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!

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