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Troy’s Crock Pot: Say It Again, Sam

Bringing a particular mood to a gaming table is one of the most difficult things for a GM to wrangle.

[1]First, a given group’s play style has to be receptive to mood-based storytelling. The players gathered for a beer ‘n’ pretzel-style table, for instance, are unlikely to embrace the approach, no matter how skillfully the GM executes it. The jocular table banter – which is how such a group defines “fun” (all the power to them) – pretty much precludes any other attempt at creating atmosphere.

Secondly, even willing players have to connect with the GM so they are on the same wavelength. Getting that to sync up takes practice and the proper alignment of certain constellations, it sometimes seems. I liken it to trying to GM using two tin cans connected by a taut piece of string. At best, it can still be muffled, awkward and prone to transmission problems.

That said, a GM can dip into their toolbox and use REPETITION to good effect.

Now, repetition as a storytelling tool doesn’t guarantee any mood setting. But even GMs who are not graced with other natural narrative gifts (a range of voices and accents for NPCs or an actor’s flair for facial expressions) can utilize repetition to set pacing and setting.

Repetition of certain words – even without inflection or emphasis – goes a long way toward feeding the players’ imaginations.

Here are some examples:

Drip, drip, drip.

It’s one thing to describe the dungeon as dank and damp. But having them hear the “drip, drip, drip” of moisture down the walls each time they enter they halls is a clear signal of conditions that will sink in.

Kyrie Eleison.

This musical prayer is sung as part of many Christian worship services, and is usually translated as “Lord, have mercy upon us. Christ have mercy upon us. Lord, have mercy upon us.” Now I understand the reluctance or aversion some GMs (and players) might have to using actual religious chants during a game session. But the sing-song nature of the Kyrie (not to mention it’s repetitive nature), is a quick way for the GM to designate a holy site, whether it be a shrine or cathedral or holy artifact. Simply substitute the Kyrie Eleison lyrics with vowel sounds. A search engine inquiry for “Kyrie Eleison hymn” should lead you to examples of it written out as music.

Clip-clop. Clip-clop. Clip-clop.

Is that the Headless Horseman you hear? Is that a dark rider? A nightmare steed? The horse and rider who is heard but not seen can help build suspense. Say the words “wicked whinny” in conjunction with it and you may well be on your way to goosing your players’ expectations of a monster-hunting adventure under a full moon in October.

Clank. Scrape. Clank. Scrape. Clank. Scrape.

Is that an apparition with a ball-and-chain being dragged across the floor? An ogre with a ponderous step dragging a great axe? A cry of “mercy” and it might be a prisoner or slave being led to their doom.

Chirp. Chirp. Chirp.

In a sylvan grove, a bird’s chirp might signal the approach of the all-seeing druid. Or is it the sound of hungry chicks in a roc’s nest? A songbird in a cage that’s really a transformed princess?

Those are just a few suggestions, but there must be hundreds more. If you’ve used a similar framing device in your game, let’s hear about it. Share your experiences with this technique in the comments below.

6 Comments (Open | Close)

6 Comments To "Troy’s Crock Pot: Say It Again, Sam"

#1 Comment By shortymonster On October 10, 2012 @ 2:30 am

I’m well and truly backing up Mr. Taylor’s idea here. i use this kind of thing a lot in horror games. I tend to start very quietly though. usually making the noise for the first few times when the players are talking amongst themselves so that they may not even notice it fully, just becoming aware that something isn’t quite right. Of course, there’s alot more tricks to running a horror game ( [2]), but with repetition being a great way to build suspense – just think of the ‘Jaws’ leit-motif – I do wonder what else it can be used for?

#2 Comment By John Arcadian On October 10, 2012 @ 8:25 am

You had me at Bogart…

🙂 I like the idea of repetitive elements to support mood and immersion. I’ve used a metronome and ticking sound to emphasize the time crunch of a bomb that the party had to disable. The Clank. Scrape. Clank. Scrape. one could work really well as a sound effect to show something is tracking the party through the dungeon.

#3 Comment By Roxysteve On October 10, 2012 @ 8:35 am

Hehhehheh. Before each Delta Green session I like to practice my “The Haunting” heartbeat noise (No not the ridiculously CGIed to hell and, unfortunately, back again version, the 1963(?) one).

Lud LUB beat lud LUB beat lud LUB.

In a recent Deadlands:Reloaded game the players were walking at night through Coffin Rock (well, they were new in town) and I described in a low monotone what they were seeing – “it’s dark and only the wind sighing across the distant mountains breaks the eerie silence, not even a single cricket stirs, the endless mountains climb into the night sky, visible only as a greater blackness occluding the night sky and as you turn the corner there’s MOVEMENT TO YOUR RIGHT!

Very satisfying, the sudden levels of adrenaline and engagement in the room, and from then on we were all properly in the town, at night, with no friends and nothing between us and the horrors that stalked the streets.

#4 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On October 10, 2012 @ 9:16 am

Great article, Troy!

I use repetition a lot when setting scenes; now I’m inspired to try them during the scene as well.

(And now you’ve got me singing Mr. Mister lyrics to myself!)

#5 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On October 10, 2012 @ 10:14 am

After I had already written this post, my daughter and I sat down for a weekly viewing of “Doctor Who.” In the episode “The God Complex” repetition was used to good effect to build tension. In what is basically a “monster attacks a base” episode (“No spoilers, Sweetie”), the “heard but not seen” monster’s thudding feet and snorting and the supporting characters’ repeated use of the phrase “Praise him!” Were two of the ways the screenwriters took a standard Doctor Who set piece and made it into something with a little more kick.

#6 Comment By Roxysteve On October 10, 2012 @ 11:48 am

Hehhehheh. In that same Delta Green game I had two characters who had recovered from brief bouts of insanity after visiting an alternate universe dominated by a God-like thing that should not be which demanded tribute, but the “recovery” indicated residual psychoses would be appropriate.

I cued both these players that whenever they heard one of the other PCs mention the word “Altimore” (the PC’s pet name for the alternate universe) they should say “We must not kiss her many feet” (an NPC they met in Altimore had insanely demanded of them “Have you kissed her many feet?” before screaming and running off), and that if they heard anyone say that phrase they should echo it “No, we must not etc etc”.

The players affected played it to the hilt with straight faces, to the great freaking out of the others. By the end of the fourth hour of play everyone was on edge and paranoid, even me.