Dungeons & Circlepits: Punk in a Fantasy World

Earlier this week an interesting discussion arose in one of the D&D Facebook groups, after the following question was asked:

Punk Bard? What does punk in D&D sound like?

My initial response was “it’s punk. It sounds like whatever it wants to sound like.” Which, while true, is needlessly flippant. Punk is a genre of music very close to my heart, and I thought this question deserved a little more thought.

So, what does punk sound like in a fantasy world? Many of the responses to the original question focused on more folk-oriented, less electric music that shares the punk aesthetic – bands like The Dubliners and The Pogues. And in fact there was a lot of discussion around the idea of electric instruments being unavailable in a fantasy world.

Interestingly, a lot of my favourite fantasy fiction bears a lot of the same attitudes as much of the music that I listen to. Fantasy generally relies on myths, legends, and the idea of rediscovering a forgotten history – something which on its face seems fairly incompatible with punk’s roots in an anti-establishment reaction to issues present in society at the time that need to be changed. Fantasy tends to tell epic stories of rags-to-riches heroes rising up to save the world from some ultimate evil, whereas punk is often about the realities of a society where such a rise to fame and glory is not only impossible but undesirable. There is no good and evil in punk – only people, and the abuses they inflict on those who they hold power over them. Rising to the level of the powerful makes you part of the problem in a worldview that preaches freedom and the power of the individual.

The fiction I love is often smaller scale and deeply political. It’s often classified as “The New Weird” rather than fantasy. The books that immediately come to mind when I think of punk and fantasy are China Mieville’s New Crobuzon novels (particularly Perdido Street Station), which deal with political oppression, the struggles of the working class, the violence of day-to-day existence, and themes of underground resistance movements, and deeply artistic and creative subcultures on the edges of society butting heads with the establishment.

I’ve also always enjoyed the “fuck you” attitude of ‘grimdark’ stories like Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy. While it doesn’t really share the same focus on politics and individual freedoms as punk and the Mieville books, grimdark fiction takes the tropes and expectations of traditional fantasy fiction and sets fire to them. That’s very much something that punk did with music.

Which, in a roundabout way, brings me back to music in fantasy, and the problem of electric instruments. In thinking about music in fantasy fiction, I find that I come up short when looking for examples to draw on. Music does feature heavily in a lot of fantasy, but more often than not it comes in the form of songs retelling historical events, ballads, and tales of grand adventure, or there are ancient verses that act as prophecies or warnings in some way, and is almost always performed on what we think of as traditional medieval instruments. Even in fiction that is inherently tied to music – like Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles – the music on display is beautiful, complex, and usually either sad, or joyful. There is a theme of anti-establishment music present in The Name of The Wind – one of the key events in the plot is the writing and performance of a song by Kvothe’s parents that ultimately results in their death – but while the idea of music as a tool of rebellion is present, it isn’t really manifested in the music present in the text.

Drum kits as we know them have been around since the early 1900s. Electricity became commonplace in homes in the ‘20s and ‘30s, and the electric guitar was invented in 1931. Punk emerged in the ‘60s and ‘70s, just a handful of decades later, with hardcore coming along very quickly after that. Since then the genre has continued to develop and change, becoming noisier, more aggressive, and both more formulaic and more chaotic depending on the route you take through all the subgenres of punk. Formulaic pop punk bands like New Found Glory and Blink 182 sound nothing like bands like Converge and Nails, but they all share the same root.

The world moves quickly, technology advances at a ridiculous pace, and changes in technology prompt changes in art. In fantasy fiction and games we are usually dealing with societies and cultures that have been around for thousands of years, with access to magic throughout that time, and yet the culture and art of those societies never seems to chance. I have always questioned why, in a world with ready access to magic, buildings are still lit by open flames. And now I’m questioning why instruments would remain acoustic for so long, and why music would stick to its traditional roots.

The only example from fiction that I can think of that deals with this issue is Terry Pratchett’s Soul Music, in which the main character comes into possession of a guitar imbued with the powerful music that brought the universe into creation. The result is the rapid introduction of modern rock music into Discworld, and chaos ensues. It’s probably no surprise that Soul Music is one of my favourite Discworld novels. The problem, unfortunately, is that the book comes to a close, the music goes away, and the world returns to normal. Cultural revolution happened, but the world stayed the same.

If Loot The Room was focused on fiction and writing in general, I might leave this article here. I’ve made my points, and if you wanted to write punk into your stories… well, you know how to do that. But this is a site about D&D and gaming, and I like to provide something that’s useful as well and (hopefully) thought-provoking. So let’s look at ways in which you could introduce punk – or just more electrified forms of music – into your ongoing games.

The easy way, of course, is to simply say “this is a thing now” and just go ahead and do it. But let’s talk about ways we can make this work with the mechanics of the game.

For live music we need two things – power and amplification. They’re both easily solved. If we’re talking about recorded music, we also need a means of storing the music in some form of medium, and a means of playing it back later. Since we’re talking about punk, we don’t even need a means of mass production and distribution; punk at its core is DIY and small scale. But if we wanted to, we could solve that problem as well.

Power takes electricity. Which is fun, because electricity is one of the more primal ways in which magic manifests itself in the game. And D&D isn’t shy about giving even low level characters access to lightning. Are you a blue dragonborn? Great! You can breathe electricity, and you’ve done it your whole life. First level bard? Have the Shocking Grasp cantrip, and you can literally hold electricity in your hand as often as you like.

Magic works in weird ways by necessity – if we had explanations for how everything worked it would be science, not magic – and I see no reason why a DM couldn’t just decree that a bard with Shocking Grasp could power her instrument indefinitely just by channeling that energy into the instrument itself. But, of course, some people are already going to be preparing to shout at me about circuits and pickups and how electricity actually works. And to them I say – if a ring can store fireballs in it, why can’t a crystal of some kind be mounted in the guitar that delivers a slow, steady stream of current to the instrument? Make electric instruments incredibly expensive if you feel like it.

So, amplification. We already have a spell that sort of allows for this anyway. Thaumaturgy is a cantrip that allows the caster to amplify their voice up to 3 times as loud for a minute. I’d say that’s loud enough to be heard over a crowd, and I’d be happy to rule that you could apply it to your instrument. And since it only calls for a Verbal component, I don’t see any reason why a DM shouldn’t rule that it could keep being cast while a song is being played. Hell, make the component itself part of the lyrics if you’re the vocalist.

Maybe your verbal component is “Oi!”. Problem solved for a fantasy punk writing songs that are often less than a minute long anyway.

I’d intended to draw a map for today’s post and ended up writing this article instead, and now I’m at the point where I want to give you something you can use in your game aside from just these ideas. I thought about writing up some electrified musical instruments, but you can do that yourself with a minimum of effort. And I considered making a couple of pregenerated punk characters, but it seems decidedly against the idea of punk itself to give examples of “how to be punk”. So, instead, I did a map as well.

Welcome to The Pit.

[The Pit: Upper Floor. 1 square = 5 feet. Click to embiggen.]

[The Pit: Basement Venue. 1 square = 5 feet. Click to embiggen.]

The Pit is a small, easily-missed bar. It is narrow and cramped, squeezed into the basement of a row of buildings and entered down a back alleyway. There is no signage, and the entrance is a narrow. battered metal door that looks industrial in nature. Through the door a steep flight of stone stairs leads to the dingy bar area, and the pit that gives the venue its name.

The upper floor is comprised of the bar and a wooden walkway/mezzanine area that looks out over the pit itself. A small store room accessing via the bar contains bottles of beer of dubious origin. This is the only beverage sold in The Pit.

Stairs lead down to the pit itself, some 15 feet below the mezzanine and bar. The walkway above is supported by wooden pillars rising from the floor of the pit. It is not uncommon for members of the audience to find themselves slammed into these posts during shows – or else for band- and audience-members alike to climb them during a set.

Musicians perform in the centre of the pit, with the audience surrounding them on the floor and the mezzanine above. There is no raised stage or designated performance area, and it is not unusual for performers to get physical with the audience (and vice versa). The Pit is all floor show, all the time. Going to a show at the Pit is an exercise in controlled, mutually-agreed-upon violence. Though it seems chaotic and aggressive, there is a very strong community spirit among the groups that perform here and the punters who come to the shows and to drink. Outsiders who see the violent, writhing mass of people in the pit during performances and assume it is a free for all with no rules or consequences for deliberately injuring people are often surprised when the whole crowd turn on them specifically.

And that’s not all! Since I tend to take things too far, I also created a small ‘zine you can download for free that talks about the reopening of The Pit. If you want some lore to help drop this venue into your game, grab it here.

[Click to download for free]

BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE! In the thread that started this whole post I was challenged (OK, I volunteered) to record a song written by Tony Petrecca called “Goblinoid”. So I did.

Enjoy, and be sure to let me know if you use any of this stuff!