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The Idea Factory

It's the Subliminals, Man

Carl Cravens
August 7, 2000

Still having trouble breaking through that creative block? Maybe you're listening to the wrong music. One of the things I find very important to making my creative work go smoothly, whether it's writing a column, preparing an adventure or fleshing out a world and its inhabitants, is setting the right mood with some appropriate music.

Of course, the "right" music won't be the same for everyone, or even the same for each type or phase of creation, but I suspect that there will be some common themes. The first thing I do is throw out anything with lyrics when I'm actually writing. (Brainstorming is a different story; I'll get to that shortly.) Having someone else's words in the background while I'm trying to craft my own is nothing but distracting. In most cases, when you're trying to write you just need music to set the mood. It helps drive out distractions (I often write with headphones on) and get your subconscious grooved for the kind of ideas you're looking for.

So what kind of music works? I find movie scores are excellent when trying to write game material. They're mostly "thematic" music, meant to evoke a particular mood and impression. Unfortunately, they have the drawback of sometimes evoking very specific imagery as well... "Anvil of Crom" is a breathtaking piece, sure to get your blood pumping. And likely as not, it's going to remind you of Conan, as it's his theme song. So when choosing music, you'll have to be careful to steer clear of those that remind you too much of specific films that, instead of setting a mood, evoke images of a movie you don't want to draw from. Sometimes this can be a good thing, if you're trying to evoke the desert feel of the Conan movies for instance, but be aware of its downside.

Outside of movie scores, there's a wealth of non-lyrical music out there. From classical to new age to techno, I suggest that you experiment and sample things outside of your usual tastes. You'll be surprised at what you might find. Don't go for things just that just sound cool, go for things that evoke the mood you're trying to create in your game. The overdrive rhythm of trancedance might be fun to listen to, but it clashes badly with the mood when you're trying to create the mythology of forest-loving elves. Unless your elves are into frenzied dances around the sacred bonfire, that is. In short, pick what works, but be conscious of what you're picking and why.

Now, about brainstorming. Brainstorming is distinct from trying to actually write prose... it's the unbridled exploration of ideas. Not only does thematic music work here, but lyrical does as well. And it doesn't have to be themed at all... I've created fantasy scenarios out of inspiration from pop music.

Let's look at one of my favorite albums, ELO's Time. The album is based on a theme... the passage of time and the impending future. The songs are about things such as thwarted love, loss, and the strange, undesirable, and maybe even kinky results of the inevitable march of time and technology. Every song can be inspiration for the GM, regardless of the genre his game is set in. Now the trick here isn't to sit down and listen to albums at random trying to find inspiration. It might work for you, but likely as not you'll be wasting your time. When you listen to music during your daily routine, be aware of the themes and ideas that the music presents. File them away (or better yet, write them down) for future use. When you sit down to create, recall the music you have listened to and look for themes or ideas that speak to the work at hand.

The third track of Time, Yours Truly, 2095, is basically about a guy who, while separated from his true love, has fallen in love with a robot that may or may not love him, and in any case is incapable of consummating that love. It's an odd song, but its theme is basic... unrequited love or loving someone who is forbidden or otherwise out of reach. On its face, the song is about a technological future, but it's core message is timeless.

You've listened to the song, you've filed away its core ideas, now how can you use them in your fantasy game? In this song, a man loves a machine that cannot return his love. Where is there potential for this in your game? It's tricky, because you can't force PC's to fall in love (not without magic, which, though an option, should be used with caution). So getting the Paladin to fall in love with the unreachable Queen is unlikely. But what if an NPC fell in love with the Paladin, who has taken a vow of chastity? What if that NPC were... the Queen? What kind of havoc could a queen cause in the life of a holy, chaste defender of the realm who wants nothing more than to serve his god, country, and king?

No, this idea of unrequited love isn't new... it's an old and time-worn story element. Yet its the basic element of many modern stories and shouldn't be ignored just because it's "been done before." And the idea to use it was inspired by some song lyrics, which is what we were after. Can we use specific lyrics from the song to build upon this basic plot of the Queen falling in love with our heroic Paladin? "I met someone who looks a lot like you / She does the things you do / But she is an IBM." Could the Queen have fallen in love with the Paladin because he reminds her of someone she once loved and has lost?

Sometimes this technique is even more simple. I've developed a character for my fantasy world based on Eiffel 65's I'm Blue. The song's message is pretty straight-forward... this guy's in a blue funk and it paints his perception of his entire world. "This is my blue house, with a blue window." And this song inspired me to create an NPC that works at a tavern the PC's frequent. He's depressed, his life as a kitchen boy is going nowhere, and he sees no escape. Of course, he sees the successful PC's and listens eagerly to their stories... someday, he'll get up the nerve to run away and follow the PC's as they depart on some dangerous adventure.

Moving back to thematic and instrumental music, let's look at how you can use that in your brainstorming. Unlike lyrical music, this time you're going listen to the music during your brainstorming session. Picking what you listen to will be based on having heard it before and knowing what you're looking for. The music will probably be similar or the same music that you listen to while doing detailed creating. Picking appropriate music will become easy once you understand what you're after.

To start, what are you trying to create? Are you trying to flesh out a character, figure out the right atmosphere for a city, or create a new villainous cult? Pick music that seems like it might fit the mood, much like what you did earlier. But this time, don't try to write anything, just listen to the music and imagine what it's describing. Say you're trying to create a desert city. You might pick track 6, Theology/Civilization from the Conan the Barbarian soundtrack. Close your eyes and the music might show you the slow lope of a camel as it approaches the city. As the music increases in activity, it might reveal to you the crowded market place, the scantily-clad slave women being haggled over, the smells of spicy food, rancid wine, and camel dung. Let the music paint a picture for you.

This technique takes practice. Darken the room, don your headphones, put on some music and lie back and let the music speak to you. Tune out the world and immerse yourself in it. Let it paint pictures of exotic lands, daring adventurers, and despicable villains. It may take some practice to get started. If the music doesn't suggest anything right away, you'll have to actively work at finding a place to start. Usually this will be governed by what you've set out to work on. If you're trying to find the mood of the city the PC's live in, picture a part of that city you find familiar... a tavern that the PC's frequent, the market place, the town hall. Or start with a character your familiar with. If the city has a strong guard presence and the captain of the guard plays a large part in the game, start with him and imagine what his day might be like. Obviously, you're going to have to match up setting and action with the music, and this process will usually begin with the music dictating where you start. If the music really doesn't speak to you, try some different music.

When you find music that speaks clearly of a character or place in your world, use the music as themes for them in your game, if using music during the game works for you. Let the music paint a picture for your players as well as yourself.

Don't pass over the power of music when searching for tools to prime the creative pump. Music has been painting pictures for centuries, why not let it paint some for your world?

This month, instead of recommending a book, I'm going to recommend some specific music and sources. Despite his annoying "leading questions" on Usenet, meant to bring up the topic of music in gaming so that he can plug his product, I find Christopher B. Merritt's Sojourn fantasy music to be great. It has the right tone for fantasy, but it isn't recognizable as being associated with anything in particular. I just wish he'd finish his other works. And don't neglect MP3.com (and others) for cheap, unrecognizable music in appropriate genres. You'll find a wealth of music suitable for fantasy (check the Medieval category, as well as others), scifi, horror, cyberpunk and so on. Don't scoff at MP3.com artists because they're not "professionals"... like in our own hobby, some of the amateurs rival the best of the pros. Some good ones to get you started are Gnomusy, Rob Chilcott, and Kryptonic ... Check 'em out and I'm sure you'll find something to spark your imagination.

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