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That Guy Who Hides Under Nathaniel H.’s Bed asks:
My illustrious counselor, I am a new Game Master, and am seriously contemplating running a more atmospheric game. Then I hit a road block. Atmosphere just appears to be something that “happens” when a good GM speaks, and I don’t think that’s happening when I narrate. The only real advice I could find on the subject was to use music, and while that is certainly good advice, it’s really all I could find.
In hindsight, you may have covered this in your rant about narration, and I just didn’t read thoroughly enough. Oh well, too late now.
So my question is this. How do you build and create atmosphere?
Okay, That Guy Who… no. No. I’m not doing it. I’m not going to ask what the hell you are doing under Nathaniel’s bed or who Nathaniel is. But I am not calling you that. I am going to call you Double Rainbow, a name I found by searching for names of My Little Pony fanfic characters. As a side note, if you have ever wondered if there was a My Little Pony fanfic in which Rainbow Dash was cloned, there is.
Okay, Double Rainbow, first let’s talk about this music bulls$&%. Don’t do it. I know the f$&%ing Battlebards will disagree. But don’t. It doesn’t help. At best, it gets ignored. At worse, it distracts from the game. The idea that having to shout over the Lord of the Rings soundtrack about whether you rolled a successful Stealth check somehow builds atmosphere is completely f$&%ed up. Don’t do it.1
Atmosphere. Ambiance. Yes, these things do mostly come from the GM. And a lot of times they do just happen. But the reason they “just happen” is because some GMs are naturally good at building atmosphere. Or they stumble upon how to do it by accident.
So, what is atmosphere? Atmosphere is the general of a thing. We often use these touchy-feely words to describe it. Dark and gritty. Hopeful. Epic. Suspenseful. Adventurous. Larger than life. Whatever. All this crap describes the mood of a game or movie or whatever. And there’s no real list of “moods” (which are often part of the thing’s “tone,” but lets not get too complicated) because there’s no real list of emotions. And this is really a matter of emotion.
Thing is, before you can consciously build atmosphere at the table, you’ve got to figure out the atmosphere you want to build. What is the tone of your game? How would you describe it? Sit down and write a paragraph explaining to you how you want your game to feel.
For example, I just started a D&D campaign and the players seem to be interested in mystery, intrigue, secrets, and hidden things. Me, personally, I also like some action. And I like a low magic world. A world where magic isn’t ubiquitous and oozing out of every streetlamp golem. So, I might describe the tone of my world like this.
“The world feels off somehow, like the calm before a storm. You get that smell in the air of rain coming. The sudden stillness as the breeze dies. A darkening of the sky. It isn’t raining. It isn’t stormy. But that’s coming. It’s a thousand intangible things. Everyone needs to seem like that an agenda, an ulterior motive. Things need to happen that don’t have immediate explanations. Things need to feel a little sinister. And the players should never really feel like they know what’s going on. Meanwhile, except for their own magic, magic is mysterious and it can do anything and there is very little explanation for it. It’s rare, though. It’s something that they only overtly encounter once in a while. The rest of the time, the world is real and practical. Hard. Medieval.”
Does that seem like a load of bulls&$%? Yeah. But it makes sense to me. It puts into words how the world should feel. To me. And I’m the only one it needs to make sense to. Write yours down. Now, read it over. Does it look good? Does it make sense to you? Is that what you’re going for? If not, write it again. And keep writing it until you get it right.
Now, the thing with atmosphere is that it is never 100%. It literally can’t be. If I keep players in THAT world all the time, it will be oppressive and terrifying and it will make them paranoid. And not the good kind of paranoid. Understand that every game will have moments that deviate from the tone. From the mood. That’s fine. Horror movies have lighter moments. Action movies have quiet moments. People need a break.
At the same time, one of the keys to building atmosphere is in removing as much as you can that breaks that atmosphere. First, work to minimize the distractions at the game table. When everyone sits down to game, emphasize that it’s time to game. Get rid of the cell phones and computers and laptops. Try not to game during a meal. Either eat before or after the game. Shut off the TV, the music, video games, everything. The GMs that are best at building atmosphere tend to be the ones that control the environment in which the game takes place. Because you don’t want that atmosphere breaking at a crucial moment. That’s the worst.
In addition, don’t get hung up on rules. Looking crap up is a distraction. Make a ruling unless it’s vitally important to keeping a character alive and then move on. And try to be the only one looking stuff up. Encourage the players to put their books under the table. Or leave them at home.
I’ll let you in on a trick. I have a giant honking vinyl battlemat. One of the big Chessex dealies. And I use it at almost every game, even ones I don’t need to. Because it takes up a lot of space and people have to put their stuff on top of it. When you roll that puppy out, people tend to hide more of their stuff under the table. They think you’re going to use that space. So what they have in front of them is minimal. Yes, I purposely leave the players as little table space as possible just to keep them from cracking their stupid rule-books. I s$&% you not, Double Rainbow.
Next, you have to work to keep people in the game. People will occasionally get distracted by joking around or making references to things. That’s fine. You’ll never have 100% control. But don’t join in yourself. And don’t let it go on for more than a quick moment. In some ways, you need to be a steamroller. Be willing to roll over the out-of-game crap, to talk over people and be a little overbearing. You don’t have to be rude, unless you’re me, because there’s a thousand tables that want me and I don’t have to put up with that crap, but you can be firm. Just don’t let your game get broken. Stay focussed.
Honestly, if you focus on that s$&%, atmosphere will sort of happen naturally a lot of the time. Because most of atmosphere is just about keeping people absorbed in the game as much as possible. But that doesn’t help you control atmosphere. Just to maintain it.
So, how do you build atmosphere? First of all, never forget the mood you want to evoke. Keep that paragraph handy unless you’re good at keeping it in your head. It serves as a reminder of what you’re trying to do.
Next, remember that the first scene and the last scene of every game session are the most important. Both of those should be dripping with atmosphere. I’m going to confess that I’m not really good at starting with atmosphere. Mine is a slow boil. But don’t do that. Start strong.
How do you add atmosphere into a scene? Holy crap, I could write a book. Because literally everything is either working for your atmosphere or against it. Is your atmosphere exciting and epic? Talk fast and talk loud. Use big, grand words to describe things. Make sure you focus on how exciting and amazing everything is. Start your session with a sunrise or high noon. Yeah, I kid you not. Do an action scene. Whatever.
Is your atmosphere slow and mysterious? Talk quiet. Lean in. Be slow. Be a little vague, maybe. Call attention to weird details for no good reason. As the party approaches the village, it’s twilight. And there’s crows sitting on the fence row, watching them with beady eyes. The figures of shepherds are silhouettes on the hilltops as they gather their herds. Maybe an NPC greets them with a hello and eyes them up and down. “He seems friendly,” you say… leaving a hint of a question.
It’s something you practice, something you get better at. But right before you start the first scene of the session, read your “atmosphere paragraph” to yourself. Maybe read it twice. No matter how many times you’ve read it, read it again. It’ll put you in the mood. And then you’ll tend to adopt a mode of speech and a tone and body language that all emphasize it.
It really doesn’t take much, though. Once you minimize the distractions, a little mood goes a long way.
Always end your sessions with something that suits the tone. My mystery game, where everything is wrong and something’s always going on? I’m going to always tease the start of the next session. Some little thing is always going to happen that leaves a sort of “now what the hell is going on?” feeling. If you are doing epic excitement? End on the biggest action scene. After the end of the biggest action scene. Some people will tell you to always end on a cliff hanger. But I say always end with the right tone. As the heroes survey the battlefield littered with orc corpses, drenched in sweat in blood, the epic action session ends.
Now, when you prep your game, make sure that your biggest non-climax scene is one that fits the tone of the game. If your tone is not combat heavy, make sure the cool scene in the middle of the adventure is a mystery or a tense negotiation or whatever. The key is, somewhere halfway through every session, a cool scene should happen that is just perfect for your tone paragraph.
My players stopped an assassination attempt. And then they chased down the assassin. And found that another assassin had killed the assassin. And then they had to gather clues. That was about the halfway point of the session/adventure. The stopping of the assassination was cool, but it was the dead assassin that served as the tentpole. Layers of intrigue, right?
It sounds easy and formulaic when I say, Double Rainbow, but that’s because it isn’t as hard as it seems to build atmosphere. Its just one of those things that few people give any conscious thought to because it seems to just happen naturally. And because it comes from so many different tiny influences. It doesn’t seem possible to teach or explain. But, that’s why I’m a f$%&ing genius.
Hell, if I really wanted to ruin a big f$&%ing secret, I might point out how most of my articles start with me being pissed off, end with me being pissed off, but, in the middle, are mostly just me explaining things. Sometimes, I’ll throw a few swears into the middle or make fun of someone’s name once or twice throughout. And yet, people think I’m the angriest motherf$&%er who ever rolled a crit.
1. Oh, all right, fine. A little bit of quiet music in the background CAN actually help emphasize the atmosphere you’ve already built. I’ll admit it. But it’s got to be quiet and doing it can’t distract you from running the f$&%ing game. Put it on repeat and then leave it the hell alone! And it is NOT a substitute for building atmosphere by actually running and narrating a f$&%ing game. Okay, Battlebards? Are you happy? Go back…