Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The role of self in songwriting

Part of a series. See the intro here

For most of my life, I've identified strongly as a songwriter. Starting out at the age of 14 as a drummer in punk bands, I took over the bulk of the lyricist's work. I, like many teenagers with an idea, was utterly convinced that I was treading completely uncharted waters. Who ever heard of a drummer who wrote lyrics?

Well, people even vaguely familiar with Rush, for one.

Still, I enjoyed some success, and really dug into the role. I taught myself other instruments with the primary goal of composing my own songs from top to bottom. By the time I graduated high school, I was thoroughly convinced that my future lie as a songwriter, and this was my professional destiny. In retrospect, while that didn't mean what I thought it would, I wasn't entirely wrong either.

HOT TAKE: the world is different than 18-year old me thought
I know! I was surprised too.
Have I been successful? It depends on how you want to measure that. I made enough as an artist to not starve to death, I played my music in front of crowds in a couple different states, and had some people tell me that my songs had been genuinely meaningful to them.  I'd often said that that was the criteria by which I'd judge my success, so it seems disingenuous to go back on that now.

On the other hand, I did kind of get chewed up and spit out by the music business. Many do!

The tricky definitions of success aside, the experiences definitely cemented my self-image as a writer. I'd go on to write plays, essays, journalistic articles, press releases, websites, college textbooks and role-playing games. And through it all, I never stopped writing songs. So it's safe to say that the role of songwriting in my concept of self is pretty established. 

Ah, crap. This is about the other thing, though, isn't it? It's cool Killstring, nobody reads the intro anyway.

Putting yourself in your music

So, for instrumentalists, this is less relevant. Can you really tell if I was thinking about my lost love when you hear the cello come in? Man, I hope not. 

Because that would be incredibly uncomfortable for the listener.

Think about it: you're watching a film, and we're coming up on the climax. Jack is just about to face his brother's killer; he's beaten, bloody, but determined. We're with him! We're rooting for him! We're suddenly thinking about how the composer got dumped in 9th grade, right before the prom! Righteousness is on our si- wait, what? 

Of course, that doesn't happen. The story we're experiencing is enhanced by the music - whatever was going through the composer's mind when they wrote it doesn't matter now. Now, it's about Jack and his struggles, this journey we're on with him. It would, of course, be incredibly jarring to have that journey disrupted with a bit of trivia from the artist's past. 

Believe me when I say that the same is true for lyrical work.

Now, this is not to say that you can't write about yourself. Indeed, many songwriters do exactly that with great success! But you need to be cognizant of the story you're telling. Your audience will often create their own meaning in a song, and that may or may not be anything like what you originally envisioned. This is, in fact, good! It means that your work is resonating with people on some level.

And there are plenty of "story songs" that talk about a events from a particular person's point of view. Folk music is full of examples, as are hip-hop and country. Even so, this is a pretty fine line to walk, and not everybody does so successfully. Let's look at two examples.

Kanye West is primarily known for his Cool Jackets.
You can trust me, I was a music journalist for a hot minute.
First, here's some lyrics from Kanye West's Famous. (Full disclosure: I feel that it's far from West's best work; while I'm usually a fan, I find Famous to be alternatingly uninspiring and cringe-worthy.) My normal word substitution rules apply when transcribing hip-hop - for those unfamiliar, racially sensitive words tend to be replaced with pop culture/geek references. So, where my ninjas at?

We don't know. We can't know. They're ninjas.

Anyway. the first few lines of Famous
For all my Southside ninjas that know me best
I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex
Why? I made that bitch famous (God damn)
I made that bitch famous
For all the girls that got dick from Kanye West
If you see 'em in the streets give 'em Kanye's best
Often, music reviewers will talk about how regardless of your opinions of [Artist] as a person, [Artist] as a musician does some pretty great work. This is kind of inverted, insofar as if you don't know about Kanye West's Rapper-as-Reality-TV-Star shtick, this song isn't going to make any sense. We're not introduced to the characters - the audience is assumed to know who Kanye is, and about his interactions with Taylor Swift - enough to know that of all the Taylors in the world, that's who he means.

Now, it's Kanye West. He can probably get away with you knowing who he is! But it does make the song about him, and not about you. Contrast that with this verse of his from Power:
I’m living in that 21st Century, doing something mean to it
Do it better than anybody you ever seen do it
Screams from the haters, got a nice ring to it
I guess every superhero need his theme music
No one man should have all that power
The clock’s ticking, I just count the hours
Stop tripping, I’m tripping off the power
That song could be about anyone. If you know the artist's background, it's a pretty safe bet that he's still talking about himself here. It's clearly very personal in its way. But it's sufficiently broad in topic that it doesn't have to be about Kanye. Indeed, you don't need to be Kanye West: Famous Rapper to identify with this song; being human will probably do the trick. 

And so the song becomes entirely appropriate for anyone who has a little swagger in their step. 

I call this approach the Mythic Personal. Yes, it's coming from a personal experience. But it's sufficiently diffused that the audience can take it, and apply it to themselves. As consumers of music, we love this stuff - we crank up the stereo and belt out the lyrics at the top of our lungs, we softly sing the refrains to ourselves in moments of quiet reflection, we mouth the words before attempting athletic feats. 

They become uniquely ours.

I didn't read the rest of the article; what are you getting at?

Wow, you must be confused! Kittens and Kanye all the way down. 

Look, songcraft is a volatile art. But good writing has the potential to make something really powerful, something that connects with people on a fundamentally human level. That, to me, is deeply, intensely beautiful. That we can share our joy, our pain, our hopes and our vulnerability in this way... I mean, damn.

I am deeply humbled to be a part of this tradition.

And if you want to tap into that power yourself, you can! And the best way to do it is actually to put yourself into your work. Draw on your experiences; your joy, your pain, your hopes and vulnerabilities. and put them in play. Talking about real things lends a sincerity, an earnest quality, that absolutely resonates with people.

Just keep in mind; what you create belongs, in some way, to everyone now.* And if you try to take it back, people will let you have it, sure. But if you're creating music for someone besides yourself, you'll want people to feel some ownership in it. And that's space that you have to ensure exists.

So, how much of yourself is enough? Too much? Ask yourself: can this song feasibly be about anyone but you? If no, are you a big enough deal that this becomes a feature? If not, it might be time to mythologize your story a little, and let it be about the listener too.

Without them, after all, you don't have an audience; much less a career.

* - Of course, I mean this in a cultural sense. By no means is anyone obligated to make their art available for free, and people who decide to take it anyway are doing violence to an individual's ability to feed themselves with their trade. What should or should not be free is a topic for another time, as is fair recompense for artists. Just wanted to make it eminently clear that Killstring's Squishy Feeling Timetm is not me condoning piracy or any such thing. 

Though hey, if you want to pirate my first album, be my guest. I just have one request - can you send me the link? I sold the masters, and I don't have any CDs around. Thanks!

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Implementing Character Traits in RPGs

Inspired by Grant Howitt's blog post on Relationship Dice in 13th Age.

RPG characters are, by definition, defined in ways that characters in other mediums are not. Depending on your system of choice, there's a wide array of numbers and words describing the character; what they can do, and often how they got there.

On top of that, there are a lot of games where there's some interesting, non-standard thing about the character going on. Maybe they've got a complicated social relationship. Maybe they're nearsighted, have an old injury that flares up from time to time, or happen to be hunted by sexy were-leopards (it happens.)

Point being, there's a thing about the character that's true, and goes beyond the standard mechanics.

The way I see it, there have been two primary schools of thought on how to do this. The traditional one - we'll call it minutia - tends to do this through edge case rules. "Your family connections give you +2 to diplomacy when dealing with the noble caste" -type deals.

If these are negative, or have a negative side, they tend to likewise do this with edge cases, via additional minutia. "But, your family name carries obligations as well. At the GM's discretion, your family may need assistance, or provide a situational modifier that makes the character's life more difficult."

Courtesy of the excellent Darths & Droids.
So basically, it's a big ol' serving of "hey GM, please remember to do specific things in this specific way." White Wolf games were all over this with their Merits and Flaws, but it certainly predates them. AD&D Skills & Powers, anything by palladium, Shadowrun - it was a common enough way to do things, and usually get players some extra goodies at the cost of a theoretically problematic disadvantage.

I have found this unsatisfying. Mainly because it's One More Thing for the GM to remember, and often gets forgotten along the way. Also, players can wind up building characters with a suite of flaws that - if enforced in the manner recommended by the system - become more or less unplayable. The GM doesn't bother, some players are miffed at this, and the whole thing gets awkward.

If you're not going to do something interesting with flaws, etc., don't use them. If the players need more XP, give them some more XP. Rant for another time.

Anyway, the second school – we’ll call it “dramatic” shows up in games like Fate. Take our noble scion above; they’d probably have an Aspect called “Noble of House Noblepants” or some such, which they could invoke when it seemed appropriately helpful, and the GM could invoke when it seems like it might complicate things.


But unsatisfying for some. For one, it's tied to the Fate Point Economy, which artificially limits when that can come up (even if it makes sense in the fiction), and some folks really dislike that type of meta-mechanic, as they feel much happier when things come about “organically.”

Rather than quibble about What is Best in Life, I think I’ll borrow an idea from Mr. Howlett, which he in turn borrowed from 13th Age.

13th Age is like D&D, excepting that it's fun and full of good ideas. Opinions!
In 13th Age, every character has some relationship to the setting's Icons - which are somewhere between factions and demigods - represented by 3 six-sided dice, and set at character creation. At the beginning of each session, the dice are rolled; on a 6, hooray! Something related to that Icon is going to be important/useful/helpful this session. On a 5, you still get a benefit, but with some strings attached. It's a slick little way to add in some factional randomness.

Let's remorselessly steal it.

Thievery Without Remorse

So revisiting our above example,“Noble” becomes a trait on somebody’s sheet, and they roll a d6 at game start. 6 means benefits! 5 means benefits with strings attached! And because we want to model the downside of this, 1 means complications! Conversely, if we're modeling something that.s straight-up downside, we just switch it around - 1 is Big Trouble, 2 is Slightly Mitigated Trouble, and maybe we even throw in a 6 for Unexpectedly Useful Trouble.

Salt to taste.

I like this. It's tidy, and now I’m not asking anyone to engage with the game in a way they dislike. Furthermore, it's easy as hell to integrate with any game I happen to be playing/running. You've got an allergy in Shadowrun? Roll a d6 at the beginning of the game. Have a nebulously beneficial family name in 7th Sea? Roll a d6 at the beginning of the game. Hunted by Sexy Were-Leopards? 

Think about your life choices. What brought you to this place? Also, roll a d6. 

It's also pretty versatile. If our Shadowrunner with a deathly allergy to bee stings (why this allergy is so incredibly common amongst black ops mercenaries in the cyberpunk future, I have no idea), maybe you don't check that every game. Maybe you just have the player roll before going on a run. And if they have multiple complications, they get to roll multiple dice at once, not necessarily knowing which dice are triggering which complications.

Another benefit of this hack is that it lets players adjust how much they want complications to be a part of the game.* Three traits means you'll average one activated per session, with a 33% chance of badness occurring. If you want more traits that come up less, maybe they only activate on a six. Maybe you expand the negative range to two or three. Maybe you leave it as-is.

Point being, this mechanic isn't complicated, and it's not hard to bend it so it behaves the way you want it to. It's also perfectly compatible with the existing methods of implementation - so you can still have a -2 to actions in direct sunlight, or spend a Fate Point to get a boost, because you're The Gosh Dang Batfriend - but you can also roll at the beginning to see if your skin allergy or Bat-ishness is going to be a big deal today.

This is what came up when I googled "Gosh Dang Bat Friend." I LOVE THE INTERNET SO MUCH YOU GUYS. (Photo coutesy of flickr.com/photos/jdhancock)
Anyway, that's the hack in a nutshell. I think I'll be applying it to a fair amount of things in the future. If you try it out, let me know how it went in the comments - I'd love to hear about how it helped/ruined your game.


Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The role of self in authorship.

(Which hopefully does not come off as pretentious as that sounds in my head)

Part of a series. Part 1 (on songwriting) is here, part 2 (on fiction) is here, part 3a (on GMing, or otherwise creating scenarios) is here, and part 3b (on playing RPGs) is here.

"Write what you know."

For advice so freely - and frequently! - given,  there's a lot to unpack here. For the author, it's a clarion call to draw on one's own life experiences. Musicians, poets, artists and creators of various stripes are frequently and ardently encouraged to put themselves into their work. Which is great, right up until it's dreadful.

Sometimes, a song is so specific to its writer, that it becomes difficult to find any kind of personal resonance with its listener. Sometimes a game is designed according to its creator(s) idea of fun, which seems to align with pretty much no other living thing. And of course, gods preserve us all, there's always the dreaded Authorial Self-Insert, lurking around every corner, waiting to show us how awesome they are.

So, how much of you is too much?

I'd love to give a pithy reply here that elicits a laugh, if it doesn't exactly answer the question at hand. Fortunately - for everyone, as pith is hardly my strong suit - the issue is a bit more complex than that. Drawing purely on my own experience for a second - write what you know, yeah? - I've found that my answer differs greatly depending on what I'm doing at the time:

  • In songwriting, I trend towards mythic abstraction when talking about myself, and usually don't
  • In writing an RPG adventure, I tried to keep myself completely out of matters
  • In editorial work - like say, a blog - I'm right up in front, hanging out with the reader
  • In PR work, I'm miles away, deliberately trying to put someone else in there instead
... and so on. 

But even in myself, there's a lot of variance. And in observing other creators, both more and less "professional" than myself, I see this too. And more to the point, we often shortchange ourselves in creative endeavors; not just by putting too much of ourselves into things, but frequently, by withholding ourselves from our creative output.

There's a lot here, so what I'm gonna do is break this down into a couple different posts, differentiated by subject matter. So if you want to hear about songwriting and playing an RPG, you absolutely can, but if you're just interested in narrative fiction, you don't need to hear about the other bits. For convenience's sake, I'll update this post with links when the other articles go live.

Until then, here's a quote from Orson Scott Card on the topic:

No two authors would ever tell a story the same way, because no two people ever care about and believe in the same things to exactly the same degree. Every story choice you make arises out of who you are, at the deepest levels of your soul; every story you tell reveals who you are and the way you conceive the world around you--reveals more about you, in fact, than you know about yourself.

Till next time

Monday, March 21, 2016

Killstring's Chipotle Chili

So, this is an attempt at adding the occasional recipe on here. Some language choices have been altered from the original text in order to make it relatively SFW. 

No, I'm not kidding. I get pretty worked up in the kitchen, yo.

For a while, I cooked one thing, and only one thing. Luckily for me, that thing was quite delicious (accident), relatively healthy (absolutely unintentional) and vegetarian (this one was on purpose). 

What follows is the recipe for said dish, which is a pretty robustly flavored chili, and some tips to alter the flavor profile to accommodate people who don't want to scorch the inside of their throat for funsies.

For the purposes of this recipe, we'll call them reasonable folk. 

So, first off, you're going to need some ingredients. Not just any ingredients - this is a recipe - so you're going to want some specifics. Luckily, I've found some that work pretty well.
  • 1/2 can chipotle chiles in adobo sauce
  • 2 cans of black beans
  • 2 cans of red beans in chili sauce
  • 1 can of fire-roasted tomatoes (or you could chop one and then burn it I guess, if that makes you feel tough)
  • 1 packet of fake meat crumbles (Morningstar Farms makes a good veat crumble, but there are a lot of options here. Go with your favorite, and if you don't have a favorite, use Morningstar)
  • Chili Powder and Cinnamon
  • Maybe some Sriracha because screw it let's just do this thing
  • Cinnamon Butter for sauteing
  • Bravery
  • A decent fortitude save
Get your fake meat. SAUTE THAT STUFF WITH CINNAMON BUTTER. Fantastic, right? Add some of the chipotles and adobo sauce, sprinkle in some chili powder and cinnamon, and SAUTE LIKE YOU MEAN IT. Maybe drizzle some black bean juice in there, because you were just gonna pour that crap down the drain anyway.

Get a pot; not a small one, you're not making breakfast cereal; it's chili time. Get those beans in there - they won't cook themselves! It doesn't matter if they don't wanna go, THIS IS EITHER YOUR KITCHEN OR IT IS NOT. Put that mix over some low-medium heat, and stir in some chili powder and cinnamon - but not too much, those chipotle peppers are not here to dick around.

They are here to be delicious.

Add in your tomatoes and the rest of your chipotle peppers to the pot, and now that you've sauteed that veat like a champ, add it in there too. Taste that; bangin', right? *

EAT DAT CHILI. Live strong and fierce. **

Conversely, if you're cooking for reasonable folk, or happen to be one yourself, no worries! Take out those chipotle chilies, and substitute crushed chipotle pepper. Shake it in to taste - but not too much, mate! We're being reasonable here. 

Anyway, when you're done, you've got something that's roughly 240 calories and and 16 grams of protien per serving, High in fiber, low in fat... wicked high in sodium, but nobody's perfect, all right?

Serves about 8, because I have no idea how to prepare a small quantity of food. I usually get me 2 servings, and that's good times. Refrigerate the rest, because it's crazy good leftovers, and the spice mellows overnight.

Tune in next time, when we see if Chef Killstring can describe how to make an awesome veggie burger without violating the terms of service.

* If insufficiently bangin', add chili powder and cinnamon to taste. Repeat until bangin'.
** Also, have gas. Not a small quantity. Everything has a price.


Hi everybody! This is part of a project to move things around from various blog sites that I've accumulated over the years. As it turns out, I really like blogger, so this should be where I do things from now on. Cool? Cool.

Originally posted on August 15, 2015, over on wordpress.

So, lately I've been getting into papercraft for RPGs - 28mm scale stuff. I wanted a vending machine - so I made one! Hopefully this works out ok.

Printing such things works best on 110 lb. cardstock, at 100%. It'll be the correct size for your RPG/Wargame minis to take a break from fighting to enjoy a tasty nutritious snack.
.This should be cool to download