Campaign Songs: Contract of Barl

I’ve spoken before about our campaign theme songs, but only for a paragraph or two. Since one of my campaigns had ended recently, it’s a good time to talk about one in more depth.

The Eight Arms and the Contract of Barl is another campaign in our Edwardian-era fantasy setting. In the first campaign, one of the characters, Barl, asked to start the campaign in debt, which gave me the idea to base a story around needing to pay it. Over time that changed into something similar, where the character had made a contract with some powerful extraplanar entity, and his creditor called him in for some dangerous, immediate task. The party consists of his allies and their planar guide, searching the planes for him and trying to shoulder as much of the onus as possible without accidentally contributing to the instability of the universe.

Our campaign songs usually aren’t about the players themselves. They’re more about the villains, both because I want to set the mood and because I have some control over what they want and say and do. Sometimes they’re also about what I’d like the campaign to be about or what I think the plot is before the players completely ruin it for me. And in something that’s definitely more for me than anybody else, I try to match the rhythm of the song to the campaign pacing. Most songs aren’t a perfect fit, but some closer than others. This one was really good.

Going into campaign planning, I only knew the following:

  • The campaign is about Barl, but I don’t want him to appear in it regularly. He’s not a PC. He has to be off-camera for most of the campaign runtime. Barl is an ifrit sorcerer/rogue who has some knowledge about the campaign universe, and Barl isn’t his real name. He’s actually a woman native to a faraway city who ended up on the Material Plane for reasons unknown to her allies.
  • Barl began the first Eight Arms campaign in debt, starting with more money than normal so he could afford his mini-airship. He is clearly fine with making deals with powerful entities.
  • The campaign is extraplanar. It’s very important that the party doesn’t go back to the Material Plane once they leave it, because stopping back regularly defeats the point of exploring weird unknown places.
  • The players are L12, and they include a gentleman rogue and a summoner. The former has no knowledge of the planes but is good at winging things, and the latter can handle more combat than I think.

I went through several dozen songs looking for inspiration that would work in this framework, and I ended up with “Smoke and Mirrors” by Symphony X:

Of chief importance are the lyrics. Here’s how they fed into the campaign plot:

It’s all perpetual dreams, this hidden life ain’t what it seems
Walking dead we are

This is what gave me the first hint of what the campaign would be in the lines about “hidden life” and “walking dead”. Zombies aren’t terribly interesting campaign villains, but what about somebody who seemed alive but wasn’t? Or somebody who was alive, but shouldn’t be? From there I thought about some sort of ruler or figure who should have died long ago, but somehow found a way to extend his/her life. Since I already knew the campaign would be about Barl, an efreet sultan was the logical answer.

Victims of misfortune and lies, and tortured bringers of demise
Circling above like vultures
They reap the harvest that we sow and take, like trusting fools
Promising charade

This life extension had to come from somewhere. Efreeti are lawful evil outsiders, so a literal deal with devils made sense. I’d always associated contract devils with Barl because of the whole “deals with powerful entities” thing, so maybe a devil has an agreement with the sultan to let them live forever. But in exchange, the devils gain some control over the efreet kingdom, and maybe that control increases over time.

The “charade” became the key point of the exchange. If the sultan never died, people would be suspicious, and eventually the entities who watch death (maruts, psychopomps, etc.) would intervene. But if it seemed like the sultan died, nobody would be the wiser. He could reincarnate, or take a new identity, or something else to extend his life while being protected.

All days now disappear from weeks to months, from months to years
Forever bound, shackled to the wall

Originally the sultan was bound to his capital city, unable to leave. But instead, what if his past lives were? That is, the sultan sacrificed himself to become part of the city or part or its power source or something like that, and a new sultan took over. Because of the charade, instead somebody else was sacrificed to the city and the sultan took their place.

The night falls, I’ve seen 1000 moons rising in the sky
The night calls, I feel the midnight as it slowly cloaks my eyes
Touched by the kiss of the sunrise

Usually I’m good at math, but for some reason I thought one thousand days was about thirty years. That seemed like a decent time, so that was the cycle of the sultan’s death and rebirth: every thousand days, the old sultan (actually an unsuspecting relative) would die and a relative (actually the old sultan in a new body) would take over. When the campaign got going, my players immediately realized that one thousand days isn’t even three years, so I quickly made something up referenced a splatbook so arcane you’ve never heard of it, so don’t bother looking, and decided remembered that days on the sultan’s plane actually last for 240 hours. 1000 moons became a little under thirty years. To serve the narrative, that thousand-day span would end shortly after the campaign started.

Live with shadows and fears–behind smoke and mirrors
Try to turn back the years–living inside smoke and mirrors

Barl’s backstory included the fact that his hometown was the City of Smoke and Glass, which I’m certain is meant to invoke smoke and mirrors. That’s actually what turned me to this song in the first place. I opted to apply Homestuck naming to every genie city, so the sultan’s capital city became the City of Ember and Sail: ember because it’s on the Plane of Ash, and sail because that best picture I could find for the city put it on a port. A little Photoshop turned that water to ash floes. The rest of the chorus, about living with shadows and turning back the years, is relevant for reasons now obvious.

But if the sultan only had one clear successor, there wouldn’t be any drama. Instead, the sultan has four children competing for the right to be the next sultan, not knowing their father’s “sacrifice” is actually their own death sentence. For complicated myth-arc-related reasons, the sultan is desperate to break his contract before it next comes due, and he’s preparing for a war against the devils to make it happen. The princes and princesses are each managing their own portion of the war effort, and the song’s second verse told me how:

Sacred and serpentine, a hypnotizing twisted theme
Weaves our souls to soar

As this is an extraplanar campaign, I wanted each successor to have a different plan on a different plane. The youngest is on Pandemonium, a plane of “serpentine”, windswept tunnels. He’s built a machine to consume souls and “weave” them into tools of warfare, and the “roaring” is the winds of Pandemonium slowly driving him insane.

The especially astute may notice that there’s no “roaring” in the lyrics above. The song clearly says “weaves our souls to soar”, but the lyrics I found said “weaves our souls to roar“, and I didn’t realize it until very late in the campaign. At that instant, his machine gained the ability to fly, and the players fought him on it when it was moving at 150 miles per hour. His final appearance both roared and soared.

Like candles in the wind, our echoed cries above the din
Fade into this faceless sculpture

At least one of the successors had to work through diplomacy, and what better allies than other genies? This one tries to build an alliance of all geniekind, starting with the earth-based shaitan, who both live underground (“echoing”) and tolerate the efreeti better than anybody. The alliance would probably be short-lived (“candles in the wind”), but it only needs to last long enough to fight the devils, and one of the key points would be that all the genies were even in it, “fading together” into a varied but unified army, “faceless” without a single leader. She even calls this plan the “faceless sculpture” to show how serious she is about the efreeti not taking the leading role, instead handing it to the shaitan if they really want it.

In the wheel of chance and fate, spinning as we watch and wait
A mystery to us all

In D&D cosmology, the Outlands is the center of the Great Wheel, a disc-shaped plane where all planar travelers can meet, work, and probably kill each other. Our cosmology is different, but the Outlands still exist as the plane that best embodied the alignment of inaction or passivity. It’s also still a wheel-shaped plane, and that’s where the next successor leverages having so many outsiders nearby to try and ally with all of them, basically putting everybody on his side but the devils. He is, however, supremely lazy, preferring to “watch and wait” while everybody else does all the work. His “mystery” is how he managed to make deals so enticing that angels and demons would willingly work with inevitables and proteans, among others. The answer is that the deals are actually just this side of mutually exclusive; he intends to be long gone, acting as the ridiculously powerful sultan, before they realize it.

On the edge of sanity, we tread the seas of destiny
Forever bound, silent voices call

The last boss always needs to be the scariest, so the oldest successor is the most powerful, the most cunning, and by a wide margin the most overtly evil. If it wasn’t for this war, her “destiny” would be coronation, so she’s pulling out all the stops to make sure she gets what she deserves. Her skills have to be evil enough to be a campaign-capping antagonist, so I reached into the unknown annals of 3E and pulled out the fleshcrafters. She “forever binds” creatures together into brand-new monsters with unpredictable powers and a deep fear of her wrath, and her allies teeter “on the edge of sanity” as they use their own gifts to shore up her forces.

This song conveniently lent itself to the campaign rhythm as well. The song starts fast and ramps up immediately, and the campaign started in-combat, with Barl in the party before he disappeared. The party went to look for him, but they didn’t really learn what was going on until session four, when they met the devil with whom he was working to stop the sultan’s war effort. Similarly, the song has a long opening segment, and the lyrics don’t start until 1:04. It’s fast and driving until 3:33, when it goes into an extended instrumental that’s all over the place, with different short solos, wide ranges in pitch, and sporadic moments where the drums cut out entirely. The campaign too was all over the place, mostly occurring as long discussions about what to do punctuated by whole sessions where the players enacted a plan to frustrate as many opponents as possible. The song doesn’t get back on the rails until 5:20, and the campaign kind of meandered without direction until the players made it to Hell for the last few sessions and the final showdowns. There’s one last chorus, as the players learn the full backstory of the sultan’s deal and plan, and then the song suddenly ends as the final battle occurs almost without the party, though their intervention is key in deciding who wins.

Looking at this now, I see that Symphony X is considered progressive metal, and that’s obvious in retrospect. I’m not a huge fan of progressive music specifically because it feels like a “just do stuff that’s vaguely musical and you’ll probably convince somebody you had a plan” genre, and the song was probably a bit too experimental for a campaign that already had a healthy disrespect for its rule system. Perhaps that set a more subversive tone than I’d intended. The songs I’m looking at for the next campaigns are a bit more straightforward.

I have another campaign ending in about two weeks, but I don’t know if its theme goes as in-depth as this one does. I’ll see how I feel then.

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2 Responses to Campaign Songs: Contract of Barl

  1. Yanni says:

    Do you still have Barl’s backstory? Hearing about the rather epic sounding campaign that spawned in part due to my being a bit excessive in backstory has me all nostalgic and wanting to reread it… but I don’t know that I still have a copy.

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