Tabletop RPGs and Music: The Beautiful Thieves

Art copyright Wizards of the Coast and the ArtistInspiration for adventures, campaigns, and characters oftentimes come from the same shared geek sources. If your play group is a mirror of your social circle, chances are you share the same touchstones of inspiration: Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, a few book series, some choice TV shows, and shared experiences from the past. As such, if I were to introduce a debilitated gunslinger to my RPG group the would roll their eyes at me and say “Doc Holiday from Tombstone, AGAIN?!” While it’s perfectly legitimate (and even encouraged!) to use shared sources as fodder for your RPGS, sometimes using an unusual source subject to interpretation is superior. Music can be evocative of particular emotions and aesthetics, but possess lyrics sparse enough to spark imagination and allow you, as the GM/DM or player creating a character, to own the concept while still owing your inspiration to another source.

Every RPGer struggles to make their game special. No one wants to run a forgettable, generic game. In my opinion, music can very easily fuel ideas for unique campaign settings, adventure, or character concepts. As a player, in TheGame’s notorious Kitchen Sink D&D game, I chose Frog from Chrono Trigger’s theme song for my idealist psionicist team leader, Levi Black (kudos if you figure out where I ripped that name off from). Hearing that song, even today, really puts me in the character’s shoes (sorry Frog you were great too!) As a GM I offered an XP bonus to anyone that picked a character theme song and explained to me why they chose it. When I was planning adventures I’d key up those songs to help me evoke the character and their attitude and persona.

To demonstrate, I’m going to take a song that I recently heard and spurred me to write this article: “Beautiful Thieves” by AFI (read the lyrics and listen on Grooveshark .) First, the song doesn’t shy away from the peril inherit in the word “thief.” I definitely get a sense of danger from the music and lyrics, but also an almost noir feeling of hopelessness. Yes, there is a sense of adrenaline and excitement, but also an awareness of the questionable morality of the whole enterprise. Without writing a music essay, the title itself is a sort of juxtaposition: theft is not a good or beautiful act, and so it’s an intriguing word choice. The lyrics make me think of a group of n’er-do-wells with few other options than thieving and fraud.

Listening to this song, I immediately envision a rough and tumble campaign world with a strongly dystopian vibe. To fit this, survival is the key character goal. Imagine adventurers that haul in magic items, but still barely scrape the money together for a decent room or meal. As the campaign progresses, the moral implications of their questionable actions begin to weigh on the characters as the causes of the world’s sorry state of affairs becomes more apparent. The conflict you present to the players is: can they look past their own selfish inclination and take a chance, a huge risk, to change the world so maybe everyone else isn’t forced into the same sort of muck and mire that made up their lives or will they sell out what’s left of their souls to escape the pitiful existence they’ve been force to live up until this point?

The beauty of the earlier paragraph is that I let a band do the heavy lifting for me, but the concept is unique enough that no one can rightfully claim I’m just lifting it from other sources. I’m sure many of you would envision a totally different game based on the song, let’s hear them!


  1. Yeah I’ve used music in my D&D games before. Mainly from the Neverwinter Nights series and a bit of Final Fantasy music as well. Really makes the game more exciting and can get the heart racing, you feel more involved and your imagination is boosted to be more creative. Although it takes a bit more preparation, it does make the game a tad more memorable!
    .-= begindnd´s last blog ..Campaign Manager — 3.5e manager tools for a DM! =-.

  2. I’ve thought of using theme music for and adventure before, but not for a spcific PC of mine. That’s a cool idea.

    .-= Tourq´s last blog ..Quetsen Sisten, the Loyal Slave – Steal this Background =-.

  3. I have always used the songs to guide my campaigns, actualy i go as far to give every NPC a theme song. For exaple i had a Mighty Cursed Warior who fought as mighty minion for evil forces who had a theme song “Enter Sandman” from Mettalica (S&M version), or my parties thee song when we ran the undead hunting campaign “Kids who want to play with the dead” – this one has great energy in it.

  4. It’s a really good idea, and one of my players already did that himself. His character is a gnome sorcerer named Tizzbin Fizzlewitz and somehow folks at the D&D game realized that the cadence to the name matched the staccato horns playing during the “Duel of Fates” Sith Theme from Episode 1. So pretty much anytime the Character does something cool, we get a chant of “Tizzbin Fizzlewitz” set to the “Duel of Fates”. Did I mention I gamed with a pack of band and choral geeks? It can get really interesting sometimes to have the Characters break into showtunes, I’m telling ya…

  5. I’m a big fan of theme songs for characters. The last four characters I’ve played in D&D, plus a WoW character on an RP server, all had theme songs that fit both their back story and personality.

    Campaign music I have had less success with. I tried using it in one game I ran and it provided a few cool moments but overall actually got in the way. In other games I’ve been in where the GM used background music, the volume was a fine balancing act between being too loud to where we had to shout at the table and being to soft to where we didn’t even notice the music anymore.

  6. A decent system and well placed speakers really helps make sure the music is not to hard to modulate.

    This site does a terrific job of allowing you to set up playlists, etc, or even sound effects.
    .-= LordVreeg´s last blog ..edited Index =-.

  7. TheMainEvent says:

    @E & begindnd: Songs in play are a different animal, but can add plenty to a game. It helps to have an “MC” that knows a decent amount of music and can be trusted to key up songs as appropriate. I sometimes take that role in games that I play in.

    @Dizman: Having major NPCs get a theme song is a great idea too. Its almost like Wrestler theme music, when the song hits the players all know to get ready!

    @Everyone else: Thanks for contributing!


  1. […] For another take on drawing inspiration from songs specifically geared towards RPG plots, check out Tabletop RPGs and Music: The Beautiful Thieves window.fbAsyncInit = function() { FB.init({appId: "121985827829129", status: true, cookie: true, […]