This is a review of the RPG "High Strung", written by Clash Bowley, published by Precis Intermedia and Better Mousetrap Games. This is a review of the print edition, which is a smaller-sized softcover, 42 pages in length. The cover is full-color and presents an image of a guy playing an electric guitar; the interior is also full-color, with a few full-color images (all of people rocking out in some way).
I feel that I have to note that I have a past business relationship with the author as well as both publishers. Clash Bowley through Better Moustrap published my "Forward... to Adventure!" RPG and the "Forward... to Adventure! Gamemaster's Notebook"; while Precis Intermedia is the publisher of my "Lords of Olympus" RPG as well as "Gnomemurdered". I don't think this will affect my review, but I feel it's important for disclosure's sake to point this out.
So, in short, this is a pretty unusual RPG. Especially for an RPG made by people who generally make regular RPGs and not odd indie games. Of course, Clash Bowley does have some prior history of somewhat unusual choices for RPG subjects. In this case, High Strung is an RPG where you play a professional rock musician (ostensibly in the period between the 1970s and the 1990s). You belong to a band, you have certain (musical) skills and style, and then play in clubs and festivals, dealing with critics, trying to get a contract. Basically, it's a game about trying to survive the music industry.
So needless to say, this is a kind of 'indie' game, and likely only to be of interest to a certain subset of people. We're not talking D&D or Cthulhu here.
This isn't a combat game, unless you count 'battles of the bands'. Instead of hit points, you have a stat called "Hope". If you lose all hope, you end up joining a cover band. In other words, your PC won't die in High Strung, but his career might.
Characters in High Strung are created by assigning a group of numbers to a set of attributes (Voice, Fingers, Dance, Energy, Cuteness, and Smarts). You then roll to determine your character's starting age (which ranges from "Jail bait" to "Geezer"). Your age determines your starting level of Hope (the younger you are, the more Hope you have), modifies your starting attributes, and gives you points to distribute into skills (the older you are, the more skills you have). Skills include things like singing, 'electrify' (getting a crowd involved in the act), promotion, improv, choreography, banter, organize, and others. Play Instrument is a particularly important skill, so it is divided into sub-skills by Instrument type.
Characters have certain background trainings, how many they get is based on their starting age. Training determines which types of skills you're allowed to purchase, and also modifies your attributes. The list of possible training includes things like "relentless gigging", "Classically trained", "choir boy/girl", "troubador", "Art school", "rhinestone cowboy", etc.
You get a one or more specific "Styles" (pop, jazz, country, punk, etc.), based on which forms of Training you've taken, which gives you bonuses actions if you are performing within that specific style.
To further develop your character, you have to answer certain background questions about family and friends. Then there's rolls for a couple of complications related to your family and friends. Friends and family are meant to be important NPCs in the game, because problems with them can end up affecting your Hope.
Players also need to choose a job, that is to say their current way of making a living while trying to make it in the music business. They have to determine one friend and one enemy from the job, and list what is the most soul-crushing thing about the job. Jobs affect the quality of clothes and instruments you have, and how much Hope you lose in between gigs.
In the optional rules at the back of the book there's also a table of "interesting bits" to give your PC some other little detail of prior history.
The main task-resolution mechanic involves rolling a number of D20s (based on your skill level) and trying to roll equal or less than a difficulty rating (based on your relevant attribute with modifiers). Each D20 that makes the check counts as a success.
But what are you bothering to roll about? Well, in the game you generate rolls to see what available gigs there are in the local area (and how important the place of those gigs are). To get a gig, a band has to roll a check based on its "reputation"; which starting bands have a very low rating in, and which improves as a band gets better known. Reputation increases by acquiring "Notice", which you get through successful gigs, meeting important industry people, networking with execs, demo tapes, etc.
Once they have a gig, a series of rolls are needed to have a successful performance. In each roll, one band member should be 'taking the lead', while others should be 'helping the lead'; but if a character wants to try to get more attention for himself he can also try to "usurp the lead". At each gig, there's also a random chance that something could 'go wrong', requiring a roll on a table of various things that could cause complications for the gig. For example: people in the band catch a cold, someone sprains a wrist, one of the members gets shot down by someone they wanted to have sex with, one member fails to make it and they get a substitute performer (who doesn't know the songs as well), the club's electric goes out so they can only perform acoustic, etc.
Before the gig, you need to do skill checks to try to draw in a crowd to the event, during the gig you do musical skill checks to see how well you perform, and at the end of the gig you check on performance-related skills to see how good of a show it was. The results of all of these checks determine how much Notice you earn.
Other than regular gigs, you can also do performances at Music Festivals, or at a Battle of the Bands. At the end of each gig, the PCs each roll a check to see if they gain Hope (what you have to roll depends on what it is you are looking for out of your career, whether it's Love/Sex, Booze or Drugs, or Partying). If you get a 20 on your check (a critical failure), it means you become addicted to that thing you are seeking; you can't from then on get hope from anything other than that. But if you are already hooked, getting a 1 means that you manage to break from your addiction, but even then you will afterward be more vulnerable to getting hooked again.
Another important aspect of play is working with NPCs who can help the band: Agents, band managers, music critics, etc. Mechanics are provided for getting them, and each can vary in their ability level and how likely they are to be of real help.
A band can try to compose an "Important Song". This is a song that requires everyone in the band investing Hope into, which each Player must do in secret and how much each PC invested is revealed simultaneously. Thus, different PC bandmembers might invest way more or way less than others into any given Important Song. Bands can premiere songs in a gig, and make demo tapes (special rules are given for making demo tapes, which can end up being really good, bad or in between).
If the band changes members, a new member can invest new hope into an Important Song.
Characters with Significant Others loses less Hope between gigs. But significant others are very difficult to keep. You also have Groupies, and having sex with groupies also provides Hope, but if your Significant Other finds out you're likely to have trouble.
There's also an interesting (though slighty gimmicky) mechanic called "Nasty Cards", using an ordinary deck of playing cards. At the start of each game session any player can choose to draw a Nasty Card on any other player. Every card represents some way in which you screw over your bandmate (divided by suit to screwing them over in romance, in band politics, in partying, or miscellaneous); the effect of the Nasty Card (aside from describing just how you ended up screwing your bandmate over) is that they may lose a certain amount of Hope, which your PC would then gain.
There is also a mechanic for determining random events in the PCs lives that can complicate things for them too.
At the back of the book there are also several optional rules for mechanics, like exchanging a point of Hope for an extra die, or a set of "Personality trait" mechanics. There's also rules for randomly generating different qualities of Recording Studios, and a table for randomly determining Band Names and Club Names.
So, on the one hand, High Strung is a weird RPG about playing a band. It is quite effectively designed to simulate all that you might need to play a campaign about being a musician trying to make it. It has elements of play that allow for conflict with NPCs, and conflict between the PCs (since there are elements of the game where one PC might be able to "make it" as a musician, or just hang on to Hope, by fucking over his bandmates). While I'm no fan of the dice-pool mechanic, I have to say that as a design it's pretty well done.
At the same time, High Strung is also about the idea of Hope. Part of what makes the game work beyond a mere "rock band simulation" is that the real point of the game is addressing the theme of trying to hold on to one's Hope of fulfilling their personal dreams of stardom, in an environment that is very hostile to that.
That second element is both good and bad. Bad, in the sense that it becomes very meta-gamey. While High Strung isn't technically a "storygame", it is no coincidence that it is a similar sort of structure to what a lot of storygames are like; and suffers from the risk of the same possible problems: that the game can move away from immersion and into seeing the PC and the world as an abstraction for the "theme" of Hope, or just the mechanical hoo-haw of maintaining your Hope score. Because it retains the core elements of a regular RPG, it is possible to avoid that, but it requires a good GM and good players to keep the players thinking "inside" the game rather than outside as some kind of meta-narrative. Otherwise it become very easy to just see everything as a stats and rolls game, without actual roleplaying or immersion in the characters.
In any case, it is clear right off the bat that High Strung is not for everyone. But I guess there's probably a market of some kind of people who wanted to play a Rock n' Roll RPG, and this does fit the bill. If you're into that sort of thing, this is a well-designed attempt at fulfilling your craving. If not, you really have no reason to get High Strung, since that's all it's for.
Currently Smoking: Raleigh Hawkbill + Image Virginia