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.

Speaking of Call of Cthulhu…

I agree with those who think it’s a mistake to play that game with miniatures, because the imagination is so powerful in interpreting “ineffable” horrors. However, I adore 1920s-era miniatures, especially those by the genius Bob Murch, who sculpted many of the classic RAFM figures and also his own line of Pulp-era minis. I have loads of Bob’s and other sculptors’s minis yet to paint, but once I’ve finished a hundred or so, I’ll be ready to jump back into Horror on the Orient Express and Masks of Nyarlathotep, two of my favorite roleplaying campaigns that I’ve never actually played to completion.

Do you play CoC with or without miniatures? What’s your opinion on using them without diminishing the power of imagining creatures and scenes that are best not reduced to game tokens?

#RPGaDay: Favorite RPG of All Time

31. Favorite RPG of All Time. This is a tough one to answer, because there are many lesser-known RPGs that I admire a great deal. And it’s tempting to cite D&D in all its incarnations, since it was the focus of my day job for a decade and the origin of many of my favorite settings, including those for which I’ve written tie-in novels.

Yet I’m going with Call of Cthulhu for several reasons.

It’s a great example—perhaps the greatest—of a designer’s translating the essential concept of a milieu, in this case cosmic horror, into an elegant game mechanic. While my teenage self found a Sanity stat laughable, I eventually realized its brilliance, especially in the simple balance between sanity and knowing the truth about the Mythos.

It offers gamers a simple paradigm every bit as compelling as fighting monsters and gathering treasure in D&D. Call of Cthulhu entices investigators with clues to a secret world of eldritch horror. Their objective is often simply to survive long enough to give the survivors a chance to prevent worse horrors from devastating the world. The thrill is to ride that razor’s edge between knowledge and sanity.

Especially with the “default” setting of the 1920s, Call of Cthulhu takes advantage of history in ways other games seldom do. Introducing the characters to Ernest Hemingway in or sending them to Weimar Germany or placing them on the Titanic adds dramatic tension at the same time as it appeals to readers of historical fiction.

Finally, the Call of Cthulhu game is a portal into the best parts of H.P. Lovecraft’s imagination without his often disappointing storytelling and prose (but what a delightful vocabulary!), not to mention his racist views. It’s a great tool to separate the good from the bad from a complicated author whose best ideas inspired countless others to expand and improve upon the fruit of his damaged psyche.

#RPGaDay: Coolest Character Sheet

26. Coolest Character Sheet. One of the most common reactions to discovering D&D in the late 70s and 80s was to create your own character sheets. While printed sheets were available, we were kids with small or nonexistent allowances. But I had a typewriter and access to a mimeograph machine. Soon I discovered lots of fellow gamers had the same idea, and we had dozens of options for character sheets.

But my favorite character sheet is one I prepared for a Call of Cthulhu campaign yet still haven’t run on account of moving out of town. I’d planned the game for a group including casual and non-gamers. To make things easier for them, and to mask a lot of the mechanics, I prepared a notebook and an index card.

On the card I provided a short description of the characters’ abilities: “You’re an excellent archeologist with above-average experience as a researcher. You can handle a pistol, but you’re a crack shot with a rifle. You can operate a radio but would have a hard time repairing one.” That sort of thing.

The notebook was blank. I expected the characters to keep notes on their investigations, writing down addresses of NPCs and sketching items they discovered. Each game session also came with a homework assignment. For instance, before the first session, it was, “Find a photograph—perhaps from newspaper archives or other historical sources—that represents your character. Paste it onto page one.” Later it was things like, “Write a letter to a colleague back home,” or “Compose a telegram requesting information from the British Museum.” Maybe “List the steps to clean and load your weapon.” Evolving over the course of the campaign, the notebooks would become the character sheets, while that index card, remaining vague, would contain all the disguised game mechanics.

#RPGaDay: Game Will Still Play in 20 Years’ Time

20. Game Will Still Play in 20 Years’ Time. This one is a toss-up between some iteration of D&D/Pathfinder, since it’s the one burned into my brain these past forty-some years, or Call of Cthulhu. In both cases, the reason is that I have a large stash of scenarios, miniatures, terrain, handouts, and whatever else I might like to take with me to the old folks’ home.

If I had to pick just one, I’d say probably CoC, since they’ll probably assign me to a small, padded room.