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Atmosphere: The GM’s Helper
Posted By Phil Vecchione On May 4, 2012 @ 4:00 am In GMing Advice | 4 Comments
Ever play Vampire during the day in a well lit room? Then you know how important aligning the mood of the room with the game you are playing can be. Some games are more susceptible to it than others, but when the atmosphere of where you are playing does not align with what you are playing, it can create a barrier from really immersing into the game. Over the years I have tried a few different things that have helped to set the mood for my game. So slip on your smoking jacket, light the candles and put on some Barry White and lets talk about setting the mood.
Once in college, in upstate New York, we watched the movie Alive in our dorm room, with all the windows open in January. It was stupid, and I just avoided getting frostbite, but it created a real connection to the story. I did not have to imagine how cold it was for those survivors; I was freezing right along with them.
A challenge that many GM’s have is to reach that point in running a game when everyone stops thinking about themselves as the players, and instead they slip into their characters. The GM, as the main conduit of conveying the world, has the challenge of drawing the players into the world with words alone. By creating an atmosphere in the area you are playing which is in tune with the game you are running, you help to draw your players deeper into the game world.
The first thing we need to understand is the tone or mood you are looking to create. What is the mood of your game, in general? What is the mood of this specific adventure? Of this specific scene? Those questions can have different answers, and its important when you are setting the mood to make sure you know which question you are answering.
When setting the mood, you want to do things that appeal to one or more of the senses for you and your players. Here are some suggestions for each of the senses:
When you pick something to help you set the mood, you want something that is more subtle than overt. If you are playing music, you want it to be softer than your voice, so that when you speak your players hear you, and when you are not talking the music fills the room. If you are dimming lights, you want them dim enough to convey darkness, but not so dark that people cannot see their character sheets.
I am hardly the first person to cover this topic, and so I want to avoid some of the more thought out and understood topics such as lighting, music, and food. There are plenty of great articles that cover those. I would rather share two ways that I think are a bit different, and that I have used to set the atmosphere of some of the games I have run.
For the most part, I am not really a GM that uses many props. One thing that I have done is to use clothing to help convey the mood. I did not dress in a costume as a specific NPC, but rather I dressed up in a way to convey the tone of the game.
The first time I did this was about 10 years ago, for a d20 Modern campaign I was running called Heist. It was a darker version of Ocean’s Eleven, also set in Vegas. During the early part of the campaign, we decided to dress up like two-bit criminals, but not necessarily our characters. Here is what that looked like.
It really did help set the tone for the campaign. When we were hanging out in those clothes it was easy to imagine all of us as these low-level criminals.
This past week, I did that again for my new Corporation game. I wanted to kick off the campaign with a bang. I wanted something that gave the game more of a corporate feel. So rather than GMing in my hoodie, I wore a shirt and tie to the game.
It should be noted, that for my real world job, I never have to wear a tie.
I don’t know what effect it had on the players, but wearing a shirt and tie helped to keep the overall tone set in my mind. I liked it enough that I think I will keep doing it.
Another way to set the tone of a game is to run it in a location that has the right atmosphere. Being somewhere different from your normal gaming space creates a very different gaming experience, as the players are surrounded with various inputs from their new surroundings.
Back in the late 90’s I ran a Vampire: The Masquerade campaign. I kicked off the campaign by holding the first session in downtown Buffalo, at a coffee house on a Friday night. We were very low key, sitting in a circle of worn mismatched chairs by the window, and playing diceless; we looked like some goth book club if anything. Sitting there on a busy Friday night, watching people walk up and down the street and come in and out of the shop, gave the players a feel for what downtown was like. It helped them imagine what being a Vampire in this city would be like. It was a much different experience than the suburban living room where the majority of the campaign would be played.
Creating the right atmosphere for your game can be a useful tool in creating a great campaign, but it has limits. If overdone, it can be disruptive or silly, but when it is done right it can enhance your game and create great sessions.
There are so many ways to set the mood, and this article just scrapes the surface. What are some of the ways you have set the mood in your game? What is the biggest or most extreme thing you have done to set the mood, and how did it turn out?
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