The GauntlettFrom Star Wars to Vampire Spies, James Semple Composes Music for RPGsThe Gauntlett - RSS 2.0
In some ways, Semple soon discovered, writing for RPGs is a lot easier than working with film, since there's no question of having to fit a particular piece to a specific image. "Sometimes working to picture can be very constraining, particularly if you have this great theme, which you may have to cut short or change. Nowadays [film] editors, they don't let go of the picture. We used to work to a locked edit, but that never really happens now; you get version two, three, four, five of the same scene."
Writing for RPGs, Semple finds, is very similar to creating production library music. Ongoing series, say in television, aren't interested in commissioning musical tracks. What they want is something more generic, which can be used in a variety of situations. There's no picture, or specific scene; instead you pick an idea, and craft the music around that, knowing that the idea is likely to recur again and again within the ongoing narrative.
Take Night's Black Agents, Pelgrane's vampire spy title. That game assumes the players are spies, in the style of Jason Bourne or Statham's Transporter series, and their main opponent is a globe-spanning Conspiracy, run ultimately by vampires. By invoking character archetypes like Bourne and Frank Martin, you're setting things up for a high-action piece, in which chase scenes and flashy combat will probably play a big role.
So you aim for mood music, like Urban Parkour which fits both the tenor of the game, and can be used in most kinds of chase scenes, ratcheting up the tension. That's the kind of thing the Keeper can slot in anywhere, as soon as the scene needs an appropriate bit of music.
Or the contemplative, moody Dust and Mirrors theme tune, switching from downbeat piano to brassy action; this piece is intended for the beginning of the session, to set the tone for the entire evening.
"You try to think really hard about how people will use it," Semple says. "I don't like the idea of the music being so contrived, and complex, that the Keeper ends up a kind of D.J.; that's distracting for everyone." The theme tune idea was one he resisted at first, feeling it was a little out of place, until he realized it did have a purpose: it brings players into the game.
"When you get together, particularly when you're adults, you have a routine. You get together on a Friday, when everyone's exhausted from work. You talk about what happened during the week, maybe have some food, and then you have to move from sitting around, to 'we're going to play make believe now.'" The theme tune becomes the bridge between that moment of inactivity, when people's minds are on other things, to activity, when their minds are focused on the game.
"I did actually write a piece called Meanwhile, which is just 'back from commercial break,'" says Semple. "Meanwhile sounded a bit better than, 'I've just come back from the toilet!'"
In the grand, happy (mostly) coincidence that is life on Earth, his RPG work has opened doors in a lot of different industries. Many creatives, if they're working now, grew up at the same time Semple did, and with the same influences. Tabletop RPG was a big part of their lives, and his. Having that shared background, he finds, is a great way to get more work.
"There's a lot of work out there," he says. "Film, documentaries, TV shows, all that sort of stuff. Obviously there's a lot of work in video games, apps ... or you could do what I did, and make up your own niche."
Note: I have written, as a freelancer, for Pelgrane Press, the outlet through which most of James Semple's RPG music is published.