Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Mood Music

We have a long history of playing music during our game sessions, and it has nothing to do with generating a mood usually... or at least not a game-specific mood. It is used to engender a "fun" mood, because the game session is really nothing more than a concentrated little party of friends. So, we play whatever we feel like, leaning heavily in the rock department with some forays into rap, usually all of the somewhat more underground variety. (I am being simplistic here because we have broad tastes and to go into a list would take forever. We listen to lots of different stuff at the table.)

Before the guests arrive, though, and I am still preparing for the session... that is a different story. I usually need between one and three hours to get the room ready, go through my game notes and flesh out any specific ideas, and generally get myself in the proper state of mind for DMing. It's all about set and setting, so I have a specific group of records I play that help me to reach that state, depending on which particular game we might be playing.

  • Lustmord—Heresy: My theme music for taking our group through The Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil. That set a real nice tone for an apocalypse cult.
  • Throbbing Gristle—The Third Mind Movements: This became the theme for my Gamma World campaign for it's slightly rabid, end-of-civilization vibe.
  • Tangerine Dream—Zeit: The current theme album for my low-level, sandbox campaign. A little spooky with a strong sense of mystery.
  • There Will Be Blood soundtrack: Sometimes I play this one before anything else, while I am cleaning the room, as an aperitif.
  • The Future Sound of London—Lifeforms: I almost always play this just as my friends are arriving and we are getting started. It is long and a good way to keep things focussed on getting the session rolling. Plus, it kind of acts as a mental trigger for the players. The music has a nice "universal traveler" vibe.
  • Sonic Youth—Silver Session: I actually have a number of Sonic Youth's SYR releases that are great noisy-spacy jams, but right now I am digging this album for it's sheer wall-of-noise value. Great for clearing out my head. (Reminiscent of Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music.)

Thursday, January 19, 2012

GM Questionnaire

1. If you had to pick a single invention in a game you were most proud of what would it be?
Hard to say. I like ad-libbing random encounters together into some kind of coherent concept that actually adds a cool layer of interest to the overall "story" of the adventure. It's fun when something random turns into a persistent, important feature of the campaign.

2. When was the last time you GMed?
Last weekend.

3. When was the last time you played?
About a month or two ago.

4. Give us a one-sentence pitch for an adventure you haven't run but would like to.
Running the original Top Secret module Sprechenhaltestelle episodically, set in the late '50s, with the flavor of an Ian Fleming novel. 

5. What do you do while you wait for players to do things?
Figure out what the next random encounter may be, and how it ties into what is currently happening in the game.

6. What, if anything, do you eat while you play?
Usually something salty, like chips or nuts, to balance the beer.

7. Do you find GMing physically exhausting?
No. It can be mentally exhausting if I run a game two days in a row, though.

8. What was the last interesting (to you, anyway) thing you remember a PC you were running doing?
I got to play a old NPC cleric from my game as a PC in a friend's game... and disintegrated the side of a ship, sinking it, changing the whole flavor of the planned encounter. (The bad guys on the ship who survived ended up using magic to breathe water and marched across the lake bed to the shore, where the climatic battle then took place.)   

9. Do your players take your serious setting and make it unserious? Vice versa? Neither?
Kind of both, really. Everybody plays to stay alive and they take that seriously, but it doesn't keep people from being silly and cracking up all the time.

10. What do you do with goblins?
Try to give different tribes a bit of flavor, but mostly just low-level mooks with a faerie slant that are sometimes good for a laugh.

11. What was the last non-RPG thing you saw that you converted into game material (background, setting, trap, etc.)?
I used some ideas from Neal Stephenson's Anathem to add some unique flavor into my Gamma World game. (It had to do with the language of the Ancients being a kind of continuously morphing cypher.)

12. What's the funniest table moment you can remember right now?
Geez, I am cracking up every session. I don't know... I guess I will have to think about some classic moment.

13. What was the last game book you looked at--aside from things you referenced in a game--why were you looking at it?
Gary Gygax's Living Fantasy. It is in the restroom for casual browsing.

14. Who's your idea of the perfect RPG illustrator?
Depends on the game in question, but for simplicity sake, David Trampier. (Erol Otus being a close second.) I like a lot of the modern "old-school" type artists as well.

15. Does your game ever make your players genuinely afraid?
Afraid for their PCs lives? Yes, all the time. Afraid in a creeped out way? Maybe a little back in our Call of Cthulhu days. (I remember a friend being so shocked once he yelled "Gah!" and kicked the table, knocking over everybody's drinks.)

16. What was the best time you ever had running an adventure you didn't write? (If ever.)
Since I liberally use adventures I didn't write, this happens all the time... usually being whatever it is we are currently playing. But, I usually change quite a bit of the module, so if I only consider (recent) adventures that I changed almost nothing, I would say Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil. It was pretty fun when the summoning of the apocalyptic dark god came down to a single dice roll.

17. What would be the ideal physical set up to run a game in?
Comfy, warm basement room with all the amenities. Big oak table with velvet surface, perhaps, for dice rolling. Good stereo system. No windows, though. I am too easily distracted by the world at large.

18. If you had to think of the two most disparate games or game products that you like what would they be?
I am not sure how to answer this one. I have different RPGs of various genres, but they don't feel all that disparate to me. I guess I don't hang onto anything that is not really my style.

19. If you had to think of the most disparate influences overall on your game, what would they be?
Most of my ideas some from just looking around me at the world at thinking about how I could add that level of detail into my games interestingly. As to "disparate" influence, I don't know, maybe details from outsider literature (Burroughs, Ballard, etc.) or stuff from Hermetic Qabbalism and the occult. 

20. As a GM, what kind of player do you want at your table?
Someone open-minded to all the different aspects of the game. Mostly with a sense of exploration and adventure.

21. What's a real life experience you've translated into game terms?
I do think the game needs a sense of mundane detail in order for the heroics to have contrast and meaning. So, I keep tabs on things like encumbrance and provisions and what-not.

22. Is there an RPG product that you wish existed but doesn't?
A book like the original AD&D Rogue's Gallery, but for 3.5e. Basically, all the classes statted and geared out for levels 1–20, and then maybe an appendix of unique NPCs for quick and easy use. 

23. Is there anyone you know who you talk about RPGs with who doesn't play? How do those conversations go?
My girlfriend. She gets a kick out of the weird stories.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Old School

I consider myself an old-school gamer, even though the version of D&D my group currently plays is relatively recent (3.5e). Why? Because I am old. I've been playing RPGs for roughly 33 years and, I have to admit, my style preferences were probably set a long time ago. Those preferences were largely informed by the writings of one man, Gary Gygax. Those original first edition rule-books and modules written by Gygax had a tone and style that felt mysterious, cryptic, and adult to me. It was a style I wanted to emulate, and to a degree, still do. When TSR kicked Gygax out of his own company and started pumping out second edition D&D I quit buying their products. I only picked up D&D again with the third edition because enough time had passed and I wanted to see how Wizards of the Coast had overhauled the system. Sure, a lot had changed in the rules between 1e AD&D and 3e D&D, and a case can be made that a game's rules set the overall tone of the game, but I actually found a lot in 3e that was reminiscent of the old, original game I enjoyed, just with updated game rules theory.

And then there is the fact I actually don't buy any new games. It is true that I bought 3e D&D when it came out, but I haven't bought any new RPGs since. (My set of 3.5e books was a gift from a player who wanted our group to have the "refined" rules. Cool by me... for free!) Since the time we first bought the 1e AD&D books as kids I had no intention of buying any more. Why should I? I had everything there I needed for a lifetime of gaming. And anything that felt broken could always be fixed with house-rules. My blood boils at the concept of game companies pumping out new editions of their game simply because they want to feel a renewed flush of profits. Fuck that.

The games I have sitting on my shelf waiting for the right mood to strike have been sitting there for decades. Call of Cthulhu, Villains & Vigilantes, Top Secret, Stormbringer, and the mighty Traveller. I even have a set of Dangerous Journeys that I am dying to play at least once in my life. All these games rate differently on the scale of complexity, but they all share a couple of things in common... they are all old, and they all have an awesome atmosphere and style to them. For me, that is "old-school".