Wordsmith

I rarely describe myself as a writer. I sometimes use ‘Architect for castles in the clouds’, but these days that tends to make people think ‘engineer’ So most often I call myself a wordsmith

We’ve talked before about making names for places – and it applies similarly for people – Wright, Walker or Thatcher. Kwaku (Mr Snake) the Setite..Tours Prince the activist (derived from Martin Luther King)

More made up words come into play now we’ve got a Sci-fi range. One instinctively knows that promethium – the fuel used in Warhammer 40k –  is flammable. Not only is is a bit like petroleum, but it’s named for the Greek thief of fire, Prometheus. My favorite piece of pseudoscience is the Heisenberg compensator in Star Trek. Heisenberg tells us we cannot know where we are and how fast we’re going (he’s thinking on a subatomic scale) so in order to travel Faster Than Light we need something to compensate for the Uncertainty Principle. Totally plausible whilst being essentially rubbish.

But I want to talk about choosing words, rather than making them up. When we wrote the Sci Fi Concept Cards, one of the hardest to get right was the 7D of Locations – the Rainbow Echo Spa. What is the right word for people-who-attend-a-spa? Are they patients? Well, they do receive treatments. Customers? They pay for the service. Eventually we settled on ‘clients’ as a expression of a closer relationship with a therapist. Not just because it was shorter and didn’t spill over to the next line.

To relate this to you, think about the resonances you use when describing your character or when scene-setting as a GM. If a room is “big’ – that doesn’t evoke anything. Is it vast, towering, cathedral-like? Is it too big for its use – a dining room that could seat fifty set for four? Is it merely big compared to the characters – either physically as in Alice in Wonderland or the Borrowers, or mentally if viewing through the eyes of a tiny familiar – mouse or even ant.

Assuming you are talking to adults – make use of the shared vocabulary of experience. Try to avoid using words which are more suitable for reading ages of five – big, small, right; and never nice. That said, I’ll break that rule if it gets over the atmosphere I’m trying for. A villain lair which was only described in childlike adjectives took on the creepy clown aspect. My players have come to expect poetry – so when they got curtailed language, they noticed.

If you have a pre-written adventure, you can practice by rephrasing the opening paragraph. Try re-casting it as the opening of an 80s fantasy film “A long time ago in a land far far away …”. Now try as the start of a young adult novel.”Evelyn never really saw the rolling fields she’d grown up in … “ Changing language finds us demanding something different from the audience, and by choosing tone we can convey much more about the campaign than simply what it looks like.

Example: A recent Vampire campaign began with a meeting at the Palace Theatre, This is a real place, so most of the players are familiar with the outside, which is a Victorian marble edifice. Inside, it’s a theatre, ballroom, ballet school and bar that serves food. As the setup to a campaign that was meant to be political, layers on layers of intrigue and half truth – I described the foyer as ‘confections of scarlet and gold’ and included several doors throughout the building labelled ‘staff only’. These were all concealed behind curtains – implying that one couldn’t know at a glance where there were doors, and that much of the building remains concealed. Do you feel ready to step backstage and find out how deep the rabbit hole goes?

As for that last – remember, stealing from one person is plagiarism – stealing from many is called research. This post has stolen from – ahem, researched from – Alice in Wonderland, Star Wars, Star Trek,  Greek myth and hard science. At least. Don’t be afraid to use a turn of phrase coined by someone else if it says what you need it to. On that note, I’m going to go read something. Don’t know what yet. What do you recommend?

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Meeting Dragons

Write about dragons this month, says the Boss.That’s not as easy as it sounds, because nobody can agree on what we mean by dragons.

The Welsh Dragon has four legs, wings, and a tail. Her diet is unclear, but probably includes invading Seis (Seisneg is Cymric for the English) She stands for bravery and steadfastness, and her element is earth.

The Norse dragon stands on four legs, but tends not to have wings.. Guardian of gold, he represents greed and selfishness. He eats adventurers, and he might breathe fire

The Oriental Dragon is more worm-shaped, and has either four, many, or no legs at all. It might fly, but without wings. It’s element is water.

The Tibetan Dragon is the Thunder god, ancestor of kings, and guardian of mountain top lands. Physically resembling his Chinese neighbour, I can find no ready reference to what he might eat..

Not forgetting the Komodo Dragon, which exists in the mundane world.

Also included in the draconic mantle are wyverns (only two feet and wings), hydras (many headed serpents), wyrms (no or many legs) and probably a whole lot more fantastical beasties depending on who you ask.

Perhaps a better question is why dragons are how they are. They represent to us the power of nature – whether that be the unpredictability of weather; the uncontrollability of fire; or the obnoxious nature of a greedy person – dragons are the ultimate in powerful monster. They might be benevolent – bestowing magic or material wealth – but they are more likely to eat you, as punishment for trying to control things beyond mankind’s ken.

As storytellers, we choose which kind of dragon fits our narrative. Anne McCaffrey chose a telepathic helpmate to help drive back the alien Thread; Weis and Hickman use both the fiery violence of Red and Black dragons and the helpful Metallics; and Tolkien uses the dragons as monsters, undefeatable by might, but perhaps confounded by guile.

I only keep the helpful varieties of dragon about. For example, here is Alfred, who job is to house treats for sharing, with some of his draconic friends.

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Arty October: Ali’s Thoughts

Cheese makes for good adventurer’s rations

Ste wants us all to write about our experiences with visual arts. I’m not so much about what it looks like – my artistic streak has always been music, and writing to me is an extension of sound – I read everything out loud – even in my head, words are vocalised, characters have accents, and locales are narrated. This may be the root of the long-running disagreement between Ste and I about the role of commas. I put them where I breathe, and Ste uses a different set of rules. [I overuse dashes instead – I like commas, but dashes are about 20% cooler. – Ste]

Appropriately,  I’m writing this sat in an art gallery. Well, not quite, but it’s my in-laws place, and that whole branch of the family are artists – sculptors, photographers and painters <See my blog last week – Loz>. Every wall is covered with pictures, every level surface has sculptures and vases and hats and antlers and … stuff. It’s at the same time fascinating and intimidating.

Every kid draws some, and paints some – we’re visual creatures, and part of making sense of the world is to try to reproduce the pictures in our heads. I never really got much beyond the ‘this is my family, and my home; my mum is not actually as tall as my house’. Where I’ve had to draw things – for handouts when teaching – I’ve tended to go with symbols. Things one can construct – 36 pointed stars and other applied geometry. Occasionally, the odd cartoony figure has crept in – this person is thinking, this one is writing, this one is running. But I’ve mostly just broken up text with tables and diagrams, or even clipart.

Everyone who does any kind of visual work at all has just groaned. We love to hate art libraries – whether they were the old 8-bit squares, the MS clipart series or newer online ‘art for your game’ archives. The problem is where they are overused, where we see the same dozen images again and again – and we feel the author is lazy, and we disdain – and of course the legal knot of copyright and fair use.

Recently of course, the standard range of clipart will not do. Ste wrote about usage rights on Google Image searching, and that has sufficed for most of the Setting Shards for which I was lead writer. Most of the art I’ve picked out is from Wikimedia – and there’s enough there for much of what we need, particularly when one applies the Crop tool. Take a look at all the art for Grey Market – most is from larger pieces selectively trimmed to say what we want to say.

We’ve commissioned some art – the Lichen Lich, Valdis the Magic Item Addict, the suit symbols for Concept Cards – but the problem with this is both expense (we wouldn’t take free, because exposure kills artists) and trying to communicate what is needed – one of the reasons for needing art is that sometimes words are not quite enough.

What we really need is one of us to be able to draw the worlds we imagine. To that end, both me and Amy are learning to draw. We’re doing Inktober – drawing something every day for a month, to explore styles and media. I’ve found I prefer working in pencils (you will probably never see the disastrous oil pastels attempts) And I love drawing puns – a Chocolate Moose, and the bandaged monster Mummy and her partner Daddy. Visuals are not my forte, but they are perhaps becoming my pianissimo?

I’m not going to be a professional illustrator any time soon, but it’s an interesting aside to think about how things look on a page. Practising looking at how things are, so we can better imagine how things might be, if only – which is the core of creative writing.

Of course, that also means we now need to write more….

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Genres: Fantasy

This month, because we’re working on all-new Setting Shards, this blog is all about genre. What we play, what we read, and what the smeg is it? [Ste Note: Appropriately enough, my brother considers Red Dwarf fantasy – rather than sci-fi. He even commissioned a Red Dwarf themed card for the fantasy Concept Cards deck…]

In one sense, genre is a fiction (see what I did there?) It’s trying to put games (or books, or films, or whatever) into categories. Creative types usually hate being pigeonholed. There are three kinds of people who like genre-lising. People trying to understand creative works – academics and critics. People who are trying to file creators – publishers who can talk about ‘fantasy authors’ or cinema owners who screen ‘arthouse films’ And people trying to sell you something similar to what you already like – “customers who bought this also looked at …”

But as with so much creative, it’s quite hard to fit things neatly into boxes. This month we’re going to try to sketch in the edges of some big genre classifications; look at games that fit, and ones that don’t quite; and talk about why using genres might actually help you play – whether it’s to help find new games, or new material for the ones you’ve already got (*cough* Shards *cough*cough*)

We figured fantasy goes first, because DnD. It’s probably the oldest RPG; certainly the most heavily marketed; and probably the widest played. Therefore DnD in all its myriad variants has come to define the industry. (I, like anyone with sense, am going to exclude Spelljammer, which is DnD In Space) So fantasy is a place to begin.

But how to define fantasy? The classic core is medieval tech level, with magic; and featuring elves and dwarves, and probably some races one could describe as ‘touched’ – beastkin, nephilim (half -angels), affriti (fire-blessed), whatever. Yet almost every example world I can think of breaks some of that, some of the time. I’m going to start by excluding the whole sub-genre of urban fantasy, because Amy wants to talk about that later. Cyber-punk-fantasy is a rule unto itself (magiopunk?) becuase you have to detail the interaction between magic and technology.

I’ve played not-medieval – the swashbuckling Lace of Steel, and both Fate and WOD adaptations in Ancient Rome. I’ve heard good things about a Norman era LRP, and hope to crew a Mag-eolithic era one (Stone Age with a few magical exceptions). I’ve played mostly-human Ars Magica. My major LRP has only two races – humans and orcs.

Whatever medium we’re looking at, it probably isn’t fantasy without magic – and yet Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials manages to have a parallel pseudo-science that fills the same narrative role. Even seemingly-middle-of-the-genre Game of Thrones has very little actual magic. Whether you consider the arts of the magisters to be magic rather depends on whether you subscribe to Clarke’s definition – ‘Magic’s just science that we don’t understand yet.’ Magisters feel like scientists, so I’m going with the theory _they_ understand what they’re doing, even if we don’t.

GoT has dragons and undead, and a few clerical healing effects – but not much in the fireball and lightning department. Much of the supernatural is attributed to Gods – but is the distinction between magic and the divine that clear cut?

On the subject of Gods, there probably are some. Rare is the fantasy world without some kind of divine influence – whether that be a paladin’s Lay On Hands; or a demigod hero. Mythology is a whole sub-genre, and contains gems such as Nephilim – lovely ideas, system is a contender for Worst Ever; In Nomine, which was apparently written in response to Jack Chick; and Mazes & Minotaurs, which I keep meaning to play, since I hear good things about it.

I think the problem I’m running into here is why do we bother? Fantasy – stripped of elves and dragons – is about people.We can look through young Garion’s eyes as a mere kitchen hand, and see a what-if world – if lifting things were just a levitate spell away, what use cranes? Why, in a world where a low-level cleric can Create Food and Water, are there still people going hungry? If you had the power to summon lightning with a few words, what would you do with that power? And our stories become about characters and their actions – so, no different to historical or scifi or romance.

Fantasy’s easier than most genres to be a Big Damn Hero in. This RealLife LRP is really hard to make any meaningful influence on – all the best plots are hoovered up by the GM’s mates. But fantasy games allow us to be the hero – warrior or wizard – because if you’ve just saved the kingdom from a dragon, the king looks a bit underwhelming. But best leave him to get on with the boring bits like feeding everyone and opening schools; you’ve got a new evil to conquer.

We might head off to space; we might spend a while being super, we might even dip a toe into eldritch horror. But we come back to fantasy because it’s heroic, it’s familiar, and it’s darned fun. Excuse me, I’m going to go dip into my bookshelves. Which, by the way, I’ve just acquired more of. What should I fill the gaps with?

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Gaming History: Ali

Ste suggested we talk about ‘our first game’ That’s tricky. First played, first rpg, first time GMing?

 

As a kid, I remember two gaming moments distinctly. One was my sister deciding the way to win at Monopoly was to be the banker. The other was the summer I decided to ‘solve’ the Choose Your Own Adventure book I’d been given, by going full on decision tree. Two months and lots of computer paper later, I discovered there wasn’t actually a path from start to win. Several endings where you died or failed or some such. But the win didn’t track from the start. Moral: plan your games. I still don’t entirely, but i generally have a shape to how I expect things to pan out.

Fast forward to Uni, and I joined the RPG society. Sucked in by the ‘Have a Go’ LRP (technically LRP was a sport since you needed insurance) I turned up to a roomful of fellow nerds – some of which were even girls! No longer the Only Nerd In the Village!

My first proper rpg was Whoops King Arthur there goes the Round Table! I played Sir Bruce Sans Pitie, pretending to be Lancelot, and later pretending to be several other knights. The line I remember was the closing one. Most of the PCs crashed through the ceiling from Guinevere’s room into the Great Hall, where Mordred was looking forlornly at a lone cupcake. Arthur extracted himself from the pile and said “Happy birthday, son, we got you a sex-scandal-o-gram!”

The following week we had Whoops Sauron there goes the One True Ring. Totally sensible starting point. Moral: have fun. Now I work in gaming, some things I play are not necessarily what I would choose to. But there’s a joy in sharing time with my mates, in taking turns to play different people’s ‘most fun’  If I didn’t enjoy making game for other people, I’m in the wrong career!

Then I settled down to a Discworld campaign – playing an Ex-Sacrificial Virgin, and a Shadowrun campaign, playing something magical I think, but that didn’t last all that long, because we ran into a problem. Mike wouldn’t play in Alvar’s game, Alvar wouldn’t play in Mike’s game, Ian didn’t want to run two games in a week. So the group suggested I could GM. Mike had a load of the adventure modules, and I stumbled through most of them over the next couple of years – including one summer where we played five times a week. Oh the halcyon days of youth. Moral: try to maintain a work /game balance

Since then I’ve played several Vampire games; a long running Werewolf campaign set in Canada, full of epic poetry and snow; and a lot of DnD 4th. I’ve dipped my toe into most of the big systems, and had more indie and oneshots than would be feasible to namedrop. – last Nationals it was easier to tell them the categories I couldn’t run for! Long campaigns I’ve run include a lot of WOD – often crossover. All of those are firmly in the “action and antihero with horror elements” category – I don’t do well with true horror.  Moral: find what you like, and explore that. Until it gets old, then find something else.

After a long time of playing the local linear LRP,  a bunch of us went to try this new fest called Maelstrom. I had five characters over a decade of play, and loved each one. The perfidy of betrayal, real tears at loss, the joy as schemes came to fruition, the anger at invasion of our lands, and finally being on ‘the winning (surviving) side, leading a procession of converts into the sunset Moral : throw yourself at games hard, and they will reward you with experiences. I still play the next game from the same company , Empire. After six years,Sofia i Del’Toro i Riqueza has quite some depth, but I haven’t finished her story yet. The clan is growing, and we’re starting to be a political powerhouse.

I’m currently in a 13th age campaign, although this year I’ve dipped in and out of other short games as work and health dictate. I’ve been doing a lot more boardgaming, and recently dug out the cardboard crack which is MTG – and discovered that some of my cards are valuable, but most of my decks can’t play in anything other than casual. Moral: variety is the spice of gaming

So there you go. A whistle stop down Memory Lane. Why not share your weirdest gamer story with us? If we get enough, we might even publish some of them!

 

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Geeking about Gaming: Ali on Board Games

This month, we’re looking at board games. Loz and I play less than the other half of the team, so a few weeks back we went to a seminar on board game design. The fundamental question they told us to ask is “What makes this fun?” Who is it fun for, and what elements add to that kind of fun? Then one can work out how to make that kind of fun – be that problem solving, storytelling, surreality or whatever.

Not everyone enjoys the same things, so we’ve been thinking about what kind of games we like, as sample gamers, and this will hopefully help us make better games. May be not as technically brilliant, but more fun.

Me, I hate playing anything where the winner is pretty much “whoever owns the game”. I loathe the idea that a new player (especially if it’s me) can make a fundamental error through ignorance and just not stand a chance. I accept that there’s skill to most games, and that strategies develop with time. But it would be nice to think I’m not just fodder for a foregone conclusion. Conversely, I also dislike games where the outcome is totally random. Snakes and Ladders will not be featuring on my top ten anytime soon.

Best example of this ‘newb = loser’ problem is the Serenity boardgame. There is a best winning strategy here, and it basically goes *SPOILERS* get River Tam as fast as possible. I remember one evening playing through the game three times (someone had got it for a birthday and wanted to thoroughly road test it), and by the third one, we had resorted to making up our own stories about the cargo we were carrying, and pretty much ignoring the progress of the board part of the game.

One metric to consider is the “Christmas Day Test” Assuming you got this game for Christmas, how soon after that could you play it? Most boardgames, it should be a couple of hours or less. Wargames take a little longer if you have to paint models. RPGs, you need a group of mates, so that could be variable, but how long does chr gen take once you sit down with the book?

When Ste asked what my favorite mechanic is, I went with “incremental increases, slow build up of power”. I play a lot of RTS on computers, and my standard strategy for those is to fort up. Lots of towers, troops parked at chokepoints, and climb the tech tree. So I kind of like boardgames that have this element. Ticket to Ride, Stone Age and Privateer have all been played multiple times, and still have replayability.. I once played Lords of Waterdeep – and barring that it took ages to set up, that was great fun too.

Oh and in a complete opposite, quick little social games. I boardgame largely because my mates do, and so something a bit silly fits this nicely.. Braggart, In a Pickle and Ninja Burger fall into this category. Oh, and as a side effect of the mates I have, we tend towards words rather than numbers. That may seem odd for a bunch which contains multiple dyslexics – but words have more clues to meaning than numbers.

I guess I’m not a good fit for a boardgame market sample because one of the answers to “what games do you like” is ‘new ones’. That’s why I love the idea of boardgames libraries. Play something different every time!

That’s nice lead-in to giving a shout to our friend over at Dungeons and Flagons, who are doing a day event for Free RPG day on the 16th of June. Hmm, I’d better write something for that!

By the by, anyone who does Empire LRP, I’ll see you in a field this weekend. Hope for some good weather for us.

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Sci-Fi Concept Cards: Space is Big! [On helping the sci-fi GM]

Click for full size

 

“Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

No, really, space IS big. Most fantasy games cover a kingdom, or even a whole world. Scifi adventures cover whole galaxies – maybe even the Universe. Throw in time travel as well, and that’s a lot to fill. Ever wonder why there’s a maximum of half a dozen locations on any given planet?  

Because no author, filmmaker or designer can actually portray space as big as it is, and still have something we can relate to. So you get ‘this week’s planet is a jungle’ “this civilisation is Ancient Greece, but IIIIN SPAACE!”

As GMs, we have to walk a tightrope between not enough detail and too much. We have to include enough from the canon to make it the setting we chose to play in, while writing enough new to make the story our own.

Think for a minute about Star Wars. The middle unstated bit of the original trilogy – after Yavin, before Hoth. Vader hunts down the Resistance because they are a problem. So there are stories to be told elsewhere about other groups of intrepid resistance fighters getting up the Empire’s nose, enough that the Rebellion as a whole is more than just Luke, Leia, Wedge and a handful of extras. But because we’re playing Star Wars, we probably need to visit Tatooine and Hoth and Bespin and Coruscant – otherwise we could be anywhere (The problem of who gets to be the Jedi is a different argument, which I am not getting involved with) But we also need new places, not specified in the book. Places that aren’t in the films, because we were there – and if my personal experience of playing Star Wars is in any way indicative, probably blew up / made uninhabitable / sent to the Dark Side / set up franchises on  – whichever seemed most destructive.at the time.

In order to tell fun stories, the GM needs a whole pile of people to meet, shoot at, betray, fall in love with, and rescue. Planets we can freely visit, come from or devastate. Locations to rob, blow up, control or maybe even just occasionally walk away from. (does anyone spot a theme to my scifi games?) So, we here at Artemis are writing a whole bunch of concepts for you to wrangle into your games.

Unlike the fantasy cards, every card is likely going to need tweaking to fit the setting you play in. Take Lt. Commander Martinn Jarvi. He’s an Imperial Officer, young for his rank,  who believes in absolute galactic order, knows all the right people to get ahead, and has a remarkably quiet voice. He’s even prepared to sacrifice lives for the greater good.

A card of generation alpha-0.2 – come back soon for a more polished version.

In Star Wars, depending on when you play, he might be a Republic official, a Death Star officer, or a New Order officer. Other than that he can be pretty much dropped in as is.

For Star Trek, he almost certainly works for the Federation, but the liberal attitudes of that organisation don’t really fit him. Make him a Vulcan, however, and the desire for order and logic becomes much more explicable.

In Warhammer 40k, he could be an officer in the Imperial Navy, but he makes a much better impact as a Space Marine, stamping out heresy and rebellion. He’s a good fit for an Ultramarine, but he has to be demoted to Sergeant to fit the much smaller deployment model the Marines have. The quiet voice becomes firmer, and his physical description becomes more about his transhuman anatomy than “probably blond hair and blue eyes” He could also be an Inquisitor, where his stamping on everyone ‘just to make sure’ makes him a suitably fanatical antagonist.

Likewise other settings will need him to morph to reasonably exist. Some internal locations make more sense on planets than on space stations, or vice versa  – perhaps the mine is on a nearby asteroid, and the ore is processed on the space station? We’re trying to make as few as possible that couldn’t exist on DS 9 or Babylon 5 – you might never have seen the Water Processing Plant, but logically there probably is one. And your contact wants to meet there – why?

Stories work because we, the protagonists, go to interesting places and meet fascinating people. And not always kill them. Unless they wear black hats. Morality in gaming? That’s a whole ‘nother question for a whole ‘nother day.

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Music and Sound in Fantasy Games

In character

Music in character is usually either of the PCs making – often on the level of  “bluff bluff bluff the stupid ogre”, or from the GM as part of scene setting. Your players may run the gamut of skills in music or lyrics, so other than saying “if you find a bard with any actual talent, encourage them” I’m going to focus on what you can influence as a GM..

Every book, talk and advice from older GMs on scene setting I have ever come across features the hint “use all the senses” Seeing as I’m the musician of the team. I figured I’d focus on sound.

Think about the ambient sound in any location. Is it busy and cosmopolitan, with many voices in multiple languages?. Is the only sound the rustling of the trees? Is there music, and if so, what? From the 1920s onwards, is there a radio or TV – or hyperview? Tuned to what channel?

For help with what kind of sounds are appropriate (technically, it’s called building a soundscape) imagine loading up one of the old fashioned computer RPGs – Ultima, Baldur’s Gate or Fable. When you walk into the pub, it plays “Jolly Pub Theme” when you walk into the woods, it plays “Spooky Forest Theme” What theme would your location need? Take a look amongst your DVD collection, at the extras. Do any of them have a piece on Sound in This Film – Men in Black 2 had an awesome piece about foley work – getting the right sound of footsteps or bodies falling. Or aliens exploding, but that was less transferable.

Musical styles invoked in description can bring a sense of place, or of pace. Think of walking into a nightclub. Is it a metal bar? Is it full of thumping techno? A jazz lounge? The picture in your head is likely very different in each case. Use that to evoke what kind of emotion your players feel – a biker might be tense in a pool hall that played classical, but much more at home if it played “Hits of the Seventies”

We can use music to colour in civilisations too. Use the pentatonic sound of Japanese music to shade in a place where elves hang out. Perhaps the islanders here play reggae? Deciding on the musical style of a culture can help you – and your players – get a handle on what kind of people these are – by paralleling them to the mundane culture that developed that kind of music.

 

In games

Over time, every GM acquires a repertoire of what I call ‘effects’. Things you can do to bring the game to life for your players. Music is one of the easiest of these, but I’m going to throw a few others into the mix too.

Voice time

I’m going to assume you can act a bit here. Think about the voices of your NPCs. Not everyone can pull off convincing accents – but if you can, consider making some characters have a Southern drawl, an Irish brogue, a Geordie twang. Even if the NPC has the same accent you do, think about tone. A reedy “when shall we three meet again?” has little in common with “I’m Brian Blessed”. Although you should take care not to annoy the neighbours, you could vary the volume – think Good Morning Vietnam’s “I’m in Artillery!” A character who whispers (or stage whispers) could make what he says seem more important.

Terminator tapping

So the party are investigating a haunted house. The ghost in question is an Iteration X construct – basically, a Terminator. So when the players are busy rolling to investigate the attic, I start to tap on the arm of my chair. Da Da Dum Da-Dum.  Da Da Dum Da-Dum – until one of the players notices. Then stop. Then when they’re arguing about what they’ve found, again. Da Da Dum Da-Dum.  Da Da Dum Da-Dum.. The same player looks at my fingers, tapping. “Guys, I’ve got a gut feeling this isn’t a human thing. Can robots leave ghosts?” Cue the one member of the party with the skill roll a Mage Lore check and leap to the thought that the pool of mercury wasn’t ectoplasm, it was body remains.

This trick only works if the musical theme is instantly recognisable – think the opening from Close Encounters of the Third Kind; Ode to Joy; or Land of Hope and Glory. Movie and TV music are good for this – Cantina Band, the Indiana Jones theme, X-files  Instantly set the mood for cinematic games with the “title sequence” – this was very effectively done in a convention game with the Nerf Herder track for a Buffy the Vampire Slayer game

Give a major NPC a ringtone that indicates something about him. Have a theme song for characters to indicate hidden influence in a scene – even if it never makes it out of your notes, it can help you remember the emotional backdrop – spooky, pensive, tense, lighthearted, comedy.

 

Phone box mobile

So, another convention game – Shadowrun this time. Contact Bob has two pieces of useful information for the party – one he will reveal for the asking, and one he thinks of later. So what would a good buddy do. Call you back.

A call from a friend became much more real when the GM’s mobile rang with “BOB” on the screen. The GM hands the phone unanswered to the player whose contact is Bob. “it’s for you” Player picks up the phone, answers, and “Bob” – with a similar drawl to the GM’s first personation – rattles off Information Point Two, and finishes up with ‘gotta go, think the cops are coming. See ya’

Achieved by priming a steward pal to slip out to the phone box in the hall, ‘any time after you get the text’. Turned out to be exactly right timing, but by more luck than judgement. Not really something you can pull off every week, but nice for a showpiece.

So, sound in RPGs.-  Music, rhythms, voices, ringtones, Think about the tools you have – computer, phone, hands to click or clap, and use them to develop a soundscape that complements your gameworld.

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Posted in art

Why is Halloween Monstrous?

Samhain Offerings by Avia Venefica

 

This time of year is associated with ghosties and ghoulies and long leggedy beasties. But why? Apart from “it’s cold and dark and time for fires therefore stories”.

The derivation of Halloween from Samhain is a classic example of cultural evolution.

The exact details of the original festival are unclear, because the Celts wrote down very little – most of our sources are later and/or Roman, and thus it is akin to studying the Blitz using only present day memories or German sources. Still, we know many of the details, and as the festival never fully died out much more can be recovered from the later forms.

The world of the ancestors flows away from and towards our own, and comes close four times a year – at the beginning of each of the seasons. At Beltane – Mayday – the helpful spirits of the land cross over, and their blessings are welcomed with flowers and dance as summer begins. But at the beginning of Winter, darker spirits roam, and meeting one brings only curses. So the prudent householder would bribe the spirits with whatever he had excess of to ward off their ill will. The barley harvest falls in early September, so six weeks later, the first beer of the new year would just be ready, apples have also just been harvested and milk is less seasonal, so these became the traditional gifts. If one had a good harvest, one would share with neighbours, so that the spirits would see one as a good friend and be unable to harm the good man.

Young people would dress up as “spirits” and wander the village, claiming the bribes on behalf of the spirits. After all, are we not kin of the ancestors – and if they don’t turn up in person, don’t let it go to waste! The fact that the feast falls at the end of a period of very hard work – preparing for winter – probably contributes to this part of the celebration

Enter Christianity. The early church sought to adapt facets of the older faiths – it’s why Christmas falls so conveniently at Yule/Winter Solstice. The old spirits can’t possibly be good, therefore they must be devils. And anyone who feeds them must be witches. Of the old-crone-cursing variety, not our modern follower-of-a-nature-faith variety.

So, the Church co-opted the idea of reverence for the gone-before, and invented All Saints and All Souls – an opportunity for any local do-gooder to be remembered and prayed for, reducing time in Purgatory. They ditched the pagan aspect, and made the returning spirits evil. The sharing-with-neighbours part fit too, and became the Harvest Festival.

When the Americas were settled, Irish migrants took the old stories with them. As the USA developed its own culture as a blend of its constituent parts, the Irish merged with the French and Germanic witch and fairy traditions (for example, Oberon is first seen as an antagonist of Charlemagne) and All Hallows Eve became the time to mock the evil spirits by dressing as them. As sugar became a more prevalent product, giving the ‘ghosts’ a piece of sugar cane became easier than beer or milk. Sugar cane became chocolate, became any kind of Treat, to ward off the Tricks of the “fairy folk “.

Now Halloween means hordes of small children begging for candy, and teenagers demanding money in return for not putting fireworks through your door.. I’m not sure I like the evolution, so I celebrate this time of year by sharing the fruits of my labour. Here you go, neighbour! Have a whole lot of thinking.

So what?

If your fantasy culture has been around for a while – centuries or millennia – it has likely evolved in a similar fashion. There will be those who keep fast to some version of ‘the old ways’ and some who have applied them in new ways. If a nation has been conquered, colonised or even conquered others, the newcomers bring new customs and new gods, and few conquerors allowed the natives to worship unhindered. Even mundane things like introducing a new crop can reflect in the spiritual life of a people. According to a Papal Bull, capybara are officially fish (despite being rodents) so Catholics can eat them on Fridays.

Think about how the new gods and the old interact. Do you follow the Ice and Fire model of “some worship one set, some the other, mostly they coexist, and that’s fine”

The Roman model of “Zeus? You mean Jupiter. Sulis? Oh, you mean Athena.”

The Christian model of “Our god is the only god and all others are evil”

Or even the Mongol model “there are many gods, and yours are ok, as long as you don’t try to convert us”

When languages merge, you get dialects and creoles. When cultures collide, you get history. And what is history but another branch of storytelling?

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Using Jigsaw Fantasy 3: The Links

The setting material we write is not intended to be a joined up world – we’ve always written with an eye to modifying already existing worlds, whether published or homebrew. Between Jigsaw and Concept Cards, we’ve written enough that there could be a whole campaign setting in there – but that’s not their purpose.1)Using them in lieu of a structured campaign setting on the other hand is a perfectly reasonable option – it’s simply that each person doing so will end up with a different world

So Jigsaw Fantasy provides “Jigsaw Links” to help with this. How best can you use the Links in the appendix of each piece? In the Floating City, we describe the worship of Uzhangya, Goddess of the Sea. But she’s really specific – and whatever world you play, there will almost certainly be a deity of the sea already. So Uzhangya could be another sea-deity, or an aspect of an existing one, or you could swap her out with one of her fellow deities.

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References   [ + ]

1. Using them in lieu of a structured campaign setting on the other hand is a perfectly reasonable option – it’s simply that each person doing so will end up with a different world