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: 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
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
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.