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Looking for Inspiration?

Been down on myself about my writing lately. Can’t explain it except to say the novel I’m starting won’t start. Can’t call it writer’s block, exactly (I am writing things, just slowly and badly), but it does have me navel gazing and getting frustrated with my pace and lamenting the hours I lose to the vagaries of life and the hours I waste with pointless things (note: this category usually contains just about everything besides “writing” and “my wife and kids”).

So, I’m going to post here a couple songs that have always been good kicks in the pants for me. Some are new, some are old, some are from Disney movies. I hope you like them! If you don’t, well, then feel free to list your favorites in the comments. Maybe I missed one.

That one there has been my mantra for the past five years. It still is. I am not “there” yet.


Hell yes, AC/DC. Hell yes it is.

Used to play this song a lot back when I bailed on my Secondary Education minor at college in favor of becoming a writer. Still a good song.

This one is a bit cheesy and somewhat overwrought, but it still gets me.

Okay, enough time-wasting from me. I’m off to climb Word Mountain. Hopefully today I’ll make it out of base camp.




The Music in the Words

Recently finished The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss (loved it, by the way – highly recommended). In it, music and, in particular, songs play an important thematic and stylistic role in the tale. Among his many other achievements, Kvothe is a musician second to none and the Four Corners of the World are awash in stories and ballads, many of which are set to music.

You've got no idea what this sounds like.

You’ve got no idea what this sounds like.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a contemporary fantasy novel incorporate the lyrics of songs into the text, and I enjoyed it, in general. Rothfuss is far from the first to do this and will not be the last, but the inclusion of the song lyrics in the tale reminded me of an old frustration I had with this technique: I wish I could hear the music. To Rothfuss’ credit, he frequently describes songs rather than simply transcribe them and, when he does include the lyrics, it is usually because the lyrics are important in and of themselves – they illuminate aspects of the world, give us hints into Kvothe’s next move, and so on. It is, however, very difficult to hear the music, since music is not easily described. At best, what we can get is a sense of rhythm and, perhaps, be treated to particularly evocative poetry (though few fantasy authors are also fine poets). Music is, of course, something far, far beyond that. There’s nothing Rothfuss (or anyone else) can really do about that.

Take this classic example from Tolkien:

Ho! Tom Bombadil, Tom Bombadillo!

By water, wood and hill, by the reed and willow,

By fire, sun and moon, hearken now and hear us!

Come, Tom Bombadil, for our need is near us!

This song, taken from the chapter “Fog on the Barrow Downs” in The Fellowship of the Ring, has rhythm, has a degree of vivid imagery, but can you actually make a tune? Maybe, yes, but it’s a tenuous thing. You’re grasping at straws. You have no idea of key, tempo, or how the melodies and harmonies interact. It’s interesting, yes, but it’s also frustrating to me. I feel like I’m not in on the joke.

Now, I’m not proposing that authors need to provide sheet music or anything like that. I honestly like songs when they show up in fantasy – they give the world a life and vibrancy beyond the characters’ immediate experiences. I’m just saying that there’s an extra mile that can’t be traveled in text. This is why I’m unreasonably pleased that the upcoming Hobbit movie is going to include the dwarves singing “Far Over Misty Mountains Cold” and they appear to have given it the feeling of a dirge, which it is. Love it. I only wish all the music of those fantastic worlds could be given the same treatment!

In closing, and for no reason whatsoever than I find myself humming this song on occasion, is a song I wrote for my own fantasy setting, Alandar. It is a march, and is intended to be rhythmic and loud. Imagine a column of a thousand men braying it at the top of their lungs as they march in time down a long, dusty Illini road, General Conrad ‘Mudboots’ Varner at their head, their pikes set on their shoulders as they head towards the distant deserts of Kalsaar and, likewise, march to their glory.

Oh well, oh well,
It’s off we march to hell,
As war, they say,
ain’t never the way
Old Timer’s tell!

But when arm in arm
with our brothers (HEAR HEAR!),
And fightning ‘neath the Elk and Star,
We know that we are
the finest near or far,
Make Way for the Army of Galaspin!

Oh my, oh my,
We’re marching off to die,
And none of us
will curse or ‘cuss
when in the dirt we lie!

But when arm in arm
with our brothers (HEAR HEAR!),
And fightning ‘neath the Elk and Star,
We know that we are
the finest near or far,
Make Way for the Army of Galaspin!

Oh no, oh no,
It’s to our ends we go,
By bow or spear,
or a mage’s sear,
we all will be laid low!

But when arm in arm
with our brothers (HEAR HEAR!),
And fightning ‘neath the Elk and Star,
We know that we are
the finest near or far,
Make Way for the Army of Galaspin!

-Traditional Galaspiner Marching Song

The Soundtrack to Your Game

Since I’m on an RPG-design kick, let’s talk music in RPGs. I’m fairly certain that, in this age of custom playlists and easily accessible music players, most modern GMs try to incorporate some kind of background music into their games. If you’re one of the ones that don’t, I’m going to try and convince you to. If you’re one of the ones that do, I’m going to suggest some ways you may be able to enhance its use and give you some pointers for tracking it down.

I’ve used music in RPGs ever since I returned to GMing regularly, which was in the early 2000s after a general hiatus in college (the odd one-shot here or there, but no campaigns). I started using it because RPGs always seemed to run like movies in my head, anyway, and a soundtrack made sense. Also, I found it added a nice flair to the mood of the game and, furthermore, I could even get my players on edge or get them to relax depending on the music I played. In a 7th Sea campaign I ran for years, everytime I played the theme music for the main villain (the nefarious ex-Kreuzritter, Gavin Fell), my players would literally shudder, and that was awesome. As the campaign wore on, certain player characters also earned theme music for particularly awesome feats (Helmut Dauben Kohb, for instance, basically owned the theme music to Conan: The Barbarian; remind me to tell you about that character sometime–absolutely most badass PC ever). It became a thing, and I made it a point to do similarly in all my campaigns. All you really need is a playlist and some kind of music player that can play a single track on loop (that’s important, mind you–a single track on loop). Being well behind the times, I still burn CDs; you, I suppose, could use one of your newfangled digital music whatsits or doohickeys.

What Makes Good RPG Music?

Well, in my opinion, there are three things to consider for any given song you want to use in an RPG–an appropriate style, a consistent mood, and a useful theme.

Style: Pick songs that fit with the kind of game you’re running. If you’re doing medieval fantasy, stay away from jazz or techno music; if you’re running a cyberpunk game, lay off the slow classical and opera. Western games should sound like western soundtracks, space opera games should sound a bit like Star Wars, and Cold War thrillers should take a cue from the James Bond flicks. This general style umbrella gives you plenty of different moods and themes underneath them (or they should), so it ought not limit your selection by much. It does, however, make the game sound like it ought to play.

Mood: A song should create a certain mood, and that mood should remain consistent throughout the song. Most songs are somewhere between 2 and 6 minutes long and the vast majority of RPG sequences are at least two or three times that long. So, if the song starts creepy, you want it to stay creepy the whole time. Nothing kills the usefulness of a song more than having the nice, quiet, pastoral sound change, suddenly, to frightening military music. Suddenly your touching reunion on the farm is being broken up by goblin invaders! Booo! This why, incidentally, you want to be able to loop a single track.

Theme: A song should themed to be useful in certain situations. I usually split my music into action themes, creepy themes, and environmental themes. The first is usually the easiest to find–fast paced, loud, exciting, dramatic. The second it the next easiest–slow, menacing, spooky. The last is the hardest to find, since it can vary dependent upon the kind of environments your campaign is going to spend time exploring. If the players a riding across the plains, what kind of music do you have? Sailing pirate-infested archipelagoes? Walking through a crowded marketplace in a foreign city? Try to cover as many bases as possible, since your players will often surprise you. I find myself frequently without appropriate music, despite my best efforts, and some tracks I thought would be useful are almost never played. Ah well…

In addition to this, it isn’t a bad idea to have an array of basic soundeffects you can play on loop. I got a sound effects CD ages ago and have used the campfire, rain, noisy tavern, and howling wind sounds a lot. When I ran a Star Trek campaign, I tried to get the general roar of the warp engines to be playing in the background whenever on the ship, and also tried to get the hum and beep of the bridge computers when players were sitting on the bridge. It made the whole experience that much more immersive and fun. 

Know Your Score

It’s not only important to get good music, you also have to know that music very well. You don’t have a lot of time to remember which song is which on your playlist when the action is about to start–you should know which one fits and play it immediately. Furthermore, if you really know your music, you can cue certain reveals or certain moments in play to certain dramatic crescendoes in the song. There are a few songs I know really well, and if I detect a big crescendo is coming as I’m explaining something, I’ll try to drag it out a few seconds so I can time the reveal to coincide with the big BOOOM of the drums–this kind of stuff nets you major brownie points from your players (it’s not always possible, sadly, but I always try).

Also, if you’ve got a battle that’s really dragging itself out, it’s a good idea to shake the music up from time to time or even just turn it off entirely. The same song on loop for 90 minutes is going to drive people nuts–throw in some variety. Furthermore, if the campaign is running very long, consider shaking up much of your music, as well. Keep it fresh as best you can.

Some Suggestions

What follows is a list of movie soundtracks and bands that I’ve found very handy for producing useable RPG soundtracks. Check them out:

Fantasy Campaigns

  • Braveheart Soundtrack 
  • Kingdom of Heaven Soundtrack
  • Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring Soundtrack (and the others, too; careful, this one is very noticeable and so robs some originality from the game)
  • Conan the Barbarian Soundtrack (big time awesome–one of my all time favorites)
  • Gustav Holst’s The Planets
  • Music from Hercules: The Legendary Journeys
  • The Score by Epica
  • Gladiator Soundtrack

Swashbuckling/High Seas Campaigns

  • Master and Commander Soundtrack
  • Pirates of the Carribean Soundtrack
  • The Red Violin Soundtrack (super creepy; great for horror games, too)
  • Cuthroat Island Soundtrack
  • The Score by Epica

Science Fiction Campaigns

  • Any Star Trek movie soundtrack
  • The soundtrack from any Metroid Prime video game
  • Most techno music
  • (A lot of the fantasy stuff works here, too)

Modern/Cyberpunk Campaigns

  • Underworld Soundtrack
  • Blade Soundtrack
  • The collected works of The Offspring
  • AC/DC
  • Most Techno
  • Whatever else floats your boat

There’s more, besides, but this is a lot of it.

If you haven’t tried music in a game, try it. If you have, keep it up and I hope some of my little tricks are helpful! Good luck! (Oh, and please give me suggestions myself–I’m always looking for new tips)