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Musical Conflicts

by Steve Radabaugh

The musical has been a staple in Western theater for over a hundred years; iconic musicals like Oklahoma! and West Side Story have even become integral parts of Western culture. Music enhances the emotion, action, atmosphere, and mood of a stage performance in a way that words can’t match, especially when musical numbers are strategically placed—at emotional highpoints and key moments when dialog alone is no longer enough.

You might want to simulate a musical number at your table because you are doing an entire campaign that is based on a Broadway musical, or you simply want to do something a bit different for a session—like the musical episode in Buffy in which a demon forced everyone to sing all the time. Perhaps the player characters are actually on stage performing for an audience!

In this article, I’ll show you how to add musical conflicts to your game, mimicking the structure of songs found in Broadway shows and rock operas alike to model new and interesting conflicts for your gaming group. If you’ve always wanted to run a gang fight as a musical show tune, you’ve come to the right place.

Strict Structure

Make sure that you explain to your characters that they are doing a conflict as a musical number before the conflict starts. The structure of the song gives the conflict a stricter pacing than other Fate conflicts. Players need to be aware that a song is happening—and why it’s happening—before they start.

Conflict as a Song

Songs are a performance; the player characters may or may not perform for an actual audience, but an audience is assumed. Thus, conflicts that happen in the form of a song need to both be resolved and stand up as a performance for an audience. Additionally, both the song and the conflict itself need to come to a conclusion simultaneously.

Show tunes are typically divided into four sections. Sections one, two, and four are each a verse and a chorus. Section three is a bridge. There are, of course, variations on this structure, but for the sake of simplicity this article is going to stick to this format. Once you get the hang of this type of song, you can try alternative structures with more complicated patterns.

While the song is a group activity, each of the verses is performed by a single character. The chorus, on the other hand, is a chance for many characters to get involved at once.

The First Verse

To start the conflict, one character sings a verse describing the situation and setting up the conflict. This verse describes how things are, identifies what’s at stake in the conflict, and creates a verse aspect that describes the situation. This serves as the introduction to the conflict for the audience.

As an option to give the players more buy-in, the GM can bring in a template to build the lyrics to a song. Take a sheet of paper and mark out space to do four lines for each verse and chorus. The choruses will all be the same. To make it simple, just have the second and fourth lines of each verse and chorus rhyme. When each player does a verse—and the first time through the chorus—have them write the lyrics that they are singing. Let the players collaborate as much as needed on this.

To sing the first verse, one of the players creates an advantage to describe the situation that the song will address. The GM sets the passive difficulty for the roll, and the player generates invokes for success or success with style as normal.

Jefferson and the prince are in love, but the king, who wishes a more traditional marriage for his son, has decreed that the prince instead should marry Princess Snydar. Lunser, one of Jefferson’s friends—another player character—starts out by singing a verse describing the forbidden love that Jefferson and the prince share, creating the aspect Forbidden Love, Traditional Marriage.

The Chorus

Once the first verse concludes the other characters attempt to add more free invokes to the verse aspect by singing the chorus. The chorus picks up the theme of the song that was started in the first verse and reinforces it.

Since everyone in the chorus is singing the same thing, they need to be working on the same aspect, and rolling the same skill/approach against a passive difficulty set by the GM. A success adds one free invoke to the verse aspect; a success with style adds two free invokes.

Jefferson and two of his other friends, Alan and Trinity, lead the nobles of the court in the chorus as they sing about Jefferson’s love. The two friends sing in harmony, each lending their unique voice to make the song more vibrant and interesting; Alan adds one free invoke, and Trinity adds two free invokes.

The Second Verse and Chorus

The character who is the main soloist for the song sings the second verse. This character is empowered to do something about the conflict—as opposed to the first singer who just set things up. If the story doesn’t have a single character that should be the one to act, then the players should choose someone.

That character creates a second verse aspect that explains how they will resolve the conflict. Then the rest of the characters attempt to add free invokes to the new aspect during a second chorus.

Jefferson steps forward and sings—to the king and the audience— about his love for the Prince. He calls out Princess Snydar as being unworthy of the Prince’s beauty. The chorus again features Alan, Tri and the nobles singing about Jefferson’s love and the scandal involved.

The Bridge

The bridge is where the actual conflict is resolved. The two main characters involved in the conflict roll opposed overcome rolls using the aspects created in the previous two verses. The character who gets the highest overall roll is the winner of the conflict.

Princess Snydar and Jefferson duel with rapiers while singing a duet. They each make their opposed roll to see who the winner is.

The Third Verse and Final Chorus

In the third verse, the conflict has been resolved. Where do the players go from there?

The character who won the conflict in the bridge sings this verse, describing how things are going to be different and creating an aspect describing the new normal. The player does not need to roll: this right is granted to the player by the victory in the bridge.

In the final chorus, the other characters again get a chance to add free invokes to that aspect. Since this is likely the end of a scene, that aspect and those free invokes persist on into the next scene.

Failure in Musical Conflicts

Sometimes the character creating the aspect in the verse will fail their roll. To keep the song entertaining for the audience, the GM gets to create an aspect that can be compelled against the players. The characters in the chorus can then try to make up for it by adding free invokes to some other aspect.

During the bridge, if the soloist isn’t able to overcome the obstacle, it isn’t a simple failure as normal. The song is still going to end, but the GM determines the final aspect. If it’s a song about a hero taking out a villain and they fail, that means that the villain wins and perhaps pushes the hero into a worse situation than they were in before.

Altering the Structure

There can be a few reasons to change the structure of the song. Three choruses may be too many if you don’t have very many characters involved. You can reduce the number of choruses, or cut them out completely, if it makes more sense for your game. This is especially true if there is only one character. “Let it Go” from Frozen is a great example of a character overcoming internal conflict in a song without any side characters adding their voices.

Conflict Between Two PCs

Depending on your game, the song may detail a conflict between two different players. In this case the first verse goes to the player(s) on one side of the conflict, and the second verse goes to the player(s) on the other side. The two players still do an opposed roll using the aspects available to complete the bridge; the winner of this opposed roll gets to define the aspect created in the third verse.

During the choruses of these songs, if the rest of the players are neutral, they can either work to put free invokes on an existing aspect or create a new aspect that reflects the nature of the conflict without choosing a side. Any players who have a stake in the conflict can choose to work with the chorus, or sit it out.

What Do I Roll for a Song Conflict?

If you’re using this with Fate Accelerated, you use the approach that reflects the aspect that you are working to establish, your singing style, and the overall mood of the song.

For Fate Core, there are two options depending on the campaign: Rapport or varying skills. If the musical is just something that the characters are doing as part of a larger campaign—and it’s not a regular occurrence—use the Rapport skill to represent their singing and performance ability. If the entire campaign is based around a musical, then the Rapport skill would get overused. Instead, have the players use the skill that reflects what that verse of the song is about, e.g. roll Fight to sing a verse in which one character scraps with another.

Example Song Conflict: Diesel and Moose

Tiger, Ice, Diesel, and Mouthpiece are members of a teenage gang in New York in the 1950s. Over the last few scenes, Diesel has been building up tension with Moose, a member of a rival gang. When the group runs into Moose with three of his buddies, a fight between the groups breaks out. The players and the GM agree that since the game they’ve been playing is a musical, this fight needs to be a musical number rather than a traditional Fate conflict.

Mouthpiece volunteers to take the first verse: he’s not the one directly in the conflict. The rest of the group agrees. He sings about all the ways that Moose has wronged Diesel over their last few interactions and about how Diesel is not someone to mess with.

The GM decides that this is a Flashy approach against a Fair (+2) difficulty. Mouthpiece rolls his Flashy (+2) and gets ++00 for a total of (+4) Great for a success. He creates the verse aspect Moose Has It Coming with one free invoke. During the first chorus, Tiger, Ice, and Diesel each roll their Flashy approach to try to add invokes to that aspect. One of them succeeds so it gets one more free invoke.

Since Mouthpiece had the first verse, Diesel takes over for the second verse to respond. He sings about the time that Moose stole his girlfriend...and that he is going to bash Moose’s face in. Everyone agrees that this is a Forceful verse. The GM sets the difficulty to (+3) Good. Diesel rolls his Forceful (+3) and gets 0--- for a total of (+0) Mediocre. The GM creates the aspect All Bark and No Bite to show that Moose is unimpressed.

During the chorus, the rest of the players add two free invokes to one of Diesel’s other aspects, My Gang Has My Back, as they try to recover from Moose’s dismissal of Diesel’s threats.

Since the conflict is between a PC and a specific named NPC, they do an opposed overcome roll during the bridge. Diesel rolls his Forceful (+3) and gets ++00 for (+5) Superb. Moose is good at fighting (+2 to any roll involving fighting) and rolls +++0 for (+5) Superb. Both the player and the GM spend some fate points and their free invokes—invoking “My Gang Has My Back” and “Moose Has It Coming”—and the roll ends up at (+9) Legendary for Diesel and (+7) Epic for Moose.

With Diesel being the victor, he creates an aspect Don’t Mess with Us that gets carried forward in the story. The rest of the players roll Flashy for the Chorus, and get to add two more free invokes to that aspect. The gang gets to carry this new aspect into future scenes, and everyone knows that Diesel won his conflict with Moose.