Musically I’ve always liked music that tells a story or sets a scene and much of the music I write has been described as cinematic (e.g Debris Field, Glidepath or Enter Unseen). Picking up the mantle of a GM has been interesting as, even when preparing to run adventures written by someone else, there are a lot of similar challenges in preparing adventures for play and producing music. Dealing with game mechanics and rules is often as complex and frustrating as trying to get particular sounds from synths, getting the compression and EQ on a drum track to work so that what I can hear in my head is what is coming out of the speakers or a myriad of other techy bits and pieces. Likewise it’s important that dealing with these technical issues doesn’t get in the way of your vision for what you’re moulding. When writing music one has moments of inspiration that often give you only ten or twenty seconds of music and it’s a long job to somehow sit these into a longer piece so that they’re shown off to their best advantage. This isn’t very different from having a superb idea for the final encounter of a game and then being left trying to work out how to build up to that over the preceding four sessions.
Often when I write music I try to find a mood that I’m trying to express and this leads me to where the piece needs to go. I’ve found that I am approaching preparing individual adventures and the campaign I’m working on in the same way. Having decided to run Retribution based on reviews of it I found that what really turned me on about it was that I could feel the mood that I would need to create for the characters. Retribution starts with a winters journey through the woods that gradually becomes a fight for survival against both enemies and the weather itself. Once the characters reach The Priory Of Cymer and the immediate danger of the weather is diminished much of the story takes place in a fading building in poor repair that is never truly warm. We’re playing in a pub function room and therefore I can’t really use background music but I found myself reading the text listening to soundtracks from The Name Of The Rose and Ran because they helped me to find the bleakness I wanted to portray. I can run the characters through each of the encounters listed in the adventure and the players would all have fun but they’d miss out on so much that I got from the source material. I want them to feel tension about whether they’re ever going to get out of the storm and to be unsettled by being trapped in a dilapidated, draughty building with clergy who sense that the glory days are behind them and dread what is coming. While the evening has to be fun if there is too much laughing and joking then the mood will have been missed and I won’t have done my job.
The Lonely Coast, the default setting for Retribution, also has a mood to it and I found that when I read it I found it was one that I wanted to explore with my players. This is not a high magic environment, Creighton Ward likes a grittier more down to earth feel to his games (he also has some great ideas for house rules), and although I’m not sure what rest of the as yet unplanned world is going to be like I found the mood of this coastline enticing. It’s true that players hoping for cities of glimmering spires and bright lights will be disappointed but I like the idea that the characters will be dealing largely with down to earth people trying to earn a living in difficult and dangerous circumstances. The characters do not stand between monsters and elven empires or dwarven fortresses but between monsters and normal people with the normal aspirations of bringing up a family. Again this doesn’t mean that the game shouldn’t be fun but that the I need to find a way to express this mood to my characters. I dare say that other GMs would either not see the mood that I do in the source material or wouldn’t necessarily care about it and their characters would be perfectly happy but for me once I’d perceived this mood it was one that I wanted to explore.
While preparing Retribution was like producing a song a campaign is more like an album and like an album to really be good it needs both emotional light and shade and a common palette. The second adventure I’m planning to run is also by Raging Swan and has a completely different vibe and structure to Retribution. Without giving anything away if my players are reading this, Shadowed Keep On The Borderlands will be much more combat based and while it has plenty of opportunity for roleplaying it’s less essential and will happen in and around combat encounters. I also have Dark Waters Rising, which I really can’t wait to run, which has a totally different feel from either Retribution or Shadowed Keep. All three adventures have a totally different internal feel but in the same way that a great album is more than just a collection of great songs I am aware that I need to keep common threads and vibes running through them. If we take a break to play something from Rise Of The Rune Lords (a totally different Pathfinder campaign) for a few sessions between adventures when we pick up the campaign the next adventure should still feel familiar and different in tone from Rune Lords.
My next major challenge is to start writing adventures to run between Shadowed Keep and Dark Waters Rising and here I am very conscious that I need to keep the mood of the campaign without falling into the trap of writing something too close in mood to any of the other three adventures I know I’ll be running. More than deciding which monsters, traps or problems I will drop into the adventure this idea of keeping the tone of the campaign right and building towards the tone of the eventual finale I have in mind for the campaign is the challenge I’m focused on. That’s also coupled with the challenge of not revisiting the moods of Retribution or Shadowed Keep or pre-empting the mood of Dark Waters Rising so that it feels as unique as they did. I want the characters to feel at home but somewhere fresh and neither changing the scenery nor adversaries on their own are going to be enough to do that on their own.
Once I have identified the mood of the encounter/adventure/campaign how to get that across to the players is a challenge in its own right. A recent article by Jeff Lees on Gnome Stew about how to help players experience emotions has very helpful ideas that I am planning to introduce to my GMing. I should probably save my thoughts on that though for a “performing the game” post.