Thursday, 18 February 2010

An Interview with James Semple

I'd like to welcome to the blog James Semple. He's a talented composer and experienced gamer, the man who bought you music for the games 'Trail of Cthulhu' and 'The Esoterrorists'.

He kindly agreed to answer a few questions for Farsight Blogger.

1. Tell us a bit about yourself

I've been playing RPGs since I was 11 and playing music since I was 18. My first game was D&D and my first instrument is guitar. My first real musical inspiration was watching Star Wars, I remember being blown away by that score, even as a kid. I took up guitar and played contemporary music for years, mostly focused around live performance. A few years back I built my own studio in my back garden and have been writing and recording orchestral music since then. Nowadays I write and record in pretty much all styles and I have a lot of projects on the go.

2. How did you get into RPGs?

Well, like a lot of Brit gamers my age, I was brought in through the gateway drug of the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. Someone bought me Warlock of Firetop Mountain as a Christmas present and then I think I moved on to RPGs within about six months. The games proved popular with a lot of my friends and so I played a good mix of fantasy board games (like Dungeon and Talisman), miniatures gaming (Warhammer 1st Edition) and actual RPGs.

3. What are your favourite games?

Over the years I have played a ton of systems. At the moment I'm not playing much and I'm playing board games more (love the BSG board game). I guess overall the Cthulhu games are my favourite and I've played a lot of Call of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu. I think Mutants and Masterminds is an exceptional system and I've had a lot of success running that. It seems to capture the spirit of comics and flexible powers really well. I ran a short game of Aces and Eights and loved it but wow that system can be tiring to run! I think the Star Wars Saga system works pretty well and I've both ran and played a few excellent games of that. It seems to work well with an ensemble and allows everyone to feel that they're contributing, even in space battles. Funnily enough, considering that the mediaeval fantasy genre is so overpopulated in RPGs, I've never found a system for that which I really like. I think RuneQuest III was possibly the closest I got to it. Always open to suggestions!

4. Where did the idea come from to write music specifically for RPGs?

Oh, good question! Hmm ... I don't remember specifically. I do remember that we'd started listening to music when playing our own games: a lot of the usual suspects like film scores and videogame scores. It then occurred to me that I could just write my own. One of the advantages (which I'm pleased to say has been noticed) is that original RPG scores don't distract players by reminding them of other films or games. I approached a couple of companies to do this commercially and I'm very pleased to say that I've been working with Pelgrane Press for a couple of years now. They're very nice people and have a high quality of output with top writers and artists. It's nice to contribute to the overall atmosphere of their games. I'm planning to write more with them in the coming months. Some of the tracks I've written were actually for specific scenes in our own gaming sessions.

5. Does RPG music have any unique aspects?

RPG music can be used in a couple of ways. I think most of us simply put a CD or playlist on in the background. In that case you need the playlist to be quite tightly focused and keep the appropriate mood. I remember playing a Star Wars game and my big bad guy turns up just in time for the Cantina Band music to start playing in the background. :)

The other way would be to focus the music on specific scenes. Obviously the GM would be doing this and has to be careful to not spend too much attention on the music because it would detract from the game. I've done this from time to time and it can work well. You can make playlists for fights and investigations and horror, etc.

In terms of writing the music this gives me the challenge of writing something worth having on in the background that doesn't distract the players. It's very much like writing underscore for dialog. I try and avoid frequencies that interfere with human voice too much. The trick is to use short motifs than can be developed and keep the dynamics from becoming overpowering. It can work very well and really can set the mood for a great game.

6. What are your greatest musical influences/inspirations?

Well obviously John Williams came first and foremost. I love loads of film composers like Jerry Goldsmith, Danny Elfman (particularly his earlier stuff), Bernard Herrman, Ennio Morricone, John Powell, Howard Shore, etc. I tend to have a fairly eclectic taste but Queen were a huge influence and were great songwriters. It sometimes amuses me to learn a new classical writing device and realise that I'd already heard it in a Queen song. In terms of inspirations I find it good to write music that accompanies "scenes" or even music to fit a specific location. In terms of writing RPG music I'll sometimes write a piece based on a game cover or even a description of a scene within an adventure. I've found the game "Esoterrorists" particularly inspiring for this and it suits my eclectic style. I've written rock, orchestral and dance music for this game! I also get to use loads of cool sound design ... I have an upcoming track where I'm using a dentist's drill!

7. What other projects are you working on?

At the moment I'm finishing scoring a feature length independent UK movie called Jen (http://www.jenmovie.com), I'm also about to record 3 albums with 3 different singers in a mixture of styles. I'm scoring a couple of short animations and I have another feature film lined up later in the year. Hoping to get work on natural history documentaries as well. Lots going on and I always try to be flexible and open to new styles of music. I might be doing music for a charity advert soon but obviously I don'tlike to talk about my charidee work .. :)

8. If you could write the score for a movie version of any RPG, which one would it be?

Well Star Wars might be a little obvious here but yeah ... I'd love to score a new SW film or tv series. Mutants and Masterminds might be fun. Honestly I think I'd love to score either a movie of a Cthulhu story or the Esoterrorists (which would make a GREAT TV series).

9. Any last words? (Sounds slightly ominous - 'cocks hammer on gun')

RPGs (like videogames) are a new field for music. As technology becomes more integrated into activities I think the potential for interactive music grows significantly and this could prove to be an exciting field for new music.

Thank you very much for the questions and having me today.

Regards

James

Thanks, James - you can read more about James and listen to some samples of his work at www.jamessemple.com.

You know, one thing I miss about publishing 'ODDS' magazine are the interviews I used to do with people who have had an impact on the gaming world in one way or another. If you know of anyone you think is deserving of an interview then drop me a line.