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Make Yourself a Star with an RPG sourcebook for Magic, Music & Urban Fantasy,!
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Weekly Update #35 - Energy, Intoxication, and Get Your Shit Together

Rules, rules rules! that's what I've been working on lately. The majority of the work has gone into Chapter 5: I Want You to Want Me, the all-new performance chapter that originally began as part of I Put a Spell on you but soon revealed itself to be another chapter entirely. Now almost complete except for the section about game effects of drug use (an essential element of rock-n-roll roleplaying), that chapter is almost done. Here's a section of it. 




Music demands physical, mental and metaphysical vitality. And so an artist who’s scared or sick, or a band at odds with itself or just plain tired, performs below their usual level. On the other hand, you could be having a great night, your band feels tight, and everything’s coming up roses. Hence the Energy circumstance; if there are dramatic story reasons that help or hurt a character’s health, bring this circumstance into play.

Energy also reflects the overall state of the band. Euphoric romances, exciting new members, great tours, spiritual blessings, united purpose, hit records, cool grooves or other happy events can keep artists energized; on the flip side, lovers’ quarrels, bad breakups, leadership disputes, hard tours, rotten conditions, financial hardships, road fatigue and other trials can sap vitality from the most devoted artists. For more details, see Powerchords: Living the Life.

For characters with certain Legacies and Wyrds, this circumstance is even more important: • The Legacy: Healing Harmonies adds a +1 bonus per degree, as the music rejuvenates both the audience and the band.

• The Wyrd: Lifethief adds the same bonus, as the character literally feeds off the crowd’s vitality… or her bandmates.

• The Wyrds: Addiction, Asshole, Beast and Rivalry subtract -1 from the roll per degree if the Wyrd in question is causing conflicts within the band… as such things usually do.

• The Wyrd: Stage Fright subtracts the same penalty unless the character has either pulled himself together with a will-based roll, or else found something to distract himself from that fear, before the performance begins. (See the sidebar “Get Your Shit Together.”)

• For a really important performance – say, one in which major-label agents are in the crowd or Satan is planning to make you his sex puppet unless you win – the resulting tension can either help or hurt your Energy. In this case, roll a single die. An even number adds +1 to your Energy, while an odd number subtracts -1 from it. The highest number possible adds +2, while the lowest reduces it by -2. This random chance adds to the dramatic nature of the roll and reflects the double-sided nature of a high-stakes gig. In this case, ignore the usual +5/ -5 modifier limit. A high-stakes performance breaks the usual rules of excellence and failure.

Each + or – modifier adds to or subtracts from the performance roll. The Energy categories are:

Broken: One half-step from quitting. 

Fractured: Serious illness, disputes or fatigue.

Ragged: Undeniable sickness, tensions, fear or fatigue. 

Weary: Pushing through troubles but feeling the strain. 

Tired: Kinda beat but dealing with it. 

Solid: All good. Let’s roll. 

Vital: In good spirits. 

Stoked: Hey, ho – let’s go! 

Rockin’: Riding the wave to a killer gig. 

Soaring: Firing on all cylinders. 

Euphoric: "I could live for a million years." 


Get Your Shit Together 

Just before a gig, a character or band that’s feeling ragged can try to pull things together. In story terms, the artists involved try to rectify the situation: talking, hugging, praying, snorting lines, shagging groupies, meditating, beating the crap out of one another – whatever seems to work for the musicians in question. In game terms, the players decide what the characters are doing, and then make an appropriate “Get your shit together” roll. That roll depends on the situation and characters involved: 

• If the character’s trying to get herself in order alone, roll the traits related to her attempt to do so – probably a will or stamina-based roll. In Compact rules, this would be a Spirit roll. 

• If characters are trying to help one another, make that a social-based roll, again using the appropriate traits. This applies to physical solutions, too – decking the drummer might involve a social trait combined with an attack. 

• A successful roll raises the performer’s energy or intoxication one or two levels in a favorable direction; an unsuccessful one drops it one or two levels. A Triumph adds three levels, while a Disaster drops it three levels. Really dramatic roleplaying might raise or lower that attempt even further, with significant story-based effects. 

• You can try to get a character’s shit together onstage, but at a -3 penalty to the roll regardless of who’s doing what to whom. 

Tough love is a staple of the music business, and often involves methods that seem appalling otherwise. For better and worse, punching the singer is a time-honored way of solving problems backstage… and sometimes it even works. 



Chemical enhancement can either take your performance to the next level, or else level it completely. This double-edged circumstance reflects your overall impairment (see “Let’s Get Fucked Up,” [[[PAGE XX]]] ) and its effects on the performance. If you’re playing in a band, the modifier reflects the impairment of the group’s most intoxicated member. That character’s bonus or penalty counts for or against the entire band, allowing a psychotropic insight to bring everyone else along whereas foggy flailing spoils the gig for everybody. 

Each + or – modifier adds to or subtracts from the performance roll. Intoxication categories are: 

Visionary: Drug-inspired brilliance. 

Grooving: Locked into a tight trip that totally enhances the experience. 

High: Loose enough to shake the rust off. 

Sober: Not under the influence, or not showing it if you are. 

Buzzed: A bit blurry and slow on the uptake. 

Skewed: Scrambled reflexes, perceptions or both.  

Wasted: Obvious mental and physical impairment. 

Wrecked: Making an ass of yourself. 

Gone: Total impairment, collapse, or both. 

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Weekly Update #34 - Wild Talent

Hola, folks!

Chapter 6 - "I Put a Spell on You" - is underway to the tune of about 5000 words and rising. Part of that chapter covers the potent yet unschooled "wild talent": artists who, like Meghan  Susan Green from Arpeggio, have power they neither know how to use not truly understand.  

Once again, the word-count is rising fast; this time, though, an end is in sight. 



Blind Man’s Cry: Wild Talent

Wild talent means “You have no idea what you’re doing, but you’re doing something…” In many stories, such as the webcomic Arpeggio, a clueless bard slings magic around without even realizing that magic exists; eventually, the weirdness gets out of hand and that musician must have a Come to Jesus meeting with the universe, either learning how to control her talent or else being destroyed by it. There’s more truth than poetry in this sort of story, too – just ask the ghosts of Morrison, Joplin, and other artists who let their gift run away with itself. (Personally, I think Hendrix knew exactly what he was doing… but even masters make mistakes.)

In game terms, wild talent manifests as random Legacies, Wyrds and magical effects that neither the character nor the player can control. Instead, the Guide keeps a list of Legacies and Wyrds (probably two or three of each) that suit the character’s background, personality and music. Essentially, these become “unofficial” traits the character has but the player does not know about. Each trait has between one and three degrees, with the value of that trait, like its identity, being kept secret from the player.

When the player rolls a success or failure, or at some other dramatically appropriate moment, that Legacy or Wyrd manifests. As with a Triumph or Disaster, the trait’s effects last for a short time (usually a day or less); with a wild talent, however, that trait manifests repeatedly, becoming a signature of the character’s wild talent.

Unlike Triumphs or Disasters, the wild talent doesn’t follow success or failure. Bad things could happen after a great performance, while something good might come of a terrible night. The Guide says what happens, how and why. For dramatic impact, wild talent should be tied to appropriate moments in the story; an attractive Offspring, for instance, might show up after the musician plays a sad love song, while an intense healing session causes the musician to start cutting himself (the Wyrd: Self-Injury, described in the Deliria book Everyday Heroes).

Appropriate Legacies: Bardic Gift, Burning Bright, Charming, Charisma Bomb, Empathy, Entourage, Fame, Fey-Fond, Healing Harmonies, Patron, Soulsight, Task-Master

Appropriate Wyds: Addiction, Bad Rep, Beast, Fey-Cursed, Hated, Psycho, Lifethief, Mystic Heritage, Offspring, Party God, Road Gremlins, Self-Injury, Spacey

A character with wild talent must purchase the Legacy: Musical Prodigy and the Accord: Wild Talent as “official” traits; she might also buy whatever Accords, Legacies or Wyrds the Guide allows her to have. The wild talent traits are extra blessings or curses that remain beyond the player’s control. In time, if and when the character learns to master her art, the player may “officially” add the wild talent traits to her character sheet… or even, with the Guide’s approval, get rid of those traits altogether. If and when that happens, the Wild Talent Accord gets replaced by a magical practice that suits the character’s studies...   

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Weekly Update #33 - Dominance & Submission

Hi, gang!

Last week, I mentioned the section I was working on for the I Put a Spell on You chapter, dealing with harmony and dissonance. Since my initial work on that section will probably be cut down, rearranged or both, and since this is one of those sections for which I wish I could include links within the book so that folks would know what I was writing about, I've reproduced that section as this week's update, complete with associated links so that you can hear my examples for yourself.

Project-wise, the book is coming along nicely. Now that Living the Life is more or less finished (and, more importantly, off my plate for the duration of the core book's work-time), I'm making serious progress on the remaining chapters - I Put a Spell on You (magic), Turn the Page (storytelling), and Someone to Love (characters and groups).

By the way, a number of you have STILL not given me your characters and/ or bands. Please send them to me care of this project's mailbox; if I don't have your suggestions, I can't put you in the book.

Thanks, folks. Enjoy!


Dominance and Submission

Esoteric musicality can be ineffably complex. Artists, sages and scholars have spent millennia compiling treatises on the ideas involved. At the core of these systems, however, rests a simple idea: The world as we know it is composed of a given harmony, and certain patterns of sounds can either blend with it, make variations upon it, or throw it into discord.

When you look at it from an esoteric perspective, music is far more than a collection of pleasing or unpleasant sounds. Those sounds, to such mystic understanding have metaphysical undercurrents and consequences. On an intrinsic level, their harmonies and dissonance have significant physical, mental and spiritual effects. If you know what you’re doing with them, you can influence the world around you… and if you don’t, you may cause problems you do not truly understand!

Like most, if not all, schools of spiritual and magical thought, esoteric musicality is deeply moral. Everything has consequences, and you’re responsible for the things you do with it, whether you want to be or not. Although this idea runs counter to most roleplaying game systems – in which magic is simply an amoral mechanical tool – it’s deeply ingrained in the real-life practices of intentional music. When the Chinese sage Ling Lun, minister to the legendary Yellow Emperor Huangdi, supposedly created human music, he did so in order to bring the human world into alignment with the harmonies of heaven. Millennia later, Beethoven and Bach employed a similar desire; their compositions were meant to be not only expressive and entertaining, but to be spiritually uplifting as well. The morally neutral, if not actively malevolent, nature of popular music in the 20th century and beyond has been regarded with everything from disdain to horror by spiritual musicologists. “Is there any truth,” writes David Tame in his intriguing but alarmist (and also racist) book The Secret Power of Music, “behind such beliefs, and does music actually contain such power to affect matter? If so, then the phenomena of jazz, rock, and other such musics – including, perhaps, the very allowance of their very presence in our midst – would most urgently need to be looked at afresh.” Magic, therefore, is not merely something that you play – it’s an extension of who you are and what you do within your world.

To reflect this principle in the magic game systems, Powerchords adds the rule of Harmony and Dissonance:

Harmony means “to join together.” Musically, it refers to combinations of notes that blend together in “ways pleasing to the ear” – that is, that flow without tension, suspension or conflict. Musical harmony (also called consonance: “together sounds”) is usually linked to goodness, kindness, accord, and what’s often called Rightness Under Heaven, the way of sublime celestial order… in short, God by whatever name you prefer.

Dissonance means “to break sounds apart.” Musically, it refers to combinations of notes that sound “off,” seem unresolved, and do not flow smoothly from one to the other. Musical dissonance has traditionally been associated with harshness, moodiness, unrest, and the subversion of order… in other words, the Cosmic Adversary by whatever name folks call it.

Like I said, moral connotations attached to musical dynamics; harmony is often regarded as submission to a higher order, while dissonance is considered rebellion against its domination. There’s even a musical theory called “the emancipation of the dissonance” in which musical discord represents the overthrow of tyranny. Rock, jazz, hip-hop and avant-garde music are often rebellious in spirit as well as musicality… and are therefore often called “degenerate” or “immoral” by God-fearin’ religious folk.

Musical esotericists like David Tame attack the use to musical dissonance… and the fact that most of the music from the mid-19th century onward is based on constant tension between harmony and dissonance only adds to their moral panic. The fact is, definitions of musical harmony and dissonance are more cultural than objective; Chinese harmonies often sound dissonant to people trained in the European Classical mode, while European Classical was considered decadent during China’s Cultural Revolution. The dualistic split between “good” harmony and “bad” dissonance is very Western, although it shows up in Chinese musicology as well. Indian music theory (like Hindu theology) is far more complex than a simple “good” and “evil” split, and other musical traditions just use what’s at hand and seems effective. As Powerchords: Mystic Rhythms reveals, the American musical tradition that has spread across the world within the last century or so involves a fusion of European, African, Middle Eastern, Native American, Indian and Asian influences blended into exciting and sometimes disconcerting variations… a synthesis that freaks the fuck out of musicologists like Tame even as it inspires musicians like Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix and Miyavi.

Theoretical perfection aside, most forms of music depend upon tension between harmony and dissonance. That tension can be heard in everything from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (considered radical for its time) to Hendrix’s “Purple Haze,Davis’ “Bitch’s Brew,” Miyavi’s “What’s My Name,” John Williams’ “Imperial March,” or Lady Gaga’s “Judas.” Many composers drop dissonant notes into harmonies in order to surprise expectations, and then resolve them back into harmony (as in the core melody of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’”); others create whole pieces of music that are intentionally dissonant in order to get under an audience’s skin… and yet sneak harmonies into them before that audience gets too comfortable with the discord! (Check out “Blister in the Sun,” from the Violent Femmes.)

In Powerchords (as in most forms of music) magical composition depends upon both harmony and dissonance. Deep magic comes from the interplay between them. Story-wise, a Powerchords musician can get more spectacular results from either intentionally throwing in a dissonant flourish; harmonizing closely with the “flow” of the moment; or even making a resonant mistake.

Note that I said spectacular results… not necessarily desirable ones.

In game terms, a character using music in a magical sense can choose to add to the Challenge Level of his performance roll; if he succeeds, his performance has an extra kick to it; if he fails, it goes poorly; and if he succeeds or fails in a major way (see the “Triumph and Tragedy” sidebar), his performance has a powerful side-effect.


Harmony & Dissonance

Challenge Level       Success        Failure          Triumph/ Tragedy

+1            1 Level/ +1 die bonus          Bad reaction from audience            Cheering/ Jeering

+2            2 Levels/ +2 dice bonus       Abuse from audience                     1 Degree in Legacy/ Wyrd, 24 hours *

+3            3 Levels/ +3 dice bonus      1 Degree in Wyrd, 24 hours             2 degrees in Legacy/ Wyrd, story arc duration

* As with the Triumph and Tragedy rules, the Legacy or Wyrd lasts for either one hour of game time, or the duration of the immediate story arc, and then fades away. For appropriate Legacies and Wyrds, see “Wild Talent.”


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...Aaaaaaand we have yet ANOTHER book in the series...

So, when "Living the Life" broke the 30,000-word mark, I realized that I had three choices: 

* I could chainsaw the chapter that had been one of my motivations for doing Powerchords in the first place; 

* I could make the book so huge that it would cost about $30 per copy to print it in those lovely hardcover full-color editions; or...

* I could make Living the Life its own book, and put the recording studio and tour bus (and perhaps a venue) into that supplement... which could then run as long as I want it to run. 

Guess which one I chose. 

Now Powerchords has its core book (for which I'm finishing the magic, storytelling and characters chapters; currently running about 53,000 words, with a firm 85,000-word limit); 

* Living the Life (which will probably be the first supplement, as I'm 35,000 words into it); 

* Beer-Drinkers and Hell-Raisers (20,000 words into that one);

* Mystic Rhythms
(23,000 words); 

* On the Road Again (only about 3000 words here); 

* ...and probably a fiction compilation, Powerchords: Variations on a Theme, which would feature my music-oriented short stories - "Ravenous," "The Ice Fiddler," "Special Guest," "Swallowed," "Valhalla With a Taste of Lethe," and so on - all of which have been published previously but are currently out of print.

So yeah - one of the reasons this project is nearing the two-year mark is because a book initially planned to run about 60,000 words currently has roughly 150,000 words of material without the complete magic, storytelling and character chapters necessary to the final form of the core book.  

(It also was delayed by a year-long freelance project called Open Your Heart to the Magic of Love, which I'll be posting more about soon, but that's another story.) 

I truly appreciate both your support and your patience. Believe me, it will be well-rewarded, because when all the pieces come together, you'll all be receiving far more than you originally expected.  

Thanks again! 

See you soon, with more from Powerchords: Living the Life...

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Weekly Update #32: You Spin Me Right Round (Like a Record)

Almost done with the most daunting portion of POWERCHORDS: the section on recording. For while I have experience with touring, concerts, promotion, crew gigs, musical performance and even being a star, I've spent very little time in recording studios. Vast amounts of research and discussion have yielded around 5000 words of material. Some of that will probably wind up getting cut, so here's the first portion of that section of Chapter 5, the Chapter That Never Seems To Die.


You Spin Me Right Round (Like a Record)

Welcome to the Humilatron! Whether you’ve been on the road for years or you’ve simply scored some studio time or a sweet home recording gig, it’s time to strap on those headphones, step up to the mic, and hear how your music sounds when it’s recorded and not in your head.

That’s a humbling experience. Every flat note, missed cue, crappy lyric or fumbled chord change comes back at you with unforgiving clarity. The song that seemed so marvelous in the heat of the moment now sounds like soup. Sure, you can sweeten it in the mix – most folks do whether they admit it or not. Folkpunker SJ Tucker calls this the Humilatron, where all your sins get remembered for you.

And yet, there’s a rush (at least occasionally) at hearing your music played back at you. It feels, at least in the beginning, like you’ve made it big. When the chemistry’s right and the performance is solid and perhaps a happy accident or three has taken your song to the next level, you can hear magic coming to you in the playback. Quincy Jones describes this goose-bumpy moment of synergy as “a pocket where God wants it… when emotionally it hits you.” (Hence the common musician term “playing in the pocket.”) Sometimes it comes naturally, other times from careful arrangement, and usually from a combination of the two plus a hell of a lot of luck thrown in. Recording is a paradox of egos; it’s no wonder that so many musicians both love and loathe the studio.

For certain artists, the studio is the ultimate palette for their art. Removed from the grind of touring and the chaos of live gigs, they settle into recording the way a classical painter settles into canvas and paint. Certain artists – Kate Bush, the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Steely Dan – reached their greatest heights when they’d quit touring and stuck to the studio. In many ways, the studio is one huge instrument with near-limitless potential.

It can also be a swamp. Self-indulgence rears its ugly and expensive head when artists twiddle knobs to excess. The song that blasted forth like coked-up Athena from an artist’s head can be smoothed to paste by too much studio time. Drugs, isolation, yes-men and inter-band conflicts may rip a band to shreds – see Metallica: Some Kind of Monster for proof of that – and the financial toll alone could leave an artist hopelessly in debt. A fast in-and-out approach may work wonders with great material; several of the best albums in popular music history – Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, the Doors’ debut and Neil Young’s Mirrorball, among others – were recorded in roughly a week or less. On the other hand, many classics – including Sgt. Pepper, Dark Side of the Moon, and (believe it or not) Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols – are elaborately produced studio confections. Studio work is neither good nor bad in itself. Ultimately, it’s what you do with it that determines the quality of your results.

These days, you don’t necessarily need a studio to record an album. The array of available desktop mixing programs (ProTools, Logic, Audacity, etc.) allows an artist to tweak a rough mix into near-professional form. What no program can give you, however, is the experience and insight a skilled professional can bring to a session. “If architecture is frozen music,” said famous architect Frank Gehry, “then music must be frozen architecture.” A good studio experience involves not only the technological gear but the musical architects who know how to use it best.

Sound and Vision

The details of music recording can get insanely technical, and really don’t figure into a roleplaying adventure tale. Essentially, though, the recording process involves capturing the vibrations (sonic, energetic, and perhaps metaphysical) of sonic architecture and preserving them with electronic media. Early recording used phonographic (literally “voice picture carvings”) technology to inscribe physical reflections of sounds into grooves on portable “albums”; originally made of metal foil, these albums were soon pressed onto wax rolls (hence the term “hot wax” for a hit recording), and then discs of wax, shellac, acetate, and eventually vinyl. Recoding tape turned those sonic “reflections” into electronic signatures on magnetic tape. All of these media are referred to as analog recording: media that represent data in measurable physical form.

Innovations of computer technology in the 1970s and ‘80s created the digital recording method; here, the data gets preserved in numerical code. Audio waveforms get captured at regular intervals (typically between 40,000 to 50,000 times per second, and sometimes higher) and then translated into binary sequences. Although this method is far easier to employ, more compact, far simpler to manipulate, effortless to transfer, and literally infinite in physical capacity (literally years’ worth of music can fit into your pocket), digital recording lacks the “warmth” of analog recording because there’s no physical “shape” to the sonic reflection – it’s just numbers. Digital recording holds a crisper tone because of its precision, while analog recording holds an endearing imperfection because of its physical, and inevitably corruptible, nature. 

Which is “better”? Artists, techs and audiophiles will probably be arguing that subject until the end of time… or at least until something else, like mental implantation, comes along to replace both.

In the early days, recording was simple: Get everyone in a room, turn on the machine, and hope for the best. The muffled, low-fidelity quality of pre-WWII recordings comes from that limited technology. By the 1950s, improved equipment allowed an engineer to record the vocals and one or two instruments separately and then manipulate the results; by the mid-'60s, studio technology evolved to the point where sounds could be recorded on multiple tracks, mixed together, reversed, shifted, rearranged or even synthesized in the studio. Since then, a combination of art and science has turned recording into a complex stew of techniques and gear, all aimed at turning recorded vibrations into emotional response.

And yeah – that is a form of magic.

Recording technology has transformed the role of music in the human drama. Until the late 1850s – and this is important – the very idea of preserving music past the moment of performance was inconceivable. Even now, in a world filled with recorded music, recording seems magical. Seriously… a little device made of plastic and metal can take sound waves and turn them into electrical impulses which are then translated into physical grooves, magnetic blips or strings of numbers? Other devices can tweak those recordings, distort them into something new, or even generate “sounds” that have no physical source or component at all? With them, you can hear people across gulfs of space, time and life itself? Dude, that’s magic. And so, to consider recording engineers and producers to be sorcerers or sonic priests, their equipment and studios to be occult implements, and the recording session as a ritual, would not be at all inappropriate.

Thomas Edison and Aleister Crowley recognized the magic(k)al element of recording. The former used phonographic gear to capture ghostly voices and “etheric force,” while the latter employed it to create sonic talismans of his magickal rites. The tie between recorded music and magic is as old as the technology itself. And so, when you enter a recording situation – whether you’re in a full-scale studio with a crew, or simply recording music at home and tweaking it on your laptop – treat that process with respect. Regardless of the technology involved, you are, in a very real sense, crafting magic...


Words of Wisdom

For folks who want to understand the recording process – from technical trivia to human dramas – I highly recommend the following sources:

The 33 1/3 book series: These short pocket-sized books are music-lover crack. Each volume focuses on a single classic album, exploring the inspirations, influences, techniques, people, processes and legacies of those albums. Continuum International has released nearly 100 of these little gems, and I devour them like candy.

The Quincy Jones Legacy Series: Perhaps the greatest music producer in history, Quincy Jones has collaborated on a series of books and DVDs dealing with his life, work and process. Though a tad over-chummy, these volumes are essential to anyone who seriously loves music.

The VH-1 Classic Albums series: Like the 33 1/3 books, these videos focus on a single album and feature interviews and commentary on the story behind that album. Though not as involved as the books, the VH-1 documentaries focus on the human stories, with all the hilarious and sometimes heartbreaking perspective those people can bring.


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