.
Villain: Shagatha. The Dragon’s lair is deep within the forest and will be difficult to find without help. There is a pit in the cave where several people are being held until the dragon is hungry. There are 2 bandits on guard at all times. The players can negotiate with the dragon for the release of Liara (and the others) but they must make it worth the dragon’s while (lots of treasure).
Classic Tip: Plexiglass Battlemat
Our group recently put in use a thin sheet of plexiglass with a permanent grid on one side, using water-soluble pens on the other. This has enhanced and sped up play significantly, and has the extra benefit of allowing us to keep stuff like initiative, wounds, and whatnot on the temporary surface instead of wasting paper.
Uses For The Perform Skill
From Jesse Cohoon
Many D&D worlds are filled with entertainers of various sorts who sing, dance, play instruments, give dramatic or comedic performances, and tell stories. They also have politicians (or royalty), local celebrities, and clergy. Each of these can use the lowly Perform skill. For most characters, the ability to do any of the above is a background thing that has little, if any, in game significance. I feel that the role of Perform should be much more prevalent in games.
Here are some examples:
- Public Speaking People involved with the public, whether they are politicians, royalty, clergy, or common riffraff should take Perform: Oratory “public speaking.”Politicians and royalty can use public speaking to attempt to gain the favor of the populace. Eventually, they may be able to turn the tide of popular opinion concerning a law, policy, or recent ruling. If someone wants to stir a crowd, this would be an appropriate skill to have. Furthermore, it could be used to distract crowds from a certain subject.
- Dancing Dance is underused. Players or NPCs can be members of acting or dancing troupes for infiltration missions. Court jesters are sometimes trusted advisors, and they make good operative covers as many people think nothing of talking in front of them, thinking them fools.
- Destructive Sound Think of the natural things sound can do. Not every GM will want to do this, but a person possessing Perform could shatter glass, stone formations, or crystalline monsters; cause people to get drowsy and sleep; hypnotize people with sound effects; distract mages; soothe (and possibly heal); and bring forth emotions of joy, fear sadness, grief, and a desire to dance.
- Sound Effects A person could have Perform: Throw Sound, whereby they could use ventriloquism and sound effects to do such things as enhance their storytelling or throw pursuers off their trail.
- Storytelling Terry Goodkind, in his Sword of Truth series, has a world in which prophecy is given in the form of visions, which can be shared with others. Good storytelling, in a sense, could duplicate this, as the person listening to the story gets enraptured in the scene, as it were.
The ideas above could be useful for tricks, traps, riddles, and puzzles. A careful DM could arrange it so that, without their judicious use, the PCs could be trapped for quite awhile.
Save Time Mapping With Pre-Drawn, Pre-Cut Puzzles
From Alexander Hartung
It’s an old problem: should I pick a player and allow him to map the dungeons for the group (while the rest of the group gets bored), or should I draw myself? If you draw the map, you have to stand near the paper (and can’t sit behind your GM screen) or you have to take and hand over the paper at every single line. I tried both methods several times, but I wasn’t satisfied.
While I was drawing a new dungeon, I had an idea on how to accelerate this whole process: cut the plan into a puzzle. I draw the map on paper and cut it into puzzle pieces. I start with the entrance and the corridor, than I cut out every room or discreet area. The cutting of the floor depends how far the characters can see and the number of turns the floor takes. It’s reasonable to cut the floor every 50 meters and at every turn.
With these pieces, you can put the puzzle to a dungeon plan together without losing time and without losing the attention of the players during the playing process.
You have a small dungeon with two small rooms (room 1 and 2) and one big hall (after a right turn down the corridor). Standing at the entrance, the PCs can see 10 meters ahead a door on the left (room 1) and a room on the right (room 2). After 20 meters, the corridor makes a right turn.
I cut the dungeon in four pieces:
- Entrance with view of the two doors
- Room 1
- Room 2
- The great hall
When the group enters the dungeon, hand them the entrance (first piece). If they open the door to room 1, give them the second piece. If they head to room 2, give them the third piece. If the group is not interested in visiting the rooms and walks forward, give them the fourth piece.
This technique can also be used for buildings, flats, or scenarios in the wilderness.