Sci-Fi Concept Cards: Suit Symbols

Three of the interim suit symbols for sci-fi concept cards – destined to be replaced.

In the Concept Cards line we treat the connection between card and concept quite seriously, using it both as a design tool and a way to standardise the structure of the concepts. Every card is defined by its primary suit – and each suit has a specific meaning in any given deck.

Over the course of the 11 decks of fantasy Concept Cards the meanings of the suits varied significantly, with each suit having at least two meanings (and most having three) – so when we came to start writing the Sci-Fi Concept Cards we decided to take a step back and think about what we were going to do with the suits.

We knew we were only doing a limited set of decks for Sci-Fi, whether 3 or 4, so we could plan ahead and get them all consistent – or so we thought.

It turns out that there was a very strong reason we weren’t consistent before – different concepts have different needs. There were some inconsistencies that could be solved by planning ahead, but others can’t be.

In the end we made only one major step towards consistency: in the original (fantasy) Character Cards decks Spades was the characters profession while Diamonds was their appearance – but in the Location Cards and Plot Hooks decks Spades was physical characteristics and Diamonds was wealth – so in Sci-Fi Character Cards we’ve made Diamonds the suit of their work, how they earn their wealth, and Spades the suit of appearances.

The suit meanings as they’re currently set out are:

Clubs: Connections/Politics for Characters and Planets, Dangers for Locations.
Diamonds: Wealth, resources or profession
Hearts: Desires/behaviours for Characters, Inhabitants for Planets and Locations 1)Listing the inhabitants of each character would be quite samey – E. Coli and other digestive bacteria every time.
Spades: Physical Traits

Of course, meanings aren’t the only complication when it comes to designing suit symbols. As you saw at the top, we have a set of interim images – but they’re far from the final version. For fantasy Concept Cards we had the amazing Marcos Hidalgo drawing the suit symbols, but this time around we’re looking for talent that we can afford to properly pay – people who either want to join the team, or who do such drawings as a job – rather than relying on finding another enthusiastic and artistic fan who’s just happy to be paid in decks!

My art skills (as displayed above) are massively better than they were, but they’re still not up to the standards we want for our work. By this time next month we should have better ones to show you!

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References   [ + ]

1. Listing the inhabitants of each character would be quite samey – E. Coli and other digestive bacteria every time.

Sci-Fi Concept Cards: What do we Mean by Sci-Fi?

In space, no-one can hear you complain about the colour palette

 

As you hopefully know by now, our next major project is another set of Concept Cards, this time Sci Fi Concept Cards. (If you don’t know what Concept Cards are, take a look at the fantasy ones here.)

Science fiction is a huge genre – it encompasses everything set five minutes or more into the future, and some thing that are set in the past too – especially when you include time travel. We couldn’t possibly hope to cover all possibilities in one deck – characters would range from the Victorian dandy making strange steam powered inventions in his basement, via cyberpunk corporate salarymen, to star ship captains. While there is no doubt scope for some variants of those in each other’s sub-genres (the steampunk airship needs a captain), there are enough differences that we don’t think it would be helpful. In future perhaps these will get their own decks – but not right now. (n.b. In the Fantasy Epic Locations deck there is already one sci fi reference – the Urban Emperor, The Last of the Ancients, is a man in stasis wearing a bathrobe, and references both Red Dwarf and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)

What we mean here, then, is the kind of sci fi that involves starships and blasters. From Star Wars to Star Trek, to Firefly, to Warhammer 40,000 and even Eclipse Phase and The Foundation Trilogy.1)Ste Note: I’m drawing a bit from Schlock Mercenary too

These settings feature relatively ubiquitous space travel, some form of interstellar travel, aliens, blasters and/or laser weaponry, huge threats larger than a person, a city, or even a planet, and so forth. There are exceptions, of course – The Foundation Trilogy only features humans, Firefly takes place entirely in one solar system, In Eclipse Phase interstellar travel is limited to Pandora Gates, and Stargate has present day humans exposed to a far more advanced setting.

How interstellar travel works is something which can help define a setting – for instance in 40k the Warp is incredible dangerous, while in Star Trek, travelling at Warp Speed is rarely a problem (barring unusual accident, which inevitably happen to the Enterprise). The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has such unusual methods as the Infinite Improbability Drive (whereby it is incredibly unlikely you will simply teleport from one point in space to another, so if one can increase the level of improbability high enough it’s bound to happen), and Bill the Galactic Hero has the Bloater Drive (which works by expanding the space between atoms such that the ship is the size of the entire distance between the start and the end of the journey, and then condensing them back to normal.)

Then there is the question of psychic powers. These show up in many forms and are surprisingly common. In Star Wars the Force is a natural energy that connects all things, but in Eclipse Phase it’s caused by an infection by a sentient techno-virus, while in 40k if you overuse them you’re likely to get eaten by daemons (as is anyone standing too close to you). Regardless, they are usually rare and barely understood (even by the practitioners), but the subject of much research.

Faith also plays a surprisingly large part in sci fi. In Star Trek the Federation is atheist, but many of the other cultures are not – notably the Klingons are deeply religious, but they killed their gods for holding them back! But despite this exploration of faith, the genre doesn’t allow “gods did it” to be an explanation very often, and when it does the gods usually turn out to be extremely powerful aliens or fakes by people using technology or psychic powers.

Beyond all that there are new people, new places, new planets, and new ideas to explore. In Dark Heresy they are probably evil cultists hell-bent on causing death and destruction, and must be stopped at all costs, while in Babylon 5 the aliens have most likely come to the space station rather than the protagonists going to them, but the point stands.

And that, I think, is the key to science fiction –

Exploration of the new and the unknown.  

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References   [ + ]

1. Ste Note: I’m drawing a bit from Schlock Mercenary too

Artemis Games New Years Resolutions

Today is new years day – so we’re all a bit drained from yesterday – but we still want to say something significant. So here are the business-related new years resolutions for us this year:

  1. Go all-in on the February Concept Cards Kickstarter: More marketing, more contacts, better prep. It’s our central product, we need to make sure everyone sees its value.
  2. Work with local game stores to demo and advertise our products – help new players find our tools.
  3. Rebrand Jigsaw Fantasy – either when Dr!p launches, or when we’ve finished design work on Science Fiction Concept Cards.
  4. Talk to at least one publisher each month about getting one of our card games into production.
  5. Get more connected to the UK and international tabletop design communities – and look for opportunities to collaborate with other members of that community.
  6. Continue developing our art resources, and connecting with artists, to create the best looking products possible.
  7. Always remember that we have to look after our own health – and each others – in order to be productive.

 

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Amy and Ste Writing Techniques

Neither of us are even close to that neat…

 

Amy – by Amy

For me it usually starts with me watching, reading or dreaming about something and thinking “That’s interesting, but how does it work” or “Could it be done another way” or “I want to know more, but there’s no answers around”…

  • Then I usually write a small bit of it – an introduction or some bullet points on the bits of the piece that make immediate sense.
  • And I ask myself some questions – like why and how it exists, and what it smells and sounds like.
  • For instance with The Floating city, I had always liked the idea of a moving ocean city in fantasy with the city on the back of dragon turtles, and also the floating cities in the real world in vietnam and south america, but I didn’t want to simply copy either, I wanted to combine aspects of both – and then I saw a show call “The Future is Wild” and it had giant jellyfish and I realised that they could work as the base of a floating city. But once it came to writing it I had to work out how that would work in fantasy world, i.e. why would the jellyfish allow people to build upon them, and never dive beneath the waves.
  • So I make a template asking these questions within the piece, both for Jigsaw Fantasy and for the Monstrous Monday Blogs.
    • Questions often delve into things that are commonly ignored in fiction – for instance “Where do Kraken nest?”.
  • I also try to give background to a few things that most people might see as just a monster or just someone they met on the road – a bit of back story and place they come from – whether that be the origin of a species, or a young royal elf would be traveling with children he’s not related to.
  • When I know what I want to write to about but am stuck on how or what to say, there a few different things I do to help with this like
    • I go on a run, and think about it as I do so.
    • Read or watch some more information about it.
    • I talk it over with Ste
    • I dream walk, which is a bit like lucid dreaming, but rather than taking full control I just pick a point from which to allow my thoughts to spread – I do this either while in a half-asleep state, or while meditating.
  • My pieces are always finished off with a pass by Ste, doing a deep-dive of copy-editing that often involves filling out some areas where I’ve forgotten to put down things that I know about the piece – simply due to the fact that, with my dyslexia, I don’t always put things in writing.

 

Ste – by Ste

My pieces begin with a “High Concept” some major element of worldbuilding (or, in the case of People with Two Sides character building) that I feel a drive to explore – whether that be “the greatest possible city”, “a glacial disaster”, “nature on steroids” or “why do Devils really want souls”

  • I then break it down into subsections, writing a brief synopsis of each subsection at the start (this is generally cut from the final piece). Each of these subsections is something I expect to be roughly the same length – if they prove not to be I’ll subdivide further.
  • My subsections often share a structure, at least at first – for instance geographic ones will each have the same number of major elements from their region explored in depth, while each character will explore a set number of sensations and of behaviours.
  • I ask Amy what she thinks of my subsections and she’ll ask those questions that she alway asks herself 1)She does this with every piece she reads, but with those by Ali and Loz it’s often late enough in the process that there’s no longer space to devote to longer answers to those questions, and they end up in the Jigsaw Links as more open questions.
  • After the edits Amy prompts, the strictness of my writing structure is almost always broken, but that’s not a problem as the structure was there as *scaffolding* to help me write clearly.

 

Together at the End – By both of us

We always finish off our pieces together, chucking problems and ideas back and forth as they come up.

  • Sometimes art will change how we see something – “Why is a male elf wearing what looks a wedding dress?”
  • Occasionally Jigsawing makes significant changes – something that was specified one way actually makes sense multiple different ways.
  • Every now and then we have to cut something for space, due to over-writing – it is in these cases that we’re most likely to look at whether the patrons want a semi-sequel piece.

 

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References   [ + ]

1. She does this with every piece she reads, but with those by Ali and Loz it’s often late enough in the process that there’s no longer space to devote to longer answers to those questions, and they end up in the Jigsaw Links as more open questions.

Lovely Layout and Wonderful Workflow

Not Actually Me

I thought I’d talk a little about how we go about producing the Jigsaw pieces (or whatever they get renamed to, see the post from two weeks ago – while you’re here, if you haven’t already, can you tell us which names you prefer?)

[Ste Note: This article talks primarily about Loz and Ali’s Workflow – next week we’ll talk about mine and Amy’s and about how our differences help improve the pieces.]

It all starts, of course, with an idea. That idea can come from anywhere – something we’ve read, seen, eaten or written can spark an idea, but it then needs refinement. Sometimes that’s a pretty simple affair, other times it can require significantly more time in the shower. We often discuss these ideas with each other (not usually while in the shower) to get them to a point where we can do something with them. I tend to write less and have more notes, while Ali tends to write a lot more at this stage, and keep the notes in her head.

This can be a case of limiting rather than widening an idea. Death Rites started with the idea that much of what we know of ancient cultures comes from their burials (as discovered when sitting round a campfire with a bunch of archaeologists!), so it could be interesting to look at fantasy cultures from a similar viewpoint – but the question then became *which* cultures? About whom would it be most interesting to describe their death rites? Of course many adventurers are buried inside a dragon…

Comments from our backers can feed into this process too – for example the Panoply of Annem Ka took on an Egyptian flavour because someone said they wanted to see things that would fit into an Egyptian, Arabic, or Persian type milieu. It could have just as easily been Mayan or Norse in flavour – or even taken something from Shinto, if the spirits in the items were not those of once-living people.

Then we go away and write a kind of proof of concept – it’s usually the first few pages, and then notes about enough of the rest that it’s believable that it could be completed relatively easily, in the required amount of time, and to the required length. We use Google Docs for this because we can all read and edit the thing at the same time without having to worry about file locks, or working on an old version.

 

Then we wait.

 

We ask our patrons to vote on which of three pieces they would like to see – each of the three pieces will be in the state described above. Once a piece is selected it’s time to get to work. We have approximately a month to take it from ready to vote to ready to release, and whoever is the named author has the bulk of that pressure – ideally it will be expanded to full length within two weeks.

It’s at that point that the collaborative features of Google Docs come to the fore – the rest of us will read over it and add sarcastic comments, correct typos, rework sections so the grammar is clearer, and question things which aren’t clear. This can be pretty brutal, but we all know it’s going to end up with a better end result so we’re pretty thick skinned about it.

We also look for art. Sometimes pieces will come to mind when writing (most dramatically in the as yet unreleased Dream Monkeys of Antoon, which was inspired by a rather odd trend amongst 17th century Dutch artists of painting monkeys doing human jobs!), other times we will draw from stock art we have bought, or from various free sources such as Wikimedia Commons. These images can require some modification, something Ste has been doing more of recently.

We try to make sure the images (and their captions) expand on the text rather than just illustrate it – for example in the piece named Dragons, (and the freebie excerpt The Dragon and the Convent) a statue has the caption “The statue which Caron crashed into is damaged, but still stands in the main chapel as a reminder.” – this then tells you something about the decoration of the chapel and the sentimentality of the dragon Caron.

Once the first pass has been done, and we have some idea of art, I do the final layout. I have built a template, which includes the basic shape, custom fonts and whatever else. For this I use Libre Office, mostly because I know it well. I looked into other page layout tools and none of them seemed to do anything much better than a custom template on Libre Office does. (In future, Libre Office is going to have a collaborative version, so I may end up running it on a home server and working in that instead of Google Docs, but that’s not stable yet.). This usually takes a couple of passes to get right, especially if we discover at this stage that the piece is too long, too short, has too little or too much art, or the art is unhelpfully distributed – art is never finalised until this stage for that reason.

Eventually we get to the proofreading stage – Generally Ali and Ste will do this, and they don’t always spot the same errors! It’s gone through many eyes already, but typos have an infuriating way of slipping past, so inevitably there will be a few errors that creep through and need fixing after all else is done. Nowadays that’s usually less than ten, but in the early days it was far more and I used to dread having to do significant work on the layout because so many spelling or grammar oddities had changed the flow significantly!

Eventually it gets released to the backers of the Patreon via DrivethruRPG.

Now, this blog post will need to be proofread before it goes up – I wonder how many typos I’ve made…

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Changes to Patreon Fees – a response

The Changes

Patreon are changing their fee structure, as of the 18th of December – it’s simpler, but almost without fail, it’s going up. More drastically they’re moving the onus of these fees from the creators to the backers.

Currently if you back a project for a given amount you pay that much (plus VAT or similar if you’re in the EU). Patreon then take their fees out of that and pass the rest onto the creators – they take a cut, plus the card companies take a cut, and so forth, and the end result is 2-10% of the amount you pledge goes on processing fees, and Patreon take another 5% – this means 7-15% of your pledge does not go to the creators. That percentage varies depending how much you are backing in total over however many projects you back, so the precise amount a creator gets is a little bit unpredictable.

However, the new structure passes that onus onto the backers – they will now charge a flat 2.9%, plus 35¢ per pledge (plus VAT or similar in the EU). They are also keeping their 5% fee. This means the amount a creator gets is far more predictable, and that creators get the amount you say you want to pledge to them. However it also significantly raises the amount backers pay. The amount the backer pays becomes ((<pledge>+2.9%)+0.35¢)+20%, and we get <pledge>-5%.

Of course Patreon have to charge for their services – they have costs, and being a business I’m sure they would like to make a profit as well. That is in no way the issue here.

Examples

We have three backers levels, at $1, $3, and $5, so let’s use those numbers. I’ll assume VAT at 20% as it currently is in the UK (but working in US dollars because that’s what Patreon works in!). Let’s also add a theoretical $25 pledge.

Your pledge  Old system                             New system

.                       You pay        We Get             | You Pay              We Get 

$1                     $1.20            $0.85 – $0.93 |   $1.66                 $0.95

$3                    $3.60           $2.55 – $2.79   |  $4.13                 $2.85

$5                    $6.00           $4.25 – $4.65   | $6.56                 $4.75

$25                  $30             $21.25 – $23.25 | $31.29               $23.75

Now, if you back a single Patreon project for a moderate amount of money, the change is not *that* big. However if you back, say, twenty-five projects for a dollar each, you’ve just gone from spending $30 to spending $41.50 (possibly a few cents less, depending how they aggregate  and round things) – yet if it were a single pledge of $25 to one creators the increase would be $1.29, rather than $11.50!

Art – a side note

On top of this, they’re changing the way creator’s pledges work. Currently if you create a project and get money in you can spend that money on other Patreons without any processing fees – if we pledge $5 to a project for, say, art we can use in our project, the creator gets $5. They are now going to be charging creators the processing fees on those pledges too despite the fact that as it’s an internal transaction from Patreon to themselves there are no fees for them to pay!

So what do we do?

Well therein lies the problem – we don’t really know!

We are not happy about this, and do not want to reward their behaviour. Further we fear this could be the beginning of the end for Patreon and don’t want to hang around too long on a sinking ship – we have already lost some backers, and expect to lose more when people see larger bills than they are expecting come January.

There are other platforms we could use, the most important of which is Drip, which is as far as I can tell, basically Kickstarter’s answer to Patreon – if you have a Kickstarter account you can back a Drip project already, but they are only allowing creators by invite at the moment, and we don’t know when that will change. (The name is awful, but the user base makes it worth looking past that for us!).

One thing we will definitely be doing is setting up “Subscription” bundles on DrivethruRPG – essentially it works as regular bundle except that not everything in it has been released yet, and is only added when it is. We’d probably look at 3, 6 and 12 month bundles, which would be paid up front. (as a side note, these would make wonderful Christmas presents for the GM in your life!)

We have a few options:

  1. Remain on Patreon for the time being. Possibly move to Drip when it opens to the public.
  2. Set up a subscription service via Paypal. Again, look at Drip when it opens.
  3. Shut down until Drip opens. This would be more palatable if we knew when that was – a month or two would be no problem, six months would be.
  4. Move to another platform. This would likely have a far smaller user base. When we were setting up this project much of our interest came from previous Kickstarter projects, and we frequently heard “But I don’t want to set up another account on another site” or similar.
  5. Move to a donation model and releasing everything for free (with donors probably getting pieces early) – again this would be via another site, possibly Flattr.
  6. Just release pieces on DrivethruRPG and allow them to be purchased when released. Using just the bundles described above has the drawback of lumpy cash-flow, both for us and for backers – a few dollars a month is much more palatable than one lump sum and then nothing – and DrivethruRPG has fees that are comparable to Patreon’s new ones (if somewhat more honest).
  7. Something else we haven’t thought of.

We really, really need your help here, so please tell us which of the options you would like (especially when you would spend money) in the comments wherever you found this, or by following this link and filling in the form. 

In Conclusion

Patreon have made what we consider to be a grave error in this change, but we are not sure what we should do in response. We do not begrudge them taking a cut – they have costs as well – but the hike in price, especially on those who spread their generosity around the most, is probably going to do more harm than good for us, for them, and for you.

While we’ve got you…

Last week we asked about your preferred named for our coming rebranding – changing platform would appear to also be unexpectedly on the cards for that rebranding. Can we ask you to tell us which names you prefer.

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Rebranding Our Patreon – What and Why?

This month we’re going to be talking about our ongoing project, Jigsaw Fantasy, and why that’s not going to be its name any more – and what else is changing at the same time.

Come January we’re going to be officially rebranding it, and making a few other changes to new products in the line.

First lets talk about what we’re doing:

The Big Name Change

We need a new name for Jigsaw Fantasy. The old one just isn’t cutting it.

We have a few options, and we’d like you to give us your input on which name you prefer.

Endnotes -> Footnotes

Originally we decided to have Jigsaw Fantasy have “jigsaw links” as endnotes as we saw them as akin to references in a book – you flip over to find out what it says in the cases where you feel you need to.

But as the design has developed, the use of the links has become more of an informational aside, with occasional references – more suitable to a footnote.

It will also help with making them physical if we ever do so again – endnotes are great with hyperlinks in digital form, but physically it results in an odd reading experience.

Art Updates

We’ve gotten a bit better at sourcing art than we were in the very earliest days of Jigsaw Fantasy, so we’re going to be updating bits here and there as we gradually go through the older pieces and switch them over to the new brand.

Why?

After the Jigsaw Fantasy Kickstarter failed to reach its funding goal, we knew we had two choices: Give up the project entirely, or work out what the problems were and solve them – and we don’t give up easily!

The biggest problem was, we discovered, the name – most people weren’t reaching the stage of deciding whether or not they liked the product, because the name Jigsaw Fantasy was failing to convey the concept and thus they were never even looking at it.

So, in order to give our concept a fair shot at taking wing we’re rebuilding the image from the ground up – working out what works and ditching what doesn’t, piece by piece.

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Fantastic Food

Emperor Rudolf II as Vertumnus by Giuseppe_Arcimboldo

Everyone’s gotta eat. Well, except the robot and the lich I guess. Most of the time food is not an interesting part of a story – it’s something that is assumed to happen, like sleeping, travelling to the next location, or repetitive practice while learning something new.

It can become interesting though if it is somehow special, or if it is not available.

If food is in short supply, starvation becomes a possibility. If lots of people are starving, there can be all sorts of repercussions – MI5 claim that Britain is only four hot meals from anarchy, and that could easily hold true in fantasy worlds, possibly an even smaller margin if people have less to lose.

If the heroes are short of food, (perhaps trapped in a desert, or a dungeon, or a… um… dreadful diner), what would happen to them? The effects of starvation are slow but potentially deadly- 8 to 12 weeks is normal, but people have survived twice that without any food. Initially fatigue and irritability set in, the the body starts to digest its own fat and muscle reserves. Before long it has to move on to internal organs, and by then even if food is made available the victim may be too weak to even try to eat, and if force fed may suffer permanent organ damage. In a heroic fantasy tale, kidney failure does not make for a good story, so under most circumstances main character will probably manage to find food before organ damage sets in.

But what about when food is available?

Usually “and the heroes eat again” is not very interesting, so much so that in D&D “Create Food and Water” is a very low level spell which solves the problem entirely so long as there’s a cleric in the party.

Sometimes, though, food matters. George R. R. Martin is famous for his descriptions of what the characters are eating, and I seem to recall David Eddings describing a meal of bacon and gruel in rather more detail than was necessary.

A special meal deserves mention, though, whether it be in The Hobbit when the dwarves all show up and eat everything in Bilbo’s larder, or the welcoming feast for the new students at Hogwarts in Harry Potter. These feasts tell us something about the characters and the situations – Bilbo is a creature of comfort who keeps plenty of food in his larder, and Hogwarts is a comfortable and welcoming place (at least on the surface).

Food can, then, tell us things. If a lord throws a banquet and everything is delicate little dishes on fine china that says something quite different to a banquet where the centrepiece is a boar the duke hunted himself, and he tears legs off geese and eats them with his bare hands. But in either case it says that this person is rich, and likes to show it off in the form of entertaining and feeding his guests. In one episode of Batman the Animated Series, the extremely fat villain is seen to always be eating, while not allowing his slaves to do the same because they should be working – unsurprisingly he gets quite satisfyingly beaten up by Batman!

Let me finish on an anecdote: I was playing in an epic level D&D game when we entered a halfling city. I decided my character wanted to buy a cake (he was a by this time recovering psychopath, and wanted to treat the party to something nice), so I went into a nearby cake shop and asked for one. The halfling baker – seeing an opportunity to fleece a rich adventurer – upped the price from about two coppers to two silvers. Not knowing anything about the value of money, I apologised and offered a rare astral diamond instead – that was about a million times more than the cake was worth, but I didn’t wait for change. Being an enterprising halfling, he invested the money in some very special equipment, and from that point on magic potions in the form of cakes have been a running joke in our games! [ED: Ginger cake is an especially good source of fire resistance]

Now, I think it’s time I went and made dinner.

p.s. If you like the way we think, take a look at our patreon

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Posted in art

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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