The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can.

–       J.R.R. Tolkien

I remember reading The Fellowship of the Ring on the school bus, arguing with my friend. I loved the songs and poems, but my classmate said they were awful and skipped right over all of them. Hey dol! Merry dol! Ring a dong dilly! He’s got a point that some of these are silly.

Still, I’ve found there’s a place for poetry, used sparingly, in my games and RPG sessions. As with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, songs and poems are great for world-building and verisimilitude, establishing that the action is taking place against a larger backdrop.

And I certainly enjoy it when those who are roleplaying bards sprinkle in snippets of songs, poems, and creative insults. Though most of the bards I’ve played with seem to end up singing The Ballad of Brave Sir Robin, at some apropos point…

In a play-by-post Stonetop game, Lady Sapling was always entertaining us with songs and poems:

“We always save everyone. Isn’t that right, Cosette? Don’t you worry, that thing won’t be back any time soon.” Fundle laughs, looking up at the sky, relishing the final drops of rain. “Truly both Tor and Helior were with us on this night. For what is lightning if not sky’s fire?”

As they draw closer to the gates of Stonetop, Fundle has managed to get their lantern going again.

“Ho, villagers! Come and celebrate the return of heroes!”

Fundle leans down to Eira. 

“How are you doing, love? Not too bruised, I hope? That’s good.” They smile. “I told you I would come for you.”

child on woman's backAs the party arrives, Fundle hoists Eira up on their shoulder, so everyone can see that she is safe and sound. With their free hand, they hold onto Cosette’s. Fundle whistles as they pass through the gates, and sings:

“So here’s a song to all the crinwin, wherever ye may be,
who like to snatch and grab and drag us off into the trees!
Much like the jolly robin, you whistle and you sing,
but we’ll see how well you fly tonight without a pair of wings!
A noose around your neck is such a simple little thing
and then a drop,
a sudden stop,
and leave you there to swing!”

Yep, it’s a bit dark, but fantasy RPGs are typically about killing monsters. As Sapling wrote to me, “This scene was pretty cool, because the song was not just a way to calm the girl down after a harrowing experience but also served as a conclusion to an expedition we had, with us coming back as triumphant heroes! So it worked not just in-character but also out-of-character.”

Back to bards…. Given the prevalence of bards in taverns, they can be a useful vehicle for baiting an adventure hook. For instance, this song is about a dragon the PCs would eventually encounter—

Dread dragon saw the horses and flew down,
Stampeding even the stallions.
Catching in its claws a courtier,
Monarch’s nephew, it pulled into its maw.
Equosal, son of Equospec and grandson of Egrorex.
Son of our tribe who saw but sixteen summers.
Riders who had fallen, up they rose and spears they readied.
All took aim, and one shouted, “Spears away!”
But no spear was the dragon’s bane.
More spears flew, more spears missed.
Mad beast was departing with its meal.
King Berexdem fired to avenge his kin.
Shadows under the stars that lit the shaft,
His dart struck the foul dragon’s head.
Out came courtier, tumbling over,
Body, bruised and broken, left for kin to bury.
Down to earth spun the dragon.
Shrieking and shuddering it stumbled,
Finding its legs, unfurling its wings, it took flight.
Fleeing once more the doom it must one day find. 

Sadly, I don’t have a good head for meter, so I decided to use a style of verse inspired by Anglo-Saxon poetry, though not the same. Rather than focus on rhymes, the focus is on assonance, with the first sound of the first word of a line matching the first sound of the last word: “Down to earth spun the dragon.” Sometimes I repeat that sound within the sentence: “Bruised, broken body left for kin to bury.” 

If you visit the bard in my choose-your-way Twine adventure set in Auspele, you’ll hear her sing this song.

Another song in that book is also lifted from a campaign. Our paladin in one of my Dungeon World campaigns was a devoted imperialist (curse him!) and was attending a religious festival in honor of the first emperor, now worshipped as a god. The song gave that part of the session the gravity and import I wanted, while also providing a concise summary of the history of the empire (the only summary I’d created):

Righteous Coronosej, royal daughter of Regwena,
Founded an empire, forged in fierceness.
Queen of queens, her sword hand was quick.
Greatness graced her, and she became a goddess.

Timonweic in her turn the throne she took,
Expanding and enlarging the blessed empire.
Pergab plundered the south-sea’s pirates,
Captaining more than she cared to be at council.

Alcec gave aid to many a new ally,
Beating back barbarians at the borders.
Zerdumo governed with zeal and zest,
Quill dancing with quick wit for every queen.

Xaidono scattered her foes from their castles,
Giving her life up to glory at the last of their gates. 
Orcen, orphaned by war, was young to give orders,
Vengeance she sought, but valor she found, not victory.

Himinond her sister created a haven of healers, 
Finding a fertile peace among the fortifications.
Drafort drove the dwarves to deeper delvings,
Breaking old bonds of brotherhood.

Werpeig warred upon the oathbreakers, the warlocks,
Throwing the king from his threshold and taking his throne.
Blocec bribed allies, broadening her borders,
But bonds of merchants proved brittle and broke.

Brittle too were bonds of birthright:
Jeidond, jealous of her sister’s rule, took her seat in judgement. 
Mejal, her daughter, won the mantle from her mother,
Mastering the intrigue of ministers while losing the marches.

Equosond was elected thrice before ending such elections,
Restoring the right of the queen of queens to lifelong rule.
Cappec took joy in captors and conquest;
Badly outnumbered, she became captive to her bloodlust.

Salmoi sallied forth against the sea-raiders,
But the battlesands ran red with waves of blood.
Rabtismeti was raised under the rule of her regent;
Beset by many evils, her throne became a bygone.

Even empires end, in blood and mist, eventually:
Righteous Coronosej, ruler once, from heaven now she reigns.

You don’t have to create an entire fictional language to name your royalty, but I already had.

I’ve not yet gone The Lord of the Rings route and translated a poem into a conlang, though:

Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul, ash nazg thrakatulûk, agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.


Illustration credits: Fundle & Eira, by Lady Sapling, copyright 2023. Used by permission. A Woman Tuning a Lute, by Gerard van Honthorst (1592–1656). Public domain.