Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Follow the Bouncing d20

From November 29, 2004, one of my "Live and Let Dice" columns exploring the intersection between gaming and filk. What is filk, you may ask? Read on, if you dare!

Follow the Bouncing d20

According to legend, the name came from a typo. A science fiction convention scheduled a time slot for folk singing, but when the program book was printed, it said FILK singing. Fans being what they are, they embraced the flub as something special; a term to signify folk songs that have been mutated to reflect the Fannish Experience.

Most filk songs are inspired by science fiction or fantasy novels, or on Movies or TV shows. There are some gaming filks, like "There Were Orcses, Orcses" and "You Kill the Balrog and I'll Climb the Tree", but not a lot of them. Or perhaps I just have not been hanging around the right filkers.

Of course everyone acknowledges that music has an important part in the Role-Playing Experience. Gaming books will often suggest playing background music while playing in order to provide a suitable atmosphere. Soundtrack albums for action movies make good choices for this.

My wacky brother Steeve once took this to the ultimate: He made his own musical. He was running a game called It Came From the Late Late Show, a silly beer & pretzels game in which you play an actor in a cheesy B-grade horror movie. Not a character, an actor. You get to do things like call for stunt doubles and sulk in your trailer and argue with the director over motivation as well as hack, slash and get killed by the Monster. Anyway, once for a convention he worked up a Musical for his "Late Late Show" game. He compiled a CD with an eclectic mix of songs and from time to time the action of the game would stop for a musical number, to which the players would have to lip synch. The title of the musical was "Nature Trail to Hell", from the "Weird Al" song. Another show-stopper in the musical was the Village People's "YMCA". As I said, it was an eclectic mix.

Granted, that was an extreme case for a special occasion. but I have never done anything like that myself. I don't set up candles and atmospheric lighting in my gaming area too, or make campaign maps on simulated parchment. These are all fun things to do, but me, I'm lucky if I can get the dining room table cleared off in time for company. An organized GM I am not.

But I have written RPG-based filk from time to time, and sometimes I inflict it upon my players. The first filk I ever wrote was based on a phrase in my head and the mental image of a hobbit playing a string bass. Unlike most filk, this one is not based on an existing tune, so just try humming a basic 12-bar blues line.


I'm a halfling, and my woes are as big as I'm not;
I live in a long, lost place, what most folks forgot;
And I'm tryin' so hard to lose --
-- I got them Halfling Blues.

Wizards and elves assume that I'm not wise;
And even the dwarves make jokes about my size.
No one shares your views --
-- You got them Halfling Blues.

Halfling Blues
Are buggin' me;
I'm just about as low as low can be.
I walk aroun'
Wearin' funny clothes;
An' I got hair on all of my toes

I mean my present state has got me so confuse';
I have paid my dues --
-- Singin' them Halfling Blues.

I'm sick and tired of tryin' to talk to people while starin' them in the knee;
And it's hard playing basketball, when you stand three foot three!
Nothing can excuse;
Your feet hurt 'cause you don't wear shoes,
How I long to lose --
-- Them crummy li'l Halfling Blu-uuuuuues...

(J.R.R. Tolkein, come on give me a break!!!)

Years later, when I was playing in a CHAMPIONS group in Iowa, I decided that our campaigns needed their own theme songs. We were rotating between three or four games at the time and I came up with a filk for each. Probably the best one was for a game based on the Marvel super-team THE AVENGERS:


(sung to the tune of "Ride of the Valkyries")

They're the Avengers,
They're the Avengers,
Vanquishing Evil,
That's what they do;

Yes They're the Avengers,
Mighty Avengers,
Stouthearted members,
Noble and true!

When danger is near
They always appear;
So let's give a cheer,
Avengers are here!!!

I have to admit, the tunes I pick for my filk are not always sittin' 'round the campfire with your guitar material, but I try to choose melodies that fit the subject matter; and what better composer for a team which includes the Mighty Thor is there than Richard Wagner?

Sometimes the tunes get a bit obscure. For our Victorian Era Monster Stompers campaign, I chose a song from the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta Ruddigore. That's one of the problem with the world, there's not enough Gilbert & Sullivan.


(sung to the tune of "The Ghost's High Noon")

When the night comes down,
On London Town
And the streets are dark with dread;
Creatures of fright
Lurk in the night
Where footpads fear to tread.
When the werewolves walk
And the undead stalk,
We'll send 'em right back to their tombs;
For we are the Fearless Monster Hunters,
Demon and vampire's doom!

Of course, not all my songs were obscure. I wrote a theme for the JUSTICE LEAGUE INTERNATIONAL campaign I was running at the time based on "It's A Small World After All." I only got a couple bars into singing it when the other players started throwing things.

I have had games where songs became a part of the plot. I had a long running TEENAGERS FROM OUTER SPACE campaign, an insanely silly game inspired by anime series like URUSEI YATSURA and RANMA 1/2. My TFOS campaign suffered in a way from social darwinism in that I had a couple of really good players who would take plot bits and run with them and often I, as GM, had to scramble to keep ahead of them. My good friend Russ was also in that game; a good and creative gamer, but not quite as aggressive. While the craziness was running rampant, he would often sit back, apparently overlooked, and quietly devise his own craziness -- eminently logical, but no less crazy -- and then spring it on the rest of the group.

In one TFOS game I had the group starting a garage band to enter a contest; your basic zany teen plot, right out of ARCHIE. Russ decided that his character, (An amoeboid alien name Dwerl), would write songs for the group; so while the other characters and I were chasing the plot, he was sitting by himself composing atrocious lyrics for the band.


by Dwerl Abzolveric (Russ Collins)

Don't be BLUUUUUE!

...And so on.

Dwerl's songwriting became a running joke in the campaign and he kept coming up with new ones; almost all of which contained the word "Babaloo". Another running gag was Lynn Minmei, the bubble-headed pop singer from ROBOTECH; (or SUPER DIMENSIONAL FORTRESS MACROSS, for you purists), possibly the first anime series to combine cute girl idol singers with mecha-blasting space battles. Anyway, one of the players was a ROBOTECH fan, so whenever the plot required a celebrity to come to town for a concert, or for there to be a song on the radio, I had the performer be Lynn Minmei. I also wrote a song to be her signature piece. I like to imagine it as the ulitmate bad karaoke song. I also wanted to write a romantic ballad that includes the phrase "deploy electronic countermeasures".


My love is like a small white dragon;
Exploding mecha fills my heart.
When your arms reach out like corkscrew missiles,
I know we'll never part.

My love is like a small white dragon;
Romantic shrapnel fills the air;
When your eyes pierce mine like mega-lasers,
It goes to show the love we share.

When you deploy electronic countermeasures
To jam my signal of desire,
What more can I do? My target's locked on you:

My love is like a small white dragon'
And in my heart, you'll always be,
When cluster bombs ignite our true love's fire-fight,
A small white dragon of love for me.

I don't know if there's any moral to all this, other than that some people want to fill the world with silly orc songs.

What's wrong with that?


pwl said...

I think if you check your sources, the typo was in an article entitled "The Influence of Science Fiction on Modern American Folk Music" - only it ended up "Filk Music". See:

kurt wilcken said...

Well, my sources are oral history filtered through my own faulty memory, so I probably am mistaken. That's why I said "according to legend..."

But thanks for the correction. I live for feedback.

Robert Wilson said...

Those are some beautiful writes