Melodies & Rests is intended to be an occasional recurring column at Campaign Mastery in which Mike plucks a CD at random from his collection and sees how much creative inspiration for gaming he can squeeze out of it. You don’t have to agree with his musical tastes – but play close attention to the techniques…
As the prototype for this new column, I’ve picked a CD that more or less leaped out as an excellent starting point: Def Leppard’s 1999 album “Euphoria”, Available from Amazon. Released after the group’s heyday, this was a deliberate return to the sounds and production techniques that at one time made them arguably the biggest band in the world. But that doesn’t particularly interest us here – you can read more about the band on their Wikipedia page .
Sadly, nothing much to get us excited here. The good stuff is yet to come.
Oh dear, this isn’t getting any better. A reasonably vanilla photograph of the band members against a black background.
More pictures of band members. All fairly bland. Until you actually take the CD out, and then there is a rather intriguing image:
(I fear the scan doesn’t do the image justice). It may bear no relation to the actual intent or production of the image, but what I see when I look at this are two possibilities:
- Shambling mounds of light
- Beings constructed of energy waves
Both these can be jumping-off points for the imagination.
Shambling Mounds Of Light
Monsters made of solid energy, these things look slow but aren’t. Brainlessly destructive and virtually mindless, they would make great cannon fodder for a villain or a generic accidental creation from a lab accident. In fantasy-oriented campaigns, they might result from a miscast Light spell.
In general, we associate light with purity and – in the case of 3.x, with positive energy. That offers an entirely different slant on what these things might be – beings from the Positive Energy Plane that human eyes can barely comprehend. Or perhaps this is a city in such a place – a real “city of light”. Suddenly, I’m reminded of the Angels in James Blish’s “The Star Dwellers” (a limited number available through Amazon) and what their celestial “playground” must have looked like.
Beings constructed of energy waves
The big difference between this idea and the preceding ones is the question of solidity. Whereas the “shambling mounds of light” were solid but didn’t look it, these are ephemeral, and therefore immune to most of what a PC can throw at them. Energy, they would simply absorb – it would be just another meal to them – and matter would pass straight through them. In a superhero or space opera campaign, these would be dangerous opponents.
The fantasy equivalent would be beings constructed of pure magic. Able to cast virtually any spell at will by sacrificing hit points equal to the spell level, or perhaps to the caster level, they would be equally dangerous. The difficulty lies in coming up with a reasonable origin for them – where do they come from? None of the inner planes really seems to fit, and any outer plane would have to be fairly exotic for these beings to be at home there. Perhaps they inhabit the boundaries between planes? I mean, those boundaries have to be made of something, and pure magic would certainly be as likely a concept as anything else. Perhaps some of these get dislodged when there is too much gating between planes in a particular location?
The Track List
Taking song titles in isolation can often be a spur to creativity. With 15 tracks on the Australian version of this CD, let’s see what we can make of the titles in this case.
- Demolition Man – Aside from immediately bringing to mind the Sylvester Stallone / Wesley Snipes sci-fi action movie – which has lots of ideas to plunder – this suggests a character who goes around knocking things down or blowing them up. But that’s a little pedestrian for most campaigns; to make it interesting, the character’s targets should be something unusual or exotic. Perhaps he demolishes the boundaries between worlds, or is trying to do so? Alternatively, there’s the potential for a tragic figure whose “demolition” activities are am unwanted side effect of his mere presence – metal fatigue, structural collapse, windows shattering… that could make for an interesting variant on the Frankenstein myth in a sci-fi or superhero campaign.
- Promises – Anything that brings to mind the whole question of debts and obligations is a rich source of ideas, but the word alone is not particularly inspiring. Expect to get better ideas from the lyrics in such cases.
- Back In Your Face – The only thing that this really brings to mind is the return of a threat or NPC that the characters thought they had solved. But that’s not a bad notion – a contemporary enemy might well rejuvenate or restore a past menace to the PCs and offer them the chance of revenge purely to distract them from what He’s up to. That’s not a bad plot hook…
- Goodbye – I had to dig for ideas derived from this title. My initial thought was “Goodbye… to what?” Answering the “what” could turn this into an interesting plot hook. But that got me thinking about angst-ridden death scenes, and Shakespearian tragedies, and operatic climaxes. How do characters face death – their own, or someone close to them? Or perhaps we’re talking about a romantic attachment being broken off – that’s the “Shakespearian tragedy” component. “Why is the person saying goodbye?” could be an equally strong source of ideas, especially if one or more PCs were directly involved. Further, there are two possible options: saying goodbye to someone or something voluntarily, or saying it involuntarily. The first is well-catered for already; the second brings with it connotations of hidden secrets and blackmail – and that can take an otherwise bland NPC that the PCs know and trust and make them interesting, or an already-interesting NPC and make them very interesting. And then there’s the possibility that it’s a PC who is being blackmailed into leaving the party. The ideas may have been slow to come to mind, but once they started flowing, there were plenty of them.
- All Night – There is even less to get excited about concerning this title. All that comes to mind is a strange phenomenon that lasts all night, every so often, or a character with curse that afflicts them at night, or something that is intended to delay or occupy the PCs ‘all night’ to prevent interference in something more important.
- Paper Sun – Now here’s a more provocative title. A two dimensional world… or perhaps reducing our world to two dimensions, enabling the villain to reach ‘past’ any barriers (very pulp-ish). Or a tabloid newspaper (or fantasy equivalent, a Tabloid Bard?). Or the seal on a treaty, perhaps?
- It’s Only Love – Ideas stem from this title only relative to the tone of voice that one imagines being used when saying it. The phrase takes on quite different connotations if spoken in a wistful sense, or in a dismissive tone, and so on. The common message is that love doesn’t matter, but there are four huge variables: the person making the statement, who it is being said to, who the emotional connection being dismissed is with, and whether or not the speaker means it, literally, or is trying to convince either himself or someone else of its truth. And that’s taking the term “love” literally; what if it is used in a more general sense? The phrase could be used by a hobbyist to describe how they feel about their activities or an addict to express their addiction. Whenever I come across a phrase like this, that is so mutable in meaning, I generally like to come up with an adventure in which each PC experiences the phrase in a difference sense or permutation, so that the phrase itself becomes the common thread and theme linking the subplots together. This sort of idea is great for a ‘non-adventure’ that is all about roleplaying, which can be a great change of pace.
- 21st Century Sha La La La Girl – To make anything from this title, I need to first discard the “Sha La La La”. The remainder, “21st Century Girl” sparked a few ideas, by way of the different implications that could lead to someone being described in that way. From the notion of someone who is ahead of their time, to someone who was so obsessed with a romantic connection to the character that they travelled back in time to be with them, there are a number of possibilities that result.
- To Be Alive – This is the sort of title that scratches my philosophical bump. What does it mean “To be Alive”? This line of thought leads to the associated notion of “To Feel Alive” which suggests thrill-seeking. I haven’t seen many thrill-seekers in fantasy campaigns, though they make the occasional appearance in more modern campaigns – does that suggest that modern life is more boring to the populace? Or simply that there is a character archetype that’s under-represented in fantasy gaming? But, I really can’t go past my first thought, which connects the phrase with those immortal words from Frankenstein, “It’s Alive!!”; the whole concept of life beyond death, i.e. undeath, when associated with this phrase, gives forth some wonderful ideas. There’s the dramatic announcement of the newly-resurrected Lich/Demi-Lich; there’s the wistful and somewhat melancholy statement of an Undead regretting all the things that they have left behind. And there’s the interesting thought of an NPC experiencing that transition from celebrating a victory over death, to realising that it is a Pyrrhic victory, to covertly seeking to have the PCs end their unnatural existence despite the demands and desires of the entity who has provided the means, and who insists on a fair return on their time and trouble. Faustian Bargains are always such fun!
- Disintegrate – A title that promises much but delivers little in the way of inspiration. What disintegrates? Without context, this doesn’t really go anywhere in terms of generating ideas. I must admit that I can never hear the word without remembering the classic Warner Bros cartoon, “Duck Dodgers In The 24-and-a-halfth century”, and the duel of disintegrating pistols. Trying to capture that tone might seem a fun diversion for an otherwise straight-laced campaign, but it requires the cooperation of the players – if they don’t have the appropriately Looney-Tunes mindset, the adventure can quickly grind to a halt. The trick, then, would be getting the players into the appropriate headspace. Maybe taking a leaf out of “Roger Rabbit” and having the PCs enter a strange world where this sort of craziness is the way things work – or perhaps stealing a beat from “Westworld” and having a Warner Bros theme park go out of control or otherwise come to life?
- Guilty – The whole genre of legal drama fascinates me and has done so for a very long time. So much so that I have stirred these plot elements into my superhero campaign extensively and at least touched on them in my fantasy campaigns. The players in the former were overjoyed when a character’s superhero identity was given legal recognition by the courts under international law – and not at all so thrilled when unexpected consequences of the law created even more problems than there had been before the law was introduced. Another example is the time when one of the PCs was on trial for murder, being defended by a young Denny Crane (Boston Legal), who was opposed by Special Prosecutor Perry Mason – a genuine clash of the legal titans, as anyone familiar with both series will immediately recognise. In general, it doesn’t matter what law you make about super-powers or costumed crime-fighting, it will have massive and unwanted consequences. All of the above flashed through my mind when prompted by this title, but the most interesting ideas that stem from it that have occurred to me all relate to the distinctions between being guilty, being apparently guilty, and feeling guilty, especially when two or more of those are in contradiction. There are numerous combinations – being guilty and not feeling guilty, being guilty and appearing innocent, being innocent and appearing guilty, and so on – and they all make good plotlines. So much so that it is necessary to warn against overuse!
- Day After Day – this title implies repetition and repetitiveness, and reminds me of a ST:TNG episode in which they were stuck in a loop in time, reliving the same events over and over. I shamelessly stole and modified that idea for an adventure in my previous superhero campaign entitled “Force 13″, which ended up precipitating a Dalek Invasion. Another possible idea is a character who is cursed to relive the same day for eternity (Groundhog Day) until the PCs intrude into his time bubble and become equally trapped.
- Kings Of Oblivion – Now, we’re cooking. I don’t care what game or game system you are running, in what genre – except possibly western – there is room in it for a group calling themselves the Kings Of Oblivion. The title could be metaphoric or literal. Whether they rule over “oblivion”, are destructive on a cosmic scale, or are simply highly-skilled killers, this is a Great Title!
- Worlds Collide – This bonus track from the Australian release of the CD is another excellent one for inspiration, because “Worlds” can mean so many different things. It could be taken literally, or it could refer to the personal “world” that two people inhabit, or any number of other interpretations. It can refer to two people’s worlds colliding, or one person’s world coming into conflict – for example when a character’s professional and personal lives are at odds.
- Under My Wheels – The album I have closes with this bonus track, a cover version of an Alice Cooper track. If interpreted metaphorically, there are a number of plot ideas that can derive from it – from the unintended crushing of innocents by side-effects and unwanted consequences to a character who simply dismisses those caught “under his wheels” as unimportant. Since the latter is more-or-less stock villainy, the first of those two is a more interesting adventure concept. There are still variants to consider – are the PCs doing the crushing, are they opposing the crushing, are they the ones being crushed?
Selected Lyrical Content
I’m running short on time, and this post is already brimming with ideas for our readers to expropriate. So I’m going to restrict myself to lyrics from just two of the songs on the album. I’m sure there are more!
The first line of the chorus of this song runs “I won’t make promises that I can’t keep.” That’s a very suggestive lyric when you consider the full gamut of people who might be making the statement. Everything from an honest politician, to a lying politician, to a demonic being with a sense of ethics. Is the speaker being truthful? Is he not? How much grey area is there in the character’s assessment of what promises he can and can’t keep? Where are the lines drawn?
Or you can put a completely different spin on the phrase by inserting other lines before it. Try, “I promise you a painful death – and,” or “I will make your life a living hell – and,”. Or, “This is prime real estate – buy it now and you’ll make a fortune, and”. Or even “I’ll find you a beauty, only driven by a little old lady on the weekends,”. Or “I won’t live without you”.
From sinister to oily to creepy, this phrase can mean everything or nothing. And it’s up to the character to work out which.
Finally, there is the second line of the chorus to “Paper Sun” – the first runs “Because we’re living on a paper sun,”, and the second, “Blind to all the damage done.” This suggests that the song is about environmentalism – and Def Leppard are well known to include one “serious issue” song on each album in amongst the usual pop-rock, so that fits their profile. This line immediately reminds me of the St:TNG episode late in their 7th season in which a group of environmentalists prove that high-level warp speeds are damaging the interstellar “environment”. The episode itself is rather lame, easily the least interesting of the final season, because it never really goes anywhere and doesn’t give the heroes a chance to be heroic. My immediate thought on viewing it for the first time was how effective a handicap it placed on the Federation – exactly what their enemies would choose to do if they were to use Starfleet’s superior morals against them.
So what would be required in order to achieve this? Well, you need an environment in which there is a lot of high-speed traffic – check. Next, you need a local race scientifically advanced enough to detect the phenomenon and belligerent enough to force Starfleet’s attention to it – check. Then, you need a means of artificially creating the effect that you want the enterprise to detect – not all that difficult to achieve in any environment where pseudo-science gobbledygook can substitute for the real thing, so long as it sounds plausible. Deploy the device, which makes the adjacent regions of space “sensitive” to the supposed high-warp effect, and simply wait. Hey, presto! You have caused immeasurable constraints on their military preparedness, rate of scientific advancement, and economy. Not to mention the psychological damage you’ve done. And, of course, this coincides with belligerence by several enemies of the Federation, as shown in concurrent episodes of Deep Space 9, any of whom could have been responsible.
It would hardly be the first time that a group’s morals or ethics had been used against them as a military or political tactic. Even if the ruse were eventually discovered, the damage would be done.
What’s interesting about this premise is that there had never been any concern with these environmental effects until this episode. The environment ‘damage’ did not even exist, so far as the Federation knew, until they were thrust into the middle of the situation. By the same token, there is no need to have a pre-existing environmental concern in the game or game setting – one can be manufactured and introduced as a motive for belligerence, exactly as was the case in the Next Gen episode.
For example, let’s consider translating this premise into a fantasy milieu. A group begins targeting spellcasters, no-one knows why. The PCs – all high-level characters – are hired by the King to investigate the matter. They have a confrontation with the group responsible, who explain that the casting of high-level spells is damaging the environment in some semi-plausible and serious-sounding way that can be easily tested and verified by the PCs. The group making the attacks on spellcasters offer a deal – they will stop their attacks if the PCs will present the problem to the King. When they do so, he outlaws the use of any spell of higher than 6th level without express written permission from the throne. Give the kingdom a few months to imprison anyone who breaks the law, and for a number of the best and brightest of the kingdom to emigrate elsewhere for the equivalent of “scientific freedom”, and then the people responsible for faking the environmental damage can invade with a pronounced tactical advantage.
The key is the type of damage supposedly being caused. The most obvious is something affecting birth rates or other fertility problems, but that’s too hard for the PCs to verify. Something that breaks down the barriers between worlds, permitting abominations and devils and demons easy access is less emotive, but more easily verified by the PCs, and gives a nice justification for some more action by the PCs.
An utterly plausible adventure, in which the high morals of the PCs – and of the players – gets manipulated. Of course, only a truly evil GM would contemplate it… so that’s at least 90% who are in, then. Are you one of them?
Remember, this column is on trial until we see how many people think it should continue. If you enjoyed it – or think that the next time might be more interesting than this choice – please comment on it, or tweet about it using the buttons at the top of the post, or give it +1 on google or a facebook ‘like’. All of these will be tabulated and used to decide whether or not the column strikes a chord – no pun intended, but I’ll take it! Have fun…