Lines Are Open

Give me a comment if you’re still reading this much-neglected blog. I recently had to decide whether to keep the site or let it expire, and as you can see I chose the former.

The coming months are busy, but never so much that I can’t post something to social media. In the past, that’s meant Facebook and Twitter (and to a much lesser extent other sites), but I’d like to justify the cost of this site by making it more often my primary outlet. What would you like to see here?

My main thing here has been Creative Colleagues, which I’d like to continue later in the summer when I have more bandwidth. But I’d also like to know what, if anything, you’d like to see in addition to that feature.

Creative Colleagues: Domini Gee & Erin Onufrichuk

Every now and then,I pester my creative colleagues with a few questions about their work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.

Domini Gee and I met recently at a mixer for video-game developers. There she told me about her upcoming project, which she has developed with Erin Onufrichuk after they met at Global Game Jam. After finishing her Master’s degree, Domini has worked as a writer, proofreader, and game tester. Erin is a co-founder of EXP-resso Mutt and works on many weird projects. Having joined forces since 2015, they’ve launched a Kickstarter campaign for Camera Anima.

What are some of the games that inspired you to design your own games?

Erin Onufrichuk

Erin Onufrichuk: I’ve been playing games since I was a little girl, so I want to say Spyro for Playstation One is what started it. Without that series, I don’t think I would have even thought of making a game. I could list a lot of games, but I want to say more of it is the indie world. Small teams create big things that make you happy, and that’s what I want to do. 

Domini Gee: Final Fantasy was a formulative series for me. I’d played Sonic, Pokemon, Digimon World, and more than a few movie-to-game adaptations, but I don’t think I started thinking of games as a way to tell stories until I watched my sister play Final Fantasy IX—and subsequently stole it to play myself. While I did a lot of writing growing up, I didn’t start thinking of applying that to videogames until I took a course on videogame history. My professor mentioned that the university would be starting a videogame design certificate, and I thought, “Wait, that’s an option?”

What is Ren’Py, and how did it help you build your game?

Domini Gee

DG: Ren’Py is a free visual novel engine geared toward helping you create interactive stories with an emphasis on text, images, and sound. A large part of why I started using the engine—love of visual novels aside—was because it’s friendly to non-programmers. The engine generates a save system, a basic set of menus, and start-quit functions off the bat, allowing you to focus on making your game. From there, you can make things as complex as you need.

With Camera Anima, point-and-click gameplay has been the core mechanic since the first demo but the gameplay’s become more refined as we’ve grown more familiar with the engine.  In the first demo, it was a basic hover-click-feedback loop. In later demos, we added things like an inventory system, item equips, and an exploration wheel. There’s a lot of other backdoor stuff that happens to get it to work but, for someone not trained as a programmer, I feel pretty good about what we’ve been able to do thanks to the engine. 

You each have your own areas of expertise, but in what ways do you join forces on the same tasks and directly influence each other’s creativity?

EO: I’d say we join forces in the sense Domini writes the vision and I just pull it out of the digital ink. We both see what something should look like in the end of things. 

DG: Yeah, having someone else involved not only gives you a second set of eyes but it also makes you feel responsible for making sure the other person can do their work. There are concepts that seem straight-forward in my head, but then when I explain it to someone else and they aren’t clear to them, then that tells me it’s time to take a step back and make sure we’re on the same page.

What is the enduring appeal of Steampunk? And how did you decide what other fantastic elements to add to it in your game?

DG: A large part of Steampunk’s appeal, at least for me, is that it’s a romanticized twist on the past. While the Victorian aesthetic is a common base, you don’t haveto be historically accurate. You can pick and choose which aesthetics appeal to you.

With Camera Anima, we used steampunk’s fantastical elements to explain why concepts we had were possible in this world but not ours. The reason the main setting is floating islands? Because it’s filled with aether deposits. The reason technology can be more advanced in certain areas? Its reliant on alternative energy sources like phlogiston and aether crystals. The reason there’s a serial-killer automaton? Because I was drawn to the image of a Jack the Ripper style antagonist, but as a robot.

What are your earliest impressions of crowdfunding and the ways it helps (or hinders) you creatively?

EO: I’m currently waiting for an overdue reward from crowdfunding, which puts a sour taste in my mouth. That makes me understand that someone else might also feel that way. Other than that, I think crowdfunding is an excellent thing, it breaks down so many barriers for creatives. It teaches you the value of marketing yourself to the niche you want to fill.

DG: I agree that the idea of disappointing a bunch of people who’ve put faith in your vision is scary. However, crowdfunding has also pushed us to consider our audience sooner. We have an opportunity to get feedback and implement it.

How do you account for the enduring appeal of point-and-click games in a world of action shooters and RPGs?

DG: I think it helps that point-and-click’s a genre that has helped create a lot of many memorable games. While people think puzzle or adventure games, point-and-click is one of the first mechanics that comes to mind. It’s also a very flexible mechanic. If you can move the cursor and click on something, you can use it. The nature of point-and-click is relaxing and encourages creative thinking.

EO: Shooter games make me panic. I don’t ever think I have enough time, and sure enough I’m down for the count. Point-and-click has a nicer attitude, and the story is what I really care about when it comes to a game.

To follow their current projects, check out Domini’s and Erin’s websites. And don’t forget to take a look at Camera Anima on Kickstarter.

Creative Colleagues: Bob Murch

Every now and then, I pester my creative colleagues with five questions about their work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.

While I’ve worked with many artists, I haven’t met many of my sculpting heroes. Despite his living only one province to the left, I haven’t even encountered Bob Murch at a convention yet. He sits upon a high throne in my personal pantheon of miniature-figure sculptors. I love his style, his taste, and his unabashed love of pulp fiction tropes—especially his occasional translation of a famous screen character onto the personae of his 28mm figures.

Whether they’re for Call of Cthulhu, Gangbusters, Justice Inc., Torg, Savage Worlds, or Bob’s own Rugged Heroes or Black Sun rules, his two-fisted miniatures capture the magic of the bygone years of Republic serials and films like… well, you can see his recommendations below.

Bob sells his miniatures directly from his own Pulp Figures site and through Crucible Crush. Peruse those galleries and enjoy the cosmic horror of deciding which ones to add to your game first.

Bob Murch contemplates his next sculpture.

Which are some of your favorite pulp era heroes and heroines from print or screen? What makes them so iconic even in these days?

Tarzan was my first big Pulp Hero. I discovered several of the old Ballantine paperbacks in the school library around grade seven. After the first book there was no turning back for me. My family went camping lots so I took to not wearing shoes in the summer so my feet would toughen up. I seldom wore a shirt so I could lay down a Tarzan tan. I strung a rope up in the big tree in our backyard and I took to climbing it constantly. My dad remembered walking across the yard, hearing me say hello, looking up and seeing me, once more, in the top of the tree.

Then came Conan.

Why were these characters so Iconic? I’m sure Freud, or more likely Jung, would have a better answer than I do. I think these characters are representative of how we would like to imagine ourselves. Beyond escapism, they embody all manner of strong characteristics, both physically and mentally: honor, fearlessness, a sense of purpose. Classic heroes give us an ideal to strive toward.

Among the many things I love about your miniatures is that you mimic screen characters with such personality. Which famous actors haven’t you yet replicated but would love to? (And which are your favorites that you’ve already cast in lead?)

Commandant von Helsing from the Cthulhu 1968: Black Sun line.

I need to do some of the early comedians. Chaplin, Stan and Ollie, Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields. I can’t predict when, but I’ve been thinking about them for some time now. I love the old silent comedies as well as the early talkies.

My current favorite is my Peter Cushing inspired sculpt. There is a version of him as an evil Nazi colonel in the Black Sun range, and I just released him in his Victor Frankenstein guise.

Another great thing about the miniatures you produce is that you include the women, and with Dangerous Dames you’re moving much closer to parity with heroes and heroines. Who are the heroines of the silver screen and history that most inspire you as a pulp fiction fan?

Sylvia Trent and Mrs. Mallowan from the latest Dangerous Dames set.

Women are gaming more and more, and I think we owe it to them to start being more inclusive with our characters. The pulp era gave as several notable female characters, both real—Amelia Earhart, Aloha Wanderwell, Nellie Bly, Gertrude Belle—and imaginary—Catherine Hepburn in The African Queen, Pat Savage, Jirel of Joiry, plucky reporter Torchy Blane, and any early Noir character played by Lauren Bacall.

Your China Station scenarios suggest a love of the history of the clash between Western and Eastern cultures. What can gamers learn about the real-world histories of those conflicts through roleplaying and other tabletop games?

Conflict is the essence of drama, so it’s natural that some of the most dramatic periods in which to set a game would be in the colonial era. I think, however, that there is a big difference between the pop culture version of these settings and the real periods. The Pulp Era tends to be very western-centric. It’s romantic for many of us who grew up with this entertainment. A minimal amount of historical research, however, can lead one to some very different realities, and one shouldn’t confuse reality and fantasy.

You do great work with both miniatures and terrain. What does the physical medium add to the gaming experience?

It provides a focal point for the imagination, a gateway into the experience. Aside from the fun of building and painting, which can be totally satisfying in and of itself, models then give us a physical reality of a sort. Its not that different from some sort of religious icon. Think of an Egyptian statue in a temple. It gave the visitors a common focus when the priest was relating a story of the gods and heroes. Again, a gateway into the world of the imagination.

Any resemblance to a certain Mr. Greenstreet is surely coincidental.

What are some of the essential films of the pulp era?

The Maltese Falcon
Lost Horizon
Island of Lost Souls
Casablanca
To Have and Have Not
Tarzan and the Amazons
The Wolfman
The Lady from Shanghai
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
This Gun for Hire

How about some book recommendations?

The Mister Moto series
The Tarzan series
The Shadow series
Any Doc Savage book
The Big Sleep
Lost Horizon
The Thin Man

Any Fu Manchu book
She
Any Robert E. Howard modern adventure

Many of your best figures straddle the line between pulp and superhero characters. Where do you draw the line between adventure and fantasy?

I’m really not a fan of costumed superheroes. Sorry, heresy, I know, but they never did it for me. Are they science fiction? Fantasy? I can’t put my finger on it, but I prefer a hero in a pith helmet with a compass.

Your earliest fame in miniatures sculpting game from your Call of Cthulhu figures. What, in miniatures terms, are your favorite elements of the Cthulhu Mythos?

The Cthulhu Mythos is about cosmic awe. The universe is very big and very scary if you really start thinking about it. The Mythos generates for me a feeling that contains elements of both supernatural and scientific wonder and horror. A good Mythos fig, again, acts as a portal into a place of intense imagination.

Favorite elements? Why tentacles, of course.

Creative Colleagues: Oliver McNeil

Every now and then, I pester my creative colleagues with five questions about their work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.

Oliver McNeil by Oliver McNeil.

I first came across Oliver McNeil’s Soundscapes page while searching for ambient music to play during Call of Cthulhu scenarios. While I already had loads of tracks prepared from other sources, including some tailored specifically to the Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign I’ve been running this past year, I knew one day I’d come back to add his work to my collection.

That time came quite recently when I noticed his Kickstarter campaign offering a “best-of” collection from his first five volumes. There’s also a fantastic bargain on the whole collection as one of the higher pledges, so that sold me.

What I didn’t realize until recently is that Olly is also a game designer and theater writer, producer, and actor. What I’ve read of his chilling productions made me once more lament that I live on the wrong side of the pond. Intrigued to learn more, I dropped him a note asking about the connection between his gaming, musical, and theatrical creative lives.

What elements of both live theatre and music are perfect for conveying mystery and horror? That is, in what ways are they even better mediums than film, comics, or novels?

I think that if you go to a really good live theater show, you tap into that base instinct that we all have when we get drawn into a good book or movie. It’s the immersion that makes us forget about the outside world and fall into the story being told. For live theater however, you are using more of your senses, your hearing and sense of smell is certainly going to pick up all everything around you. There is also, especially in my shows, the very real prospect of having to get involved physically. Physiologically and psychologically there is quite a lot you can do to control an audience in a show. Music is just one of my tools.

What elements of the Cthulhu Mythos most tickle your imagination? In what ways does cosmic horror appeal above other forms?

It’s the unknown that particularly appeals to me, that and the fragile nature of the investigators. I’ve always enjoyed the everyday person being thrown into an adventure with little more than their wits, bravery, and inquisitiveness. I love the wide-eyed innocence that we still have when looking into the deep, whether that is space, water, or our own minds. It’s still as relevant today as it was when Lovecraft was writing.

What different emotions do you try to express with your soundscapes? That is, what do you find to be the most effective transitions between different emotional states (like curiosity, suspense, dread, and so on)?

Most of the music I produce is designed to create a mood that will help the actor or storyteller (GM) work the audience/players. It’s a background to play against, almost meditative. In fact it’s something I use in my live shows all the time. It allows you the GM to punctuate or shock the players whenever you like. All the titles of the soundscapes, which are all twenty-five minutes long, have names that make it easy to guess the mood, even before playing.

The biggest trick I use in my live shows is getting the audience into a state where they forget about their normal lives and move into a state of being in the story. Last year I adapted Steve Jackson’s Fighting Fantasy book House of Hell into a live show. This was the track I used along with one of my actors to get the audience immersed. I have a version for roleplayers on my website called Deep Dream.

In addition to soundscapes, what other atmosphere drivers do you use at the game table?

I use all the tools of theater in my games: lighting, set dressing, props, and costume. Of all of those, beside the soundscape, the most important is lighting. It’s also by far the easiest to create. Telling a ghost story during the day in a busy bar is different from telling the same tale in room lit by a single candle.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a show called “Séance.” The only sound we had was a real clock ticking, the only lighting one real wax candle. The clock would chime every half hour, which would give a creepy shock to people, and with one candle I had control to where I wanted to focus. You will also find that people will start seeing all kinds of things in the darkness that are projected from their own imaginations.

While theatre is a local art, film goes everywhere. What films would you recommend to Keepers or GMs as inspirations for great roleplaying scenarios?

There are two things that I would recommend, and one is only partially films. I would highly recommend looking at the early days of photography and silent movies. Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Seven Footprints to Satan, and of course Nosferatu. I’m not saying just look at the plots, but look at the atmosphere, lighting, and reveals. As well as being around when Lovecraft was writing, they were created by masters of their craft. They knew horror, poverty, and death first-hand.

The photographer I would always point at for those to seek out is William Mortensen. Shunned by most of Hollywood at the time, he was daring in creating a grotesque world.

The other recommendation for great scenarios would be to look at real-life history. There are so many strange places and people, more than likely some of which live or have lived near to where you are sitting now. Personally, I grew up near a place called Brightling where lived a man called Mad Jack Fuller. He owned his own observatory, built strange buildings such as an Egyptian needle temple, and was buried sitting in his favorite armchair, in a pyramid, in a churchyard, with broken glass around him so the devil couldn’t take his soul. I’m sure you could all fill in your own terrible Cthulhu-esque connections to make this a great campaign.

Oliver’s Cthulhu Soundscapes: Sounds of Madness “Compilation” is now live on Kickstarter. Give it a listen!

Creative Colleagues: Steve Portillano-Barr

Every now and then, I pester my creative colleagues with five questions about their work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.

Steve Portillano-Barr first hove into my view when he joined my Keeper’s Support Group for Masks of Nyarlathotep, one of the greatest roleplaying adventures ever published. The news that he was creating Syrinscape SoundSets for the great campaign thrilled those of us currently enticing groups of hapless investigators along the global path to madness and destruction.

Steve has designed SoundSets for the Peru, America, England, and Egypt chapters of the campaign, and they’re fantastic additions to an experience that already includes an embarrassing trove of high-quality supplements, like the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society’s Gamer Prop Box and Dark Adventure Theatre radio drama. When you put them all together, you can run an astonishingly immersive roleplaying experience.

Steve recently answered a few questions about his work and influences.


Are you more often thinking “jump scare” or “rising tension” when designing soundscapes? What’s the right balance?
Syrinscape lends itself well to both, with the Keeper easily able to switch between moods as the story necessitates. Many of the Call of Cthulhu stories focus strongly on the rising tension as the situation spirals ever closer to either madness or doom for the investigators. But it is important to also have those jump scare moments, where the Keeper can touch a button and all hell breaks loose. With Syrinscape, the sounds fade from one SoundSet into another, so when you have that jump scare it will make your heart leap. But, at the same time, the effect naturally flows from the previous sounds and not sound disjointed or like you have just stopped and started something.

Masks of Nyarlathotep is one of the most celebrated roleplaying campaigns of all time, and it’s based in historical times and events. How do you honor that history with your work?
I’m a huge fan of history and love reading about that particular time period, so working on the Call of Cthulhu soundsets and bringing the 20s to life has been amazing for me. With each of the chapters of Mask of Nyarlathotep, I’ve really tried to capture the spirit of the period and the locations. Each of the cities has been recreated using a mixture of foley work (by myself and the Syrinscape team), along with public domain recordings, audio shared as Creative Commons from various museums, and at times visits to some of the locations. Of course, period music really helps bring the scenes to life. The Old Bell Inn, which features when the Investigators head to Derby, is one of my local pubs, so I had to visit once or twice while drafting my outline for the chapter.

You can run Syrinscape from your computer, a tablet, or your phone.


Who are some of the sound designers or score composers whose work most influences you?
I am a huge fan of Hans Zimmerman and Lisa Gerrard. The soundtracks for Black Hawk Down and Gladiator are two of my favorites. Hans has such an amazing way of capturing the spirit of the moment with his music and he has such a distinctive sound that his work has always stood out for me. Lisa has an unforgettable voice and the ability to sings songs that make you feel as if you are listening to Arabic, Latin, or Croatian, yet she uses no true words to achieve that affect, just the tone of her voice.

For sound designers it would have to be Ben Burtt, who for me has worked on some of the most iconic films of my generation. He brought a more natural organic sound to foley work in a period when many of the sound effects for sci-fi films were electronic and computerized, one of the reasons why to me Star Wars: A New Hope still stands out as such an iconic movie.


Some of the most effective horror stories evoke not only visuals but scents, tastes, tactile feelings, and of course sounds. What are some of the stories whose non-visual imagery has stayed with you?
The use of the Goldberg Variations in the Hannibal franchise has always stood out to me. The mixture of the music, the imagery, and of course Hannibal’s unique character led to making Hannibal one of my favorite films despite its disturbing nature and violence. The opera scene accompanied by “Vide cor Meum” is one of the film’s most memorable scenes.

What’s some of your favorite music? How do you decide what influences get into your work and which ones you keep out?
I have an eclectic taste in music, ranging from classical right up to industrial rock. I’ve already mentioned Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard, but there are also other great artists like Regina Spektor and Trent Reznor that I like to listen to. To me, music and sounds can evoke such an emotional reaction. Often, my taste at any one given time depends on my mood or how I want my mood to be. That comes in really useful when deciding what music to use in my SoundSets as it helps me hone in on how I want the investigators to feel. Should the music be center stage or in the background, just loud enough to intrude on their thoughts?


Can you recommend five great horror films to watch this October?
I’m actually pretty squeamish when it comes to most horror movies, so I haven’t seen a lot. But my top five would have to be 28 Days Later, Resident Evil, Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal, and of course In the Mouth of Madness. I tend to prefer suspense thrillers over gore-fests!

You can sample and buy the Masks of Nyarlathotep SoundScapes directly from Syrinscape, who also offer many other sets for fantasy, SF, and horror RPGs.

Creative Colleagues: Marc Tassin

The inevitable Marc Tassin.

You’ve met Marc Tassin once or twice before on this blog. The former director of the Writer’s Symposium at Gen Con, he’s also a world-creating game designer. Half of his basement is a game room, and the other half is a shrine to Star Wars toys. A gamer since the 7th Grade, he designed his own RPG in high school and sold his first Dragon Magazine article in 2004.

His latest Kickstarter introduces the next wave of his grand opus, the World of Aetaltis. If you happen to be at Gen Con this year, you can find him at various events. If you whisper, “Dave sent me,” he might have a little gift for you.

You’ve mentioned learning from mistakes in previous Aetaltis Kickstarters. What would you have done differently?

I would have published the full campaign setting first. The books we put out got people excited, which is awesome, but when we couldn’t immediately follow up with the full setting it made it tough to keep people engaged. In fact, the more excited you get people with a thing, the more disappointed they are when they can’t immediately get more.

I’d also trust my instincts more. When we started, I ran with my crazy ideas, and it went great. Once more people got involved with the project, I got nervous. I grew conservative and tried to emulate what other companies did to make sure I didn’t let down the rest of the team. Instead of making things better, the safe path ground the whole project to a halt. It wasn’t until I stopped worrying about “the way the rest of the industry does it” and trusted my ideas that everything started popping again. And it’s way more fun doing it this way.

“Droth’s Blessing” by Russel Marks.

Aetaltis seems to have something for everyone, but what are some of the unique features of the setting? How do you balance the familiar with the unexpected in creating a world for gamers who are used to certain tropes but who don’t want the “same old” all the time?

There are a ton of new things to discover in Aetaltis—new races, new monsters, new lands—but I think the most unique aspect is the story I’ve wrapped around the world. It’s a story that is tied to the larger story of the universe where Aetaltis resides, and it hints at deeper mysteries that could significantly impact the world and its people (and thus the players).

And while it draws on traditional heroic fantasy ideas, I’ve added some modern twists. 

As an example, I included a clearly identifiable set of “bad guys,” the endrori. These are monsters who it is morally and unquestionably appropriate for the heroes to fight and defeat. At the same time, I’ve woven in more modern ideas about how something becomes “evil,” the issues of nature vs nurture, the question of personal choice, and the temptations of power. So you can still go out and fight the orcs without guilt or doubt, but there is a deeper story underneath it that taps into more modern concepts about the nature of evil.

As for making cool fantasy tropes and classic fantasy stuff work, I think it’s all about working out what made it a trope in the first place. Why is it that dwarves building grand underground cities is a requirement for us to recognize a fantasy race as dwarves, whereas other elements you can leave out and no one even notices? If you can work this out, and I’ve spent a ton of time working on this, you figure out what you can safely change while still benefiting from what we love about the thing.

Kevin Fiege (the guy behind the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe) is my hero when it comes to this. The guy has found the perfect formula for teasing out what makes Marvel and its characters part of the modern mythology of western culture. He knows which elements he can tweak, and which you don’t mess with. If I can pull of just a little of his magic with classic fantasy and Aetaltis, I’ll be thrilled,

Fiction for game settings seems less prevalent these days. Why do you think that is? Has something replaced it? 

I don’t think the problem is that something replaced the fiction for fantasy settings. In fact, I strongly believe that a market for it exists, maybe more today than ever before, but the state of the publishing industry makes it tricky for game companies to make it work financially. The things that made it possible to get amazing game fiction into people’s hands in the past aren’t there anymore. One of my goals with Aetaltis is to crack the code that lets us turn this around. Wish me luck on this one! I’m not the first person to try to solve this problem, but I’m going to try.

“Owlbear Attack” by Russel Marks.

More and more celebrities have become vocal about their love of roleplaying games, some of them even playing in online videos. Are the fans they’ve attracted different from “old gamers”? 

I love how many people are getting into roleplaying games. I couldn’t be happier. And it’s no surprise to me that this is happening. Roleplaying games are a blast. And the people discovering roleplaying games today aren’t any different from the veteran gamers. There are the usual generational differences, but that’s got nothing to do with the game. As gamers, they’re exactly like the folks who have been gaming for years.

What is the single most important element of a fantasy RPG adventure? A compelling villain? An intricate map? Gnarly monsters? Awesome treasure? Something else?

You need all that stuff, but the most important thing? A clear goal. If the heroes have a clear goal set before them, it drives the entire adventure. Every encounter is about that goal. Every creature they fight is an obstacle between them and their goal. And once they achieve the goal, they know they’ve won and have the satisfaction of having clearly achieved victory. And you don’t need to write the goal for them. If you can write the adventure in a way that compels the players to commit to a goal of their own right at the start, that works even better.

The World of Aetaltis Kickstarter has almost met its funding goal already with 24 more days to go. Go take a look!