Thursday, September 29, 2016

Music for Non-Musicians

Vox and I had a brief chat recently and the topic of complicated music came up. As everyone knows, Vox is not a trained musician and admits he can barely play an instrument, yet he was a top 40 Billboard recording artist in the early 90's. Contrast that to a formally educated musician who works at Starbucks. How is this possible?

We got on this topic because I mentioned a time that an asset I had written for a company was rejected because it was too complicated. Vox recounted his experience with musicians who wrote songs that only other musicians would enjoy, and I explained - glibly - that was why I quit jazz. In my opinion the hardest skill for a musician to learn is how to hear music as it sounds to non-musicians. Vox wanted more: "If someone is skilled, how can he not know that? I know how to imitate writers, why is this tough for musicians?"

I was able to give a partial answer: there is in music a similar dichotomy as exists in persuasion, namely, between music that is dialectically correct and music that is rhetorically effective. It's a different set of skills. There's what you learn eight hours a day in a practice room, and there's what you learn in front of an audience.

Only half satisfied with that answer, I want to revisit my original assertion: "the hardest skill for a musician to learn is to hear how music sounds to non-musicians." Why is this so?

One reason might be is that music is perceptual. Most people cannot focus their attention on each separate element. To make music at a high level of skill, however, you need to be able to hear each element in isolation. Once you can, however, it's easy to forget that a non-musician can't. The next thing you know you're creating music for people that can only hear it the way you do.

As your ears become more refined you must not be lose track of the big picture. Mixing helps in this area, by guiding the listener's attention from foreground element to foreground element.

In music the meaning of a sound is different depending on what surrounds it. This differs from language where the meaning of a word has finite definitions from context to context. In music a single sound has infinite potential meanings - except for when it doesn't. There is no such thing as a musical dictionary. A minor chord in the key of E mean somber, unless it means groovy, upbeat, or something else. To compound this our sense of how context functions changes depending on what we've been exposed to. Musicians, by expanding their knowledge in pursuit of their craft, are exposed to more possibilities, and can't always remember how Green Day used to feel before being exposed to Ligeti. It becomes difficult to express yourself honestly in a simpler idiom.

Sometimes musicians have bad educations. My relationship with music theory is akin to Vox's with economic theory. After much questioning, I concluded that most of what they teach undergrads is worse than useless. The fundamental problem is that harmony is placed at the center of the theory curriculum and it's the least important element of music. No one has created an adequate theory of rhythm, which is the basis of harmony, so it's not formally taught in school.

Western functional harmony is fundamentally a cycle of three types of chords: tonic, predominant, dominant - and back to tonic. To identify where the cycle starts you need to analyze the large scale rhythm. Most harmony textbooks acknowledge this, but then say "but it's beyond the purview of this book to analyze rhythm." It follows that a proper undergrad music theory curriculum would start with a theory of rhythm, with the aim of teaching students how to formally recognize the beginning of a rhythmic cycle, and only then move on to harmony. Instead, the vast majority of music curricula do not offer even a single course on rhythm.

There's very little out there in terms of formal rhythmic analysis. What little you find usually presents itself as an introduction to a field that has only begun to be explored - and this has been going on for decades. So it's possible for a music student to finish school thinking he understands harmony because he's learned everything there is to know ahout Neapolitan 6th, false cadences, and set theory. But he's never studied rhythm beyond a professor offhandedly telling him "well, you just kind of have to feel it." So he becomes one of Nicholas Taleb's "Intellectual-Yet-Idiots." He can speak for hours on a topic without realizing the foundation is faulty.

Contrast that to a naturally curious autodidact making Hip-hop beats at home. Without a teacher to distract him with a foundationless theory of harmony, he gets a ten year head start studying rhythm, and when he's ready to use more interesting chords, they are anchored in a solid rhythmic foundation.

There is also the aspect of finding the right symbols to connect with your audience. You can't learn that in a practice room. You learn that on a stage or whenever non-musicians candidly respond to your music. There's a genius that knows what symbols resonate with culture in a particular moment in time. It has something to do with freshness, timing, context, and other intangibles. It's a skill more like public speaking than writing. It's has more to do with fashion than architecture. All of the musical elements, rhythm, timbre, space, harmony - all these do is add up to a gesture. A formal music education can teach you how these elements add up to a gesture - they can form a coherent statement - but to know how they whether they resonate with an audience, you have to interact with one.

Formal music education isn't necessary to make music that people will pay for. All you need for that is curiosity and an audience. Creative longevity, however, requires wide exposure to many styles, and formal education can help with that. Many one hit wonders make a splash, but then run out of gas because they can't do anything else. You'll find that the truly great musicians have spent a lot of time in front of audiences and have also investigated many styles of music beyond the ones they perform.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Mage Wars: World Turn Overview

A starting point for my tabletop RPG is making a game where the rules for the hex map and campaign are as clear as the procedures for a dungeon crawl. For the most part this means breaking up campaign time into discreet World Turns. The GM doesn't prepare a story, but instead stats up factions which function on the hex map analogously to how monsters function in a dungeon crawl - except that factions take moves before they are discovered by the PC's. (In a way, random monster encounters function analogously to hidden traps.) There's rules for keeping track of faction moves off camera, and procedures to inform the players of those moves via rumors and news. The PC's basic goal is not to conquer each hex, like a dungeon crawl, but simply to survive. The world is always changing, so to survive the PC's need to explore the map and collect McGuffins.
It's not meant to be structure for structure's sake. By giving discreet rules for various game objects, I'm opening up mechanical possibilities that normally would be limited to the dungeon scale. Event cards introduce factions, factions can use McGuffins, McGuffins can create terrain, terrain can put event cards into the event deck, and so on. Structures enable elaborate chains of cause and effect far beyond what a GM can prepare. Railroading in the classic sense is not required.
The central thread is the idea of a “game structure” as found on Essentially, there’s one basic action the players know they can take that will always move the game forward. Even when there are other moves that may elaborate the action, the essential path is assumed. For example, in a dungeon crawl the basic action is clearing rooms, killing monsters, and taking loot. If in doubt, go to the unexplored room and kill stuff. If you’ve got time, admire the tapestries.
The other purpose of the World Turn structure is to create a system to pour game objects into. With a system in place I know what game mechanics can express and what potential values they may have. This also gives me the ability to set up Legend of Zelda / Metroid style games, where certain areas of the map open up as certain items / abilities / NPC’s are discovered. It also allows a GM to have a checklist of game objects s/he can add to or subtract to customize the game for his or her particular campaign.
The basic game structure is as follows. The GM reveals a certain amount of hexes - each known as a "territory" - and starts the PC’s in one of those territories. Within each territory are a number of "location" cards, which are face down until the PC's explore them, find a map, etc. The starting location is a settlement. Usually the known areas are limited to the starting settlement and the neighboring territories, 1 or 2 more distant settlements, and the territories in between. The GM draws three event cards and chooses one to be the initial investigation goal of the adventure. He informs the players in advance of character creation what that goal will be. The players construct their characters’ backgrounds to answer the following questions:
  • Why would my character be going on this particular mission, with these particular people (the other PC’s)?
  • Why does my character care about the starting location / settlement? What is my character attached to?
  • How / where did my character get his or her powers?
By the end of character creation both the GM and the players have a clear idea of who the PC’s are and how they fit in with the mission, each other, and the starting location. With the initial setup completed, what follows is the basic procedure that repeats itself as the campaign develops.
 The PC’s travel through territory hexes until they reach the location where the rumor they are investigating has occurred. They make Search/Investigate rolls to see what phenomena are in play. They can make Lore, Technology, or Nature rolls to see if their characters know anything about the phenomena they encounter. If they do not, they can make Gather Information rolls to see if anyone in a local settlement knows something, or knows of someone who might know something. In this way the Gather Information rolls eventually lead to the experts who can answer their questions and provide a solution to the problem, which itself is a new mission. Sometimes an expert will demand compensation for his or her assistance, which can be circumvented with an Influence roll. Gather Information roles will always work, given enough time, but provide answers much slower than lore, technology, and nature roles, which have the possibility of failure.
 As the PC’s are conducting this investigation the GM is drawing additional event cards and making faction moves. Poor gather information rolls increase the chance that an enemy faction finds out what the PC’s are looking for, and allows them to interfere with the investigation. The PC’s may also be slowed down by random monster / magical phenomenon encounters. The characters may also wander off the initial mission and explore locations just for the fun of it – or to score badly needed supplies - and events may occur which directly affect the players if they happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Also, distant events are recorded in settlements as rumors, which can be uncovered by curious PC’s through Gather Information rolls. Sometimes PC's may decide that such rumors are more important to their characters than what they are doing at the moment, and the adventure goes in a new direction.

Some events are isolated one-offs that are simply interesting. Other events are grouped around the nefarious activities of ideological factions or particularly powerful forces such that enough events from the same group will threaten to disrupt or damage the world - or at least something the PC's care about. Fortunately, there are so many ways the world can end so it takes quite a bit of time for any one of them to come to fruition.
In short, events are Doctor Who plots. The PC’s are in a race against time to head off each potential way the world could be destroyed or damaged. Sometimes ideological factions are in opposition to each other, and the PC’s can only defeat one faction by teaming up with another, even if they oppose its fundamental goals.
Play proceeds in this way until the PC’s are unable to respond to events in time and the world does, in fact, get destroyed. But that’s OK because in this game the planet getting destroyed isn’t really the end of the world. Territories can be raised from the ocean, pocket universes can be created, new settlements can be founded, refugees can be lead to safety, etc. – so if a party realizes they are truly screwing up, there are still a few escape hatches. On the other hand, even if the players succeed in staving off the end of the world, the world simply levels up with them and finds new ways to destroy itself.
Mage Wars is The Walking Dead meets Legend of Zelda meets Magic the Gathering. The world is trying to kill you so you must explore to survive, but hurry, there’s no time to waste. Supplies are limited and you can’t get this until you get that, but there are winning combinations if you’re lucky. This is expressed through a clear cut structure that gives the players a sense of what to do next (if they don't already have a particular agenda) and allows the GM to skip past the boring parts.
And that's basically what's I'll be playtesting over the next few months, once I create enough game objects (items, monsters, factions, etc.) to populate the beautiful hex map tiles that Santiago is creating.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Map Art

Santiago did such an amazing job on Elveteka I asked him if he could do some work for my RPG. Since my game features exotic terrain and ecology, visual aids are important to setting the tone. Santiago has been really knocking it out of the park, and though it's still in progress, I wanted to share some of what he's doing. He's making these tiles look like places you'd want to explore.