Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Mixtapes: The Streets of Shrapnel

Mixtapes is a new column that I'm going to try and do every week about the music that inspires my gaming. Many folks on many blogs have gone into great detail about what books, movies and artwork have fueled their campaign worlds and play sessions, but a relative few have discussed music's role in the inspirational process. That's not to say that no one has: early in the history of Playing D&D With Porn Stars, Zak S posted a fantastic list of Songs Useful in D&D Games Renamed To Reflect The Situations Wherein I Have Used Or Plan To Use Said Music, which among other things got me into the Sword, and Christian and Scott, my two favorite guys on the Net, both tend to share my tastes in music and have included choice tracks by Fugazi, the Specials and the Hold Steady in their postings. But music is such an integral part of any campaign or character preparation that I do that it would be amiss for me not to do a column like this. So without further ado...

The Streets of Shrapnel
Soundtrack provided by: Guignol and Mischief Brew - Fight Dirty

Guignol are a punk/Gypsy/klesmer band comprised of members and ex-members of the Hold Steady, the World-Inferno Friendship Society and just about any collaborative musical project in the Tri-State area and have maintained a long and collaborative friendship with Erik Petersen, the frontman and occasionally only member of Philadelphia's Mischief Brew. I occasionally have issues with Petersen's lyrics, as I do with most anarchist songwriters, but I really appreciate his closer kinship towards labor radicalism rather than banal 'smash the state' rhetoric and when he writes a song, he can write a goddamned song. The two groups first collaborated an a song on Mischief Brew's first full-length and finally released a joint record called Fight Dirty, which consists of both Mischief Brew songs backed by Guignol's rhythm section and Guignol songs with Petersen's guitar accompaniment.

When I first started thinking about the Swords and Wizardry game that would later become the Motherlode campaign, the first element that I visualized was the city of Shrapnel. An urban metropolis built on a swamp, Shrapnel was my first fantasy city in the vein of Lankhmar, Sharn and Ankh-Morpork; a place where all sorts of urban adventures involving guilds, taverns and ever-thrumming furnaces underfoot. But it's not just a noir city in fantasy dressing: there's plenty of room for adventure, comedy, class warfare and all sorts of set pieces. It's the kind of city where bodies turn up in interesting places all the time, where you can start your night in a high-end restaurant at the top of the Stairs and end it fighting to the death in an underground gladiatorial fighting ring.

Sugar Park Tavern Death Song was the first song that struck that inspirational spark in me. To me, it conjures up images of dimly lit streets, solitary Chandleresque 'knight errants' smoking short stubby cigarettes and keeping one hand gripped on the long knife strapped to their lower back. The intertwining harmonies of Peter Hess's clarinet and Franz Nicolay's accordion are the backbone of Guignol's sound and they are on full display in this track. I liked the feeling that it gave me, so I kept listening and sure enough, the ideas started coming. Pete Merak has this amazing sleazy klezmer vibe that would be welcome background music in a multi-faceted den of ill repute and Dirty Penny's Pogo sounds like it could be played in a crowded open-air marketplace while people shop, eat and dance.

As I kept Fight Dirty playing during work, trips and walking home, the songs really started to define the feel that I had for Shrapnel. There's a series of about four or five tracks that would make fantastic chase scene music, from the up-tempo Gonzales, The Explosive Chilean to the screaming guitar of Create Destroy to their cover of Iron Maiden's Hallowed Be Thy Name. Even though Shrapnel was a corrupt fantasy city, there were still going to have to be people and organizations unflinching enough to require chase scenes through city streets and buildings, on rooftops, anything that allowed for the kind of manic energy and atmosphere that these songs provided.

I finally settled on the idea of an Arbiter, a 'body of justice' completely independent from the myriad corruptible guilds and councils of the city, much closer to a vigilante organization than a police force. The Arbiter's watchmen and guards are seemingly men on the outside, but that's where all similarity ceases. Their eyes are constantly covered by blank metal visors that don't seem to impair their vision, their speech isn't in any natural cadence and they cannot enter any building or structure unless given specific permission. No one in their right mind would report a crime to them or ask them for help; they enforce justice on the Arbiter's terms, which are utterly unknown to the public, but incredibly dangerous just the same. Thus, taverns, brothels and even temples have become the default locations for dirty dealings and if you do decide to murder someone in a back alleyway, make doubly sure that you're not alone. So characters in Shrapnel have to deal with criminal organizations, corrupt guilds, fickle nobles and on top of all that a nearly unstoppable police force that cannot be bribed or reasoned with. How do they survive?

Fight Dirty.


  1. Great music selections. My wife is Jewish and a big fan of Klezmer music, too.

    Keep on keepin' on,

  2. Great post! I've been thinking about doing a series of posts on campaigns inspired by specific music for several weeks now. Count on me to be following your lead on this.