Thursday, July 7, 2011


I cannot claim to be a gear- or petrol-head in any way shape or form. Nonetheless, Top Gear is probably my favorite TV show on today. I find it fascinating, hysterical and wildly entertaining in a way very little produced for TV can. I have thus gleefully been spending down time watching past seasons on Netflix. I mention this because when the Stig is driving various cars that I'll probably never see let alone lay my hands on, they make a habit of mentioning what he is listening to on the car stereo. Each season has its own theme. One such theme is Prog Rock.

I was born too late in order to experience Prog Rock in its prime; however, that doesn't mean it didn't loom large in the musical landscape of my youth — especially the background noise of my formative RPG years. In a fit of nostalgia, I got online and watched a documentary about British Prog Rock by the BBC. Therein I encountered a band and a song that had somehow escaped my notice all of these years. Here are the lyrics of The Court of the Crimson King by King Crimson:

The rusted chains of prison moons
Are shattered by the sun.
I walk a road, horizons change
The tournament's begun.
The purple piper plays his tune,
The choir softly sing;
Three lullabies in an ancient tongue,
For the court of the crimson king.

The keeper of the city keys
Puts shutters on the dreams.
I wait outside the pilgrim's door
With insufficient schemes.
The black queen chants
the funeral march,
The cracked brass bells will ring;
To summon back the fire witch
To the court of the crimson king.

The gardener plants an evergreen
Whilst trampling on a flower.
I chase the wind of a prism ship
To taste the sweet and sour.
The pattern juggler lifts his hand;
The orchestra begin.
As slowly turns the grinding wheel
In the court of the crimson king.

On soft gray mornings widows cry
The wise men share a joke;
I run to grasp divining signs
To satisfy the hoax.
The yellow jester does not play
But gently pulls the strings
And smiles as the puppets dance
In the court of the crimson king.

Given that my now months-long thought experiment with the Holmes Basic Edition originated with the question of what would my version of D&D look like if I only had Holmes and Cook available, it occurs to me that I also ought to include some hypothetical sources of inspiration (I have already begun to do this with CAS and Averoigne). Given that most of my RPG friends and I listened to various parts of the Prog Rock scene, I think it entirely appropriate to use The Court of the Crimson King as a lyrical source for my own version of the Chateau des Faussesflammes.

As I look at the lyrics, I see four different ways this song could be the foundation of a really interesting megadungeon campaign:

  • Note the line "Three lullabies in an ancient tongue." When juxtaposed with the summoning of a fire witch, it paints a picture of a Classical Civilization within the Holmesian cultural landscape — pagan and seeking out the powerful arcane knowledge of the ancients. This provides a solid timeline and cultural background for the Chateau.
  • There are eight distinct characters that are named within the text. If the lyrics of the song are understood to be a cryptic description of the megadungeon, each of these characters, then, can be the inspiration or theme for one or more levels within the megadungeon:
  1. The Purple Piper
  2. The Crimson King
  3. The Pilgrim
  4. The Black Queen
  5. The Fire Witch
  6. The Gardener
  7. The Pattern Juggler
  8. The Yellow Jester
  • There are two subtitles for the song: The Return of the Firewitch and The Dance of the Puppets. Both suggest potential events waiting to be triggered (at the ringing of the cracked bell?) by foolish groups of adventurers.
  • Finally, there is also an implied mystery: who is the narrator? He, too, can inspire an entire dungeon level where knowing his true identity can be the key to finding a great treasure and/or the key to survival.
I am sure there will be those who will point out that Peter Sinfield coined the name of the band (and therefore the song) as a synonym for Beezlebub, the prince of demons. Therefore, there might be some question as to whether or not this song is appropriate as a source of inspiration for a Christian-themed campaign. Personally, I have no problem with demons being a part of my FRPGs — as long as they fill their proper role of adversary and monster. Besides, if the Crimson King is somehow affiliated with the prince of demons, then the identity of the Narrator has even more import.


  1. Very interesting take on this, FrDave. It gets me in the mind to continue posts on an ELP-theme campaign setting that I've neglected. A simplistic reading is that Greg Lake is the Narrator, which then adds something to the ELP universe as well. But that kind of thinking is like the geekiest D&D blended with the geekiest prog rock, then distilled.

    One other bit: There's the break where there's what sounds like a broken down calliope barely playing the main theme. That always makes me feel as if suddenly we're moved back into the present, and all that remains of this huge legendary music and the events that created it is just this vaguely remembered melody. I feel a distance of time. So I guess it implies some sort of time travel/time disruption. (Also suggests something about the Narrator.)

  2. If you like King Crimson, then Marillion might be good for further fuel. IIRC they had a King in Yellow thing going for a while.

    Now you've got me wondering if I could do a Tull-themed campaign (without going as late as Broadsword & The Beast - I'm thinking Benefit/Aqualung period). Led Zep seems too easy. ELO likewise too obvious for a near-sf game.

    For artists who seemed to be doing this from the other end, I take it you're familiar with Jeff Wayne's interpretation of War of the Worlds? It might even be possible to track down a copy of Dave Greenslade's The Pentateuch of the Cosmogony.

  3. @SoE
    So I guess it implies some sort of time travel/time disruption. (Also suggests something about the Narrator.)
    This is one of the intriguing things about this song — the fact that it seems to take place in the past and the present at the same time. It is also meshes nicely with the place & time distortions of the Averoigne stories which may or may not be illusion.

    The King in Yellow is actually something that inspired me in my earlier RPG days. He was the patron of Garth the Overman in some lesser known S&S stories by Lawrence Watt-Evans.

    Tull has inspired me for years — especially Songs from the Wood and Minstrel from the Gallery.

  4. Great post! "In the Court of the Crimson King" is one of those few song lyrics that has constantly and consistently fired my imagination, it has such incredible and potent imagery...

    Chapter 3 of Jon Green's "Promenade the Puzzle: the Poetic Vision of Peter Sinfield" examines the lyrical symbolism of Crimson's first album, with an emphasis on "In the Court of the Crimson King":

    "I walk the road, horizons change" and the bit about the Pattern Juggler always make me think of Zelazny's Amber novels -- perhaps the Court "proper" exists in some parallel plane, accessible by walking the Chateau's labyrinth at a certain time or under certain conditions?

    I'm looking forward to seeing how your interpretation develops!

  5. One of the ideas I try to keep on a back burner (fight gamer ADD, fight it!) is to use a power metal album as inspiration for a High Fantasy game. Dragonforce and Rhapsody of Fire both have albums that tell continuous stories… hmm… Thanks for reminding me about this.

  6. I based an adventure a few years ago around the lyrics to the Genesis song "The Lady Lies" and have mulled over using the track titles from Steve Hackett's "Defector" album as scenes/chapters/levels.

  7. @Alan
    "Two Vamps as Guests" and "Hammer in the Sand" are particularly evocative, but what do you do with "Jacuzzi"?

  8. @FrDav - some form of hot pool containing a fyrsnaca ( or a natural bubbling mud pool perhaps.