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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.

Atmosphere Is Your Helper

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.

Plenty Of Ways To Set The Mood

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:

  • Sight: lighting, clothing, art, pictures/images
  • Sound: music, sound effects
  • Smells: candles, musty books
  • Taste: foods, beverages
  • Touch: clothing, props

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.

Dressing The Part

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.

Field Trip

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.

Soaking It In

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?

About  Phil Vecchione

A gamer for 30 years, Phil cut his teeth on Moldvay D&D and has tried to run everything else since then. He has had the fortune to be gaming with the same group for almost 20 years. When not blogging or writing RPG books, Phil is a husband, father, and project manager. More about Phil.




4 Comments (Open | Close)

4 Comments To "Atmosphere: The GM’s Helper"

#1 Comment By Trace On May 4, 2012 @ 9:38 am

“If overdone, it can be disruptive or silly…”

I fell victim to this once or twice. But the times it works are great. Like the time in a D&D campaign the party found a ‘cubic gate’ and I handed them a replica of “The Lament Configuration.”

#2 Comment By Riklurt On May 4, 2012 @ 12:52 pm

For a while I was lucky enough to have a dedicated RPG room, and tried to do some interior decorating there to set the mood. Since my group plays a lot of Exalted, I went with Chinese artwork on the walls – suitable for a game with an Asian feel, and not exactly disruptive for other games. Besides the pictures, I also used different covers for the sofa (A leafy-patterned bedspread for fantasy games, for instance) and I had two small frames standing near the table with pictures I could switch easily – suitably sized so I could just print out some fitting artwork and put it there.

Particularly that last thing can be a nice touch – even if it isn’t a visual that directly relates to the game, having a small picture of a medieval castle or a shady guy in an alleyway gives a good idea of what the game “looks like” – like the cover of a book or a DVD box.

#3 Comment By Scott Martin On May 4, 2012 @ 2:56 pm

Our biggest mood setting was going for a walk together. The game was modern day, set in our home town. Enemies were crossing the river into the city. So we got up from the game, walked the half mile or so until we could see the bluffs, and all pictured the same scene. It did a good job.

(For a similar game, we drove by a sketchy area of town a short distance from my apartment. That lumber yard and the nearby buildings were filled with ne’r do wells…)

#4 Comment By Tsenn On May 8, 2012 @ 12:52 pm

I used to costume up for one of my Shadowrun characters. Suit, shades and a reprinted Nerf Maverick to stand in for his Ruger. It helped me get in character.

While GMing I’ve tried running a slideshow on the PC behind me with appropriate images. Turns out, that can be a bit too distracting. I’m keeping it in mind for the future though. Possibly a smaller image set on a slow cycle would work. I also like Riklurt’s ideas about dressing the room.

Music: I’ve finally figured out how to easily create and edit playlists with Winamp, so that’s going well. Need to build a couple of more specific lists – space battle and fantasy battle for instance.


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