Essence-Blasting Hits of the Seventies
If you put your ear to any railroad in America, you can hear the old bluesmen singing their favorite songs, as clear as a bell. Even ones that aren't connected to the main lines play the blues. Back during the Forties, the best of the bluesmen picked up their belongings, followed the rail lines into New Mexico, and then fought - and beat - the Devil himself, fighting with switchblades and ancient guitars in the fires of the first atomic bomb. You can see their faces in the aurora borealis at night, illuminating the mile-long blackened bones of the Devil, or visit their animated skeletons as they jam on a plain of black glass.
There were other Tune Exalted, of course, gathering in garages, or in abandoned warehouses, or in the backs of poolrooms to tune their art, to learn the craft of channeling their primal energy - their Cool - through their music. You could see their efforts in broad daylight, transparent anima banners circling over a particular house in an otherwise normal neighborhood. The energy orgasm of Woodstock envigorated the country, but its hubris caused the Nihil that was once the Altamont Speedway. The Beatles ascended into someplace better a long time ago, but you can hear some of their new songs if you sacrifice something important of yours to a radio.
Somewhere, it went wrong. As the Seventies dawned, the rebellion and the drugs stopped being revolutionary, decaying into petulance and decadence. The mightiest of the Tune Exalted fell, brought down by their own self-destructive impulses and hedonistic appetities. Those who were left became corrupt, unable to cope with the change of the times.
You can't stop it forever. There's a great deal of anger in the mean streets of Britain, waiting to express itself in talisman safety pins and haircuts designed to channel Cool into a brutally simple backbeat and pure rage. At CBGB's, there's a new act every night, trying to muster the energy required to become a Tune Exalted. In the Southwest, there's endless duels between the Dragons, a competition for status, the coolest car, the best guitar, the swiftest sword, Cool - and for fragments of the Sacred Song, the cradle song that Mary sang to Jesus when he was in his crib. In the Midwest, the Tune Exalted have taken to the land as only the best country artists can, walking across - and becoming part of - the land. And in every suburb in the land, there's a new Tune Exalted waiting to step into his inheritance.
So the demon agents are waiting for their new masters to arise, so that they can fill their roles as bastards for the best rock and roll artists in the world. The producers are waiting in their studios, listening to the gentle rumble of creative spirits. Even the record companies are quiet, hoping that they can simply ride the coat-tails of the next big thing.
You're a Tune Exalted. What do you want to sing about?
The setting of Tune Exalted is the United States of America - but it's a United States that's been altered by the Tune Exalted, for better and for worse. The current setting, 1977, has seen approximately four major tides, each of which changed the country for better and for worse. Each wave spawned a new wave of Tune Exalted, who then guided the country through the resulting changes.
The 1920s: Smooth Alien Jazz, White Bleeding Horror
The Great War put an end to a lot of the Tune Exalted of the 19th century - the romantic conception of warfare, as exemplified in the operas and arias of theater, was barely able to affect the harsh reality of an artillery barrage, or sweep away the poison gas that rotted the lungs of soldiers where they stood. The worst came when the Operatic Exalted's power worked, creating epic sweeps of pagaentry that invariably came apart under gunfire. Glittering armor and braces of cherubim proved poor protection against a steel-jacketed bullet. The war was ultimately decided by force of arms, which then lead to bloody stalemate, eventually ending in 1918 after American intervention.
Europe, bled white by the Great War, tried to continue with a pale imitation of the Exalted vs. Exalted operatic duels that had given it its strength in the 18th century, but only succeeded in falling into greater and greater decadence. The strength of the music passed over the Atlantic, to America, where it blossomed into jazz and the blues. Both were similar in composition, but their outcomes would be remarkably different.
Jazz's Exalted took off from the impact of Prohibition, drawing its energy from African-American culture intermixing with white society for the firs time; the blues had always existed, but it began to produce its own Tune Exalted without having a significant audience behind it. But while the blues stayed relatively obscure, jazz swiftly became the music of the flappers, of the endless boom of the Twenties. Bluesmen dealt with lesser demons and devils at dusty crossroads, or in the middle of stagnant swamps; jazzmen played their music in speakeasies, used their powers to aid bootleggers in running their goods from state to state, put another electric current into a society that had already had enough.
Unfortunately, "enough" swiftly turned into "too much." A lot of subcultures grew up in a loose orbit around each other, including a number of unique literary and artistic trends and a general sense of disillusionment. Dadaism flourished, creating an entire subculture devoted to the notion of destroying meaning - art that conveyed no message at all. Weird drugs, bootleg liquor from strange backwoods stills, marijuana from the Plains of Leng - the bohemian subcultures began to drift into areas where sane people weren't supposed to go. Jazz hung at the outskirts, unaware of the darker direction that the movement was taking. It wouldn't be unaware for long.
In 1925, a group of occultists and bohemians summoned something from Malfeas into the backwoods of New York - something that ate two small towns before being destroyed by the National Guard. The Palmer Raids began, a government-sponsored witchhunt that swiftly found out that its intended victims weren't as helpless as expected. Raids frequently ended with government agents being slain by summoned demons or the strange magics of their suspects. Palmer himself was replaced by a cluster of alien bacteria in the shape of a man, and swiftly steered the few sane agents still remaining into situations from which they couldn't escape. Nobody was the wiser, and America slowly began to rot from within.
Jazz Exalted were the ones to step into the breach. They enjoyed the fringe benefits of the bohemians, but swiftly realized that the culture was going rotten. When Leroy Turner lost his girlfriend to an alien insect colony, he swore vengeance - and communicated what he'd learned to his fellow jazzmen.
The result wasn't a war so much as it was a series of guerilla engagements. The Jazz Exalted were able to use their charms and their music to destroy the alien creatures that had infiltrated their society, but found a much greater challenge in their former friends. People whom they'd known for years had become twisted parodies of their original forms, retaining their knowledge of the Jazz Exalted's weaknesses.
By 1928, it was over, but not without cost. Leroy Turner himself was lynched after he killed a former lover of his - a white woman - who had been corrupted by Malfeas. Other Jazz Exalted found themselves tainted with the alien taint of Malfeas, unable to play their music wthout invoking the taint that they'd fought so hard to exile. Their music went strange, as the Exalts tried to retain the exotic influence of Malfeas without spreading its taint. The Jazz Exalted had burned themselves out saving an ungrateful world.
The Blues and Swing Exalted were next, as was the invention that would elevate them from merely demigods to national figures: the Wireless.
Invasions - The Sixties
Just as the deadening of European musical power during the Great War had led to (allowed?) the emergence of the Jazz Exalted in the twenties, its reflowering in England, re-seeded by the musical Glamors of the Americans across the water, created a new power for that island nation. English Pop Exalted were formed at the confluence of the great conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States, and so fueled themselves on the constant tension of nuclear annhilation.
The first wave of the British Invasion arrived with the Beatles, who swiftly established themselves as immensely talented Exalts. The major innovation was to take the Essence that they gained from performing and rechanneling it through the audience. The result was the creation of the Beatle Babies – teenagers who had been affected by the Essence that their bodies were forced to channel. Almost all of the effects were beneficial – the ability to know the exact time of day, hair that sprouts flowers, a recession of acne. There were, however, a spate of Revolver Babies, half-blooded children spawned directly from the rechanneled essence of the Beatles. That effect – plus the paternity suits that resulted from same – created a rather sharp reluctance to allow the Essence-channeling effect to happen. Despite all of that, the Beatles were still the best Tune Exalted that the land had to offer.
Locked into a fight with the Soviet Union, the United States launched a program to put a man on the moon. The astronauts were going up into one of the most barren places known to mankind, and, as a result, decided that the guidance of the Tune Exalted would be worth gaining. The lonely striders of the Tune Exalted who had chosen country music as their channel were the natural choice. On July 16th, 1969, the Unconquered Sun 11 was launched from Cape Canaveral, carrying Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and Harry Coldtree, a Tune Exalted charged with the hopes of a nation and enough Essence to cause him to permanently manifest an anima banner throughout the entire mission. His banner, a one-eyed wolf, was seen running along the contrail left behind the rocket’s passage, an image that quickly became the defining portrait of the space age.
However, the mission was to be a mixture of successes and defeats. On July 20th, the Unconquered Sun set down on the moon’s surface, and Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon. Harry Coldtree was able to use his powers to give the astronauts an exact idea of their surroundings, which enabled them to take a much larger series of samples than they would have otherwise.
The astronauts weren’t alone. The moon was home to a wide variety of animal spirits, who had been thrown there by a purge that predated human history. Most of them soaked in the Wyld energy of empty space, able to change their forms – but not their primal nature – with a simple whim. These spirits were utterly unused to dealing with flesh, and they were utterly stunned to realize that there was such a thing as physical form. The result was a concentrated attack on all three astronauts by a variety of bodiless spirits, all of them wanting to possess the flesh. When the astronauts finally left, they were carrying a seething cauldron of manifested spirits within them, all fighting for dominance in a limited space.
Their splashdown in the Pacific destroyed their capsule, vaporized the top six feet of the ocean in a hundred-mile radius, and damaged many of the ships that had been sent to retrieve the Apollo capsule. It unleashed hundreds of animal spirits, all of them charged with Lunar energy and desperate to experience as much as they could. The humans had fought them every single step of the way on their return form the moon, so the spirits swiftly found easier hosts: Animals.
The result was a wave of lycanthropy of all sizes and kinds, as the spirits tried to apply the laws of humans to the bodies of animals. The result was a three-month long winter of terror, where household pets would suddenly speak a few words in the croaking language of the Moon and stand on two feet, its flesh rippling with the soft light of the moon. It resolved when Harry Coldtree managed to contact the royalty of the Lunar Courts, sacrificing his power to stabilize their forms and give them a much more refined sentience. Coldtree’s bones swiftly became priceless artifacts within the Lunar community, each bone granting a single animal dominion over its fellows.
The Surf Tribes were the ones who created the link between the human world and their own. Seeing a number of the local beach bums surfing on an evening tide, the Lunars took on their most human forms and asked to participate – and the surfers, typically gregarious, were glad to oblige. Surfing quickly went beyond a simple hobby and became the dominant religious form for the spirits, as riding a wave was very similar in concept to riding flesh. The next year saw a huge increase in the number of surfers, as well as an official recognition of the Lunars as a harmless subgroup, rather than as a race of slavering monsters.
- The Sacred Song has a special property - it can be adapted into any song. The fragments are held by major families - each family gets its power from ownership. Los Angeles is held by a quartet of major families, each of which has at least one major fragment; each private army takes its power from one of those fragments. But there's a lot of lost fragments out there, all of which are being fought over by the Dragon Samurai, mariachi from Mexico. Anybody with a guitar and a sword can cut a path through the desert. Think of "Six-String Samurai" meets "Desperado", with lots of overt magick; corrupt civilizations contrasted against struggling villages, scumholes, and wandering mariachi samurai.
- The United States is not the US as we know it; it's been radically transformed by the Tune Exalted. All of the major cities are there, and you can live in places in the US that don't look a thing different from our world, but it's basically recognizable.
- That being said, the political situation is still much the same. The Tune Exalted exercise about as much political power as musicians ever have - I.E none.
- Try to maintain a sense of realism - you don't need to make up a band if the real thing will do. Try to use real bands when you can, adapting them to the Exalted.
- Their enemies also tend to be themselves, in keeping with the self-destructive streak that a lot of musicians have. No musician was ever assassinated, but there's a laundry list of musicians who have died from drug and/or alcohol abuse. (Keith Richards is the obvious exception that proves the rule.)
- There are Deadlands in the United States as well. Near Memphis, there's mass of pasty white flesh miles wide, maybe a thousand feet high, rolling through the countryside and devouring anything it touches. It's tended by a small legion of sycophant demons and the reanimated corpses of groupies. If you search the top of the mass of flesh, you can find a mouth and a black pompadour. The mouth will occasionally mutter something Southern, usually about fried peanut butter sandwiches or burning love. At the same time, though, there's a young man with a gold jacket and a guitar supposedly stolen from the Devil's corpse wandering through the south, waggling his hips and throwing that trademark smirk. The King's body may be rotting, but the King's spirit isn't done by far.
- Glamour as a mechanic again. This time, instead of being spent, Glamor measures how much energy your character has; a low-Glamor Exalted is an up-and-comer, like Beck around the time of "Loser", while a high-Glamor Exalted is, say, Radiohead at this particular moment.
You see where this is going, huh? You can nurse a moderate amount of Glamor for a long while, or a high Glamor for a short period, but the public is fickle, and they'll eventually find themselves a new flavor of the month. You can retain your experience as an experienced, wearied Exalted, like Elvis Costello - well known, but hardly burning up the charts - or you can attempt the painful experience of rebuilding yourself into a new persona, exchanging skills and memories for a new persona, like Madonna. The higher your Glamor, though, the more you can do - so you can risk it all with high Glamor, attempt to do something big, or you can live with the frustration of knowing that you could do better but never had the guts to go for the big hits.
- Anybody can play guitar; anybody can be a Tune Exalted. This isn't an exclusive club; you just have to play music. There are musicians who have decided to shun the Exalted idea completely, believing that the music has nothing to do with the channeling of magic - and they're perfectly viable player characters, because they don't have to cope with the constant temptation and pitfalls of being an Exalted.
- While I hate to sound like a music snob, I'm avoiding the portrayal of country-western as Nashville - as the liner notes for Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? point out, contemporary country music is essentially bubblegum music with Hallmark lyrics. Exalted country-western artists focus around the land, and its harshness; murder ballads, the bleak and the scary, the bizarre and the unexplained. An Exalted focused on country-western can step into the land as if he's pulling a blanket over his head, sleep under the ground for a night, then wake up and walk away without a speck of dirt on him. Or walk the world as a wolf. Or summon help from a nearby town without saying a word.
- Instead of charms being based on skills, you'd base them off of music styles, and make them broad. Rock and roll has its own charm tree, so does country and western, and so forth down the line - but you could pick and choose depending on what music style you like. Or, you could use magic like Tribe 8's Synthesis, with your effect determined by your successes.
Things I'm trying to avoid
- Demonization of agents and record companies. Yes, they're bastards; obviously. Since it's too obvious to make them the villains, I'm choosing to make agents literally demons, but helper demons - think of Smithers to the Exalted's Mr. Burns. The record companies are more like remora; they want to glom onto an Exalted's side, not ruin his life.
- "Love will conquer all." Rock and Rule did this, and I want to avoid painting rock and roll as nothing but magic, love, sweetness and light; a Tune Exalted can have his magic and his music eat him alive if he's not careful.
- Rock movement X was the greatest thing on the face of the earth, and it is automatically the Most Magic. Yeah, well, I've seen too many musical movements turn into parodies of themselves; while hippies may have considered themselves the harbingers of truth and light and goodness, most of them were...well, hippies. Punks supposedly had an intellectual vein to their movement, but at its worst, it was essentially brutal stupidity set to music. New Wave was the most intellectual, but had a tendency to turn fey and affected if left alone too long. No music is immune from destruction.
- The Town Elders are out to get us! Yeah, yeah - we've all seen Flashdance, or at least had somebody give us the gist of it. The Tune Exalted are an extremely powerful force; the average Town Elder would rather have them around doing things for the community than being chased away for Ye Olde Actes of Perversione.