Music & Dancing (2)

In Part 1 of this double post on Music and Dance, I looked at music in a fantasy setting, however I wasn’t very innovative, and played on stereotypes that have been established in FRPGs and literature.  That is because I like my game worlds to feel familiar to players, I like the game background to exist in the background, familiar and consistent, to give the players things to build on and work with as they concentrate on the game I set out before them.  If I do it properly, it should make it easy for players to add little bits of RP flavour to their game play, rather than RP being something that requires a lot of effort.  It should facilitate RP for all the players, rather than just those who like to build heavy RP into their game.

In short, we finished up with Elves liking long complex pieces of music, Gnomes with complex and avant-garde instruments and musical styles, while dwarves are into brass bands, marches and Oompah bands.  Halflings and half-humans fit in the local culture they grow up in – but Half-Orcs have a penchant for drums and chants, while Halflings tend to use small and discreet instruments.  However, it is important to remember that is just the ‘average’ position and that most NPCs from those races will follow those trends.  Certainly not all of them, and players should not feel that that their characters should be constrained by them.  It is just what they are most likely to have encountered in a traditional setting.

Most importantly, I am always happy to work with players to tweak bits of my game background to suit their needs.  Those tweaks might just relate to a specific area that the PC can use for their personal background, although it might develop into something game affecting.  While it doesn’t deal with music or dance (yet),  the Duchy of Stonewall, started out as a single player tweak and has been developed as four or five players designed their characters.  The way it has developed could affect the outcome of a war,  later in the game.

Anyway back to the matter in hand – and this is where it starts to get more specific to my current game world.  The world is very human centric with a fair few half-humans and Halflings scattered about, Dwarves are fairly common but Gnomes and full Elves are infrequent.  Certainly among the NPCs.  I am using the AD&DII Complete Bard’s Handbook as guide to instrument costs – there was some excellent supplemental information in that series of books. Books from that series are available on DriveThruRPG in a PDF format.

Folk Music and Dance

This is the music of the ‘common people’, hobbyists rather than professional musicians.  In game terms, the people playing (or dancing to) this sort of music have probably only put one or two skill points into perform and don’t make a living from it.  The majority of them (Commoner is the most common NPC class, by a long way) don’t have much money and can only afford cheap instruments.  You are likely to hear it casually, in bars that don’t specialize in entertainment, or when every-day people throw home parties.

Tunes are simple to reflect low skill levels and basic instruments and musical groups are quite small with two, three or four musicians.  Songs tend to be straightforward, without backing or harmony parts, and are often sung by a single person – or the group all singing the same vocal part together.  Crowd accessible choruses are a feature of many of the songs.  I tend to imagine this music played on penny whistles or recorders, accompanied by a simple drum or tambourine and, perhaps, a single stringed instrument.  I know this is difficult to accept in the modern age, but stringed instruments are difficult to make and were one of the more expensive types of instrument, so they are less accessible to the NPC classes.  Any NPC with a stringed instrument is likely to treasure it and may have aspirations to become a professional musician.  You can add in colour with a Halfling playing an ocarina, a Half-Orc with a rhythm block or a gnome playing the spoons.  Wash-tub bass, Pan Pipes, Maracas (Rattles) are other ways to add a bit of variety.

Listening music is liable to be ballad-y, with story songs about soldiers going to war, country life and young women either pining or getting into trouble.  Very traditional Folk or Country & Western style to keep it cheesy, stereo-typical and familiar.  Dancing follows the same pattern with jigs, reels and other lively foot stomping songs.  There might even be clog dancers …

Semi-Formal Music and Dance.

This is the type of music you find played in dance-halls or bars that think of themselves as ‘Music Venues’ – in my game world that is places like The Golden Flute or the Palace of Dance in Restov and The Dragons Den in Tusk.  This is played by professional, or semi-professional, NPC musicians – although they are liable to be experts, rather than bards.  They have higher skill levels that ‘folk’ musicians, can afford more expensive instrument and tend to play in larger ensembles.  However, much of the music they play is similar in style to the every-day music of the region –  just a bit more complex and better executed.

The performers might have flutes, violins, lutes, mandolins, brass instruments and more sophisticated (and louder) drums.  Songs and tunes are more complex than the stripped down versions played by folk musicians, and are intended to entertain larger groups of people.

When it comes to dance venues think of Ceilidhs and Barn Dances, with set dances and a caller to help people get through the steps – most people will have only put one or two skill points into dance.   Modern ballroom dancing didn’t really become a real thing until the 19th century, and styles such as Jive and Rock & Roll are later still.  That doesn’t mean there is no scope for ‘personal’ dances around the side of the set dance – just that the majority of NPCs are all dancing one formal dance together.

In my game world, The Mountain Toast in Restov is a Dwarf themed bar, and is more likely to have a specialist Dwarf Brass Band playing Oompah style music.  However, the concept for both the music, and any late night dancing, is the same as above.

Formal Music and Dance

This is the music of the nobility, and is likely only performed in noble estates and palaces, by professional musicians.  The majority of the NPC performers will be experienced Expert Musicians, possibly led by an NPC bard or two, only the very wealthiest of nobles can afford an orchestra containing all bards.  Most noble estates won’t have a full sized ball room, but they may well have a dedicated music room, which will probably be used for recitals and small dances.  These nobles probably keep a small orchestra of half a dozen musicians, who are versed in the most sophisticated tunes and music, possibly based around a piano or other keyboard instrument – think chamber music with a bit of extra spice. 

Those nobles lucky enough to have a multi-use hall, might well have a larger orchestra, perhaps a couple of dozen musicians, with a larger range of instruments that are capable of playing music loud enough to fill the whole hall.  Remember that the modern day electric amp hasn’t yet been invented, and that any form of magical amplification is liable to be expensive.   The wealthiest of nobles might keep a larger orchestra, perhaps up to sixty or seventy musicians, capable of regularly willing the ballroom with good quality dancing music.  

In larger orchestras instruments are duplicated, one of the reasons a modern orchestra has a whole section of violins playing the same part of the tune, so they are loud enough to be heard across a crowded ball room.  As there are often two violin parts in modern symphony music, so modern orchestras have two sets of violinists, playing separate parts – not to mention all the other string sections that go to make up a full orchestra!

For smaller ensembles pianos (they are expensive but loud) are often the central instrument, supported by a few strings, wood wind and maybe a brass instrument or two – they may not have a percussion  instrument as a double base or a large brass horn (perhaps a Tuba) can act as a rhythm section, if required.

Larger orchestras are liable to be supported by timpani, or other large drums and may well have sophisticated rhythm sections with large glockenspiels, or metallophones, as well.  Think symphony or philharmonic orchestra, with a tendency to ‘jazz it up’ occasionally.  When you describe the orchestra throw in a mixture of instruments – Violins, Double Bass, Trumpets, Trombones etc playing in groups to get the volume.  It is, however, probably better to stay away from Lutes, Guitars and other plucked instruments – as you start to lose the ‘feel’ of an orchestra.

Dancing is very formal, with set dances such as formalized minuets, quatrains, quadrilles and marches.  You don’t need to describe the dances, just that they are formally regimented, performed as a group and have set steps.  Think very stately and courtly with a bit of formal Scottish dancing thrown in for good measure. 

However, the nobility has always had multicultural tendencies – after all they socialize more with nobles from neighbouring countries than they do with the common folk labouring in their own estates.  So throw in a formal Dwarven March (featuring the brass section of the orchestra) followed by the Elvish Quadrille (featuring the string section).  But once the senior nobles have retired, and leave the Young Bucks (and their female equivalent) in charge – the party is likely to hot up a bit.

Note 1:  All nobles, and anyone with Knowledge(Nobility) or Perform(Dance), knows the steps to a few of the formal dances – clearly the higher the skill score, the more dances they know.  This doesn’t mean that they dance them well or gracefully – just that they can follow them through without making a fool of themselves.  As always, the quality of an individual’s dancing performance relies on their Dex or Perform Dance skills.

Note 2:  I know I have mixed up a number of styles and periods in this piece –  but (IMO) it gives a historical feeling to the game world setting – but still keeps large chunks of it familiar to the majority of players.

Music & Dancing (1)

Ach.  I have been doing all of these serious posts, and I have a more planned in the sequence.  And I should really be writing up the Down Time rules, but ….. SQUIRREL!  Here in the UK it is Proms season, for those of you who don’t know, The Proms are an annual series of classical music concerts, many of which are performed at The Royal Albert Hall and shown live on national television.  I am not a great fan of classical music, but every so often I see a concert that appeals to me.  This year it was Warner Brothers film scores and scores from Sci Fi films – all played by full symphony orchestras.  And that got me started thinking about music in fantasy worlds, and that lead to dance in fantasy worlds, and ….  SQUIRREL!

However, it turned out to be a bigger project than I thought. So expect Part 2 later – as I think about dance 🙂

Suddenly, I was wondering what sort of music I would hear at a grand ball or in a dwarf bar – and at all points between.  What sort of music would people be dancing to?  How would they be dancing?  I wrote a piece on this some time ago, but things have moved on and it was time for a rethink.

To start with, the world I run my games in has changed.  Back then, I was running D&DII in a bespoke world, now I am running Pathfinder in Golarion (slightly modified) and that is a big change.  Paizo have re-imagined the history of the races and changed their backgrounds.  Elves left the world to avoid a cataclysm and didn’t return for many years.  Gnomes become exiled members of the First World who have a reputation for obsessiveness and flamboyance.  Dwarves lived underground but fought their way to the surface, while Halflings have become mini humans with little to distinguish them culturally. Humans rule the civilised world and the various races have few (if any) cultural centres.

Half-Elves and Half-Orcs are just as popular as ever 🙂

All of that said, this will only be an overview with broad cultural guidelines – it isn’t meant to be prescriptive or tie PCs down.  I also like my world to be recognisable –  so I tend to use a lot of stereotypes and traditional interpretations.   This just documents and formalises them so I remember them all next time around.


Tolkein, and Bilbo in particular, spoiled me for elves – so  elves live for a long time and can spend years creating complex and sophisticated art.  Formal performance music probably entails a small orchestra playing masterwork instruments with complex interplay between them.  Music for the people, in my mind, probably consists of a single musician playing an instrument and singing a complex ballad.  The Forlorn, Elves brought up in non-elven cultures, have been cut off from their mainstream culture, and have a limited understanding of the nuances in a full eleven piece – and probably recognise that short coming. Unfortunately, Humans (and other races) can only appreciate an even smaller fraction of the subtle complexity. 

Dances, both formal and informal, are liable to include a series of intricate forms, performed precisely and accurately – with minor changes of posture having great symbolic and emotional meaning. 

In game terms:  If you meet a travelling elven bard –  they will probably be singing sophisticated ballads and accompany themselves on (perhaps) a lute or mandolin.  While they appreciate the attention, they probably smile sadly at how much of their performance went unnoticed.


Golarion gnomes are both flamboyant, obsessive, have a penchant for inventing things that are over complicated.  Formal gnome music, if there is such a thing, is liable to be experimental music played on weird and wonderful instruments making weird and wonderful sounds.  There are no (known) formal dances, but there are performance artists specialised in different dance styles.  Informal dancing is very individualistic and does not follow any set pattern.  It probably includes the worst elements of 60’s hippy dancing crossed with a good helping of dad dancing.

In game terms: If you should enter a tavern in a Gnome run town – you may well find a bard of a different race (probably Halfling) providing the entertainment.  If you should ever come across a travelling Gnome musician – they will probably have some sort of weird home-brewed musical instrument.  Examples might include an accordion fitted with the drones from a set of bagpipes or some sort of small, mouth blown keyboard instrument (such as a Melodica) with bird calls built in.  And who knows what they might be playing!


I got Dwarves right first time around. J  Their mining and metal working skills mean metal instruments, Pratchett’s Glod means horns and the traditional dwarf with a Germanic accent means Oompah bands.  So horns of all types (Trumpets, Euphonium, Tuba, Sousaphone, etc) and drums – ranging from the largest Timpani down to smaller metal-bowled bass and snare-like drums – other instruments might include the glockenspiel and metallophones.

For music think Marching bands and Oompah bands!  Formal dancing involves participants parading in lines or sets, and are carried out at a walking/marching pace, they are known, appropriately enough, as Marches.  Dancing to the Oompah style often happens later in the evening (after a fair number of drinks have been consumed)  and involves a lot of thigh slapping as well as dancing.  These dances are known collectively as Polkas.  NOTE – check YouTube for Traditional Polkas.

In game terms:  If you are in a Dwarf Bar the entertainment is liable to be something like a brass three piece in the corner playing rowdy drinking music, that might well lead into some raucous Polka music later. Quieter ‘folk’ type music is liable to feature a singer accompanied by someone picking out a simple tune on a small glockenspiel. If you should come across a Dwarf bard they are probably skilled in both horn and percussion.


In Golarion halflings are low profile member of human communities, often slaves or in service roles, who get ‘wander lust’ as they are growing up.  However, they have a rich heritage of racial stories and heroes that few ‘big folk’ have ever been aware of.  Which all points to small, portable and quiet – but from all over the place.  So instruments such as the harmonica, penny whistle/recorder, mouth harp, pan pipes, rattles, bones, and tambourines are popular.

Halflings have an eclectic mix of dance and music styles, as experienced through their ‘wander lust’ years, but normally settle down to the style associated with the area they finally settle in.  However, it is said that there are a few simple songs and rhymes, that tell of halfling racial heroes, that are passed down from parent to child, as the child grows up.

In game terms:  Most Halfling musicians and story tellers go along with the local style and tunes, although they often have a large repertoire of different types of music they can call on if they need to.  Even if you come across a wandering Halfling Musician, they are liable to try and take a less significant role in a musical ensemble – even if they are the harmonica or recorder player in town.


Half-Humans, haven’t really changed much and tend to follow the culture that they were brought up in although, traditionally, they feel as if they are outsiders.  They don’t have racial cultural centres of their own.

Nothing new or out of the ordinary is noted for half-elves.  However, they are seen as extremely versatile and half-elf musicians and dancers soak up whatever the local culture is.

Half-Orcs, in Golarion, are noted for being impetuous and impatient as well as having an innately savage nature.  I tend to interpret this as a preference for (typically orcish) drums, chants and shuffling/stompy war dances.  (Yeah, I know it is stereotypical).

In game terms: Most half-orc musicians you meet will be percussionists, and they  aren’t natural dancers. Half-Elf musicians could be playing any sort of musical instrument and just about any style of music.


Humans are incredibly populous, they are very versatile and come from a number of different cultures and backgrounds.  They play many different types of musical instrument, and different types of music. In the next post, I’ll look at the styles most associated with my Midmarch game setting.


Recently I have been discussing alignment with one of my players – so I thought it would be a good time to look at it in a bit more depth.  I know alignment has gone out of fashion as a role-playing tool, but I tend think that it just means players aren’t using properly.

As I go through life and meet real people – I can see that nearly all of them have a recognizable alignment.  There are people who like to have rules and structures to follow, while others have moments of absolute genius that appear to come out of nowhere and work much better without strict regulation.  Some people book their holidays a long way in advance, know exactly where they are going, and often go to exactly the same place. But there are others who are more spontaneous and leave it to the last minute, take whatever is available, and make it all work out really well.  I have worked with some mean people, there have been selfish or inconsiderate people and bullies.  But there have been others who are always kind, considerate and go out of their way to help everyone they interact with.  There are other people, of course, who behave differently in different circumstances.

It is easy to interpret: Structured > Lawful; Spontaneous > Chaotic; Considerate > Good; Mean > Evil – with those who I can’t categorize as True Neutral.  Of course these are watered down version of alignment, but then very few characters are strongly aligned in D&D style games either.  Take Pathfinder – unless a character is a cleric (or an equivalent class) they have no alignment aura until level five and even at L-20 they only have a Moderate alignment aura.  By contrast, a cleric has an Overwhelming alignment aura at level eleven.

In a long-running campaign game, the last thing I want is strongly aligned characters.  In a one off, or short game, it doesn’t matter if characters fall out or screw up each other’s plans – and sometimes it can be fun.  In a campaign game, however, I want characters that work together in ways that don’t irritate their players.  There is nothing worse than a chaotic who screws up every single plan the party makes –  or the extreme lawful character who can’t ever countenance any other character ‘bending’ a law.  Every player has the right to play their character with being constantly thwarted by someone else – if you can’t play the character you envisioned, the game stops being fun and you leave.

However, I tend to still see alignment much as we did back in the old AD&D days, with lots of overlap between the main alignments.  On the diagram below you can stray quite a lot, for example a character with a Lawful Neutral alignment could be in LN, LN(G) or LN(E) but a Lawful Evil character could be in LE, LN(E) or NE(L).  Even then, there aren’t big rules penalties for changing alignment – but there might be social consequences.

I should point out that I don’t allow evil alignments in my games.  I like running games for good aligned parties of heroes – so those are the characters I invite to join my games 🙂