I recently read Bloody Rose by Nicholas Eames, a brilliant fantasy book about a band of misfits who travel around the land killing monsters. It’s exciting and it’s funny (I laughed for whole minutes at one point that I can’t tell you about without spoiling it), and the characters are badass and flawed and relatable. I’d recommend it to anyone with an interest in modern high fantasy literature. For reasons I’ll explain in this blog post, I’m also convinced that it should be added to the next version of D&D’s recommended reading (the 5th edition Appendix E version of which I have previously reviewed on this blog).
Now, I’m pretty sure that Bloody Rose is neither an official Dungeons & Dragons tie-in novel nor set in a D&D campaign world, but it clearly draws on D&D for inspiration. It’s got the standard ingredients: the aforementioned groups of monster slayers; non-human sentient races; magic weapons; a vaguely medieval setting with a map; a stark divide between human civilisation and monstrous wildlands; cataclysmic threats; heroics; bards to sing the tales. It’s even got some monsters straight out of the Monster Manual, including D&D-originals like owlbears, mariliths, and hyena-faced gnolls.
But the thing I’m most fascinated by in Bloody Rose is the spin that it puts on the heroic fantasy genre: what if adventuring parties were like rock & roll bands? It must have been done before, right? Does anyone know where and how? Regardless, I’ve never seen it before, so this is the story that made me wonder how to incorporate that idea back into D&D.
If you want to play a D&D campaign in which the adventuring parties were rock & roll bands, how would that work?
How does it work in Bloody Rose?
In the world of Bloody Rose, instead of D&D adventuring parties you get mercenary bands. Mercenary bands, in this world, are cool. They have personality. They go on tour. They play (that is, kill monsters) in arenas in front of massive crowds. They have groupies and agents and promoters. They’re kinda messed up. They live and die by (and for) their reputation. Band members can even have defined roles, like the frontman (or woman in this case) and the axeman, and of course the bard (who isn’t supposed to fight, just sing songs about it afterwards).
The “civilised” (i.e. predominantly human) lands are regularly threatened by hordes of monsters from the wild parts of the world, so there’s always a demand for people who can kill monsters. However, in the years since the last major confrontation1, monsters haven’t been a real threat to human-occupied settlements. Instead, an industry has risen up in which monsters are captured and taken into big cities, where famous (or wannabe) mercenary bands are hired to kill them in the most spectacular way possible for the entertainment of the crowds. It’s bloodsport, and (spoilers) a significant part of the arc of the book is having major characters realising that bloodsport is not ok. I’ll come back to this.
1 (The last major confrontation is covered in Eames’ first book, Kings of the Wyld, to which Bloody Rose is a loosely connected sequel. You definitely don’t need to read Kings before Rose, though. I didn’t.)
Of course, when monsters are a real danger, mercenary bands can be hired for that as well, travelling into wildlands to face down monsters that can actually pose a threat to humanity. That’s how Bloody Rose and her band end up seeking out the legendarily terrifying Simurg, aka the dragon eater. But even though such fights aren’t in arenas and aren’t in front of crowds, they can still fuel a band’s reputation as long as the stories make it back. Watching and remembering and immortalising in song is the job of the band’s bard in these cases.
The important things to keep in mind here are that mercenary bands don’t collect treasure from dead monsters, but instead are paid by people to kill monsters. Also, killing monsters in spectacular ways (or defeating particularly scary monsters) makes bands more popular (both with the crowds who watch them and people who hear the stories later), and if they’re more popular they will be more desirable to promoters, will get more and/or better jobs (generally with more dangerous monsters), which will make them more popular, which will make them more desirable, and so on and so on. Did somebody say “xp reward cycle”? No?
What were we talking about?
How could this work in D&D?
Right, right. The question is how we can portray rock & roll mercenary bands in D&D. Or any other fantasy roleplaying game, because the ideas I’m about to talk about can be applied very widely to almost any system. Dungeon World? No problem. Pathfinder? Sure. Your Favourite OSR System Here? Probably.
The first thing to deal with is that, unless your players want to play a band of evil characters, you’ll need to move away from touring as a form of bloodsport. It works in Bloody Rose because it’s tied up in personal character arcs and societal change and commentary and a bunch of other things, but in almost any other setting, it’s unethical as hell. Fortunately, there’s an easy fix that, as an added bonus, means that you don’t necessarily need a bard in every single band. Basically, magic.
Specificially, let all bands (even complete newbies) have access to a form of magic that can record their exploits and play them back for other people. The playback can either be simultaneous and broadcast at a distance (like live performances and gigs) or presented in an edited form later or even duplicated (like selling records/albums and also to possibly erase any egregious errors and manage your brand). This widespread magic could be in many forms but I’m thinking of a sort of familiar (or other summoned creature such as a Pact of the Chain Warlock might summon) or autonomous magic item that follows the band around and records their actions like a film crew. Depending on the preferences of the players, this could be strictly only when they are performing, or it could be at all times and double as a sort of documentary film crew, if the players want some of that Spinal Tap flavour (and if you do, I also recommend porting over something like the Confessionals mechanic from InSpectres).
With such a tool, bands will still be hired to fight monsters but only when those monsters are actually a threat that needs to be dealt with. This sidesteps accusations of cruelty to helpless animals or prisoners (but you’ll have to deal with the usual issues around violence in D&D by yourself).
The next thing to do is connect experience points to reputation. This would need some balancing, but the amount of xp awarded should depend on the following:
- How many people saw you? When starting out, bands can probably only rely on their direct employer to watch them to ensure the job has been done properly, but as they get famous, they’re going to want to broadcast to bigger and bigger audiences. Live shows are best, but recordings can work too sometimes. Importantly, the band only earns the xp when people see what they have done, not when they actually do it.
- Did you win? Nobody is going to be impressed if a band didn’t actually win the fight, or at least accomplish some sort of victory. Of course, if a band can make a failure look like a planned disengagement, maybe they can salvage something, but in general they probably want to just erase any evidence of what happened.
- Did you show off? People will be more impressed if a band can pull off a bold strategy or demonstrate some of its special moves or fancy talents. Strikes dealing significant damage, high-level spells or other recently acquired abilities, inventive use of environments, targeting enemies’ weaknesses: these can all give bonuses to xp earned. Confidence and showmanship are useful here, and doing something risky and visually impressive will earn more xp than something powerful and safe. (Running away to keep distance between you and an enemy while you pepper it with firebolts isn’t particularly fun to watch when you could get up close and cast flaming hands instead.) That said, good narration can make the most straightforward attack seem epic.
- Was this encounter a suitable challenge? Audiences aren’t going to be impressed if bands are going up against monsters that they’ve been able to walk all over for ages, but they’ll be blown away if a band goes up against something that it should never be able to take down in a million years and manages it anyway. Encounters that don’t stretch a band’s abilities (with a challenge rating that’s too low, for instance) will not earn any xp at all, but deadly encounters that push the band to the brink (or, even better, which should push the band to the brink but don’t) will earn huge xp. This provides some justification for why bands fight harder monsters as they level up: more famous bands don’t want to deal with the small fry any more, but up-and-coming bands need all the exposure they can get (and if that means killing rats in some tavern basement, well…).
From there, we can even connect xp-as-reputation to D&D’s level advancement by saying that band members can only level up when taught by an appropriate mentor (probably in a city, between gigs) and that such mentors won’t deign to teach people who don’t have the right kind of buzz about their accomplishments. Teach inexperienced wannabes, the mentor will say, and they’ll do the technique wrong in front of a hundred people and embarass themselves and, more importantly, disgrace the technique and the person who taught them that technique. Mentors have reps too, you know.
The tweaks above are a good start to Rock & Roll your D&D campaign, but we can go further.
How do the bands get jobs? They could go out looking themselves (maybe there’s a handy bulletin board with open job offers, yawn), but who’s got time for that? No, what they need is an agent or manager. Someone who has their best interests at heart (because they’re paid to have the band’s best interests at heart). They’ll take a cut of whatever the band makes, and in exchange they’ll find and arrange the jobs the band needs to progress their careers (as well as negotiate for proper remuneration). Better agents command higher prices, in theory, but beware the agents that seem too good to be true, because they could be unscrupulous operators just using their clients for their own purposes (or maybe playing off multiple clients against each other). The ideal is to find a competent agent who is a genuinely good and loyal friend, but too few bands manage that.
Bands might not go touring town-to-town to perform in local arenas, but they still need to move around the countryside. They’ll need to travel to places to do their jobs (since their employers are not necessarily providing the monsters to be slain, the band may need to track them down in any of the usual D&D adventuring spots, e.g. dungeons, forests, and the like). Plus, bands may just want to travel to big cities to show off the recordings of their latest exploits and/or to revel in the adoration of their fans, not to mention find new work. Some sort of tour bus would be the vehicle of choice: attention-grabbing, dependable, big enough to live in (and have guests in) but small enough to park outside local taverns so the band members can sleep in proper beds sometimes.
Speaking of fans, sometimes people will want to follow bands that they love, to be close to them and see them perform live. Groupies can make great NPCs. They’ll make their own way (unless the band particularly wants to adopt some of them) and they’ll be delighted to help the band out however they can. There are downsides too, of course. Being technically unaffiliated with the band, their affections can be fickle and they might disappear without notice. Or, conversely, they might stick so close to the band that it causes problems while they’re working. And you might as well bury the reputation of any band that lets a groupie get injured or die on their watch.
Lastly, remember that there are other bands out there. Some have already made it big, and might be on the wane. Others are coming up just like the PCs and might be either friendly or fiercely competitive. And once the band members have levelled up a bit, don’t forget that there will always be new bands trying to tip them off their pedestal. Band rivalries can be serious business, and “Battle of the Bands” can take on a whole new meaning…