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Starchildren: Songwriting System

Started by Rich Ranallo, April 20, 2003, 04:23:09 AM

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Rich Ranallo

This is one thing I'm working on for the upcoming Starchildren suppliment.  The rules for performing live music in the main book were pretty generic; that is, you could play, but there was no rules-oriented difference between one song and the next.  This system is designed to mesh with performance, rather than replacing it, and it allows player-character bands to tailor thier image by wirting their own material.  Specifically, I wanted something that had some nuts-and-bolts, but where the primary focus was on interaction between the characters (this is why the last step is just supposed to be a pure, in-character argument).

You'll probably have to know a little about the Starchildren preformance system to know what's going on here.  If necessary, I'll post that up for comparison.

QuoteSongwriting
The Hook
A good song is pure emotion given form in sound and words.  Though a song can mean a million things to a million listeners, what players need to be concerned about at first is a single feeling; a one-word description of the song's impact.  This can be an emotion, such as Sweet, Angry, Placid or Bitter, or it could be a type of sound, like Bluesy, Hardcore, Poppy or Psychedelic.  No Hook is better or worse than any other, but once a group has enough songs with a certain feeling, they start to get a reputation, for better or for worse.  Crowds become easier to please, since they know what kind of music they're after, but it gets tough to move in a new direction later on without alienating longtime fans.
Onstage
Hooks can make a big difference in performances.  The Man decides secretly what kind of mood the crowd is in.  If the band plays a song with a Hook that agrees with this mood (playing a Rebellious song to a crowd of kids that gets regularly hassled by the cops, for example), The Man should give them a crowd modifier in their favor (reducing the difficulty of the song by one).  Of course, Hooks are double-edged; a song that disagrees with the crowd (like a Gloomy song in a dive full of hopped-up and happy clubbers), the modifier goes in the other direction, making it one step harder to sway the audience.  Since the band won't necessarily know what's going through these kids' heads, though, playing to their preferences will usually take some trial and error.
Multiple Hooks
A lot of bands like to mix different sounds into a single song.  Something Melancholy and Electronic stands a better chance at appealing to an audience than one that's only Melancholy or Electronic.  When a band is performing this kind of song, The Man should give the positive crowd modifier as long as the audience agrees with one of the Hooks and is at least neutral to the rest.  If they like one Hook but not the other, the modifiers cancel each other a lot (this is why bands that try to play Sappy Hardcore music are universally terrible).  In any case, crowd modifiers from Hooks aren't cumulative, so there's no point in playing an Acoustic Unplugged or Sad Mopey set just to rack up the bonuses.
Instruments
Some groups have an immutable formula for every song they play; this could be the traditional "vocals, lead guitar, bass and drums" model, or something more esoteric, like "guttural shrieks, feedback, chainsaw and maracas."  Some groups use a different mix of instruments for every song they play.  Groups can decide for themselves how to switch up, but every song they write has a basic list of required instruments.  Playing a song with fewer instruments is possible, but The Man should add one to the song's difficulty when doing the test.  Playing with more instruments makes the song more interesting, but doesn't have any direct effect in regard to the rules.
Solos
Some songs are designed purely to show off the talent of a certain band member.  Jam bands like to toss in eighteen-minute long drum solos intended to drill the audience into hypnotic trance, while spacey glam is loaded with unearthly vocal moments, just to accentuate the voices on the pretty glitterboy behind the mic.  Most songs have a solo for one particular instrument, though they aren't necessary, and multiple solos per song are possible (as long as they're all for different instruments).  In rules terms, a solo translates into one free Advantage Card in the performance test for whoever is playing that particular instrument.  If this band member ends up playing the highest card out of the whole band on that song, her personal Fame increases by one.
Difficulty
There are bands out there that get by on two chords and a gut full of bile, and there are groups that construct intricate, complex meshes of sound and poetry.  While both types are equally popular, there's little doubt as to which ones are more skilled.  The two-chord wonders probably don't have a chance at covering the others' music, while ego is the only thing that would stop the latter from digging in the dirt with the rest of the gutter scene.  What this means is that every song has a minimum difficulty to perform, but a really great band can always turn it up onstage.  Typically, a song's minimum difficulty will range between one and three, since only the greatest bands can reliably play at higher levels.
Brass Tacks
2073 is a bad year to be a cover band.  For some reason, Christmas parties, bar mitzvahs and wedding receptions aren't booking as many rock acts as they used to.  Who knows, maybe it's the likelihood that face-stomping armored goons might storm in and bust up the blessed event...or maybe easy listening is making a valid comeback.  Regardless, there are a few bands that get by on the scene strictly by playing other peoples' songs.  But if a group ever wants to make waves, they're going to have to write their own material.
Decisions, Decisions
Before anyone makes a test, the group has some options to consider.  First, there's the matter of a Hook.  Anything the group decides on will work.  Some bands will write everything in the same vein; always choosing similar Hooks, while others are more eclectic, with no rhyme or reason to their choice of Hooks.  The sidebar has a list of examples, but players should always feel free to come up with their own Hooks.  Later, the group can add extra Hooks, at a price, but the first one's free.
Of course, no song is complete without someone to play and/or sing it.  There's no real limit to the number and type of instruments used in a song, except that it's always harder to play with less than the intended number, so the band should try to pare it down to a manageable list.  Generally, as long as everyone in the band has something to do, the song should work.
Laying it Out
Now that the group has a Hook they're shooting for, and they know what instruments the song requires, it's time to draw it all together.  The skills used in this test can be a little tricky.  It goes without saying that if you can't play an instrument, you won't be writing very good music for it, so everyone involved will have some amount of talent in their chosen area.  Most band members can choose to test with either their instrument skill or Compose.  Vocalists are an exception; they can only test with Lyrics.  Fortunately for them (but unfortunately for their audiences), vocalists are also an exception to the rule about having no skill; anyone can try to write lyrics without knowing what they're doing, it's just that these attempts usually end in disaster.
For every instrument in the song, someone has to make a test to write her part.  Normally, the appropriate band member makes all these tests (drummers write the beats, bassists write basslines, etc.), but if the group is dominated by a pushy, prima-donna auteur (or his girlfriend), expect that one member will be writing the whole damn thing.  This is handled in a big group test (similar to a performance test), with every band member laying her card out at the same time against The Man's draw.  Like a performance test, if anyone wants to write more than one part of a song, they have to play their cards at once, without redrawing in between (so the aforementioned prima donna might have to play her entire hand).
Behind the Scenes, Things Were Falling Apart
Once all the cards are played and any Twists are spent, the real fun begins.  First, check to make sure no one failed the test; if anyone did, the whole writing attempt falls apart, just like a live performance would.  As long as everyone succeeded, though, the band has a new, musical baby on their hands.  Of course, they probably won't agree on how to raise it.  For every boost a band member gained on the group test, she can either add a Solo (for her instrument only) or a Hook to the song.
Now comes the hard part.  Every band member is going to want a solo to show off her talent, and the band is going to want a lot of Hooks to make sure the song will play to a wide audience.  The trick is that the song's minimum difficulty goes up by one for every Solo and extra Hook added to it.
So, if the whole band gets their way, they'll end up writing a song with a Solo for every instrument, four Hooks and a minimum difficulty of seven.  In short, they'll have an amazing song that none of them will ever be able to perform.  Now, the arguing begins.  To keep this from happening, the group has to hash out who gets to spend their boosts and how.  Inevitably, a few band members are going to end up throwing some boosts away.
Once the inter-band bickering over song dynamics starts, there is only one rule: no players can talk out-of-character until the issue is resolved.  This means that no one gets to talk about their skill ranks, how many boosts they got, or to ask why The Man is laughing madly while their band comes apart at the seams.  Remember, it's the characters who make decisions on how a song plays out, not the players.  Remember: even bands that have stayed together for decades, gone to Hell and back together can break up over exactly this type of dispute.  Good luck!
"Rock and Roll will be the new planetary culture, believe it or not."
-Prof. Michio Kaku

Thomas Tamblyn

Is part of your post missing?  Because right now I'm drawing a blank on what we're supposed to do ~.^

Rich Ranallo

Quote from: Thomas TamblynIs part of your post missing?  Because right now I'm drawing a blank on what we're supposed to do ~.^
I was just looking for general thoughts & comments, not a specific problem that needs solving, really.
"Rock and Roll will be the new planetary culture, believe it or not."
-Prof. Michio Kaku

Jürgen Mayer

I like it. Describing the songs with hooks should work well.
The only rule I wouldn't use is writing down the required instruments for a song and then increasing the difficulty if the song is performed with fewer instruments. While it's prolly nice to know which instruments the song was written for, I would get rid of the compare-the-instruments-step when assigning the difficulty. Too much bookkeeping complication for too little gain IMO ("Let's see, drumkit, two electric guitars, a bass and a violin - sorry, you're missing a wah-wah pedal and the bass needs to be fretless"). So, I would write the instruments down for flavor only, not for rules-complication.
Jürgen Mayer
Disaster Machine Productions
http://disastermachine.com

Ron Edwards

Hi Rich,

Excellent! Here's what I'm thinking ...

1. I agree with Juergen about the instrumentation - doing an old song "your way" is often a great key to success, often to the extent that people completely forget about the original. (For example, "Because the Night," and "Poor Poor Pitiful Me" were originally male songs about women. I'm 90% sure that "Bobby McGee" was too, but need to check on that.)

2. I also think other skills might come into play in order to alter or shape the mood of the crowd. Mundane ones, sure, but certainly starchild abilities would be perfect. I have been thinking for a while about a starchild vocalist who uses Vibe and Sparkle to "read" the crowd and provide visual effects during the song, such that their inner needs and desires are literally reflected to them during the show. A band which specializes in this or other effects would have a much greater chance of success, as they aren't completely at the mercy of the crowd's mood.

Best,
Ron

Rich Ranallo

Great points, Jurgen and Ron.

Ron, you reminded me of a bit that I forgot to add; not only can a crowd's mood be shifted with Vibe, but if oyu manage to play a song that contradicts the mood of the crowd, but still get a Boost, you change the crowd so they're "one step" closer to what you played.  So playing an Upbeat song to a depressed crowd will lift them up a bit, so the Poppy song coming up next won't suffer a penalty.
"Rock and Roll will be the new planetary culture, believe it or not."
-Prof. Michio Kaku

rafial

Some things that might need clarification:

1) Does the band agree on a base difficulty before starting the test?  Or is the  difficulty purely a factor of the hooks and solos added during composition?

2) You mention the selection of hook(s) prior to making the test, the addition of hooks as a result of boosts gained in the test.  Do hook(s) selected before making the test factor into the base difficulty of the song?  Or are they "free".  If so, why ever add hooks later (unless you wanted to add a hook the other band members didn't like?)

I also think that it does matter what instruments the song was originally written for.  Reinterpreting the song into a bands own style is what distinguishes a real band from a cover band that only knows how to grind out songs the way they were originally done.  Perhaps some compose checks could be required to arrange the song for a different set of instruments, and in the process hooks could be added or removed.  An excellent example of this kind of thing at work is Ethyl Meatplow's version of Burt Bacharach's "Close To You" in which Sappy Romantic has suddenly become Romantic Hardcore.

Rich Ranallo

Quote from: rafial1) Does the band agree on a base difficulty before starting the test?  Or is the  difficulty purely a factor of the hooks and solos added during composition?
The base difficulty is one, and it goes up by one for every Solo and additional Hook added.
Quote from: rafial2) You mention the selection of hook(s) prior to making the test, the addition of hooks as a result of boosts gained in the test.  Do hook(s) selected before making the test factor into the base difficulty of the song?  Or are they "free".  If so, why ever add hooks later (unless you wanted to add a hook the other band members didn't like?)
Every song has one Hook automatically, and you get to add one more per boost on the writing test.
Quote from: rafialI also think that it does matter what instruments the song was originally written for.  Reinterpreting the song into a bands own style is what distinguishes a real band from a cover band that only knows how to grind out songs the way they were originally done.  Perhaps some compose checks could be required to arrange the song for a different set of instruments, and in the process hooks could be added or removed.  An excellent example of this kind of thing at work is Ethyl Meatplow's version of Burt Bacharach's "Close To You" in which Sappy Romantic has suddenly become Romantic Hardcore.
I'll make a note about reinterpreting another artist's song, which essentially means you just redo the writing process, with the possible exception of Lyrics (though you can still change those as well).  You can play a cover without rewriting, but doing the test over allows you to change up the solos and hooks (contrast "Do You Think I'm Sexy" by Rod Stewart and the Revolting Cocks).
"Rock and Roll will be the new planetary culture, believe it or not."
-Prof. Michio Kaku