Playlist Design

I’ve thought for a while now that developing game concepts based on a random music playlist could lead to a useful creative exercise and a fun article. So I’ve grabbed five songs at random (but taken from my 4- and 5-star songs so I definitely know the content), ran with the first ideas they gave me, determined which type of tabletop game best suited the idea, and wrote a brief description. I’ll quote the songs when necessary to show what inspired me in them.

Cover to The Who Live from a Backstage Pass“Bargain” by The Who

This is a live version, and the spoken intro inspired the game idea more than the song itself.

“This is a song about what you get for being here, if you’re alive […] you’re gettin’ a bargain.”

This made me think of the classic “selling your soul” scenario. You’ve made a “bargain” in order to preserve your own life, but you know that some day your debt will need to be repaid. The being you’ve bargained with could be supernatural (like a demon who magically sustains your life) or terrestrial (such as an unethical doctor who uses cutting-edge tech to revive you).

This takes the form of an RPG, with each player taking on the role of person who’s made such a bargain and calling the shots for other player’s savior. The players can expect all their favors to be called in over the course of the game, for different reasons and at different times. Maybe each scene leads to one favor being called in, so the game gets set in motion by the first and gets a last-minute betrayal or change of heart with the last.

Disobeying your patron is possible—and deciding whether to obey or disobey is a crucial dilemma of the game—but the consequences for disobedience are dire, likely bringing on the death the character put off (or an even worse fate). So why would you disobey?

I’d gladly lose me to find you
I’d gladly give up all I got

Because there’s something even more important to you than your life. So characters have motivations that drive them to stay alive. Most information, including your character’s backstory and probably even patron, is public, but your true motivation starts out a secret. You can reveal it if you choose, or wait till a properly dramatic time. Either way, the player acting as your patron knows from the start, and it’s that player’s job to use the motivation as a threat and/or bribe. Some characters should find that pursuing the motivation leads them to follow the patron, while others should discover the opposite. Much of this depends on the patron’s goals and how sinister he or she is. The character might realize the patron’s true identity, but a sinister patron might appear in another guise. If a devout Christian character sees the image of Jesus, she might later learn that it was all a ruse.

Since players (at least some of them) are going to be in conflict with one another, they should have some ties that bind. Otherwise, it’s tough to justify all these resurrectees knowing and interacting with one another. Perhaps they were all soldiers almost killed in action, or addicts who all nearly died from overdoses. This doesn’t mean their patrons are all the same person (though some might share), but it provides a reason for them to meet and to care about each other.

Cover for Queen & David Bowie "Under Pressure"“Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie

Under pressure—that burns a building down
Splits a family in two
Puts people on streets

A couple scenarios pop to mind: a police precinct in the middle of a crime wave/riot, and a more literal scenario involving pressure in a malfunctioning system (like a manufacturing plant or the submarine in Red November). The first sounds like it could appear in a couple different media; the second would work better as a fairly abstract board game.

Let’s go with the first, since I think the concept’s more engaging. It could turn into a pretty interesting short-format storytelling RPG, but I think I’ll take another tack. Let’s make a team-based board game, with one team playing the cops and the other the looters. I’m picturing the board as a series of storefronts, some large and some small, with randomized loot within them. The looters choose movement in secret, hiding a chit with a direction listed on it. The cops move, then the looters reveal their movement choices. Any cop on the same space as a looter after the move “busts” that looter.

For the looters, I’m thinking of a Small World-type “lie fallow” mechanic. A looter can keep venturing out to get more stuff, or can call it a night. Calling it a night, the looter cashes in the loot but sits out a turn.

The cops have gear choices (probably represented by cards) that let them catch up (since the core gameplay should be biased toward the looters). They have basic options like cruisers and police radios, but they also have the option to go bigget. Using items that give major advantages carries consequences. The media monitor the police, and escalating their tactics by using tear gas, night sticks, or rubber bullets could lead to losing points in the end!

Cover for mc chris Knowing is Half the Hassle

“Hijack” by mc chris

I’m a sound wave tsunami
Vocal origami
Hijack the mic and it’s not like anyone can stop me

This song calls up a lot of rap tropes, and makes me think of what a game about the rap world/industry/scene might look like. I’d make it a board game, with a few different ways to measure success.

Your rapper might looking to get rich, measuring success in Escalades and platinum records. Or you could shoot for critical success, aiming to be the most authentic and skilled rather than going for an easy buck with songs about partying and booty. Sales and critical success both matter for winning the game, as do picking the best producers for your tracks. Everybody needs to spend some time in the studio, some touring, and some doing publicity. The cash-in rapper might spend a higher proportion of time at parties or in photo shoots while the critical darling does more shows (albeit smaller ones).

Tons of popular rap songs feature guest artists, and that’s a core element of this game. One player can snag a cut of another player’s victory points by turning in a guest appearance. Maybe each rapper can guest with each other rapper one time, so a major part of the game is picking the best time to use one of your few chances.

Cover to Elvis Costello My Aim is True“Watching the Detectives” by Elvis Costello & the Attractions

Long shot at that jumping sign
Invisible shivers running down my spine

The evocative noir tropes that wrap up this song make me want a game that mashes up the “hidden killer” of Are You the Werewolf? with the storytelling clout of Gloom. The players take on roles, from the Hardscrabble Detective to the Thug on Parole to the Woman in Red. Everybody has a cigarette, of course.

Unlike in Werewolf, there isn’t a set “killer” at the start of the game. Instead, each player has a secret agenda. Everybody who succeeds on his or her agenda wins (because winning’s not really the point). Agendas come in coded sets with supporting cards, which are put in face-down piles and picked randomly to build the deck. Some are character-specific (discredit the Honest Businessman), others more general (Collect the Big Life Insurance Claim). So, for example, the Collect the Big Life Insurance Claim might have the same symbol as Life Insurance Policy, a card that lets a character “use it as collateral” to buy valuables.

The players contribute to a mini-movie, and are encouraged to roleplay what happens in the narrative. As an added bonus, it’s cheap to produce because it’s all black and white!

Cover for The Beatles Let It Be... Naked“I’ve Got a Feeling” by The Beatles

(Side note: It’s incredibly depressing that the Black Eyed Peas song with the same name showed up higher on Google’s search results.)

So this is a tricky one. Why? Well, look at the lyrics.

I’ve got a feeling, a feeling deep inside
Oh yeah, Oh yeah. (that’s right.)
I’ve got a feeling, a feeling I can’t hide
Oh no. no. Oh no! Oh no.
Yeah! Yeah! I’ve got a feeling. Yeah!

It’s a song first, and the lyrical content doesn’t really give me many hooks to develop a game from. So let’s see what I can find.

Well, how about this part:

Ev’rybody had a hard year.
Ev’rybody had a good time.
Ev’rybody had a wet dream.
Ev’rybody saw the sunshine.

This song’s really several compositions stuck together. There’s some Lennon, there’s some McCartney. So between that and the “Ev’rybody” verse, I’m getting something. What if, in this game, each player has a set of assumptions for their “character,” but every event in the game affects everybody. I realize I’m going pretty abstract here, but bear with me.

Here’s how it would work on the simplest level: A player plays the “Sunshine” card, and every player gains 5 sun points. So now everybody has 5 points, but one player is the House Plant, so she gets +1 point whenever a card gives her sun points. (That’s just an illustration. Real cards would be considerably more triggers.) This game requires really careful integration of events and set-up cards, and would work best as a really quick-playing game.


So there’s the yield from my playlist design experiment. I’d love to see other people try it out or offer comments! Which of these work for you, which don’t, and why? If it’s popular enough, I’ll do another installment in the future.

Editor’s Note: For another take on drawing inspiration from songs specifically geared towards RPG plots, check out Tabletop RPGs and Music: The Beautiful Thieves


  1. Nice, Logan. I’m going to have to try this, probably leaning toward RPG stuff rather than a diversity of games. We’ll see. Oh, and I’ll be a little more metal. *throws the goat*

  2. i used to do something quite similar to this by useing a single picture or word as inspiration for a world, setting, or story. enjoyable to see read how someone else would approach the idea.

  3. I don’t do rock.

    Rob Dougan – Furious Angels

  4. Do you do requests? How bout Hasil Adkins – No More Hotdogs.

  5. Logan Bonner says:

    metaDM: Guillotine already exists.

  6. I conclude that you have a pretty rad playlist.

  7. I have a small (6″ by 6″ square and 300 pages I’m guessing, ) art book, with each page showing an infuential work of art and its opisite page giving a paragraph about why it is deemed influential.
    I am thinking grabing arandom image from that and doing this experiment would be a great mental exercise .. thank you.

  8. Logan Bonner says:

    That sounds cook, Mark! Interested to see what you come up with.