Thursday, October 13, 2011


Ambiance is something that I've talked about on here before, but for the life of me I can't think of where I did it. It is something that RPGs have a problem with. It is something that almost every other medium for story telling can do better. However, it is also one of the most powerful ways to sell a story or a feeling, and so you can't ignore it, hard as it may be.

An Example
I've been, slowly, playing through Space Marine lately. It is a fun game with solid controls, pretty graphics, and a decent story. What gets me the most about the game though is the ambiance. I have yet to feel more powerful in that game than when I showed up to a fight and heard the Imperial Guardsman cheer out "It's a Space Marine! The Emperor's Angels of Death have come to save us!" It wasn't during a cut scene, it wasn't focused on, but I heard it in the background: called out over bolter fire and screaming orks. This feeling was then backed up moments later with the awe-filled whispers from other IG around the area, including an injured trooper saying "At least I got to see a Space Marine before I die, I can take that with me."

The feeling is powerful precisely because it isn't focused on. It is so casual it doesn't need to be focused on. So what could it do in your game? A lot.

The Problem
The big problem with this though is that everything the GM says does have focus, and so it can be harder to find ambiance in a game. Whatever the GM or a player says gets detailed in that moment, as if the camera focused on it, which makes it a deliberate attempt to do something. That doesn't mean it can't be done, just that it is a bit harder. So, what are some methods?

Soundtracks for your games are possible, but they are also a lot of work. Finding the right music, getting it ready to go, and playing it loud enough to be heard but soft enough to not distract can be one hell of a juggling act. However, do it right and music will carry your game. Some scores just inspire emotions, and music can convey it better than most of us can with words. You want people to feel like an epic adventure is beginning/going on, then play the score from Halo or Lord of the Rings. The scores there just scream out epic, and timed right you can do a lot with it. The same is also true for sadness, happiness, and even dread or revulsion. here is music out there for it, so find it.

Casual Description
One of the ways that I've been trying to do it is in my descriptions. The idea here isn't to focus on it, but just drop the lines casually while describing what is going on. "The injured are aligned along the far wall, whispering amongst themselves with sidelong awe filled glances at your presence. The beds have seen better days and it smells like their bandages haven't been changed any time recently. Beyond them..." it is just done quickly, but it is something that they can catch on to. Do it consistently enough and you will pull the feel you want out.

How About You?
today I'm only giving two ways, but I'm curious what other ways people have found to create ambiance in their games. What do you go for? What have you tried for? What worked/ What didn't? Sound off in the comments.


  1. Gah, whoops. This went up early. Oh welL!

  2. I personally am a fan of lighting. Now I'm biased because I'm a lighting designer, but I find that different lighting than the "norm" can really help with the feel. On a brightly lit starship? Get your hands on a daylight goose neck lamp, and point it at the table from an angle out of everyone's line of direct view. In the 40K universe? Use candles or hurricane lanterns for the flickering dim light. Have your lights on dimmers? It's easy to do a lot with it. It's best if you can get your hands on a remote dimmer switch, but even if not just having lighting options is great. Lighting meshes quite well with music, and you can give people cues about the feel.

    Something to remember is that for sound track music is only one component of it. It requires a bit more work, but you can also do a sound effects track. Audacity is a free sound editing program with a stupidly high learning curve, but you can do a lot with it. I find that simply having ambient sound can do a lot even without music. My favorite example for that is in the Dark Heresy game I run. The PCs were in a derelict ship that had been buried under snow and ice for 10,000 years. There was a lot of tension and discomfort in the session, and yet there wasn't combat for most of it. I just used the sounds of a ship creaking playing quietly from my cell phone speaker through out the session. Peoples tension level was extremely high, and that plus the rest of the ambiance in description through out the session led to one of my best sessions ever. Total extra planning time for the sound was about 30 minutes.

    For a more extreme case of sound track focused on ambiance was a 4 hour track of the sound of ventilators, lightly running water, and skittering in the ducts. That took me about 3 hours to produce, but led to people reacting very well just to the sounds in the sound track that helped pace the session.