So, I’ve got this fantasy game I’m working on. It’s essentially a Burning Wheel hack, with some changes in emphasis and a small but significant injection of Otherkind. (And, of course, a different setting that hopefully represents a sort of fantasy you don’t see often in RPGs.)
In the skill lists, I’ve got different skills for every musical instrument. These vary between races, as well. There ended up being a lot. Looking at this, I think people might be a bit confounded as to why there’s this much detail on what’s usually a glossed-over issue in RPGs. But I think it’s important. Lemme explain what was going through my head.
First off, lemme tell you that each different type of weapon is its own skill, even down to differentiating maces from flails and bladed polearms (like the halberd) from spears. I really like the idea that musical instruments are treated with as much nuance as weapons. I think it says something about the game, and how much thought should be given to culture in the course of play. (Culture is also important for a variety of other reasons throughout the game’s mechanics, especially chargen.)
Second, it lets me define the differences between different races’ music. Men mainly have plucked and bowed stringed instruments, while the dweorgen (sorta like dwarves, emphasis on “sorta”) mainly play zithers, things similar to xylophones, and batteries of drums; you get the picture. I really like having these differences, and I like what they say about the races themselves.
Third, through a modified version of BW’s Fields of Related Knowledge mechanic, I’m able to draw comparisons between the instruments of different races. For instance, the mannish guitarra and the gholan oud have many techniques in common, thus someone skilled with the guitarra could pick up an oud and play it to some degree, and vice-versa. Given that the potential to transcend racial boundaries is a central mechanic of the game, I really like this.
(FoRKs are also one of my favorite mechanics from an RPG ever, because they enable the designer to put a lot more detail into skills, and to include both specialized and broad skills without sweating over it. It’s far more flexible and interesting than systems where one roll = one skill. It also rewards knowledge of the skill lists, but it isn’t required, so you can have big-ass skill lists without worrying about people getting frustrated about having to learn it all. They can do it if they want, and will be rewarded mechanically for doing so.)
Fourth, I’m a musician. I’m interested in this stuff.
But, still, it occurs to me that there’s no built-in reason for the players to care about it. It’s a peripheral issue, unless someone really wants to play a scenario focused on music. So, how to make it worthwhile?
Here’s a thing: all the little nuances with weapons are only worthwhile because they start mattering once you get into a fight. This stuff with music should matter in a similar way.
Then, I decided, why not have music intersect with the magic system?
And, no, not in that stupid fantasy bard way with a list of songs that’s actually a spell list. And, no, not in the manner of music causing crazy magical effects (although that’s not out of the range of possibilities for sorcerers who are also musicians).
The idea I hit upon was music being useable as a social skill. *Any* social skill. You can use it to persuade, intimidate, interrogate, command, deceive, whatever. Music has the power to touch people on profound emotional levels. While not overtly magical, that’s still a sort of magic.
Here’s where it gets interesting. In this system, all rolls involving magic are either Boundless, Bottomless, or both. Boundless rolls are the same as open-ended rolls in BW: sixes explode. Bottomless rolls mean that any aces you roll introduce complications (this is, for instance, how unlucky curses and divine disfavor are implemented). Boundless rolls mean that you can potentially surpass the limits of your actual ability. Bottomless rolls mean that unbidden effects can occur.
This magical use of music will be both Boundless and Bottomless. Inspiration can lead the musician to play something truly transcendental that he’ll never be able to play the same way again. And you also never quite know how else your music might affect the people who hear it. Music has been known to save lives and to destroy them, and many things inbetween.
What remains to do here is some nuance. All races have access to different kinds of magic; e.g. sorcery is for the race of men only, while hexwork is practiced by both men and the treowan, and only the dweorgen can cast runes. So, what are the nuances of the different races?
This should tie into their different instruments. I’ve already got precedent in a set of rules for combined arms and opposing arms. Like, for instance, long-reach weapons give you an edge at a distance, while knives give you an edge up close and personal; flails have an edge against shields, since the chains can wrap around the shield to evade the opponent’s guard; piercing weapons have an edge against armor. (I’m an arms nerd, so I love making and using rules like this.)
So, I’m thinking, what are the pros and cons of a string quartet versus a solo violin? What’s a dweorgish zither good for? What’s the difference between the treowish flute and the mannish flute?
One thing that immediately comes to mind is that dweorgish music is similar to the compositions of Harry Partch — whose music scared the pants off of me the first time I heard it. Seriously, I experienced a visceral terror (and also a certain wonder). That could very easily be worked in. Otherwise, this stuff’s gonna bear some thinking about.