Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Singer-Songwriter Uber Alles?

The year before I went to Japan, I worked in the "media" section of a big chain electronics store.  I was the guy selling the CDs, movies, and video games (and making next to no commission, but not having to be a 'hard sales guy' to compete for those commissions, something that doesn't suit my personality).  [Note - yes, this is game related, bear with me.]  One day, an older dude came in and he was pissed about something.  I talked to him a bit, and found out that the song playing on our video screens, a new pop-rock song by a cute female artist that we were promoting that week, was the cause.  Everyone was talking about how great the song was, and how great this debut artist was (she, as far as I know, became a one-hit-wonder).  And the song that was her one hit?  Was a cover by some obscure singer of which the angry gentleman was a fan.

He was pissed that people were giving all the credit to the cover artist, rather than the (superior in his opinion) singer-songwriter who originally recorded the song (and remained obscure).

There's a belief among some music fans that the singer-songwriter is always superior to the person who only, or sometimes, sings other people's stuff.  I can understand it, but I don't agree with it unconditionally.  There are some musicians who are both great at writing music/lyrics, and also great at performing that music.  And they deserve to be lauded.  But there are also musicians who are great at writing music, but not so good at performance.  There are others who couldn't write a decent song to save their life, but are masterful performers.  Most decent musicians fall somewhere in the middle, writing their own songs when they can, but also performing others' music, making it their own in the process.

Sure, the Beatles wrote their own stuff (for the most part) and it proved popular (I'll leave it to each reader to decide on the quality of that music).  Point is, they wrote and performed their own stuff and were rewarded with fans, wealth, and a deluge of imitators.

Elvis and Sinatra, conversely, performed songs that other people had written.  They were rewarded with fans, wealth, lasting fame, blah blah blah. 

Johnny Cash and Led Zeppelin sometimes wrote their own stuff, sometimes did covers.  They were rewarded with fans, wealth, and all that jazz.

Bob Dylan writes some amazing songs, but even he admitted that they sounded better when Jimi Hendrix did them. 

As an "end user" of music, does it really matter whether a musician writes and performs their own music, or just that they enjoy the song?  For some die hard fans, sure, it matters.  But to the majority, I really doubt it does. 

A week or so ago, Alexis as The Tao of D&D blog was writing about DIY and how he feels he's superior as a DM to those who only fall prey to the marketing hype of gaming companies and just run (after purchasing, of course) modules and pre-made campaign worlds.  Followed up by the idea that we need to ween the module users off the corporate tit.  Alexis is a bit of a controversial figure in the OSR, but he's smart and he's definitely earned his right to crow about how he does things in his games.  Go read his posts, if you haven't already.  They're what inspired this post of mine.

Just like with musicians, there are some DMs who write their own adventures, design their own campaign worlds, and then run them.

There are DMs who write some of their own stuff but then also sometimes use prepackaged stuff.  Maybe they make their own campaign world, but then place certain modules within that world.  Or it could be the other way around.  They use a pre-made campaign world (or licensed property RPG), but then design their own adventures within that campaign world.

Finally, there are DMs who just stick to the stuff put out by the corporation, rather than make any of it themselves.

And just like with musicians/singers/bands, some of them are great, many of them are decent, and a lot suck.  IN ALL THREE CATEGORIES. 

Alexis mentioned in his DIY post about how much time he puts into D&D every week.  It's a lot of time.  Putting in that much time is what, I believe, gives him the right to be arrogant about what he does.  The fact that he makes all his stuff himself is secondary to that.  I've only rarely used modules in my gaming history.  I enjoy making adventures, dungeons, NPCs, and all that.  Aside from my early gaming where D&D was set in the Known World by default and Star Frontiers was set in the Frontier, I've made my own campaign settings.  But I wouldn't consider myself a "great" DM.  I just don't have the time or inclination to put into D&D that someone like Alexis does.  I wish I had the time, actually.  But the reality is, even if I did have the time, I doubt I'd use it well.

I have played in some games set in a pre-packaged campaign world that were really a lot of fun, and it can be a lot of fun to play through certain modules as well (whether in a published setting or shoe-horned into the DM's home made world).  I've also played in a few home made campaign worlds, or in adventures written by a DM, that I didn't care for.  I think that good DMs tend to develop their own stuff, but it's a fallacy to equate the good DMing wholely with the fact that they made everything themselves.  A good DM might be one who's spent just as much time as Alexis has put constructing his world into studying a campaign setting or series of modules.  That DM could then "run the modules in their sleep" so to speak, and could easily change things up on the fly when players do unexpected things, add or subtract, change things up, or other things to make the game their own.

Sure, the guy who's 100% DIY would say the guy who uses modules/campaign settings is using a crutch.  But then, isn't the DIY guy getting inspiration from somewhere, too?  Books, movies, history, whatever. 

So, give props to the DIY DM, as long as that DM has also put in the time and effort to make that DIY effort effective.  But also give props to the DM who takes what's offered and makes it his own, and runs just as entertaining a game as the DIY guy. 

And remember, Justin Bieber writes some of his own music, too...


  1. I agree. When I use a module I just use it as a starting point and end up expanding and changing things considerably.

  2. This is an excellent point, and well made!

  3. I've been wondering about how to respond to Alexis' DIY attitude. I've run this one by my players and while they could take or leave running or playing in modules (or my heavily ad-libbed approach to modules) they feel that playing in established, detailed settings is superior to DIY campaign settings.

    Alexis waxed superior in his bashing of pre-made settings as well. So do many DIY OSR members. Alexis sneers at the idea of "shared world" and "gimmicks" because they grow old.

    My players vehemently disagree with him. He'd probably think them idiots, but whatever, he doesn't know them personally so he really can't make that judgment from a standpoint of authority-through-empirical-evidence. Then again, perhaps I'm putting words in his mouth/opinions in his head....

    Anyway, my players love the idea of a shared, published, fleshed-out setting. They like gimmicks. They like unique and individual cities, they like each tavern being different, they like shopping, talking to innkeepers, trying to sleep with farmers' daughters, and ALSO killing orcs and stuff. They like settings because they like to explore them and interact with them.

    Not only that, since the world already exists, they can get material themselves and tailor their character creation to fit the worlds without having to listen to me explain a DIY world for hours or read dozens of typewritten pages on DIY setting-material.