Alternate Character Backgrounds: The Playlist

As a Dungeon Master, I love when players will take some time to give me background information on their characters. My standard is to give them some questions to answer, or ask them for a paragraph or so about their character’s past. While that works for many players (and super works for some, based on novels I have received) not everyone is comfortable or good at expressing themselves with words on a page.

As someone who went through high school in the Eighties, I am a past master of the mixed tape (kids, ask your parents). I tend to connect people and places to music, and so I often made mixed tapes, and later playlists, for characters I played or campaigns I was in or ran. It was a great way for me to figure out my character, as well as a shorthand way for me to introduce the tone of my campaign to my players.

Most recently, Saving Throw Show did a series of Spotify playlists for their Wildcards characters, which are excellent. Because the show is a modern setting, these playlists become in-game artifacts as well as insight into the characters. This inspired me to make some playlists of my own, and I set about making a few for my own campaigns as well as a few characters that are retired but not forgotten.

I think making playlists is a great way to get inside your character (or for GMs, the campaign), think about them in ways you might not have if you just wrote a standard character background. The great thing about this method is that there is no way to do it wrong. The music you pick can have the most tenuous connection, but if it expresses something about the character or campaign, it’s the right choice.

I could go into a long list of things to think about when putting together a playlist. Instead, we’re going to quickly go through a playlist I put together, inspired by Saving Throw Show’s Pirates of Salt Bay series. I’ll talk a bit about why I put each song on there, and hopefully, that will give you an idea of things to consider while building your own playlist. If you want to listen along you can find Radio Free Salt Bay on Spotify. (Yes, I know, but I thought Salt Bay Pirate Radio was a bit too on the nose.) I recommend listening to it on shuffle, but you do you. 

Home for a Rest (Spirit of the West) – For me, a big part of this show is about the characters finding their family and their home. With a not insubstantial amount of time spent drinking, let’s be honest. I mean, Dirty Hank is the main culprit for that, but the rest of the crew don’t shirk. In any case, I thought the tone of this song fit well, and the plaintive, drunken cry to go home for a rest could be the crew’s battle cry.

Drunken Lazy Bastard (The Mahones) – When I decided to pull together this playlist, this song was at the top of my list. Dirty Hank is the obvious impetus, but again the rest of the crew aren’t slouches when it comes to getting on the outside of some booze. But I can picture Dirty Hank singing this, and I can picture Addi shouting it at the crew if they slept in. And celtic punk fits the tone of this show perfectly in my opinion.

I’m Not Okay (I Promise) (My Chemical Romance) – No character on this show is good at expressing their feelings, and every character tries to put on a brave face and appear okay when they so obviously aren’t. And all the while I imagine this song churning along in the background. This was largely inspired by Tryslin and Dirty Hank, but Eoj and Addi aren’t exactly well-adjusted either.

Bangarang (Skrillex, Sirah) – Every show should have kick-ass fight scene music, and this fits the bill. Plus the title is the battle cry from one of my favourite pirate movies, Hook, so I thought it extra fitting. Sure, the musical style doesn’t really fit our piratical theme, but not every song can be a sea chanty. In this case, it was more important to me the song reflect the attitude or situation, and the energy of Bangarang fits the group’s fighting styles well indeed.

I Believe in a Thing Called Love (The Darkness) – Poor Eoj, our resident lover! So unsure of himself all the time, but in his heart he knows exactly what he wants to say. And with feelings as big as his, only a power ballad is big enough to let all those feelings out. Plus, I would pay cash money to see Eoj sing this to Addi. Like, I have a figure in mind, and if we can come to some sort of agreement…

Paris (Ooh La La) (Grace Potter & The Nocturnals) – This song was originally all Tryslin inspired at first. There are two sides to her, the one the world sees and the one she hides behind that facade. I feel like this song captures the former perfectly. But I can also picture Tryslin and Addi singing this together as the front duo of their rock band (Eoj on bass, Hank on drums, just saying). Because Addi armours herself with attitude as well, it’s maybe just a bit more subdued. 

When Love Fails (BrunuhVille) – Under all that frenetic energy, there is a soft (but not too soft, listen to the end) undercurrent. Love in many different forms, both its presence and its absence, is a theme running through this show, and I think this piece captures some of that feeling. When I added this, I pictured one of the characters finishing the title with, “…we still have each other.” Sappy, but true.

Gravity (Sara Bareilles) – This one is also Tryslin inspired. Often mistaken for a love song, though I don’t know how, for me this is a great summation of an abusive relationship, like the one between Tryslin and Hadal. However hard Tryslin fights, she keeps getting pulled back into Hadal’s orbit. Sometimes you want to slip in a song that touches on a key aspect of a character, and this one fits that horrid relationship very well.

Drunken Master (The Brig) – I’ll be honest, I added this largely on the strength of the title, because Hank is a drunken master monk. But while Dirty Hank’s outward facade is Friendly Trash Fire, when Hank is in a fight he is in his element, surprising everyone with how together he can be. I feel like this is the song that fits those moments well, encompassing a swagger that amazes even Hank.

You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two (Oliver: Original Soundtrack) – Negaoryx admitted that Tryslin and the Tots was directly inspired by Fagin, so this was a no brainer. This song better fits early Tryslin, before things went so off the rails with Hadal. I do wish there had been a bit more exploration of the relationship between Tryslin and the Tots, but I did love the sidebars and details Aabriya sprinkled in off camera. And I suspect we’ll see more of the Tots in the future…

The Old Black Rum – Live (Great Big Sea) – I mean, booze is such a big part of this show. And Great Big Sea fits the maritime tone of the show for me. Plus, I feel like every character in the crew has sung the chorus of this song at one time or another, possibly while hugging a bucket. This may have been Dirty Hank’s lullaby. And its tone captures some of the fun of the shopping/hot springs episodes.

Raise Your Glass (P!nk) – My favourite anthem to outsiders and underdogs, this would be my pick for the main theme of a modern Salt Bay show. Again, if I can picture the characters performing it, the song pretty much goes on the playlist. But it also specifically ties into Addi’s attitude, especially from things she said in the latest episode. This is the battle cry for the family that chooses itself.

Killer Queen (Queen) – Havanna Mahoney does such a wonderful job with Addi, this song was the first thing that came to mind when I was pondering what to add for her character. A bit of refinement, a whole lot of attitude, with no question who is in charge. Plus, it is featured on the Atomic Blonde soundtrack, and I see similar baddassery between Charlize Theron’s character and Addi.

She’s Lost Control (Joy Division) – If Paris, above, represents what the world sees of Tryslin, this song gets at the chaos, pain, and confusion lurking under the surface. I also think of this at least partially as Hadal’s theme, because it encourages and enhances these feelings in Tryslin, and to a lesser extent, Dirty Hank. 

The Dungeon Master’s Lament (Amy Vorpahl) – Aabria has a firm hand on the helm of the sometimes out of control ship of the game each week, and I am in awe. Yes, the tangents are part of why I love the show as much as I do, but I also know from my own DMing that they can be taxing, and this song expresses that frustration. A song written by a fellow DM seemed a fine way to honour Aabria’s ability to weather her players’ storm. Plus it’s fun! 

She Sells Sanctuary (The Cult) – This is a song that I put on the playlist without a really clear understanding of why. It just fit for me. I think part of it expresses Eoj’s attitude to Addi, but I also think it covers the relationship between Addi and her crew. Addi doesn’t exactly sell sanctuary, not for coin anyway. But she gives it to her crew for the only thing she really seems to value: loyalty. In return for that loyalty, they have sanctuary for as long as they need.

The Naked Highwayman (Fairport Convention) – This one is 100% Addi. Little is said about exactly how Addi got into a life of crime, but I would humbly submit this is as good a starting point as any. I can imagine Addi pulling this off. And it captures the playful side of Addi that makes her such a wonderful character, and such an excellent captain.

I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That) (Meat Loaf) – This is another one for Eoj. Spandex rock only scratches the surface of Eoj’s feelings; to truly plumb their depths we need the bombasity of Meat Loaf! And since Eoj gets told to shut up a lot, I felt like he deserved to have the full 11:58 album version, not that paltry six minute radio edit. But really, doing anything for love is, I feel, the core of that character. So sing it, Eoj!

My Family (Migos, KAROL G, Snoop Dog, Rock Mafia) – If this show is about anything, it’s about family, specifically the family you choose. Every week these characters show the lengths they’ll go to to protect their family, even if they are snarking and sniping amongst themselves. They may not be what the world considers a family, but who cares what the world thinks anyway? Not this family.

With Cat-Like Tread, Upon Our Prey We Steal (The Pirates of Penzance) – Something from Pirates of Penzance was always going to be on here, and it was a toss-up between this and the Pirate King’s song. But I feel like this captures more of the show’s humour. And let’s face it, even when the crew is trying to be “subtle”, they come on a with a bit more…let’s call it aplomb, than expected. Also, I can definitely see Tryslin off to the side, rolling her eyes, as the rest of the crew tries out their version of stealth.

I’m Coming (Into My Own) (Amy Vorpahl) – Another aspect of the show is the table talk, which can be a bit on the adult side (an observation, not a criticism). Again, it’s an aspect of the show I love, because it gives me the feeling I am hanging out with friends while they play. And I love this song because, much like the show, while there is a touching story going on underneath, it is often hidden behind the innuendo and double (*cough*single*cough*) entendres. But hey, sometimes you just need to release the pressure…of all those emotions.

Tank (Rayzd, G-Clef Da Mad Komposa) – The anime elements of the show are not to be denied, even if we ignore the hot springs episode. But why would we ignore it, when (marred only by the absence of Addi/Havanna), it was one of the finest episodes of the season, in my opinion. Yes, there are several pirate-themed anime I could have gone to for a song. But the Salt Bay crew remind me most strongly of the crew of the Bebop, so I had to pull a cover of Cowboy Bebop’s theme. It will have to carry all the anime feels for me until the next hot springs episode. Oo! Or maybe a beach episode!?

And that’s my playlist for Pirates of Salt Bay. If you watch the show please give it a listen, I’d love to hear what you think of it. And if you haven’t watched it yet (lucky you, still having that to look forward to!), maybe give this a listen before you do and tell me how you think I did. As I said earlier, the great thing about these types of playlists is that they can be very personal. You may watch (or have watched) the series and have completely different songs come to mind. And that’s great! I’d love to hear your list if you do. Share it on our Facebook Page.