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Lunar Notes

Started by Marshall Burns, April 20, 2009, 09:43:06 PM

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Marshall Burns

Inspired by John Harper's GHOST/ECHO and Lady Blackbird, I made Lunar Notes:

Page One PDF
Page Two PDF

I'm not as hot as John Harper with the layout, but I'm actually fairly pleased with how this looks visually. I surprised myself.

The bulleted lists in GHOST/ECHO were what jazzed me the most, so I emulated that. I actually had longer lists than what's in here, but decided to cut them down.

To elaborate on the gaming-related influences:
John Harper:  getting this party started
Vincent Baker: dice mechanic in Otherkind, and Cruel Fortunes in Poison'd (which you can kinda see in the way that one Condition opens up opportunities for others to get into play)
Luke Crane: Shades and Tests in Burning Wheel; if you squint, you can see that the number of Complications in this is actually the same as the Obstacle in BW
Ron Edwards: Binding rules in Sorcerer
David Berg: a conversation about another project of mine (American Wizards) that led directly to the Complication/Interference/Danger schema.

Whaddya think?
I'm excited about it. Can't wait to play it. I also hope to see a lot more of these things pop up.

Seriously, I spent, like, two days thinking about this, and one day doing it. I am not a graphic designer by any stretch of the imagination (although I did narrowly escape a BFA for painting), and it still looks pretty. I'm handy with rules design, but these are just cobbled together from other peoples' and some old ones I had laying around.

My point is: you can do this too. It's easy.

My question is: why don't you?
It's fun, and they're cool just to look at -- that's two kinds of awesome already, before you even play it!


Ron Edwards

To be included among the others listed in the references is really, really wonderful-feeling.

Best, Ron

Marshall Burns

I'm glad you're not annoyed by how I dumbed down the binding rules to the bare minimum!
I've guessed from other discussions that you're a Tom Waits fan; are you into Captain Beefheart as well?


I've been thinking about what it is that I find so satisfying about these "Oracle games" or "Dogma games" or "modules" or whatever it is we decide to call them. I think I might have hit on it.

For those of you that haven't heard me blabbering on about it before, I got started in roleplaying with homemade games. This was because me and my friends wanted to play RPGs, but we didn't have any, and didn't have access to any. So, armed with only a cursory understanding of what they were, we made our own. Eventually one guy got a hold of Vampire, so that was an influence for him later, and I was also later heavily influenced by a host of old computer games, but, to start with, we had no idea what we were doing, so we could do anything.

And that "anything" was an awful lot like this, because we didn't have the time or references to do 100 pages of spell lists and setting history or whatever the fuck; just some assortments of notes, a few mechanics (maybe), and some half-formed notions and ideas, that led to discoveries in play for everyone, creator and other players alike.

(Later on, in high school, I became a system-monkey and started doing some quite rules-heavy design, but that was later)

You know what I'm thinking about doing with this?

Partly, fleshing it out slightly, to maybe, say, 5 pages. But a lot of that is going to be more art.

Other partly, making it a solid, more-or-less complete thing -- not by filling in the blanks, because that part's supposed to be part of the fun, but by providing procedure for filling in the blanks.

'Cause, I mean, the way it stands now, it's like, "The blanks need to be filled in. Who gets to fill them in?" In my group, we would have no problem working that out on our own. But of course it ain't gonna be the same for others. And, really, this is the only thing that stops this from being complete, as far as I can see.

Ron Edwards

Hi Marshall,

I follow your enthusiasm for the form and the basic idea of the project, which actually found its first amazing public expression in the late 1990s on the internet. Individual nifties like Ghost Light (before) and The Pool (just after) were why Ed Healy and I started the (first) Forge, after all, to find and consolidate more understanding of just these things. In many ways, John's presentation is getting the indie-scene back to its necessary basics, away from some negative trends that had become evident by 2005-2006.

But to get to this particular item, Lunar Notes, I suggest stepping back from the enthusiasm, a little. As I see it, it's a bit of a mess.

I hope to illustrate this by contrasting it with Ghost/Echo. The pitfall in doing so is to imply that G/E not only does it right, but does it the only way it should be done, which I'm not saying. My goal is to show that the decisions John made about what goes onto the page in G/E, and what is and is not in the game rules themselves, and what is and is not established as SIS right off the bat, are considered very deeply. Whereas in LN, I think you're more-or-less channelling early 1990s expectations of 'what an RPG needs' for those decisions. It doesn't surprise me that you're phrasing what comes next as based on arriving at completeness. You don't need completeness to finish this thing in the most sophisticated sense of the word "finish." I think you need to strip it back and reconsider fundamentals.

1. Ghost/Echo establishes a situation, with extremely defined basic features: a team, a mission, a betrayal, and a chase. Some terms are given to use for loot and foes. The literal jumping-off point is known in substance.

2. Nothing demands that the characters be individualized except for the fact that they have distinct code-names. This is an example of so many design considerations at once: (a) deep psychological, tactical, and ethical differences among characters; (b) the absence of establishing whatever those differences are through lists like the typical advantages/disadvantages method; (c) no distinction among capabilities among characters. The net effect, and I maintain this would fall straight into the category of "this is how you play this and have fun," is the overwhelming expectation for players to display and thereby fill in those differences, based on what each character does decide to do in light of being able to do any of the options, in a consequential way as play proceeds.

3. The GM has a brutally clear and necessary task: do something with the Others and Places list. How does he or she contribute? By providing imagery and substance to those terms, as well as choosing which ones are most interesting (on a purely personal basis) in the first place. Notice how powerfully this engages the GM not as entertainer, not as simple plot-manager, but as fellow creative participant, again, as a human reacting personally to imaginative suggestions.

4. The rules are tremendously abstract. (a) Goals; (b) two-dice results no matter how many dice are rolled; (c) Danger, Harm, situational consequence (capture, bad position). And that's it. Absolutely it. There is only one single setting-based option, which is manipulating the ghost field. All else is abstractly applicable to any imaginable situation.

As I see it, and here I'm not talking about John's train of thought but rather my take on games and game texts, the phrase "This game is incomplete" is a gross lie, but a productive one. It's very similar to the same lie that serves as the promotional device for Lacuna. There is nothing incomplete about this text. It is ready to play, in the sense that every single task necessary to play is explicitly present. Saying it's incomplete (and believing it) is like saying a cooking recipe is incomplete because it doesn't come with a partly- or fully-prepared plate of food. The productive quality of this lie for purposes of Ghost/Echo is that it's making clear to the reader that he or she must now do the fucking cooking in order to enjoy the food.

One of my first attempts at design a while ago, I called "BSL," meaning bullshit-less, and I set up some stuff for dark fantasy with it. A friend read it and came back both impressed and baffled - "I tried to make up a character," he said, "but you can't do it without everyone getting together to play." Right, I told him. I was tired of buying what I thought were recipes and finding instead facsimiles of someone else's prepared and half-eaten food.

If I compare the features of Lunar Notes with #1-4 above, the answers I get are all exactly what I'd found back with those game texts that frustrated me so. No starting situation; the mission merely defines the characters rather than places them in action. (As an aside, "how I got my powers" is not a starting situation, although that doesn't apply to LN). Individualization through different paths of game-tactics options, with no less than four different sets of options, two of which are redundant. No mention, much less instruction of GM tasks, especially pertaining to the SIS itself (exception: response to resolution results). Highly specific, flow-chart style resolution with lots of options and lots of outcomes but a curious sense of "nothing to do."

I think you're using a form which requires a certain function, without the function. It reads to me like an early 1990s text sliced down to two pages but still retaining the can't-play-it, read-instead-of-play qualities. Your blanks are in all the wrong places. Again, the point is not to provide the same exact things John did, but rather to recognize that what he did provide is 100% sufficient for knowledgeable and immediate play.

So what to do? Well, what's the part that sings forth? The music. It's called Lunar Notes. Get it back to the music, and Bending, Floating, Letting it Ring, and Muting it. That's the fun part that goes so nicely with the lists of terms (which are incidentally too long; the effect is to feel sprayed-upon rather than being lured forward). OK, so what's "it," which is bent, floated, let ring, and muted? That's the question. The spirit-hunting is a distraction and entirely too superficial for what needs to answer that question.

I don't have the answer because it's your game. But I know that when I think your non-gaming references, it's not about "catching spirits," it's about cosmic insight and journeys that are wholly internal and external at the same time. Put Pokemon aside, and Sorcerer too for that matter. Scrape off the more-chrome-because-there's-no-steel stuff like the Talents. Think about why characters might do different things as opposed to using different ways to do the same things.

Best, Ron

Marshall Burns

Well, yeah. This things are always gonna be obvious to some people, and not so to others. For John Harper, you, and me, it's obvious how G/E works. Some people didn't get it, as evidenced by that thread and a few others. John and I, as well as my buddy Stephen, have a grip on LN (and all of them are different but functional). Some people aren't gonna. That, right there, I'm accepting as a thing. It's there. The game is free, so I have no desire to make it accessible to as many of my target audience as possible; whoever it sticks to, and whoever it doesn't, is pretty much all right with me.

Quote from: Ron Edwards on May 01, 2009, 02:19:13 PM
But I know that when I think your non-gaming references, it's not about "catching spirits," it's about cosmic insight and journeys that are wholly internal and external at the same time.

See, this is really funny, because that's exactly where I was coming from too. For me, it's obvious how to use all of this material to get there. Because, context. I was working from three extant texts (one was Beefheart's, the other two were mine; I'll post them below for the sake of curiosity) and trying to point people toward the general idea of these things, via the material I was making.

Seeking spirits means something to me. Catching spirits means something to me. Having relationships with spirits means something to me. Being lost, hungry, tired, injured, dead, or having your instrument broken -- they all mean something to me. Having varying degrees of calm, instinct, flash, and will means something to me. Unique and deeply personal talents mean something to me.
Every term on the bulleted lists is accompanied by an instantaneous wealth of imagery, metaphor, myth, and magic to me.
It's personal mojo, to be sure, but some people will share it or enough of it to make it work. I don't see any way to cut it away from the personal.

Is there a way to make it such that it's purely a framework for people to insert their own value for personal mojo?* Maybe. It seems to me that you're suggesting that G/E does this, but I'm not convinced. G/E works for people based on a shared mythology, and it works for so many because that mythology has been very widely shared.

*This is actually the very problem I'm having with my American Wizards project. It's about putting various philosophical approaches to things in a ring and letting them duke it out with things like interpersonal relationships and getting shit done. Do I make it for the philosophies I'm interested in examining (which is why I want to play in the first place), or do I make it so that people can plug in philosophies of their own choice? The second choice would be more accessible, and also seems like less work, but sometimes it seems like the first would actually be more rewarding to me -- both to play and to design.

Marshall Burns

Here's the "three texts" I mentioned. I also want to point out that I made LN because I've been wanting to get these things into my roleplaying for years now.


1. Listen to the birds.
That's where all the music comes from. Birds know everything about how it should sound and where that sound should come from. And watch hummingbirds. They fly really fast, but a lot of times they aren't going anywhere.

2. Your guitar is not really a guitar Your guitar is a divining rod.
Use it to find spirits in the other world and bring them over. A guitar is also a fishing rod. If you're good, you'll land a big one.

3. Practice in front of a bush
Wait until the moon is out, then go outside, eat a multi-grained bread and play your guitar to a bush. If the bush dosen't shake, eat another piece of bread.

4. Walk with the devil
Old Delta blues players referred to guitar amplifiers as the "devil box." And they were right. You have to be an equal opportunity employer in terms of who you're brining over from the other side. Electricity attracts devils and demons. Other instruments attract other spirits. An acoustic guitar attracts Casper. A mandolin attracts Wendy. But an electric guitar attracts Beelzebub.

5. If you're guilty of thinking, you're out
If your brain is part of the process, you're missing it. You should play like a drowning man, struggling to reach shore. If you can trap that feeling, then you have something that is fur bearing.

6. Never point your guitar at anyone
Your instrument has more clout than lightning. Just hit a big chord then run outside to hear it. But make sure you are not standing in an open field.

7. Always carry a church key
That's your key-man clause. Like One String Sam. He's one. He was a Detroit street musician who played in the fifties on a homemade instrument. His song "I Need a Hundered Dollars" is warm pie. Another key to the church is Hubert Sumlin, Howlin' Wolf's guitar player. He just stands there like the Statue of Liberty-making you want to look up her dress the whole time to see how he's doing it.

8. Don't wipe the sweat off your instrument
You need that stink on there. Then you have to get that stink onto your music.

9. Keep your guitar in a dark place
When you're not playin your guitar, cover it and keep it in a dark place. If you don't play your guitar for more than a day, be sure you put a saucer of water in with it.

10. You gotta have a hood for your engine
Keep that hat on. A hat is a pressure cooker. If you have a roof on your house, the hot air can't escape. Even a lima bean has to have a piece of wet paper around it to make it grow.

(When I had a band, the Dream & Shadow Huntsman Group, I gave this to the musicians. I also interviewed them before taking them on, asking questions like, "Have you ever drank from a stream with your bare hands?"
A lot of this only makes sense to musicians. I can't help that. But it's all relevant to the myth and magic I'm talking about.)

1. The definition of music: organised sound of artistic intent. The level of organisation may vary.

2. If it makes a sound, it is an instrument. The Voice is just another instrument.

3. The two classes of sound: Ugly & Pretty. Both are beautiful.

4. Any sound audible to the human ear can be useful in music.

5. All instruments are melody instruments. There is no such thing as a "rhythm instrument."

6. The only time signature: 1/1

7. No padding. If you have no real reason to repeat a passage, then don't repeat it. Tradition is not a reason to repeat a passage.

8. Multiple instruments should only play the same passage simultaneously for emphasis. Playing a passage an octave lower or higher does not make it a different passage.

9. Full, non-arpeggiated chords take up huge amounts of space -- use sparingly, and only for emphasis. Strumming is lazy, taking up space that could be better filled with actual melodic passage.

10. All melody is arpeggio.

11. Specific harmonic shapes should be used for specific effect; major and minor are not and should not be considered standard.

12. Any two or more notes occupying the same harmonic space comprise a chord.

13. There are more than 12 notes in an octave.

14. Lyrics are not the excuse for the composition. The composition is the excuse for lyrics. Lyrics are subordinate to composition, and should serve only to improve the composition.

15. Play it organic like you just dug it out of the soil. Steel is boring, rust is interesting.

16. Play with a balance of disciplined technique and reckless abandon.

17. Listen to instinct. Your bones know more than your brain does.

18. Listen to ideas. Your brain has its moments.

19. Balance the 4 elements:
Earth -- rhythm, pattern;
Wind -- whimsy, rhapsody;
Water -- harmony, flow;
Fire -- dissonance, angularity

20. Risk. Risk something that matters.

21. Playing it note-for-note is not enough without Heart. Heart is not emotion or feeling or anything else human. It is something cosmic.

22. Break every rule at least once.

(This is something I wrote many years ago. As such, it is slightly embarassing in places. But the theme is still valid.)

I do not believe that a songwriter creates the songs he writes; I believe they are channeled from somewhere else, another plane of existence. The gift of the songwriter is a connection to this other plane. The songwriter went out and found his songs, or they found the songwriter.

Some songs are potatoes; you find where they're growing, dig them out of the ground, wash them off a bit and scrape some things off, and then it's edible right away. And there are so many ways you can cook a potato. Other songs are flowers, they're nice to look at but you can't eat them. Others are animals, usually ones you have to kill before they're useful; but others still make good sideshows while alive, the only thing is you have to feed them and take care of them, which is a lot of effort.

It's great finding the occasional potato and mushroom and rare flower, but what I'm mostly interested in is the animals. Strange animals that no one's seen before, or rare ones they've only read about or seen in zoos. Anyone can go out and bring back a duck or a deer; I'm interested in bringing back elephant birds, jabberwocks, bloomwhales, bonedogs. Sometimes I'm not very successful; those are pretty rare creatures (of course, this sort of meat isn't for everyone, but it's what I'm interested in). Also, it's not only the meat you bring home; you hang the head on your wall, you reconstruct and mount the skeleton; there's the ornamental songs that are basically like flowers; nice to look at (sometimes to smell?), but you can't do much else with them. And then there's the inedible parts that have practical uses, like using the hooves to make glue, using skulls as bowls, making canes out of femurs, making soap out of fat. But as nice as practical and ornamental songs are, the classic ones are those that are edible, because you can get them inside you and they become part of you.

The selection of weapon is also very important when you go song hunting. I don't consider myself a guitarist; I'm a Marksman. My acoustic is a longbow, my electric is a rifle (of varying sizes, depending on how I rig up the rest of my equipment; it can be a .22, a 30-ought-six, a 12-guage shotgun, or a tranquilizer gun, and anything inbetween). You have to be careful what you use; shoot a crow with a 30-ought-six and you'll blow him to pieces (especially if you shoot him 16 times), and a bow just doesn't cut it against a charging rhinoceros. If you use the wrong instrument when you're trying to write a song, you'll either never bring the creature down and it will run away or you won't have enough left of it to bring home, and you'll have to find another one (which is very difficult if you're hunting for rare creatures). Every instrument is its own weapon; brass and winds, depending on how they're played, are either cannons, flamethrowers, or blowguns; drums are explosives, snares, nets, or bear traps. Keyboards can be as devastating as mounted guns or as subtle as a telephone crank generator with a line running down into the water to paralyse fish.

Once you hunt down the song and bring him home, you can do whatever you want to him, but you have to be careful. Cut him up the wrong way and you'll ruin him. Leave him in the oven too long and he'll burn, not long enough and there's the risk of trichinosis. And if you leave him sitting long enough he'll spoil. You've only got so much time to make something useful out of the corpse, otherwise you'll have to go kill another one. And there's never two that are just alike. Of course, you can bring them back alive if you don't think they'll keep for the journey home (the really good stuff is far, far away in the jungle, on the bottom of the ocean, in the desert) or you don't have any ideas for them right away. But if you do that you have to make sure you feed them until it's time to get the axe and you have to make sure they don't escape. Sometimes it's better this way, 'cause you can use this time to fatten them up if they don't have enough meat on them. But a lot of things won't grow too well in captivity, and others are hard to accomodate (just try keeping an elephant fenced up in your back yard. And then feed him).

And that's the way I approach songwriting. The same concept of hunting/harvesting also applies to other art forms. It's all about that other plane, that other dimension: unlock the door with the key of your imagination. Like the Twilight Zone.

Marshall Burns

Uh, one final point, just to be sure.

I'm in no way saying that this is a Done thing. I'm not defending what it is. I'm merely laying the cards out on the table to make it clear what I intend for it to be.


Marshall, I think this is in line with Ron's comment about "hunting spirits." The open question "Why are you hunting spirits?" bothers me. It seems like asking a musician why are you playing music or why do you breathe? There shouldn't be any why. You hunt spirits because that's where the music comes from.
James R.

Marshall Burns

Huh. I actually didn't mean to leave that in there. Oops.

'Cause, yeah, "Why do you play music?" is a stupid question to ask a musician, and it'll get you a stupid answer.

Although this is related to why I focused on the "how" of things rather than the "why." The "why" has only one answer. "Why does my guy play guitar?" Stupid. "Why does my guy play guitar the way he does?" is good. "Why does my guy play guitar rather than bassoon or something?" Also really good. How someone does a thing says A LOT about that person. More than why does, I'm inclined to say. Which is probably because I'm something of a Formalist.

The differentiation between hunters is there not for tactical options, but for expression, and the ability to paint a nuanced personal portrait of your hunter.
(Ron, correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't you have similar misgivings about the number of attributes in the Rustbelt?)



So, if I read the game correctly, its about reaching into the source of the cosmic music and binding spirits to your instrument? I like that in many ways. It sets up a meaty moral ambivalence. The musician can take on the roll of shaman, banishing evil spirits and healing the spiritually sick, but also uses the spirits for their own music, which is arguably very selfish and narcissistic. At least in my mind.

I do wish called something different. Calling it spirit hunting makes me think of Ghost Busters or Solomon Kane. Spirit Charming?
James R.

Marshall Burns

Sort of -- it's not a necessity to bind the spirits. Only if you want your music to be able to touch other people. As long as you're satisfied merely with the music's impact on yourself and the peer appreciation of your fellow hunters, you need only catch them in your spirit bag. The, uh, spirit bag that I apparently forgot to mention in the PDF. Crap. I'm gonna have to rewrite this thing.

But arguably selfish and narcissistic? Naturally.

The idea was that spirits are inspiration (pun!) -- not only literally, as in the abstract idea of inspiration, but also specific, concrete things that inspire. Represented metaphorically, through the spirit's form, temperament, environment, powers, and choice of food. The hunting trip is a real thing, but also a dream state (as far as I'm concerned, all creative acts are in dream states of sorts, whether it's composition, painting, or sex) that is hyper-metaphorical to the point that the symbol IS the thing.


If you have an instrument why do you need a spirit bag?
James R.

Marshall Burns

The spirit bag is just to hold them.

When you bind them, you're obligated to feed them, or else. When you've got 'em in the bag, you can either keep them there or let them out (Danger: the spirit will turn on you), but you have no obligation to do either.

The bag is, of course, just another metaphor.


How do you play this without actual music?

And if you could play actual music, why would you play this?

First I read this, I thought "we should get together and play our favorite songs on our laptops when we do an action!", but I'm not at all sure how(if?) the Note mechanics would lend themselves to the limitations of winamp or whatever. Mute is a gimme. But Float? Ring? Bend? Granted, the result of everything playing together might just default to shit too many times to bother with this 'play things on laptops' spin too much. Still, something to think about, maybe.

Also. Names for places and people, but not for actual spirits? Why's there no Paddled Blowfish, no Metal Arse, no Callus Twang, no Sleek Giraffe, no Tophat Monocle Bearhug? Pah.

Marshall Burns

Quote from: DWeird on May 05, 2009, 08:04:42 PM
How do you play this without actual music?

And if you could play actual music, why would you play this?

So, for folks that don't know, I'm a musician. I play guitar, bass, banjo, mandolin, keyboards, and drums. Guitar, my primary instrument, I can play in a huge variety of styles ranging from classical fingerpicking to surf rock a la Dick Dale to Carter scratch to bottleneck Delta blues. I compose complex, multi-part songs. I can improvise for hours on end without straining myself.
It's not my intention to brag; I just want to make it clear that when I say "I'm a musician," I really mean it.

So, why do I want to play this? Even without any actual music involved?

Partially, the Color. I've wanted Color like this in an RPG for a long, long time.

But mostly, because it's about composing, and about being a composer. About the frustrations and exhultations and thrill of discovery that are all implicit in that. And I really hate that it sounds stupid when I just come out and say it like that (which is why I just hinted at it with the game).

Also. Names for places and people, but not for actual spirits? Why's there no Paddled Blowfish, no Metal Arse, no Callus Twang, no Sleek Giraffe, no Tophat Monocle Bearhug? Pah.

I thought about it, but I figured that the spirits were going to be very personal (ie the GM doesn't make them up entirely on his own). Those are really good names, though.