Last weeks article about BattleBards and music in gaming got me thinking about the wider question of atmosphere in gaming. All too often the DM (or whatever your moniker of choice is) is so obsessed by making sure that the story is ready, the encounters are prepared and they’ve thought through the obvious outcomes of the various scenes that the atmosphere at the table is overlooked.
So, today, I thought it’d be interesting to take a look at the various ways that the atmosphere at the table can be ruined and what a DM can do to influence it. It’s worth noting that it’s all about context, what ruins one game can help another and the best thing you can do is know your game and your players.
Ruining the atmosphere
Phones. I have a personal hatred of mobile phones at the gaming table and prefer that my players turn them off at the door (along with my own phone). Generally I’ve put a great amount of work into a session and I think it’s rude if a player is randomly sending texts while I’m trying to describe an encounter. Now, obviously, I’m not a dictator, there are times that players need their phones, either because they are on call, waiting to hear from their mortgage broker or expecting a call from their pregnant wife, but in those cases the phone needs to be on vibrate, no-one wants to hear the Thong Song in the middle of the villains monologue. Players, do the decent thing, unless you are expecting an urgent call, turn your phone off at the door and, DM’s, do the same, your game will be better for it.
Out of game chatter. This kind of depends on the type of game you run but, in general, very little ruins the mood more than someone randomly breaking the flow of the game to discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones. I realise that gaming sessions are social encounters but, as before, your DM will likely have put a hell of a lot of work into the game and it’s disrespectful to hijack the session to discuss something that could just as easily be brought up at any other time, even after the game.
If you run particularly long session then schedule in a break so that people can have a chat, go for a smoke or whatever. Doing this will help everyone focus on the game during game time and will let you plan on when to let up on the tension, even movies have moments when the action ebbs to let everyone recover in time for the next epic scene.
Social media/Internet. A much more recent issue and one that can be turned to your advantage at times. In general, like phones and out of game chatter, having your players more focussed on live tweeting the session or updating their Facebook status is probably going to detract from the story you are trying to tell. If someone is more interested on watching cat video’s on Youtube and keeps trying to show other people then not only are they not taking interest in your game but they can pull others away. Try to have a no internet policy at the table during game time as anything that distracts from the game is going to break the atmosphere.
On the flip side, sometimes it can be used to your advantage. If you are running a modern or futuristic style game then you can actively use the internet to communicate with players and send links and updates via email to accounts set up for their characters. In this way you can make the internet work for you, rather than against you.
Tablets/laptops. This is pretty specific to certain games really, as these can be an asset in a lot of cases, assuming players aren’t using them for any of the above reasons or, worse, gaming. Certain games, mostly horror or very serious fantasy suffer if players are constantly and audibly typing away. In the case of horror games even the screen glare can cause a distraction and so it’s worth asking players to use good, old fashioned pens and paper in those instances.
Conversely, if you are running something like Shadowrun or Eclipse Phase then letting your players use tablets actively adds to the atmosphere as they feel more in keeping with the setting overall.
Observers. This one doesn’t come up often for me. Generally if someone wants to see what roleplaying is about then I’ll invite them to a game. However, once or twice, I’ve been asked if someone can watch a game and I’ve always refused the request. Roleplaying can, often, feel a little silly, especially if people commit and having an outsider watch you can make you and your players feel self conscious, especially if the observer doesn’t really understand or insists one interrupting.
Improving the atmosphere
Thats most of the obvious ways that a session can be ruined so I’ll move onto the more positive ways you can influence the atmosphere at the table.
Lighting. This is one of the easiest ways that you can influence the atmosphere at the table. When you go to see a film at the cinema the lights are turns down so that you can focus on the film, so it can draw you in, and you can do the same at the table. A lot is dependent on the type of game you are playing and on the number of props and accessories that you use because it’s hard to focus on a poorly lit board during tactical combat but, done right, lighting can make a big difference.
The best example I can give is for horror gaming, say Call of Cthulhu or Ravenloft. These types of games are best run in very dim light, with the bare minimum illumination for people to see handouts and character sheets. This means that players are drawn into what they can see, namely you and the handouts and they’ll focus on your words a whole lot more.
Music. I covered this in more detail last week, so I’ll keep it to a minimum here. Music can influence emotion in a big way, it’s why films and TV rarely have important scenes without background music (it’s VERY noticeable when they don’t) an you can apply this too. Assuming that you don’t have hours to spend scoring each and every session then just using it at select times can make a big difference.
Try to find a piece of music to play whenever a reoccurring villain appears, or that is used during important battles and your players will begin to notice. It’ll remind them of previous encounters and really help to make them realise the importance of a particular scene. Classical music in particular works well, whether it’s for a fast chase scene, a tumultuous battle or just playing quietly, at the edge of hearing as they explore an abandoned manor house.
Your voice. This one is linked with audio, because it’s all about what your players hear, but it deserves a mention all of it’s own because it might just be the single most important factor of all. Your voice, the way you speak and what you say is your players connection to the world. Through your voice they hear your descriptions and they interact with NPCs and so it’s important that your voice is conveying the right message. There are a number of ways to ensure that your voice is helping build atmosphere rather than detract from it and almost all relate to how you say something, rather than what you say.
Firstly, there is the obvious accents and voices. Being able to convincingly change your accent and give a different voice to all important NPC’s is a valuable skill and if you can do it, then you should because your players will identify with an NPC more if they feel like a real person. However if, like me, you can’t actually do an accent and that everything ends up sounding a bit Scottish, then don’t do it, unless you are aiming for comedy. The same applies to voices, I do a passable Orc, Dwarf and Kender but that’s about my limit and so I don’t try to do many more. If your players can do convincing voices or accents then they should be encouraged to use a voice for their character as long as it adds depth.
Then there is the volume of your voice. This can be an incredibly powerful tool if it is used in the right way. Consider a patient in an asylum, if he spoke with perfect clarity and at a normal volume then players might question whether he’s truly insane or whether he’s leading them on. If that same patient speaks very softy, almost inaudibly quiet, as if he’s speaking to himself and then occasionally shouts at the top of his voice then the scene would be all the more convincing. A preacher on a podium shouts, thieves in a tavern whisper and so you should too.
Volume links in with how quickly you speak. Consider the asylum patient again, he may speak quickly, almost incoherently while whispering but slow down and emphasise certain words that he feels are important when shouting. The preacher would speak slowly and clearly while the thieves may just speak at a normal pace, as those who do not want to draw undue attention would. Linking volume and speed together can give you a powerful tool, even if you can’t do voices or accents.
Obviously what you say is also important. Providing too much or too little detail can detract from the experience as can having to go back and change what you said because of a mistake. Try to make descriptions, especially of dungeons clear and correct, even if it doesn’t seem realistic, so that maps are accurate and to avoid confusion. As always this is context dependent and you probably don’t want to use specific and exact descriptions if the players are exploring a none-Euclidian temple on a mysterious island in the south pacific.
When providing descriptions try to avoid placing too much emphasis on any particular single aspect, as it will seem to your players that this is important, whether it is or not but make sure that all important elements are mentioned.
Know your source material. This is key and links in with everything else. It is important to know the reaction you are looking to elicit and plan accordingly. If you are trying to invoke fear or mystery then darkness, jarring changes in volume and none specific descriptions are the way to go but, if you are expecting your party to navigate a dungeon and take part in mass combat then good light, a clear and consistent voice and specific descriptions are what you want.
Props and hand-outs. Props and hand-outs can really help the atmosphere as the table as the ability to interact with something on a tactile level can help players connect with the world on a deeper level. These need to be used sparingly and only to emphasise important points as you otherwise risk cluttering up the table with useless pieces of paper. Additionally, if you use hand-outs for everything them players will begin to assume that anything you don’t have a hand-out for isn’t important and therefore it can add a meta-gaming aspect to your sessions. I use a scroll case for important missive’s in fantasy games and I find it a nice touch.
Used correctly hand-outs can actually be the basis for whole games, with their use defining the campaign and their appearance giving players mixed feelings of excitement and fear. This is best demonstrated with Trail of Cthulhu’s excellent Armitage Files, which uses a series of letters as the entire basis of a campaign and it is how the players interpret them that is the catalyst for each of the individual investigations.
Incense. It’s not one that I’ve ever used but it was highlighted to me by @Greyhawk4x4 on Twitter (who also made an excellent video on the subject of atmosphere and I recommend you check it out here). Incense used in the right place can be used to reinforce where the party are. If they are walking through a great souk in a desert town then heady scents of sandlewood and spice can help draw them in and if they are in a cold mountainous region pine scents will help conjure the right images.
The gaming room. Many of us aren’t lucky enough to have a dedicated gaming space and, in fact, part of the allure of roleplaying is that you need little more than a few dice, pens, paper and a rulebook to play. If you do have a gaming space then how it is set up can impact a game. A cluttered space with many distractions can serve to detract from the game as players eyes and minds wander whereas a tidy room, with focus on the table and DM can help to draw them in. If you are very clever you can even manipulate the room to serve your purposes, I once heard of a DM that was running a campaign where the number 13 was significant and it gradually dawned on the players that there was 13 of everything in the room around them, candles, pencils, pictures on the wall etc.
This isn’t a definitive list by any means, as a DM you need to be constantly considering different ways to add depth and atmosphere to your games. Atmosphere varies by game, by group and often by session and so adapting your approach while making sure that you understand your audience will help you provide the best possible experience for your group.