The Sprouted Stump: Thematic Musical Tables

In Crimea, Ivan Shishkin

When I was very young there was a stretch when I was absolutely obsessed with Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf. For those unfamiliar, the piece is a narrated children's story accompanied by an orchestra, with each character represented with a specific instrument and theme. I loved it, and would listen to it over and over again until I had every bit memorized. Not so much every word, or even the specifics of the story, but every turn of the music was etched into my imagination. The characters spoke to me not through their literal actions, but through the way they were portrayed by the orchestra. Soon I was imagining entirely new stories, new configurations of characters and their interactions based on the way their themes were woven together as the narration rattled on, entirely ignored.

Music has such a deep-seated emotive effect, even for kids (or adults!) with no formal musical literacy to speak of. We should be leveraging this inborn sonic empathy better in our games. I know TTRPG music is hardly a novel concept, but in my experience it falls into one of two camps. You have Type A: the now quite developed Background Music industry, where composers and listeners curate playlists of music to be played during sessions, generally fairly unobtrusive and generic so as not to distract from the playing. Then there's Type B: inspirational musical touchstones, the sort of playlist you build to inform everyone of the world you're playing in. Something appropriate for listening to while thinking about or prepping the game, but not so much during play.

These are obviously both useful tools, and neither obstruct the actual playing of the game, as both keep music as a background element. But in theory, I think that music may have the strongest effect in the foreground, as a highlight or emphasis for an important moment. I've done this a couple of times in my home games, and have basically used it as a component of a set-piece; an introduction to an important event, person or place that is more or less choreographed with a specific song. It's played in tandem with this introduction, and as I transition out of dissertative description and into prompts for player action I fade the music out, leaving behind the emotive impression but making space for others to chime in. This can be really effective but requires some preplanning and plotting, making it less appropriate for the sort of sandboxy, player-driven game I tend to run now. I'm not ready to give up on the idea though; building musical themes for our created worlds as strongly as Peter and the Wolf does could do a lot to help bring these worlds more powerfully to life at our tables and in our minds.

So. I've been toying with a wilderness setting for a while, in a sort of non-committal and wouldn't-this-be-neat kind of way (more about that soon, in a very committal kind of way). I've been using music playlists to inform my worldbuilding as I go; I have a collection of playlists representing different places and people in the setting, and when I hear something that I like but that doesn't fit in with any existing entity I close my eyes and let the music inspire a new Thing, and start a new playlist for that Thing. As I was doing this, I came to realize I was doing something akin to Peter and the Wolf's theming technique. Each place, each faction, even some individual characters had a musical texture all their own. And I also realized that all of this Type B musical development could actually be harnessed in the way I was hoping to bring music to my table. All I had to do was establish contexts and scenes for these songs to accompany, but in a way that didn't predetermine outcomes or necessitate extensive plotting. In short, they could map directly to encounter or event tables.

Stone, Ivan Shishkin

The hub for this setting is the frontier town of Heuvel, where dwarven refugees have established a little hilltop outpost on the border of their ancient, forgotten kingdom. And the heart of Heuvel is a bustling inn called The Sprouted Stump, named after the huge, ancient, varnished table in the center of the place that, inexplicably, continues to sprout new branches and buds to this day, leaving the walls covered in ivy green. The inn is run by the sweet old brewmistress Ines, mother and disciplinarian to every lost soul and aspiring explorer who finds their way here. She often makes vague allusions to an adventuring career in her younger days, and nobody's quite sure whether to believe her or not.

The dwarves are musically themed around various Northern European folk traditions - Flemish, Swedish, and Breton are represented in this playlist. Each song maps to a random event, the scene or vibe the party finds when they walk into the Stump for a night of rest, carousing, or rumor-gathering. Social encounters definitely work best for this kind of thing, I think, but I still hope to try it out in other contexts. Maybe someday I'll roll a wilderness encounter with a wolf, and be able to whip out Prokofiev's horn theme. But whether or not this ends up being practical at the table, it's been incredibly helpful in sparking creativity and inspiring some degree of Vibe Consistency in the stuff I'm writing.

  1. Praegu Ja Siin/Tahtede Poole - Estbel A quiet night. Most of the regulars are out on business, mapping ruins, recovering treasures to restore the pride of the dwarven people, all those big important things. Ines is singing a quiet song while she wipes down the bar, and her eyes are shining and faraway as she stares at the fire. That seems important, too. Double your normal amount of healing when you get a good night's rest, and dream about reuniting with old friends.
  2. March - WÖR A party of explorers has returned from their latest expedition into the tomb that was recently discovered deep in the Menhir Forest. Nobody died this time, and they're partying like it. Anyone who joins in with their celebrations will hear of a new discovery deep in the wilds, and a tip-off on the perilous method of entry. More importantly, you'll also have a hell of a night.
  3. Bij Tijd en Wijl - Soetkin Collier You're not quite sure why Baron Hofte would send a tax collector all this way, much less escorted by a half dozen men-at-arms, but it doesn't bode well for Heuvel's status as a freehold. Right now, Ines is distracting the weedy little man with a song, but his eyes have been flicking in your direction ever since you walked in. Rumor of your last haul might have gotten to him. You can pay him off with a fat purse of gold, or you can tell him to go jump down a deep hole. We'll see if Hofte's soldiers have a sense of humor.
  4. De Kollebloem/De Yurt - Trio Dhoore Local "alchemist," Wizzbang the Fizzlord, is breaking out their latest batch of dandelion wine under Ines' disapproving glare. They keep trying to press a glass on you, clearly hurt by your hesitation. If you drink the murky stuff, save vs poison or lose half of your Wisdom score for the next few days. Expect a gift basket from the Fizzy one themself by way of apology. If you refuse, you can expect to be charged double for any potions from their shop for the next month.
  5. Lilac/Dave the Watchman - Naragonia Quartet Hilde, the head of the town watch, is getting hitched to that elf mage that came to town last autumn, what's-his-name. Everyone knew they would, eventually. When her long braids are knotted around their wrists, binding them together as one, Ines will tap the keg she's been saving behind the bar. The one every patron has been eyeing for months. That's why the whole damn town has showed up to join in the celebrations. This is serious brew, and you feel a glow of warmth in you by the time you hit the hay. You've got advantage on the first roll you make tomorrow.
  6. Rosenlundsvalsen - Väsen When you walk into the Stump tonight, all of the tables are pushed back to the walls, and Ines is standing in the center of the room talking excitedly and shifting her feet to and fro. She's trying to teach a ancient dance of the Misplaced Kingdom to the sheepish patrons, and they're too cowed by her enthusiasm to refuse. If you step up to show them how it's done, make a CHA or DEX save. Succeed, and Ines is overjoyed - she'll pass you a keepsake from her grand adventuring career with a fond smile. Otherwise, you make a fool of yourself, and earn some laughs from the other explorers. Good luck attracting hired help next time you head out of town.
  7. Tanya's Tune - Edwin Huizinga & William Coulter Willem Carver, skilled Halfling Trapmaster and beloved veteran of countless expeditions has made his last excursion. He didn't make it back this time, and his companions have a haunted look...sounds like he didn't die easy. The wake's an uncharacteristically somber affair. Even Ines doesn't have much to say, a drawn expression on her face. Willem, of all folk. A more precise and meticulous burglar you're unlikely to meet. What can you say in these times? What can you do, but raise a glass and pray that it's not you next time? He left you something in his will, a strange chunky key of a dark metal you've never seen before. Pocket it for now, and tomorrow look to the hills again with renewed determination.
  8. Toniou bale deus Kreiz Breizh - Pennoù Skoulm The Songbird, an apparently famed minstrel, has somehow found his way to this backwater. You've never heard of this guy, but the half-elf certainly looks the part, and he's undoubtedly a deft hand with that lute. The finch on his shoulder sings right along with his playing, and takes over the melody whenever he pauses to recite a tall tale. You're so taken with his music, in fact, that you don't notice when that kid with the spectacles slips his hand into your pack and takes that thing you can't possibly do without - valuable to you, whether in coin or in sentiment. Hilde said he and the bard came into town together...


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