Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Like an Artist

There are two key structures that I want to design into the bard character, and both were discussed in the comments section of the last post.  In this, I want to be clear: these rules are based upon what I see as the necessary elaboration of the bard character.  I've been pulled once (it is so hard to resist being an emotional being) into what is a bard and who is a bard, and I don't want to discuss that again.  I want to talk about the mechanics of making a bard work.  Esoteric discussions that do not involve metrics are actually of very little help.

I know that is bound to choke discussion, as I have found whenever I get into the metrics of something.  I am hoping, however, to obtain some understanding for my end goal with the bard.  Very well, down to the meat of it.

Art vs. Product

I'm taking the point of view that a bard, once reaching the status of being a 1st level, is a competent craftsperson.  They can play songs, write with efficiency and clarity, cook well, throw a pot, fashion leather, sculpt and so on.  It isn't a question of whether or not they can do these things well.  They can.  This is a fixed ability, not something that needs a roll to check.

Use this as a guideline: if a 1st level bard draws a lute out at a tavern and begins singing, people all around will enjoy the singing.  Again, it isn't a roll the bard needs to make to find out if people tell him to put the lute away.  They don't.  At first level, the bard is as competent as an average modern day artist who people read and go, "Hey, that fellow can write," or, "Wow, that picture looks just like me."

However, most of what the bard produces is "Product."  The songs sung at the tavern are familiar songs, the meter used to make the poem is a familiar meter, the story told by the puppeteer is well-known, the food is commonplace and recognizable.  And 99% of the time, this is what a bard does.  Bards take the stock forms of their individual skills and abilities and make proficient, workaday, conventional products therefrom.

As well, the bard never really moves away from this.  Bards have a small repertoire of things they know at 1st level and as they grow in level, that repertoire grows as well.  But it never stops being about producing product.  Shakespeare rewrote Marlow and used earlier works as his fundamental guidelines for churning out play after play, the Impressionistic crowd copied from each other, filmmakers borrow techniques, potters watch other potters, jewellers steal, everyone does it.  Over time, it only looks unique and artistic because most of the hoi polloi aren't sophisticated or engaged enough in the field to recognize the difference between something new and different and something regurgitated.

This can be a tremendous frustration for an artist, when something is celebrated as Brilliant and Unique, when in fact is it derivative of some style or particular work that has simply dropped sufficiently out of fashion that the 25-year-old reviewer has failed to acquaint themselves with it.  Those inside the profession, however, know; and so, too, do the creators themselves, who are perfectly aware of the stealing they've done and are also perfectly willing to keep quiet about it.  If the masses want to be duped, and want to give me money for duping them, then all the power to me.

All this, then, is product.  Art is what product steals from.

Art is what a bard does 1% of the time.  That up front needs to be understood clearly.  This is not a case of a bard deciding between A and B.  This is a case of a bard having to do A because B just isn't there.  The bard will absolutely rush to do B, the moment B presents itself, but so long as B is a fickle bitch, then A will have to do.

So when does "art" present itself?  Here we are looking for a specific word, that being "inspiration."  Art happens when the bard encounters inspiration, which isn't a case of just wanting it.  Inspiration has to be gotten ~ and regarding inspiration and the game of D&D, it needs to be gotten out there.

We can make a few guesses at what in D&D would be inspiration.  A legitimate near-death experience.  A magnificent undertaking that ends well.  Something horrific on the Lovecraftian level.  The death of a friend.  A love affair of note.  Something truly memorable.

But, no, the obtaining of an inspiration is not experience, it is not another level, it is in fact absolutely nothing but air.  Having an inspiration means almost nothing in terms of creating an art work.  Remember, 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.  All we are saying is that once the inspiration has been sought for and obtained, thereafter the bard has to figure out ~ in their capacity as the representative of a particular art form ~ how to make the inspiration real.

Success vs. Failure

Before we can talk about this, we have to define the difference between these two terms.  This, fundamentally, is what the last post was about, though I think that was missed by some.

It is almost habitual to think that "failure" means bad.  But remember, we are defining the bard as an able, competent artist, not a wannabe who someday is going to be able to make art.  That is nonsense.  J.D. Salinger was only in his late 20s when he wrote Catcher in the Rye ~ which, for all its faults, is without a doubt a distinct, different voice in literature.  We only fail to see that because is in not 1951, when the book was published.  But Salinger was certainly not a 9th level writer.  However much we want to believe the equation that Level = Art, we need to get away from that concept.  The real equation is that Work = Art. Characters with level only have more resources, and therefore the capacity to create larger pieces of art, more expensive pieces of art, pieces of art that require dozens or hundreds, even thousands of participants.

Moreover, resources mean distribution and notoriety.  Quality is not, in itself, a guarantee of notice.  Very often, "art" as I've defined it is often so different, so obscure, so uncomfortable, that it is only understood by other artists . . . who in turn make product out of it that is less different, less obscure, less uncomfortable, and therefore more easily consumed.  This formula is so completely misunderstood by non-artists, despite the endless works that try to describe it, that it is strangely "natural" to think that good artists will automatically be recognized as such.

To use an example from a different field, it has been said that Newton's Principia Mathematica was incomprehensible to nearly everyone who read it, even other mathematicians.  But because it is math, even ignorant people are by and large willing to accept that the book is highly valuable.  Yet at the same time, we encounter no hesitation whatsoever to call great artworks "worthless" and "shit" when they prove too hard to read.  "Yeah, War and Peace. Why would anyone ever read that?"

From this, I postulate that "failure" does not mean bad.  We could rather argue that failure implies a disconnect between the artist and the audience, even with other artists.  An artwork that inspires no one to produce product certainly falls short of affecting anyone.

There is another "failure" that is worth noting, that I did touch upon with the last post.  That is, the failure to get the result wanted.  Let us say that I produce a song about the solitude of individuals facing a terrible oppressive nation, to offer solace to the few intelligent men who, like me, feel helpless in the face of a mighty exploitive entity.  And much to my unhappiness, I discover that this book is embraced, nay, publicly celebrated by the united forces of the KKK, who claim it as the modern bible of their cause.

What am I to do?  My name is now certainly being exploited by an entity over which I have no control, while at the same time every stranger I meet presumes immediately that I must be part of the KKK because I wrote the book for them.  Talk of the solitude in the face of an oppressor.  My career is over, my name is over . . . the most I can do is change my name and hope I can disappear into obscurity.  That is, if I haven't put my picture on the cover of my book.

"Success," then, is the opposite of all this.  Success is communicating, success is inspiring others to make product, success is not having one's name spoiled or being misunderstood, not being vilified and not being burned in effigy.  And, potentially, getting a little money out of it too.  Perhaps a little fame, but this is the 17th century and without the benefit of mass media, fame is in small packets.  We all know the name of Cyrano de Bergerac, technically alive at the time my world takes place, but it is probable that most of the people living in Paris had never heard of him, certainly most of the people in the countryside of France hadn't and only a tiny percentage of people outside of France would have ever read him.  About the same number of people who have read him today.  Yes, we know who he was, but have you read his Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon? ~ had you even heard of it?  Can you confirm without a doubt that I'm not inventing that title without looking him up?

Creating Art

We want a metric that will let the bard character, once having obtained the inspiration, to create an artwork without having to actually create the artwork.  But we also want that character to have some influence over what the artwork will be, how big it is, what it's general tone and subject will be and what general direction of effect it will have.

I propose that we use the universal condition of all D&D characters, the character stats.  A bard looks over the options presented and decides what to take a chance on ~ because, yes, while the quality of the art is not in dispute, the reputation and comprehension of the art is.  But before we get to that, let's define the stats in terms of artwork.

Charisma is obviously beauty, the awe-inspiring pleasure of form and appeal that causes the viewer to drop jaw and stare.  Of course, the opposite is there as well, the desire to horrify, to force others to turn away, like Hieronymus Bosch, to use a relatively contemporary example.  Opposites apply to all the art forms that can be made - and success does not depict necessarily beauty or ugliness, but which the bard desires.

Constitution is health, the patriotic, the celebratory depiction of the present culture, religion or state.  It is also the demise of the state, anarchy, subversion, treason and rebellion.

Dexterity is difficulty, intricacy, the making of something that seems so absurd in its construction that it cannot possible stand, or something that the human body cannot possibly do; or making a tool do something that no one could have imagined was possible.  It is also the pure naturalness of form, of movement, of perfect ease and embrace.

Wisdom is educational, it is making the viewer, listener or subject aware of what has happened, how things work, how the universe functions, what is truth.  And it is also what is not truth, it is fantasy, it is strangeness, it is using the preconceptions of the mind to subvert the mind.

Intelligence is the call to think, to see, to obtain realization, to seek paths of greater understanding, to investigate, to ask questions, to insist that there is more than what we understand.  And it is tradition, ignorance, hate, resistance against reason, the insistence that investigation is evil and that things should be taken on faith.

Strength is strength; it is military might, it is a call to arms, it is compelling, bombastic, it is marching music, it is beating feet and booming drums, it is sinew and force of will and personal success.  It is also weakness, pandering, the denial of personal responsibility . . . and it is porn, it is debauchery, it is hedonism and lust, it is all the crutches that people lean upon because they are too weak to endure.

Some can take that list as moralistic.  I'm not too worried about that, I'm only interested in a metric for defining.  That is because, once we hammer out rules for what makes an inspiration into an artwork, we need rules for what effects an artwork has.

And we can begin those rules by saying that AFTER the artwork is made, after it is released, the character makes a check on the ability they have chosen.

Most characters will play it safe.  Bards have a high wisdom and a high charisma, it will be safest to make artworks that play to those abilities.  But whatever they case, they'll have to do the work before they can know if the work was in vain or not, or what the outcome will be.

THAT is the player understanding what it means to be a bard.  That we are inspired, we pick our chosen message, we pick our form, we start the work, we keep at the work, we finish the work . . . and all the while, we're not sure.  Will it work?  Will it?

It is easy for a player to say, "I write a song," then throw a die and know.

What if we make the player wait to roll.  What if the player has to sacrifice time for session after session, until at some point in the future, the time comes for the die to be cast.  What will that feel like?

It will feel like an artist.


  1. Your ideas are really coming into focus for me. The metrics you lay out are forming a solid and encouraging basis for how art could function with meaning and significance in a D&D world.

    At the risk of upsetting you given your desire to stay under the hood and not argue over what a bard is or isn't, I must still ask... do you have concerns about the significance of the bard's role in a typical adventuring party when 1% of the time she may practice the purpose of her class and the other 99% competently produce product and possibly be a secondary fighter? Put another way, will there be enough day-to-day visceral experience there to make the bard a compelling PC class? You needn't hash out details, I recognize you're still working through this... I only ask if this is a potential problem you recognize or if you feel its not a problem at all at this stage.

    Please accept that in the spirit of inquiry and good faith it was given and correct me if I've made a bad assumption, misunderstand you or am getting too far ahead the pace of your discussion.

  2. Speaking as someone currently running a bard in the Senex campaign, I have no concerns about my place in the party. The background and sage abilities system make every party member useful in different ways - I was able to swim and read, for example, as not everyone could - and for direct challenges I have weapons and martial music and maybe even spells if I can use them well. The bard is already a solid general support character in terms of mechanics.

    What this is shaping up to do for me is making the experience real. Ibrahim would have been a solid general support character without any of this, but with it... knowing that I can, in a concrete way, have him scratching away at the poem he feels the shape of but doesn't know if he can craft that truth such that others see it? Being able to frame his participation in an adventuring party as necessary to his work? (How better to both seek out inspiration and acquire the means to fulfill it?) That 1% could shape the rest of the game for me. I am chomping at the bit for this.

    And consider: a cleric might spend 99% of their 'party time' healing wounds and bashing skulls rather than spreading their religion more directly, but it doesn't mean that rules regarding preaching or proselytizing wouldn't deepen the experience even if they only came into play part of the time.

  3. An interesting thought that is slightly off topic.

    Functional art...

    "the desire to horrify, to force others to turn away"

    Plaster that on a wall with a secret door, or the emission point for a trap... And on the other wall, maybe something to attract vision...

  4. Heh, Oddbit. Your off-topic thought leads to another: the first gargoyle designed to ward off evil was art. Most of the rest were product.

  5. Sofia,

    Logically, the bard should work like the cleric creating a church or a fighter creating a castle and an army. The bard player is still going to want to adventure; I don't see that going away. The sage abilities that support what I'm sketching out here must be such that they are both immediately applicable to adventure and applicable to long term character development.

    Hm. Wrote the above, then read Jonathon's comment. I think he gets it exactly.

  6. Ah, see... I slipped a bit somewhere along the way in the discussion. This is, of course, all in addition to your existing bard class and not a re-write form scracth. I must have misinterpreted your stated goal of keeping these bard abilities seperate and not duplicative of spells as you saying bard spells were being done away with. So what's happneing the other 99% of time is what's already happening with the bard. Ok, I see now. Johnathon's player testimonial is the proof in the pudding. If a player finds it complelling then players find it compelling, 'nuff said.

  7. I really like where this is going, the distinction between product and art, the way inspiration and the stat roll tie into existing play (I could see rolling up a henchman with a few too many points in an off-stat if you had a reason to want that kind of art), what failure means. Can't wait to see more of the rules!

  8. Jonathon, I do need to warn you that the martial music is likely going to go ~ not overall, but just like what I've done with the backstab for thieves and the assassination for assassins, it's going to relegated to a study that can be chosen but doesn't come automatically. And since it is tied to music, I'm afraid it isn't going to be there for the poet.

    However, I do plan on coming up with something JUST AS GOOD. So do not be concerned.

  9. Sofia,

    You and I have knocked heads together many, many times now. We always sort it out, we're both ready to make ground, in many ways it is good for the both of us. I need to be called out, I need to be kicked around a bit, it keeps me honest.

    I deliberately drew my ideas about the bard over several posts despite knowing what I was going to do with it, partly because one post would have been insanely long and partly because I want people reading the blog to get to a given plateau before taking them the next step higher. So part of my response to you on the last post came because I knew things you did not. That is unfair of me, but like I said it is sometimes hard not to respond emotionally to things.

    On the campaign, you've demonstrated yourself to be fairly aware of my "style" where building adventures and decision traps. With the return to the online game you've mentioned it several times, which makes me smile. Of course I have a style; most of the time, a D&D running is more product than art.

    I'm surprised, however, that you've haven't detected yet that when I ask seemingly random questions about a problem I'm facing with rules or design, that you don't immediately jump to the notion that I've already got a solution in mind.

    Don't forget that you were instrumental in changing my thinking on a grand scale, forcing me to change my mind about the four spellcasting classes as sages, making every class a sage. That has been a glass shattering experience for me, massively changing the format of my entire gaming system, smashing pillars of old thinking and throwing wide the vista of what a character class is and what it can be. The adjustments to fighters in particular tremendously redefines the class as a group of PROFESSIONALS rather than louts ~ and I'm quite sure every player with a fighter finds themselves rethinking the class in ways that they, and I, never dreamed of doing.

    That was you, Robert and Butch, dear friend.

    Never worry about breaking my ass a little. I'm not made of glass.

  10. Yes, we knock heads and I think a healthy does of mutual like and respect has always gotten us past it and I wouldn't want it any other way.

    I DO know that you often already have the ends in mind when asking your seemingly random questions, just as I know that when you ignore the players bringing up a continuity issue in a dated journal entry its intentional and not an over-site. ;-)

    Please see things from my perspective, though. As an appreciative and invested player in your game I have a vested interest in making sure you're on the right track beyond a more casual reader. While intellectual curiosity and appreciation of your work keep me coming back to your blog, practical considerations inform my direct examinination of your rules proposals. Sometimes my pushing back is just double checking your work, sometimes its probing for a weakness and sometimes its just acting the straight-man. I don't make the effort to try to expose, frustrate or humiliate you, I really don't have the time or interest to internet troll, but rather to help you move the game or your arguments forward. In the end I alawys want you to end up being right. That our interaction continues to be good for us both, as you say, despite occasional tension is my goal. If it doesn't always seem so the mistake is mine in not considering my words carefully enough and conveying unintended tone or meaning.

  11. I also want to note now, here, while we are in a conciliatory and appreciative mood toward one another the tremendous amount of positive influence you've had on me as a D&D player, DM, writer, and a person. At times you've completely changed my view on things and others only sharpened my own resolve by providing a well reasoned counter-argument against which to test my beliefs and both sorts of experiences are valuable. This goes beyond how we play D&D. This will sound like hyperbole or "wanking you off" to some readers, I'm sure, but it's the truth as I see it and one should never run from the truth when one is lucky enough to see a bit of it clearly, nor be so cynical as to dismiss or downplay a good thing. You are a prickly son-of-a-bitch sometimes, but you've come by it rightly. :-)


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