Halloween is coming up (along with the end of the Blogging for GMs project, currently on day 18), so this seems like a good time to offer up 5 tips on creating ambience for your game.
Along with where you play, the nature of your surroundings can — however subtly — have a lot of impact on the mood of your game. These 5 tips are aimed at enhancing the experience of your game by tweaking your surroundings. They won’t turn a poor game into a good one, but they have the potential to turn a good session into a great — and memorable — one. (Think of them as the gravy on an already tasty meal.)
These tips will be most useful if you game at home, or someplace else where you have control over your gaming area (and not, say, a student lounge).
1. Change the lighting. There are three basic ways to approach this: dimming the lights, making them brighter, or shutting them off and using a different light source. Even just turning the lights down slightly can make everything seem a bit creepier — and everyone can still read their notes and character sheets.
Shutting the lights off and switching to, say, candles, will send the spooky factor way up (just make sure there’s still enough light to read by). I’ve found that after an hour or two, my eyes need a break from candlelight, so that might be worth factoring in as well. An alternative to this is to leave the lighting in your gaming area alone, but turn off every other light in the house (which can be very unnerving!).
The third option is a bit more unusual: turning the lights way up. This one might work best for specific scenes, like an interrogation, or a scene set in the sterile, overly-bright corridors of a space station. (I’ve never actually tried this approach, but it sounds interesting.)
2. Put on background music. I covered this topic in a previous post, “Music for Your Game,” so I’ve only got one tip to add here. If you’re using music to create ambience, it’s important that the music itself not be distracting, and that things like changing CDs, switching tracks, etc. are kept to a minimum. In combination with changing the lighting, this is one of the easiest ways to create ambience for your game.
3. Use props. From the simplest to the most elaborate, few things connect in-game events to the act of playing the game like props. I posed an open question about props to TT readers a little while back, and there are some handy tips in that post and its comments: “How Do You Use Props?”
In terms of ambience, though, handing out a prop or two won’t really help all that much — up to a point, more is definitely better. Props can also include “dungeon dressing” for your gaming area: things that you set out on the table, or up on shelves (etc.) that evoke the game’s setting and tone. Even if these are a bit cheesy — black curtains and fake skulls, let’s say — you’d be surprised how much they can add to the whole experience.
4. Add costume items. Unless you’re LARPing, I don’t think sitting around a table for 4+ hours in full costume is going to do much for the ambience — but adding a few little touches can go a long way.
For example, one of my favorite Call of Cthulhu scenarios — in which the PCs are all escaped convicts — comes with name badges for the players to wear. Every time you (or anyone else) looks at a player’s badge, it reinforces the scenario’s theme. (Interestingly, that particular scenario, In Media Res, also suggests a costume that doesn’t sound too uncomfortable to wear at the table: prison-style jumpsuits.)
5. Don’t break for pizza. Or, more generally: try not to take your players out of the mood you’ve gone to all this trouble to create. If your gaming area is decked out to the nines, the players all have costume items and there are props aplenty, the last thing you want to do is head out to the kitchen for half an hour to munch on pizza. In other words, try to limit the number of distractions that pop up during your game session.
Have you had any particularly successful or unsuccessful forays into creating ambience for your game? Did my 5 fairly broad tips leave out your favorite technique? As always, share your thoughts in the comments!