Monday, February 20, 2012

Starchildren: The Velvet Generation

Game Premise
The game of rock and roll revolution
When we started transmitting radio waves out into the universe it was theorised that it might eventually lead to contact with extraterrestrial life but we had no idea how profound it would be. An alien race heard our transmissions, specifically the music of the 70s, and it changed everything for them. It inspired them to take a generations-long pilgrimage to our world. They even changed their physical appearance to more resemble us. They were the Starchildren and they came to rock.

But the world they arrived to was changed. Reactionary forces had declared certain cultural forces to be corrupting influences on society. In the 2070s, the Ministries clamp down on all those forms of entertainment that might elicit emotions deemed too powerful, positive or negative. Rock and roll has been outlawed. Instead of coming to a world that would accept them with open arms, the Starchildren have been forced into hiding. They will not stand for it and more and more they're becoming not just the new faces of the underground rock and roll movement, but the spirit of a revolution to take back society.

Game Overview
Rock and revolution are two themes that go together like chocolate and peanut butter and Starchildren is the RPG that focuses on the glam rock angle of such a premise. It is essentially the game where you play as Ziggy Stardust, only this time he brought along Maxwell Dean and a few thousand of his friends and they're the faces of a revolution. Of course, there's nothing that forces you to overthrow society and one of the things I like about this game is you could just throw away the aliens and futuristic dystopia and have a game about a band's ascension to rock fame and inevitable spiral into decline and hedonistic self-destruction.

It's one of those games which gives you exactly what you need to run with the premise and not a single bit more, which I kind of love. All the necessary fluff to run a game about a rock and roll revolution, starring extraterrestrials is there, with the only bit of fat being the Granger Society, a terrorist movement aimed at bringing down literary censorship. However, they do serve as the inspiration for the Blue Army, the Velvet Underground's more violent sister movement, and an army of book-loving anarchists is a pretty great.

Starchildren uses a card-based mechanic requiring a pair of full decks, jokers included. Each of your Stats and Skill is tied to a suit in the cards. You will have a hand of cards and when you need to determine the outcome of an action you place forward a card against one the GM draws. If the card's suit matches the suit your Attribute or Skill is tied to, you get the full Rank of the Attribute or Skill. Anything else will get you the Rank minus three. Highest rank wins. Face cards are worth the most and Aces are worth the least.

One thing I have to say I absolutely love is the system for gigs. The idea is that the band sets the difficulty of each song and how much Awe your band earns depends on both passing the song and how difficult the song was. The amount of Awe you have at the end of the show helps determine how much Fame you will get, which in turn can get you better gigs and possibly earn the interest of both the fuzz and the Velvet Underground. So, trying to pull off that show-stopper may be risky but it can be worth it in the long run!

The Character
Step 1) Descent
The first decision I have to make is whether my character is going to be a Starchild or an Earthling. Starchildren are prettier than people and have special alien powers, but they're also a bit flimsier (there's a lot of references to how they're in awe of our tolerance for drugs, alcohol and other toxins). Needless to say, I don't think I'm going to pass up an opportunity to be a glam rock alien, so my character will be a Starchild.

Having said that, I want to try being something slightly different. Just because my character is glam rock doesn't mean she has to be a glam rocker (and yeah, I'll put her down as a she). My character tried the whole musician scene and it didn't hit off for her, eventually realising she preferred to work in the background. From there on, Deetz King set forth to become the ultimate roadie, the go-to lady for making great performances out of merely good bands.

Step 2) Backgrounds
People go through a variety of experiences, jobs and roles in their lives and Starchildren reflects this through your Backgrounds. The main effect of backgrounds is to give you a list of 3-5 Skills which will be given rankings later. Earthlings get four backgrounds, while Starchildren only get three to reflect their limited time here on this planet.

I think Deetz started out as a Frontman, trying her time as a singer for a while before realising her true calling. This gives her access to Compose, Fashion, Impress, Lyrics and Vocals. Then she becomes a Technician in her goal to be the supreme roadie, giving her the Alertness, Computer, Drive, Knowledge (Journalism) and Repair (Instruments) skills. Finally, I see her as a bit of a Badass, a glare and a few stern words getting compliance out of the biggest wannabe rockstar so she can get the job done. This will give her Endure, Guts, Impress. Intimidate and Negotiate.

Step 3) Skills
Now that we know what skills Deetz has we can determine how good she is at each of them!With each set of skills for each background, I can assign one a Rank of nine, two a rank of seven and the final two a rank of five. Every skill has a corresponding suit and as long as I play a card of said suit when checking the skill, I get the skill's full rank.

For her Frontman skills, I'm going to give the nine to Fashion (I need a good rank in this skill to help out the band's singer), the pair of sevens to Impress and Lyrics (helps with making a good impression on behalf of herself and the band respectively) and the fives to Compose and Vocals (these are the more direct skills required to be a good singer, not quite her forte). For Technician, the nine is going straight into Repair (Instruments), the sevens into Computers and Drive (helping out the keyboard players and getting the band around) and the fives into Alertness and Knowledge (Journalism) (these skills mainly reflect her general 'knows what is going on' ability).

Finally, the Badass skills. You'll note we have an overlapping skill, Impress. I'm going to assign it one of the sevens and then combine it with my previous seven to bump it up one rank to 8. The nine is going to go into Intimidate and the other seven will go into Negotiate, reflecting her talents for dealing with bands the easy and hard ways. Finally, the fives go into Endure and Guts.

Step 4) Attributes
Y'know, this may be the first system I've ever had where your character's general Attributes are worked out after you figure out their skills or proficiencies. Interesting side note.

Anyway, Starchildren has eight of these, four physical/mental pairs. Presence is your overt personality and charisma, while Appearance is how damn good you look and they're tied to the Diamond suit. Wit is your general cleverness and Speed how fast you are and are tied to Hearts. Perception is how good you are at noticing the world around you and Agility how good you are at reacting to it and are the attributes tied to Spades. Finally, the Clubs attributes, Will and Body are reflections of your mental and physical strength/fortitude receptively.
Every skill is tied to an attribute, so when testing for that skill (or just plain checking against the attribute, such as using Body to lift something) I can use the attribute's rank if I have the card of the appropriate suit.

For ranks I have a Jack, a ten, an eight, three sevens, a six and a five to assign. Straight off the bat, my Jack is going into Wit, which helps with a whole bunch of skills that are really important for Deetz, including the ones she uses to fix up the band's stuff for gigs. Next up the ten is going into Perception and the eight into Presence, which pretty much covers all the areas I want her to be good at. So, she's smart, aware and forceful with her words. The three sevens are going to go into Body, Will and Appearance, indicating that she's reasonably tough and bound to occasionally turn heads. That leaves the six, which can go into Speed and the five for Agility. The way Deetz figures it, if you're good enough at whatever it is you do then lightning-fast reflexes aren't going to be something you need much of.

Finally, I have to alter a couple of these on account of being a Starchild. Starchildren have this otherwordly awesomeness and inhuman beauty to them, which is reflected by increasing my ranks in Presence and Appearance twice each to 10 and 9 respectively. However, as I indicated above they're also fragile and a tad addled from space travel, which sees my Body and Will dropping to five.

Step 5) Secondary Attributes
Now that I've worked out my main attributes, I have a few Secondary Attributes to work out.

The first are my Action Cards. In combat you have an action deck comprised solely of everyone's action cards and a couple of Jokers. Whenever one of your action cards is drawn, you get an action and when the second Joker is drawn the round is over. The number of action cards I get are determined by my Speed and a Speed of six gets me two action cards. Which cards they are don't really matter, but I call dibs on the Ace of Spades and Jack of Hearts, just because.

Next up is Movement. Interestingly, I can't seem to work out what unit of measurement the number is supposed to correspond to here. Ah well. This attribute is also derived from my Speed, which gives Deetz a Walking Distance of 4 and a Running Distance of 8.

Finally there are my Damage Thresholds, how many points of damage one can take before suffering various penalties. Violence is actually quite brutal in Starchildren and if someone pulls a gun there's a good chance someone is going to end up dead or at least brutally maimed in a round or two. This one is worked out from my Body. Deetz will be suffering from Trauma if she has taken 9 points of damage, Injury if she has taken 11, Blackout if it's 27 and Overkill if she takes 42. To put that in perspective, a knife will deal 15 points of damage with a single attack.

Step 6) Edges and Flaws
Here we have the game's misc advantages and disadvantages. Like skills and attributes, each is assigned a rank. In order to get an Edge, you either need to trade in a skill or pick up a Flaw of the equivalent rank.

There are really only two Edges I want here. The first is Feared. This lets me pick a skill and gives me an Advantage Card whenever a use it, a free card draw that I may add to bolster my chances with the skill. I'm going to pick up the Rank 5 version for the Impress skill. Deetz' rep precedes her, leaving many fledgling rockers a bit in awe of her. The second Edge I'm going to pick up is Velvet Membership. This gives me access to the rock underground movement, which I can exploit in various ways once per session.

Now, I need to pay those off. I'm going to start by trading in my Alertness rank. My Perception attribute is high enough that I should be OK without it. Then I'll grab the Hunted Flaw at Rank 5. Organised crime has sadly got a lot of sticky fingers in the rock scene what with both being illegal and Deetz has earned the ire of one or two local bosses by telling them exactly where they can stick it when offered business opportunities.

Step 7) Getting Equipped
Starting characters have $5000 to spend on various bits and pieces. Sadly, the one bit of gear I do want, a toolkit to fix stuff up for shows, is not listed in the equipment tables despite being something the example character in the book possesses! Ah well, I'll just say she has the necessary equipment and more money for me. While certainly not much of a fighter, Deezt doesn't want to be caught completely unprepared, so I'm going to equip her with some Heavy Boots (good for kicking) for $50 and some Padded Clothes for $300.

Also, screw it, I'm spending $50 to get 100 condoms, because Deetz is a champ. “I keep every bit of this band in working order, including the performers, savvy?”.

The leaves me with $4100 in spare cash. Hell, I'll be generous to the book and deduct $1000 from that for various tech gear.

The Finished Product
Deetz King
Presence 10 (Fashion 9, Impress 8, Intimidate 7, Vocals 5) Appearance 9
Wit Jack (Computers 7, Knowledge (Journalism) 5, Lyrics 7, Repair (Instruments) 9) Speed 6
Perception 10 (Compose 5, Drive 7) Agility 5
Will 5 (Guts 5, Negotiate 7) Body 5 (Endurance 5)

Edges: Feared (Impress) 5, Velvet Membership
Flaws: Hunted (Organised Crime) 5

Action cards: Ace of Spades, Jack of Hearts
Movement rate: 4/8
Damage Threshold: 9/11/27/42

Gear: 100 Condoms, Heavy Boots, Padded Clothing, Tech Gear, $3100

How I'd Run It
A lot of the game fiction is in the form of interviews and historical texts covering the early 2070s from later decades, where it's obvious that the Velvet Revolution was successful, the Ministries have been overthrown, the Starchildren have revealed themselves to the world and everything is back to the not quite perfect but still rocking normal. I want to run a game that takes this perspective, a get-together special, series of interviews or perhaps a 'Behind the Music' style documentary about one of the bands that took part in the Velvet Underground, that comprised of the PCs, obviously. Each session would start with a sort of 'let me tell you about the time when...' and then examine various highlights, starting with the band getting together.

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