Sunday, December 18, 2016

Levels and Effects of Art

So, onto Dani's next bard post: Art within D&D.

About a decade ago, I began with the premise that Dani describes: that the object that a bard creates is a 'magical item.'  The character began producing a number of items and very quickly I found myself disliking the ability of characters to produce magic items at will; it simply gave them too much control over the world, in ways that challenged the risk and tension factors in the game.

At the time, however, I had not conceived of sage abilities or truly minor magical effects ~ the effects I awarded were battle friendly and that was the primary error.  Dani is right in her post when she describes 'softer' effects such as those coming from the Legendary Moonlight Sculptor.  She's right, as well, when she points out that the magical effect ought to diminish ~ I had not incorporated that aspect, either, because I didn't think of that.  It would have solved a lot of the magical item on spigot problems that arose.

Still, while I am revisiting the magical concept once again, I have considerable reservations.  My sage abilities are built into four levels of expertise: amateur, authority, expert and sage.  Amateurs tend to possess knowledge and a little practical skill, but certainly nothing magical.  Authorities possess a lot of practical skill, but again, little or nothing that is magical.  It takes an expert to crack the magical ceiling, with the limitation that an expert can only create magic that others have created before.  It takes a sage to create magic that is thoroughly original.

As an example, let's suppose we are a gastronomic bard, that we are artists with food.  As amateurs, we know cooking techniques and we're very comfortable with the use of knives.  We might receive an automatic proficiency (over and above our class proficiencies) in knife (a knife does 1-3 damage; it is not a dagger).  We might also know enough about food that we can extend the value of the food ten or twenty percent, meaning that we would know how to get more food out of a pound of meat than an ordinary person, simply because we know better how to handle the product.  I can say from experience that a cook is easily able to do this in a number of ways, from preparation to managing spoilage.  Those who have been reading my Juvenis campaign can quickly understand how this, as a first level skill, would be of great value in a strapped first level party (since I am stingy about supplying money).  Certainly, none of this is magic.

With time, we become bardic authorities.  Our food is now amazing.  Members of the party, particularly followers, are more than ready to remain in our fellow party members' service because they get to eat at the table we create.  The next day, well sated on nutritiously created food, they're ready to work harder ~ and they're ready to work harder knowing that at the end of the day a good meal is on it's way.  Moreover, once we convince anyone to sit at our dinner table, making friends is much easier.  Local town mucky-mucks are conciliatory once we've had them over for dinner, we have many of them asking us for recipes and cooking advice, while certainly we're developing a local fame.  On top of this, we're finding new sources for food.  We're expanding into owlbear steaks, dragon egg soup and the remarkable sauce-stiffening qualities of properly rendered gelatinous cubes.  Still, no magic, but definitely pushing the boundaries of taste.

Then, after a lot more time, we're gastronomic experts in a magical world.  Now we're beginning to grasp all the possibilities of emotional and theoretical sustenance, something that does not end with just the stomach.  I am not speaking of potions ~ that is crass alchemy.  I am speaking of that which we consume that gives us the power to maintain life and produce growth, mentally as well as physically.  Not the making of strength for an hour, but a permanent gain in strength (albeit a lesser gain than a potion might grant) or intelligence.  We speak of the repair of charisma or constitutionally poor health, not as an instant cure but through consistent nourishment of body and soul.

As for our abilities as a sage . . . that may best be left to the imagination.  What might we truly to with a whole culture, where we can create national dishes that every person will eat at once, bringing them to the same thoughts, the same ideals, the same desired futures?

My first point, then, is a structured gain from level of ability that coincides with other classes; we cannot give the bard extra magical abilities at the start if we withhold the same level of magical ability from clerics, thieves and fighters.

From there, keeping with Dani's program, she produces a table for the effect length that artists of various levels are able to produce.  If I understand the table correctly, for the journeyman to produce a journeyman-level artwork, the time required is 2d6 days.  I can remember in the past producing tables exactly like this . . . but I'm steadily changing my perspective on these things.

Art is never finished, it is abandoned; and it is only abandoned when the artist grows exhausted with the art in question.  In my experience, artists never feel that something can't be improved . . . I could go back easily and rewrite my book, How to Run, then probably go back and write it again.  There are many artists who get caught in the trap of doing that, perpetually.  Therefore, it isn't a question of something taking 2 to 12 days to get something done ~ it is a question of the bard recognizing that it IS done.

Let us take a project that we, as gastronomic bards, want to 'perfect' ~ though as I've said, perfection is maddeningly impossible.  We have an idea of inventing a cake made from carrots, sugar and cinnamon.  I won't use Dani's criteria, I'll use my own, so again we are amateurs, about the level of Dani's apprentice.  This is the best food we can make, so we'll be experimenting for a maximum of 16 days.  We'll get rid of the random number of days and just say that it will take us 16 until it is impossible for us to improve on the cake.

Now, we may have made the best cake we can make with out ability on the 3rd day, but I've never met an artist who would be convinced that was the case, no matter how amazing it tasted.  As I said, the artist is forever convinced of doing better.  Therefore, we will taste that 3rd days' cake and think, "Fantastic!  I bet if I adjust the sugar and add a very little nutmeg . . . then try a few pecans . . . woah, that would make this!  I'll do that!"

This is what artists do. They bang their heads against things.

So, do we abandon the effort after 16 days, when it is obvious we're out of ideas?  Have you met an artist?  I would argue that after 16 days, the bard must start making wisdom checks to leave the problem alone, or else keep spending time and money on it, in a fervent obsession that the artist has no power to resist.  What are we doing when we get to the new town?  We're rolling that d20, failing, then rushing out to buy flour, spices and sugar again.  And spending another day banging our heads against that wall.

Until, of course, we have the breakthrough when we reach authority status (journeyman) . . . and then, following Dani's table, we can now cheerfully spend 3d10 months working on that cake, knowing we're making real progress.  At this point, we're not just cooking carrots, we're growing them ourselves and exploring avenues of crossbreeding carrots to get the best possible starch out of the vegetable.  And in turn, the cake is having wonderful effects on others.

Of course, it can be argued that the effects are felt by others according to the random schematic that Dani proposes.  The carrot cake we made on the 3rd day DID have a great positive effect upon the eaters.  But we bards being bards, we don't make that cake again because we go off on a tangent cooking up failures for two weeks before coming back around to what worked.  We're not convinced until we have to abandon our work.

Seeing it this way, we need to conceive of greater artworks as specific projects that a player chooses ~ not just a plethora of songs and recipes.  This plethora is there, we can cook whatever we want, we have that knowledge.  We can make your steak however you want it . . . but that's just process.  The real fascination we have is for that damn carrot cake ~ the carrot cake that will change the world.


  1. I really like the idea of having to make a save to stop working on an art project, be it cooking or what have you. This is good stuff. Like any good game rule it adds that element of risk to balance the reward of the endeavor - you could be stuck in an obsessed loop, wasting time and money for weeks with no gain to realize from it past what you had already accomplished on day 3. And while realism isn't necessarily your aim here, it also rings very true to my own experience as an artist and every other artist that I have ever known. It is so hard to decide you are done with a project when you can see every way it falls short of your expectations and you can see so many ways to improve it. I am wondering if perhaps other party members (or NPCs exposed to the work) could assist in this save with a small bonus, playing the role of the bystander who tastes the cake or looks at the work in progress and says, "Wow! This is amazing! What do you mean it isn't done, this is great!" I am also wondering if the save to end a project shouldn't get progressively MORE difficult as the artist gains skill - the novice simply doesn't have the knowledge and experience to see all the shortcomings, while the master may never be truly satisfied with ANYTHING produced.

  2. Really Carl? Do you believe your players when they tell you the game was fantastic?

  3. Hmm. I need to chew on this idea some more, but I do like it.

    Question: should the time frame for time "wasted" by a failed check be of the same magnitude as the initial effort - so a gastric bard, upon failing the saving throw, would spend the next month working on the carrot cake?

  4. Not really sure, Aleksandra. I'm not making rules, yet; I am thinking about things to consider, however I'm not fully comfortable with telling a PC how to feel or what to do with their character's agency, but perhaps a second artwork can't be started until the first is put to bed.

  5. I absolutely understand that. Regarding "giving up" - perhaps once a project is abandoned, the bard cannot pick it up again until they have improved their artistic abilities (gained a level)? I understand not starting a new one until the previous one is finished, but I also acknowledge that artists (I, at least) will sometimes set a project aside for a later time and meanwhile work on something else. Perhaps, then, whenever setting out on another project, the character must attempt some headway on abandoned projects? This way, the player retains a choice at all stages of a project.

  6. Yes, that was my meaning of "put to bed" ~ that is, the obsession save was made. Then the artist can move onto other things until deciding to take this up again.

  7. Assuming your dig was in response to other players or NPCs giving a small bonus to the save, I don't think it is really important if the artist believes the audience when the audience says that the work is good - indeed it is likely that artist will not believe them. If an artist sees flaws and shortcomings in a work in progress, those perceived flaws and shortcomings are not going to go away just because someone else says it is good. My thought was that it could serve as a reminder to the artist that the perceptions of the audience are different from the artist's own perception of the work. What is important would be if the artist thinks the audience believes themselves - if they genuinely enjoyed it. And if they did, yes I do think that could grant a bonus to the save to overcome the artist's own perceptions of perceived inadequacies as far as calling a piece "good enough".

    If enough people say the cake is good, it would certainly be a lot easier for me to quit working on the recipe and move on to something else even if I wasn't personally satisfied. It could always be revisited in the future and fine-tuned, but I would feel okay about cooking the recipe as is to bring to a feast, confident that people will enjoy it even though I can see areas that could be improved.

    From my own experience (as a visual artist, not a DM) when putting a work out into the public eye, more often than not nobody else cares about or even can notice in the first place the flaws or unfinished areas that are painfully obvious to me (even if I point them out). I think if an artist has any kind of technical skill gained through experience at all, this experience combined with the knowledge of the *intended* vision typically results in a much higher standard of self-criticism than an audience is going to bring; the audience likely has neither the artistic experience to see technical errors nor a preconceived vision to judge the piece against. And really, from an "objective" perspective, it may be that the artist is the one mistaken about the quality of the work - I think it is common for the artist's preconception of what the piece *should* be to ultimately blind him or her to what the piece *is* - flaws, technical errors, warts and all. It may be that the more time spent obsessing over small details, the less likely the artist is going to have a clear picture of the overall impact of the work.

    Of course this is your blog and you should feel free to ridicule me as you see fit, and not engage with my ideas if you don't see any merit in them. I have been a performing musician and published artist for my entire adult life and felt I might have something to add here from my experience. If I were thin skinned and easily offended your manner would have scared me off from this blog long ago. Also, my apologies for the long winded comment - this ran on longer than I intended when I started typing. Cheers

  8. It was a joke, Carl. A jibe. An empathic suggestion that artists never feel bolstered by their audience, not really. Something I felt we would mutually understand.

  9. Your sage system seems much superior to the way 3.5 D&D does skills - Its gives you new options, and genuinely novel and useful abilities as you get better. Whereas a 20th level blacksmith, whose blacksmithing rivals the gods themselves, in 3.5, can smith 3-5 times faster than an amateur. Barely worth the trouble, really. (or to compare with your example, the cook would be able to demand wages of 20-30gp a week. and nothing else)

    I really ought to start thinking about a way to port it over.

  10. I believe your post just made me have an epiphany.
    The process of creation you describe corresponds very well to the way I feel about my own work in research. This feeling that things are never as perfect as they should be, and the endless tangents to finally come back to what worked on day 3 : this is it!

    Although you produced this argument several times in the past, it never clicked that way in my mind. Either the form wasn't the good one for me, or I wasn't ready...


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