This is RPG-ology #57: Ives Loves a Parade, for August 2022.
Our thanks to Regis Pannier and the team at the Places to Go, People to Be French edition for locating a copy of this and a number of other lost Game Ideas Unlimited articles. This was originally Game Ideas Unlimited: Ives Loves a Parade, and is reposted here with minor editing [bracketed].
Have you ever seen a parade?
I don’t mean have you watched it on television, or seen news footage or old newsreels of parades. I mean have you ever been there, on the street, as a parade marches past? Have you seen the kids on decorated bicycles riding alongside the marchers, trying to be part of it? Have you watched the bands in perfect step, the scouts awkwardly trying to march, the little leaguers shuffling along more or less together? Have you seen beauty queens in convertibles, politicians throwing lollipops while kids run out into the street to scoop them up, Veterans of Foreign Wars in their nostalgic uniforms, baton twirlers and color guards and groups you didn’t know existed in the entire world that have chapters in your back yard, as hucksters hawk everything from popcorn to glowstrings to stuffed animals, flags, pretzels, pennants, balloons? Have you heard the sound of three different marching bands playing different songs at different speeds in different keys all at the same time, blending and fighting with each other as they approach and recede?
Charles Ives wrote music like that.
No, this is not Insult Modern American Composers Week. I happen to be quite fond of Ives’ music. I’ve sung several of his Psalm settings over the years (the Sixty-Seventh Psalm, allegedly written to determine whether all those members of the congregation who week after week told him that the choir sounded lovely on Sunday actually ever remembered what the choir sounded like, is a brilliantly stunning meshing of eight vocals, the men in G minor and the women in C major, that entirely redefines consonance and dissonance in music). I’ve enjoyed his orchestral works when I had the opportunity. But the fact is that when Charles Ives was a boy he would stand on street corners during parades, listening to the way several marching bands clashed with each other; and when he was older, he attempted to recreate those sounds in his compositions. Some of his symphonies are written for several performing groups to play together, in different keys and time signatures and tempos at the same time. Ives had a sense of how music fit together when it wasn’t intended to, and he often captured that and conveyed it to us through his music.
I don’t mean for you to rush out and buy some Charles Ives CD’s. I’m not arrogant enough to think that my interests in music have anything to do with what brings you to [
Gaming Outpost the Christian Gamers Guild]. You’d probably hate them. Oh, by all means, listen to them if you get the chance. But it’s almost certainly an acquired taste.
So in what way does Charles Ives teach us about our own creativity?
Going all the way back to the beginning–well, the second installment of this [Game Ideas Unlimited] series, anyway–I told you about An Amusing Dungeon. We saw how the juxtaposition of unrelated ideas–in that case, something relatively modern with something fairly ancient–can yield new and interesting experiences and perspectives. It’s been [
half a almost three] year[s] since then, but Ives brings us back to the same idea, with a different spin. What happens when things which were never intended to be together somehow end up together?
It’s easy to see how this works in music (or at least it is if you’re a musician). Different songs are in different keys–that is, there is a different note that sounds like “home” for them. They’re also in different modes, major and minor being the most common today, although there are three kinds of minor, eight modes which were used for Gregorian chant, and quite a few others found around the world. They have different tempos, or what a listener might call speeds, the rate at which the beat moves forward. They also have different time signatures, which can best be understood as the relationships between the stronger and weaker beats in progression. In traditional music, everything in the same song (at least at any given moment within it) is in the same key, mode, tempo, and time signature. But in Ives, at least one of those things will not be consistent, and it may be that none of them are connected.
But how does this idea work in role playing games?
In a sense, our games also have tempo; and they also have mode. The tempo clearly is the speed at which events follow each other, and the mode the mood carried by the game. Perhaps it could be said that they have something equivalent to key, which we call genre. Note that even if you have started with the presumption that you are in the horror genre, there is a great deal of difference between Call of Cthulu and Hunter: The Reckoning. Both involve mere mortals against supernatural forces of evil. But the mood is different, the mode in our musical analogy, the feeling of the world. There is a sense in which we define our worlds, and even our game mechanics, by variables not much different from those which define a “song” in traditional music.
So what happens if we break the rules, step out of the box, and combine conflicting elements?
Although I ask this in all seriousness, I take a step back to remember the most important concept I ever learned about music theory. Music theory is a set of rules derived from the study of the great composers, particularly Bach. By studying how notes, chords, themes, and other aspects of music were put together we create a concept of how such things should be put together. It is important to learn those rules, because they are necessary as the foundation for things that are more important. But it is more important to learn why those rules exist, that is, what it is that they provide. Bach didn’t allow two voices to move the same direction an octave apart (so-called parallel octaves). If in the midst of a four (or more) part harmony the alto and the bass both move from the same note to the same note, but an octave apart, it calls attention to those notes, making them stand out against the other parts. Normally you don’t want two parts to stick out and overwhelm the others, so you learn the rule to avoid parallel octaves. But the thing that is still to be learned is this: the rule exists so that you will not get an effect that you don’t want. If you want that effect, it’s time to break the rule.
The rules are not so clear in game invention. There are some basic concepts understood about probabilities and permutations, some borrowed notions of plot and character, and a lot of raw gut sense of what works and what doesn’t. But even without knowing the rules we have a tendency to drop into the patterns–Bach almost certainly didn’t know the rule that parallel octaves were bad, he just didn’t like the way they sounded so he didn’t use them. We similarly have our unrecognized rules.
Once we see them, we can find ways to break them. We can see if [it is] possible to run different parts of a game at different tempos at the same time, whether two or even three modes can be maintained (like humor in the midst of horror), whether events can be tied to different genres and yet be juxtaposed in the same scenes. We can devise remarkably challenging games once we break the rules.
Of course, some of these ideas will be unworkable. It is said that some of Ives’ work has never been heard–it has not yet been possible for two and three independent ensembles to play together in different keys, modes, tempos, and time signatures, and be in the right place at the right time. Perhaps with modern technology someone will be able to achieve the necessary accuracy and produce recordings of these works. Not every juxtaposition of elements will be a playable game (although some might work extremely well as a novel). But every combination can show us something about how each element interacts with others, and push us toward that combination of ideas that will shake up our games at least, perhaps even our hobby.