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!

Creative Colleagues: Jason Kapalka

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

In the summer of 2015, I noticed an intriguing Kickstarter campaign for an “experience” from The Mysterious Package Company. My perfect wife made me a gift of it, and I became an instant fan of the MPC. Even before the final “reveal” of my first experience, I’d become so enraptured that I subscribed to the company’s Curios & Conundrums, a periodical full of puzzles, stories, toys, and other sundries.

Much as I loved the subscription, the MPC’s experiences are the showstoppers. They range in complexity (and price), delivering a number of letters and parcels either to you or to an unwitting friend.

The creator listed for the Century Beast Kickstarter was Jason Kapalka, famous as the co-founder of PopCap games, through which he’d already stolen hours of my life with the games Plants vs. Zombies and Bejeweled. Oh, he claimed he was merely fronting the effort for the enigmatic Curator, but I had my suspicions. After all, it would take a mind as brilliant as the Curator’s to envision the Storm Crow Tavern, a nerd bar in Vancouver and later in Toronto. In addition to the MPC and Storm Crow, Jason is also currently creating “a series of comically violent horror puzzle games via Blue Wizard Digital.”

As Jason—or the Curator—has launched another Kickstarter, this one with the ominous name HASTUR. I thought it a propitious time to ask him a few questions about my favorite of his creations.

Curating The Mysterious Package Company must be like editing a magazine. What disparate talents must you gather to make that incredible thing work?

The Mysterious Package Company is a surprisingly large enterprise, with around two dozen full-time employees in a large, suitably ominous post-industrial warehouse in a bohemian district of Toronto. The employees, as you might imagine, are a varied lot, ranging from assembly-line packers of crates full of evil artifacts to artisans casting fake antiquities in-house to forgers of aged diaries and documents to assorted writers, graphic designers, e-commerce and website engineers, and—the really scary types—the odd accountant and procurement manager.

Most MPC experiences are collaborative and multi-disciplinary projects that involve a lot of odd specialties, from calligraphy to cryptography. They may start with a creative brief from me but usually end up as a joint project.

There’s a strong Mythos undercurrent to the MPC. What’s your history with the Mythos, especially in gaming?

I’ve been a fan of the Mythos from my teen years and was a rabid fan of the original Call of Cthulhu RPG. As a Keeper, my most memorable experience was a disastrous one-shot that ended with the entire party being ritually sacrificed by Deep Ones; as a player, I was the sole survivor of the Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign, who, half-mad, lame, and hideously scarred, gave his life at the climax to save the world, at least temporarily.

Most recently I was very proud of the Crate of Cthulhu that we offered at the MPC, which is a faithful “physicalization” of the Call of Cthulhu novella, including most of the newspaper articles and statues/bas-reliefs mentioned by Lovecraft, brought together in a reasonably plausible crate meant to have been abandoned in a basement of the Natural History Museum in London for decades.

MPC used to offer a subscription to Curios & Conundrums. What special challenges did that complex wonder pose?

C&C was a very strange project that evolved from a simple newsletter in the early days of the MPC to an elaborately themed quarterly box. In its latter incarnation it was envisioned as a kind of more demented, literate, eerie answer to the various Loot and Nerd Crates full of name-brand merch. Instead, we offered things like papercraft toys of burning Victorian insane asylums and pewter statues of unspeakable Egyptian gods of madness.

It was certainly a challenge creating an entirely new set of artifacts and storylines every couple of months, but I’m proud of the final results.

When you envision the ideal customer of MPC, what sorts of films, books, and games do you suppose are already favorites?

With the exception of our McElroy Brothers Adventure Zone collaboration on Taako, which has a pretty obvious media tie-in, our audience tends to favor horror and mystery material, as you might have guessed. A more divisive line is between the fans of narrative and collectibles and those who are more interested in puzzle-solving. The puzzlers really want intense, challenging riddles and secrets in their experiences to decipher, while the more narrative-inclined fans can be stymied or frustrated by codes and cryptograms. Trying to satisfy both types of customer in that regard can be challenging!

And of course, Lovecraft and related writers are favorites of many of our customers.

How did the first Storm Crow Tavern come about, and how has it expanded? What can visitors to expect to find inside?

The first Storm Crow Tavern was spawned in Vancouver in 2011 from an idea that me and my partners had: if sports fans have sports bars, why can’t “nerds” have a “nerd bar” that appeals to their own interests, from sci-fi memorabilia to board and card games?

The first Storm Crow was relatively modest in size and ambition, but each successive restaurant has expanded in size and, er, grandeur, with the most recently opened location, the Storm Crow Manor in Toronto, being housed in a grand 100-year-old Victorian manor with a seating capacity of over 400, including the patio. The Manor is basically a series of themed genre rooms, from a postapocalyptic cyberpunk lounge with faulty holograms and mysterious steam-blasting pipes, to an eerie asylum bar with haunted portraits and electric-chair seating, to a futuristic Warhammer 40k-inspired space dungeon sub-basement.

The Curator of MPC embodies the sort of courteous, formal correspondence one associates with a bygone age. What made you enlist such a personage in the age of email and video games?

Part of my interest in projects such as the MPC and Storm Crow post-PopCap was due to their real-world, analog nature. I love video games, but I think that many people miss the tactile experience when you get too tied up in digital realms. So the common thread of the Storm Crow and the MPC is that they are both real, physical things, whether that’s a bar or a nailed-shut wooden crate in your post box.

Given that throwback nature, it was natural for “The Curator” to affect a somewhat courtly and antiquarian prose style. That said, the MPC is still largely a denizen of the electronic world, with all of its sales being driven through a web site, so we are looking at ways to “modernize” the eeriness without losing that quality.

You’ve already presented an experience involving the Yellow King. Why have you returned with Hastur? Aren’t you afraid too many unwitting fools will say the name three times?

In fact, we have referenced the King in at least two experiences so far, including the original King in Yellow and then the later Carcosa. So HASTUR is in fact the concluding segment of a “trilogy” of sorts. While it’s perfectly suitable for new customers, longtime MPC fans may find some interesting linkages.

Creative Colleagues: Christopher West’s Big Castle

You’ve met Christopher West here before, but this time it’s for a project all GMs (and many others) will find interesting: a huge set of castle maps perfect for a home base or a villain’s lair. I’ve backed many of Chris’s previous Kickstarters, and not only because he made such beautiful maps for me back in the days of Star Wars Gamer. They’re great both for illuminating an existing setting and for inspiring a new scenario that you design yourself.

Here’s our brief chat about the Halls of Legend.

As a GM, how do you use maps (and miniatures) to create an adventure?

Both as a GM and as a mapmaker, I seek to create encounter locations that will be both memorable and exciting. With that in mind, I will often put together a story arc for my games designed to include specific environments that I’ve already mapped—and I will map specific environments that will support that sort of storytelling. There’s a synergy between the two activities that serves me well.

In essence, I plot my encounters around a cool location for which I have an interesting map, and then give my villains a reason to be there that grounds the story in that location.

You’re famous for SF and fantasy maps. What sorts of maps would you create for horror scenarios?

That depends a lot on the type of horror, honestly. For monster-themed horror, I like to take modern heroes out of their environment and drop them in lairs, either in natural or otherworldly—but far from help, in either case. My Forsaken Lands maps are mean to work for that sort of environment. But for more of an urban nightmare type horror, you can’t beat dark alleyways, slimy sewers, abandoned warehouses, condemned tenement buildings, or a nice slaughterhouse converted into a cultist hideout.

Some gamers hate the 5-foot-square grid, while others (like me) love it. What would you say to the naysayers to persuade them to try the grid?

That’s some treacherous ground on which to plant a flag! Both camps have valid arguments to make, so I try to stay as neutral as possible and invite both sides to meet me in the middle. I do include a 1-inch (5-foot) grid in nearly all of my poster maps, because there are a lot of tactical game systems which you can’t really play without it—but at the same time, I work to keep that grid as natural and unobtrusive as possible, preferring a subtle grid over one that distracts you from the environment. That way the players that want a grid can find it, and the players that don’t want a grid can ignore it.

But, to answer your question: I like using a grid because it can help to sidestep arguments that sometimes arise about cover, concealment, and line of sight during an encounter. If there’s a grid on the map and the objects showing on the map can clearly delineate the positions of walls and cover around your characters, it gives everyone a shared reference point and makes a lot of those arguments unnecessary.

Other gamers eschew maps and minis altogether, preferring “theater of the mind.” What do you feel maps & minis can add to the game?

I’ve run and played in satisfying games that eschew maps and minis, but I really do prefer to use them whenever possible—especially (but not exclusively) during action scenes.

In the middle of combat, in almost every RPG I’ve ever played, the GM has his or her hands full trying to manage the scene and communicate with each of the players, in turn, about the circumstances involving their characters. It’s a lot to keep track of. Along the way, the details of the scenery itself can become overlooked, forgotten, or muddled. But if you have a detailed map of the environment, the GM doesn’t need to remind each player, each turn, about that computer console on the far wall, or the stack of crates they could use for cover, the barrels in the corner that just might contain explosive fuel, or that rickety scaffolding behind the bad guys that a clever PC might find a way to collapse on top of them…

If a map has these details, it can add a richness to your storytelling that enhances your game-play and inspires the players to use the scenery instead of just making dice roll after dice roll until the opponents run out of hit points.

In my experience, games with maps and minis become much more cinematic experiences instead of a number-crunching exercise, and I just love that.

What’s the best moment from one of your own games that involved a map?

One of my favorite stories about maps and minis involves a Star Wars adventure I ran. The players were driving a cargo transport—a floating truck—through a canyon in the Jundland Wastes, when an act of sabotage dropped the truck to the ground and set up what would become a double-ambush encounter with both marauding pirates and opportunistic tusken raiders, on a canyon ledge with a sharp ravine on their left and a tall cliff wall on their right.

But first the player characters needed to unload the truck so they could try to repair it—which meant that when they were attacked, they had crates of various sizes scattered on the ground around the truck. The map in this encounter was hand-drawn, but the truck and the cargo crates were represented with my Sci-Fi Cargo Tiles as individual cut-out pieces on top of the map. The players had their own miniatures for their characters, and I had miniatures for the pirates, their speeder bikes and skiff, their E-Web cannon, and the sandpeople and banthas who crashed the party. It was a big, busy map with all kinds of cover and a lot of moving pieces by the end.

What made it memorable, though, was that all of those pieces of cut-out terrain changed the game in ways I couldn’t have predicted. The player characters climbed on top of them, and hid behind them, but they also moved them around, strategically. As they defeated several pirates, their crashing speeder bikes changed the battlefield dramatically, blasting crates across the map and smashing open one massive container with warning labels—which unleashed a hungry nexu creature that joined the fray and started eating people.

It was one of the most exciting combat scenes any of us had ever been involved in, and it culminated with a crazed bantha bull-rushing the party’s vehicle right over the cliff’s edge—which gave the party’s young Jedi a chance to shine, saving the truck and levitating it back to them with a timely and amazing critical success on her Force power check.

All of these twists and turns were made possible because all of these extra map features were physical objects on top of the map that the players and I could personally manipulate, and that real-world ability to move them around inspired us to do exactly that, narratively within the story. If everything had been drawn in place, the action wouldn’t have been nearly so dynamic.

Be sure to check out Chris’s latest Kickstarter.

Creative Colleagues: Ryan Schifrin & Richard Lee Byers

Ryan Schifrin

Ryan Schifrin

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.

Earlier this year, a friend pointed me to the Basil & Moebius short film “No Rest for the Wicked.” I was amazed I hadn’t heard of it before, considering the star power involved and the delightful odd-couple heroes inspired by the same duos who’d influenced Radovan and the Count.

I was worried for a minute when I saw there was a monkey, but the damned thing could act! When I learned that the film’s creator was the son of legendary composer Lalo Schifrin, I understood where he’d got his talent—but it still didn’t explain how he’d persuaded Ray Park, Zachary Levi, Kane Hodder and the great Malcolm McDowell to star in this little film.

A little later I put two and two together and realized Ryan Schifrin was the director of Abominable and a story in Tales of Halloween. And soon after that, he told me about his Basil & Moebius stories, novels, and comics—whose co-writers were all familiar names. Among them was Richard Lee Byers, who I’ll henceforth think of as the Basil to my Moebius in Forgotten Realms, Pathfinder, and upcoming still-secret fiction lines. His most recent Basil & Moebius adventure is The Picture of Aleister Crowley, and his next is the graphic novel The Fate of All Fools.

Richard is one of the tie-in writers whose prolific output puts the rest of us to shame, so we’ve got a couple of Creative Colleagues interviews lined up for this fall. For this first one, we invited Ryan to join in as we discuss all things Basil & Moebius.

Ryan, what’s the origin of Basil & Moebius?

Ryan Schifrin: I was at a live professional tennis tournament watching a doubles match. A Frenchman and German were on the same team, and I noticed their camaraderie and imagined them in Europe at a pub, drunk and looking for all sorts of mischief to get into. I thought, what if they were thieves instead of tennis players—basically the characters imposed themselves on me out of the blue, and I had no idea what story I’d put them in, but they felt absolutely real to me. I later thought, okay one will be proficient at martial arts, a Queen’s Guard by day who looks like he’s got a boring job, but his nightlife is full of these wild adventures. My dog’s name is Mister Fox, and I remember reading about a Sherlock Holmes-type mouse named Basil of Baker Street when I was a kid.

Moebius isn’t named after the comic book artist but rather the Möbius strip, which my father tried explaining to me when I was very young. That name stuck in my imagination. Then Origin games, the people behind the Ultima games, made a game named Moebius which I bought because I liked the name.

Author Richard Lee Byers

Author Richard Lee Byers

Richard, you’re an old hand at tie-in fiction. What was it about these characters that made writing them appeal to you?

Richard Lee Byers: I’ve always loved rogues and anti-heroes, the kind of adventurers who are out for themselves rather than to serve some lofty ideal, but who are not without compassion and end up grudgingly doing the right thing when it really matters. If they’re witty as they go about their business, so much the better. Like Fritz Leiber’s Gray Mouser and Fafhrd (my favorite fictional characters ever), Basil and Moebius are very much in this mold.

I also like the world in which Basil and Moebius operate. The source material for the series is our modern mythology, the realm of fringe science, urban legend, and conspiracy theory. There’s a lot of fun stuff to play with.

Finally, the tone or range of tones in the series make it fun. I can blend action, horror, crime, espionage, fantasy, science fiction, and comedy. In the universe Ryan has created, it all works together.

Ryan, you’ve also written and directed a film featuring Basil & Moebius. Please tell us a bit about the experience of casting and shooting it.

Ryan Schifrin: My goal from the start has been to do a live-action film or television series with Basil & Moebius. When I was writing the very first story, Bloodstone, it was as a screenplay. I was randomly seated next to Ray Park at the Saturn Awards. I realized he’d be the perfect Basil. He’s a world-class martial artist, he’s got a wicked sense of humor, and he was Darth Maul! So I literally wrote the script with him in mind, and he later read it and said he’d love to play Basil.

I almost got the funding to do the feature a few times, but things would always fall apart and we could never get it off the ground. At this point, the comics were coming out, so I figured it would be fun to do a short film which could also be a proof of concept. Ray was still keen to play Basil, and I needed a Moebius. I had become friends with Zach Levi, from NBC’s Chuck through a mutual friend. Zach can do any accent, and he’s hilarious and can be debonair as well. I asked him, and he said yes.

For the villain, we needed an actor with gravitas and I’ve always wanted to work with Malcolm McDowell. He’d worked with my father in the 70s on Voyage of the Damned, so I was able to get in touch with him. Kane Hodder, who played the best Jason ever in Friday the 13th Part 7, plays one of the Ghoul Brothers.

Since I was self-funding this, we didn’t have a lot of time or money, we used my wife’s dad’s house as the location (it was supposed to be a penthouse in London), and we shot it in a few days. It was fun and it was stressful, because we had animals (a monkey), stunts, visual FX, make-up FX. All the stuff they tell you to avoid using on a short schedule.

The monkey, Crystal, was amazing by the way— she’d get everything on the first take. I think Malcolm McDowell had a bad experience once working with a monkey, so he was looking very dubious until they did their first shot together and Crystal jumps out of her cage, stands up in a karate pose and holds up a blade. Malcolm’s jaw dropped and he exclaimed, “My God! Who needs actors?!”

Cover by Ken Kelley

Cover by Ken Kelley

Richard, which of the duo is your favorite? Or, if neither, what makes them such a good odd couple?

Richard Lee Byers: I’m extremely fond of both of them, but if I had to pick one, I guess it would be Basil. I like the way his down-to-earth practicality and perspective play off the marvels he encounters. They also play off well against Moebius’s narcissism and supreme (and sometimes unwarranted) self-confidence.


Tell us a bit about your initial collaborating process and what, if anything, has changed about it over time. In what ways do you two complement each other?

Ryan Schifrin: Richard is one of those pros who has worked in shared universes, from Forgotten Realms, to Pathfinder, and so on, so he’s used to collaborating and playing in different sandboxes. My job was just to make sure he knew the voice of the characters, so his stories and my stories and Tim’s stories would all feel like the same characters are in them. I’m a big believer in giving as much creative freedom as possible, so I basically told him that he can write any story he wants. I gave him a list of some of the MacGuffin’s we’d used in other stories, and locations, so we wouldn’t be redundant, but otherwise he could do anything he wants—except kill off Basil and Moebius!

He’d send me an outline, I’d give any notes or suggestions, and he’d go off and write. I don’t think I ever hardly had any notes. On The Gold Bugs Affair, the main note I had was that I wanted the Collector to end up keeping two of the cyborg pilots because I thought they were so cool we should use them in future adventures—which we did in the Fate of All Fools graphic novel.

Since our collaboration is long distance, not a lot has changed, I think as long as I’m clear up front what the goals are, Richard then can find better and unique solutions than I can ever think of. The main thing is, I trust Basil and Moebius being in Richard’s hands. He knows the characters. Especially I think he’s got Moebius’s use of language and humor spot on. I try to focus on structure and action set-pieces—the frame of the house, and I can trust Richard to come in and furnish and decorate it with his impeccable taste.

Richard, now that you’ve written both prose and comic versions of these characters, how do you compare the experience of working in either medium?

Richard Lee Byers: When Ryan brought me onboard with Basil and Moebius, I was pretty much already an old hand at fantasy adventure told in prose, and I simply approached the novelettes in my usual way. Scripting a graphic novel, though, was a new experience for me, and as I set about it, I quickly became aware of just how few words the writer has available. I had to focus on what absolutely needed to be said, say it succinctly, and cut everything else. That was true for establishing character and all the other aspects of the tale. I also had to trust the artist to convey a lot through facial expression, body language, etc. Happily, that trust was not misplaced. The artist Ryan recruited is great. I am immodest enough to say I thought the script was a good piece of writing, but the art enhances it in spectacular fashion.

Ryan, you’re collaborating with a number of people on these stories. What are some of the surprising strengths of your collaborators?

Ryan Schifrin: Let me just say how incredibly lucky I’ve been to collaborate with these incredibly gifted people, whose work I’ve been a fan of—as in I’m a big fanboy myself. I remember reading Larry Hama’s GI Joe comics when I was eight years old, and reading Tim Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy when Star Wars was a dormant franchise. It was inspired work. And Richard, of course, I think Dissolution was the first book of his I read, and it was a twisted take on Fafhrd and the Mouser (which by the way, are also huge inspirations for Basil & Moebius). Larry is a master of condensing action and exposition, Tim is brilliant with detail and plotting, and Richard’s dark sense of humor always cracks me up.

Larry doesn’t really outline anything, especially in comics, he makes it up as he goes along, so I think he’s surprising himself and the reader at the same time. He literally doesn’t know how it’s going to end until he gets there, and I admire how he seemingly paints himself into a corner, and always finds a solution you’d never think of. With the prose short stories we’ve done, I’ve seen outlines from all the authors ahead of time, so there were no plot twists I was unaware of. Tim’s always done a job good writing about military adventure, especially his Hand of Judgement stormtroopers. So I did urge him to write Basil-centric stories, which would focus on his early career in the S.A.S. and loop in his old military buddies and things like that. Richard would then focus on more of the Moebius-centric stories, and his moral grey areas and twisted sense of humor. The other authors all did great work, but Tim and Richard wrote multiple stories, so I’m mentioning those specifically.

Richard Lee Byers: At the start, Ryan asked me to do stories analogous to the standard episodes of a modern TV drama. Basil and Moebius have an adventure that essentially leaves them where we found them. It is (if I did my job well) a whole lot of fun, but if it wasn’t part of the series, all the other stories would still be just the same.

After I’d written a couple stories and (I trust) not screwed anything up too badly, Ryan and I started talking about how the series as a whole could evolve, and in due course he invited me to work with him on a story analogous to the “mythology” episode of a TV show, a tale that addresses the characters’ basic situation and has the potential to change the status quo. The Fate of All Fools is that story. Basil and Moebius fans, this is what it’s all been building up to. It’s not the end of the saga (thank God), but it is the finale to the first grand movement of it.

What are the creative advantages of prose, comics, and film respectively? Have you encountered a story you felt could be told better by one of those media? Or do Basil & Moebius stories naturally lend themselves to visual more than prose storytelling?

Ryan Schifrin: This is a great question. First and foremost, to me the characters are the important thing, not the medium. In prose and comics, you don’t have to worry about the budget. You can be as epic as you want, can blow up all the stuff you want. Prose allows you to get into the thoughts and motivations of a character the most easily.

Comics are fantastic because they’re visual, and you can really show what you see in your head and anyone can instantly “get it.” Film allows you to have actors, who always bring something unexpected, and music, which can really add so much emotion. I never have a story and then try and figure out which medium would best fit it. I do the opposite—I first look at the medium and then decide, given the parameters, what story would best work within them.

In film, the main parameter is always money. How much can we afford to spend on actors, on sets, on renting equipment, payroll for crew, catering? The short film had to take place in one location, because of this. So that sets a creative challenge, to craft a story that works best in that setting. If you like the characters, I’d like to believe that the medium doesn’t matter, you want to go with them on whatever journey they are on.

Keep an eye on Magnetic Press for Basil & Moebius news.