Monday, September 27, 2010

Setting the Environment

While it may not be something you want to do all the time. Sometimes you want a particular game session to be a little bit more immersive than the others. You want to help your players really get into the game, into their character's heads, and really feel like they could be there, instead of where they are. Which is sitting around a table looking at each others' ugly mugs while pretending to be god knows what. Now, there are a lot of ways to do this. Some more practical than others. I don't know many of them, but I've picked up a few here and there that can help out. So, today I figure I'll share them with you and see if you have any more you'd like to add.

So, first off, why do this? Well, as I said above you are going for immersion, and anything you can do to help with achieving immersion can pay off huge. It will get people more into character, get people more into the world, and when people are really gelling with the world, and their characters, you'll be amazed at what can come out of them. The turns the game can take can be quite interesting.

So how do you achieve immersion? Well, you draw on people's senses, involve them in more ways than just processing the words that are coming out of your mouth. Engage their sense of touch, taste, smell, and sight as well as their sense of hearing. Every sense you can engage is one more they don't have to ignore while trying to imagine the world, and that is a great thing.

So, lets go through the senses one by one.

Sense of Sight
This is the hardest to engage because, unless you're a billionaire or are lucky enough to be LARPing in a Castle, the sense of sight is going to be pulling in what you see around you. Meaning that it will usually be a game store, a kitchen, or living room and all of your friends sitting around with piles of dice in front of them. However, sight can be used in other ways. If you can, dim your lights. Or use clear plastic to alter the light spectrum for the mood you want. Obviously this will take some practice but it can work.

For a session set in a dark library, why not light the game with candles? For horror games this can also work very well, as candles don't light a whole hell of a lot, which will make seeing everyone else's faces that much harder. Be sure to keep visibility up enough that character sheets and dice can be read, and don't give people headaches, but try it out. Do it on your own first to see if it is something you'll be able to GM in, but give it a shot.

Aside from playing with lighting, you can use visuals if you have them. I'll talk about props a little bit later on (in Sense of Touch), but props are also visual. Seeing something can often make it more real than hearing it described. A picture is worth a thousand words after all, and all those words are descriptive in a way you just can't convey quickly enough.

Sense of Smell
This one is an interesting one to do, and I don't recommend you do it if the immersion you want involves a swamp or somewhere that doesn't smell good. That being said, if no one is allergic to allergies and your basement has that lovely 'unfinished basement damp' smell, you can use it as a setting for a game in a dungeon or jail. However, there are more pleasant smells you can sue to help get the mood set. Especially for fantasy games.

Bake bread. One, it is awesome, two it means you'll have a fresh loaf of bread, and three there is just something about the smell of baked bread that brings up imageries of old places and fantasy universes. Give it a shot, and see how it works. Bonus points here as it can help with immersion while smelling great. Bad side is it may make you hungry, but then again, there does happen to be a loaf of fresh bread sitting right there.

Old book smell is another one that can bring people into the past. Grab a bunch of old reader's digests, or just some old books from your closet or the library, open them up and leave them open around the gaming table. The scent will linger long enough for game, but clear out fast enough to not be super annoying (at least in the limited experience I've had with it). Be careful with this one though, the smell of old books gives some people a headache, so make sure that doesn't happen. If it does, open a window and air the room out. better a loss of the scent, than a player unable to think.

Finally, there is incense. Incense comes in a variety of types, and can help convey a wide variety of things. Like with the books, make sure no one has issues with the burning of incense, but it can work wonders.

Sense of Sound
Hearing is one you also need to be careful of. Not because of anything like headaches, though that is a factor, but because of the distraction factor that can creep in. Sound is how you convey what is going on with the game, and having to contest with things you put there can make that worse. So, if you use music try to get music without lyrics, ambient background noise. There should be plenty out there for you to pick and choose from, just look for instrumentals or the scores for movies you really like.

What can also work very well though is sound affects. In a recent game, Atraties had sound effects cued up for his game. We were exploring a derelict ship, and throughout the game - just loud enough to be heard - his phone was playing the sounds of creaking, shifting, and resettling metal. It was something you could ignore once you got used to it, just more white noise, and I honestly didn't think it was doing much until the door to the store opened and immediately half the table's heads bolted to the new sound. Now, most people in the group will usually look anyhow, but this was the startled "whats that? is something coming?" reaction, not the "oh, someone is here" that I'm used to seeing.

So cue up some music, some sound effects, and dim the lights a bit and watch what happens to the ambiance of your game setting.

Sense of Taste
Not much to say on this one, but let me put it this way. It involves food. Don't just go for the usual pizza and soda for a gaming meal if you want to bring a mood that isn't relaxed, go for something more. Meat and potatoes can work well, as can cultural food. A group thing of sushi to go along with an L5R game can work wonders. Same with chinese food, or any other food that fits with what you are trying to do.

Pizza can work too, as can the normal junk food people use, but if it is what people normally do it may not have the same hook it could have otherwise.

Sense of Touch
Sense of Touch is another hard thing to do, and you won't really be able to engage it full time but you can on occasion. For this, I'd recommend using props. If you have to give them a battered old piece of paper, than make a battered old piece of paper. There are examples and instructions for it online, and the reward can be huge.

This is the most time intensive one to set up, unless you just happen to have what you need lying around. Repurposing boxes with the right feel, or having the right puzzle set already bought, can reduce the time by a large margin. Still, despite the time needed, if you do it right this can have a very powerful effect on the game. Actually handing your players the box they pull out of a chest can be a fun experience.

1 comment:

  1. Last Halloween I ran the old Ravenloft Module (with a few tweaks) for a couple friends of mine. We played at my house, where I had candles set up around the living room- including this old wooden candelabra that I somehow found myself in possession of. I also used an editing program to do my own sound mix. I incorporated storm sounds (thunder, rain) with various music and soundtracks like from Dracula or the ever creepy 'Black Aria' songs from Danzig. It was all background, but I felt it really helped set the mood. My players seemed to like it a lot- and it helped ME get into character- especially during the 'fortune telling' scene where I played the old gypsy woman and actually dealt out cards (of course, that was part of the original module, so I can't claim credit for THAT idea).