Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Interview - James Semple

StudioPlease welcome to Farsight Blogger James Semple, the composer  behind the soundtracks of the Pelgrane Press games 'Trail of Cthulhu', 'The Esoterrorists' and 'Ashen Stars'.

1 - Welcome back to Farsight Blogger, James! Perhaps you'd like to tell us a little bit about yourself?

Thank you! It's great to be here. I've been a roleplayer for about 30 years and have been a composer and musician for over 20 years. While I often score feature films, people in this industry generally know me for my music for tabletop RPGs.

2 - Tell us about your RPG history - what got you into the wonderful world of tabletop roleplaying?

Like many UK gamers I was brought into the hobby by The Warlock of Firetop Mountain and the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. Totally hooked me and then I got into D&D and then played through a whole stack of different game systems. I actually met both Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone at Dragonmeet over the weekend and they were both incredibly nice people who were very humble about their hugely influential roles in the UK roleplaying scene.

3 - What is it about the tabletop RPG hobby that attracts you? What do you enjoy most when playing a game?

I think immersion is what attracted me in the first place and is still what I enjoy the most when playing. I also love that it's a face to face social event where you get to spend time with friends. I do enjoy online games like Star Wars The Old Republic but I miss that real life social aspect.

4 - What's your favourite game? What games that are out there at the moment float your boat?

 For a long time I thought Mutants and Masterminds was one of the best games written. Very good system that I loved and I used it for a lot of different types of games. I've probably had my most successful (and longest) campaigns with Call of Cthulhu and they have been really fantastic (helped by the fact I had a great group of gamers!).

5 - Do you still get time to play? What are you playing at the moment?

Occasionally I get time to play these days and at the moment I'm running a campaign of The One Ring. It's probably my favourite game in a long time which I think perfectly captures the feel of Middle Earth. They're also a really great team of people at Cubicle 7 and are creating some very high quality material to back up the game. For someone with little spare time having a set of ready to run adventures is absolutely essential.

6 - The tabletop roleplaying hobby has been through a lot changes over the years and it seems that its death-knell is always sounded when newer hobbies come along, such as collectible card games and online computer games. It still seems to be able to hold it’s own, though – what do you see happening to the hobby in the future? What changes, if any, do you think will have to be made to ensure its survival?

I think to survive we need to focus on what tabletop gaming does better than the electronic alternatives and possibly even enhance the experience using some kind of mobile/tablet technology. I can see how a traditional dungeon-bash has a struggle to compete against games like World of Warcraft. I feel it would be beneficial to expand upon the storytelling aspects and the actual roleplaying which is far more freeform and unlimited by imagination.

7. You've done soundtracks for the Pelgrane Press games 'Trail of Cthulhu' and The Esoterrorists', and you've just released a fabulous soundtrack for 'Ashen Stars'. Where did the idea come from to write music specifically for RPGs?

Thank you. I was already using quite a lot of music in my games and as a composer it just seemed an obvious thing to do. I teamed up with Pelgrane because I really liked their products and I wanted to work with a company that I could deal with face-to-face. That is really important to me. It's been great fun and it's always really rewarding to meet people who have used my music in their games. I also find it exceptionally inspiring to work with such rich and evocative source material.

8. Does RPG music have any unique aspects?

Over the years I've learned what works and what doesn't. Some of my earlier tracks ended up having too much dynamic range so they would end up becoming distracting. For me the importance is to perhaps plan the music in advance but once you start the game then it fades into the background. No gamesmaster wants to spend their time also being a DJ. It just becomes too much work. One thing that surprised me was how well theme tunes work. They really help to get players into the right mood and kickstart a gaming session. Other than that, the real trick is to write music that effectively sets the mood without distracting the players.

9. What are your greatest musical influences/inspirations?

John Williams was really my original influence and is still my biggest influence these days. There are a lot of great film composers these days who I think are phenomenal and I'm a huge fan of the orchestrator Nicholas Dodd who is a real genius and also an incredibly nice guy. I was a rock guitarist for many years and I was a huge fan of the 'art rock' bands like Queen and Pink Floyd who to be honest both had a very cinematic sound.

10 - You’ve no doubt mixed with other great names in the roleplaying community – do you have any stories or anecdotes to share? Any horror stories? Be as frank as you like!

I have met some great guys in the industry and community and honestly I've found each and every one of them to be incredibly nice, even the people who had reputations for being controversial. It might be because generally I'm only working on things that are tangential to the hobby so I can't ever really be perceived as competition. Having said that I did meet Alex Otterlei who has composed wonderful music for Horror on the Orient Express and he was one of the nicest people you could hope to meet.

At the moment it's always a huge pleasure and privilege to be working on games developed by Ken Hite and Robin Laws. They're both towering giants in the industry and incredibly humble (and funny) in real life. I genuinely need to get more time to hang out with those guys.

Also while I never managed to meet him, we did manage to persuade Wil Wheaton to record some voiceover work for the Eternal Lies campaign (for Trail of Cthulhu). He's fantastic at voiceover and did an amazing job. I'm really proud that he got involved! It's going to be made available as part of the campaign when it's released and we also have some extra tracks that haven't been released yet.

11 - What are you working on at the moment?

We just released All We Have Forgotten with Pelgrane Press for their Ashen Stars game. At the moment I'm writing new music for Robin Laws' new game Hillfolk and also for Night's Black Agents. In addition I'm going to be writing some music for 316 - Carnage Amongst the Stars and I have a couple of other potential companies and games who I'm talking to. On top of that I have some mobile games coming up plus a new feature film. Exciting times and hopefully some big announcements in 2013!

Thank you so much for having me, it's been a great pleasure!