Posted on October 26, 2016
Rambling about enhancements
The DM screen might have been the first clever bit of not-strictly-necessary prop usage ever inflicted on gaming groups and since then gaming groups have added more and more stuff, usually not as successfully, to make their gaming sessions better. At some point in the probably not super-distant future, we’ll be placing our custom 3D printed and painted miniatures on projected maps or all pulling on VR goggles for a D&D overlay or whatever. Technology, used to compliment games, will always have a place at the tabletop, even though it is largely unnecessary (drinking beer and bullshitting around a table was a winning formula, long before Arneson and Gygax made bullshitting somehow structured and quantifiable). A plain, bare bones session, with paper, pencil and dice will always have a thrill of its own and there’s nothing wrong with that, but there’s nothing wrong with trying out new stuff to help you along your way.
Elves and Dwarves
Maybe nothing causes as many out-of-character squabbles as the addition of music as a background for a game. People’s tastes are generally so fucking precious that they cannot bear to listen to someone else’s idea of ‘Good Music for Roleplaying’. You’re helped (a little) if the game itself suggests the music (and no, I’m not talking about Vampire: The Masquerade’s several paragraphs of suggested music that they put in their core rulebook; jesus christ, what were the 90s like, eh?) but having a jazz era soundtrack for Call of Cthulhu is sensible. Get some 60s lounge music on for your James Bond campaign and teach that SMERSH hitwoman your degenerate capitalist imperialist ways.
Soundtracks are usually a bit different. Using music that was made to be played under action, as it were, can work better. Deadlands and Ennio Morricone: dynamite. MERP and Howard Shore: sure. Star Wars and John Williams: duh. But even then, it’s hard to plough your own furrow and not have players reminded of specific scenes, so that isn’t what you want.
With album tracks or soundtracks, you run the risk of playing inappropriate music at the wrong moment unless you – as GM – soundboard your playlist, which isn’t great either. You have enough to do.
Until a procedurally-generated Ennio Morricone algorithm creates music for Deadlands as you go (based on biometric feedback from the players – MY IDEA, NOBODY STEAL THAT!) you may as well look into music that has been made for roleplaying. Gaming companies, eager to stick a thumb into all your gaming peripheral pies, have done this before, but there are brave souls out there doing it just ’cause they want to do it.
Check out Elves and Dwarves on Bandcamp: Eidetic Dreams of Sentient Trees, by Elves & Dwarves This is the project of Ben Oliver (of this parish) and Erin O’Neill, a delve into the previously-unknown-to-me genre of Dungeon-synth. I have no idea how their album Eidetic Dreams of Sentient Trees fits in with other dungeon-synth stuff, but I will say that the music slips unobtrusively under the action of a game of Valeria Card Kingdoms without fading entirely into the background and I’m near certain that a normal fantasy session would be similarly enhanced. It’s on an ambient mood-enhancer level with the non-stop loop of USS Enterprise white noise for space-faring games: i.e. you don’t notice it being as good as it is, but that’s what means it definitely works. That ambient unobtrusiveness is really what will make it a viable option for a musical background for games.
The other way to enjoy this album would be to put a good pair of headphones through their paces in a dark room, so you’ve got options. Bonus points for the album illustration which is marvelously like Tolkein’s sketches.
The internet is full of images. Some of them even have clothes on, so when it comes to creating handouts for players or reference images, you SHOULD be able to find what you need out there. But what if the things that you had in mind to convey are recognisable? What if your James Bond RPG character has to meet up with a debonair ex-agent, but chances are whatever photos you find of a handsome older guy in a suit will tend to be well known actor, because pretty much nobody else has the time or inclination to keep their shit together after 35.
Or what if you really like some photographs of people in late medieval garb that you found on a website, you just want them to look less-photography? Or a photograph of a location that you want to fudge a bit so that there are fewer signs that identify a time-period. Give it a sepia wash, if you think it’s appropriate. Chances are your phone has pretty decent image editing for the simple purpose that you’re going to use.
Prisma is a great way of fudging all these things. You can take the image, run it (to whichever degree you prefer) through one of their filters and make the entire image a whole lot less specific, while still getting the relevant point across. You could even stick to a specific filter if you want to maintain a uniform look throughout a game. Run all your thumbnail NPC portraits through Heisenberg and they’ll all have a single style, no matter their source.
Having cut the teeth-at-the-end-of-my-pseudopods on Call of Cthulhu, I’m a proponent of player handouts whenever you can manage them. As a player, they’re neat-o tangible signs of progress and a good way to get a feel for tone and setting. As a GM/DM/Keeper, they’re a good way of making sure your players don’t forget what the fuck they are doing, as long as you give them to the player that is going to actually read them. Putting a face to an NPC, or an image (that isn’t a map) to a location, no matter how insignificant, isn’t a bad idea at all.
Descent and Mansions of Madness goes digital
I mentioned Mansions of Madness 2nd edition in the last post, but thought it would be a good idea to go back over maybe the most important aspect of the release.
A while ago Fantasy Flight released a free app for Descent 2nd Ed called Road to Legend. You let it know what Descent sets you have – Base set, expansion campaigns, Lieutenant boxes, Monster and Hero boxes – and it builds a game for four players. The app tells you which tiles to lay (as you go, rather than all at once), which monsters show up and how they behave (attack closest, use special ranged stuff, do other stuff), and let’s you know when you reach a plot point. It also switches Descent’s normal All Heroes/All Monsters turn structure to Imperial Assault’s hero/mob/hero/mob which I think makes the game a bit more interesting, a bit less capable of being Quarterbacked by one player at the start of the turn.
For a game with a finite number of moving parts, I think this works fine. Descent isn’t an RPG with a near limitless number of things to try, all of which Sean will try, often in one round. And the only real input that the Evil Overlord (me) has is deciding who gets attacked, and how else to mess up the player’s day. The app can’t be vindictive, but it’s the kind of cold logical fair that won’t cut you any breaks either. If anything, having tested it out a bit, the app Overlord is more powerful and still a dick. I’m not particularly moved to start playing Descent with the app. It just doesn’t need it that much – most of the stuff that’s fun about Descent is the interaction, the game just provides a framework. Changing that framework is fine, but it isn’t going to change too much, so… I guess I’m glad the app is free.
I don’t know if Road to Legend was a test for Mansions 2, but it certainly would make sense. If anything, Mansions is an even better candidate for an app Overlord/Keeper than Descent. In Mansions, it’s kinda difficult for the Keeper to tell what the fuck is going on. Every game I’ve played I’ve had a rough idea of what the storyline is, but how it is revealed is just as much a surprise to me as it is to the players.
Mansions has a much higher emphasis on exploration than Descent does and that’s something that an app can do much better than a tabletop, for the most part. Exploration doesn’t just come in the form of new rooms appearing as you open doors, but you can now question NPCs, something you couldn’t do (without a scripted event in the adventure notes). Secondly, the other neat things about Mansions – the tone set by the graphics and writing, the puzzles required to move through rooms, the simple but gruesome combat system – are all things that can be enhanced by the app running the show. Appropriate sound effects and graphics alone would be welcome: the voiceovers are great, the sound effects are fine and the artwork is the usual Fantasy Flight high quality and then re-used in every single spinoff of a franchise.
But the app doesn’t take over any of the player’s job – the players play the way they always have, although there is a general reworking of the rules – and since the Keeper was just made redundant, the player limit has been raised to 5, so you don’t have to uninvite me. Player pieces move around the physical board, just as monsters are placed and chase them. Your turns are more or less taken on the honour system, I don’t think the app could catch you cheating with how many actions you take or whether you passed a test.
There’s virtually no way I’m not going to get Mansions of Madness 2nd edition. Even if I just thought of it as a massive expansion for a game I already like, I’d get it eventually. But that it’s promising to be a better game, in some fairly dramatic ways, makes it a matter of days, rather than months.