Ask Angry: With Apologies to the Battelbards

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Do you have a question for The Angry GM! Well, because people can’t get it right, I had to set up a separate page with instructions. About how to send a f$&%ing e-mail. Ready How to Ask Angry to learn how to submit a question.

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…

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15 thoughts on “Ask Angry: With Apologies to the Battelbards

  1. Nathaniel Hawthorne?

    I find that if you internalize the mood, to the point that you are aware of it subconsciously, you will project it.

  2. I agree that one of the best ways to build atmosphere is to make sure there are no breaks in the mood of the game; cell phones, rules questions, and rationing can all ruin the mood a little.
    However I think that most often it is the DM who is responsible for breaking the mood of a game. Letting players ask for an intimidation check instead of saying, “I hold his hand down and hold over it my vile of acid.” To me, encouraging your players to role play is very important in setting the mood. And the most important part of encouraging role play is the DM leading by example. When you begin to role play everything, your characters will follow along and when they are in character, they will feel whatever the character would feel.

    • You need to go back and reread some of my articles. While I have said these various things, I’ve done so without making the mistake of calling that “role-play.” Role-playing is the act of making decsions. That, sir or madam or other, is description. Or acting. Take your pick for the term.

      And you aren’t entirely correct anyway. It is one thing to forbid players from using their skills like buttons they press. It is another entirely to demand specific levels of description. The former is very good. The latter, is very bad. Go back and check out my articles on social interaction and the ones on what role-playing is.

      Overall, I’ll give you a C+ in this course.

  3. I’m very much with Angry regarding adding music to your game — especially anything with a lyric unless you are in a tavern and there is a bard singing and it better be darned unobtrusive. However, I have been occasionally using Scene Sound to help remind the players where they are — but the sounds are entirely ambient (no instruments at all — no violins, no horns, nothing) and quiet and you never have to yell over them. Echoing winds and burning torches in an abandoned tower, yelling and clanging of weapons and shields and randomized arrows flying about for a siege, dripping and lapping water for a sewer, etc. These things help to remind me of the environment too as I’m scrambling to keep everything (plot, characters, clues, pacing, etc.) juggling in my head.

    What is particularly fun is throwing in an uncommon sound (something that goes off every five minutes or so) like a dragon’s wings flapping overhead. This is stuff that as a GM for me to communicate it, I would be too obvious (and I tend to forget anything that isn’t figuratively “on fire” when I’m running a game). But to have a player notice the dragon’s presence/demon’s whisper in the hall/etc. an hour into the game can be priceless. You just shouldn’t make it something critical that they MUST notice. I also have certain sounds on hot key trigger — like a slamming and locking door, crumbling stones, dragon’s roar… stuff like that which is far more surprising than me saying “You suddenly hear a roar!” (me making stupid roaring sounds — worse as a girl, I just don’t have the vocal range). And since it is set up on a hot key I can position my hand over the key combo and no one is going to even notice.

  4. I am a massive user of music as a GM, and I must say I disagree with it being bad for atmosphere or for the game in general. That being said, I use it very actively, keeping it adequate to the current situation as much as possible. nothing kills a mood like inappropriate music.

    Still, in my groups, music serves many secondary purposes in addition to atmosphere building: We use it to hype combat, we use it to signal the game as started, or we use it to highlight character moment with appropriate themes chosen beforehand.

    But I think the biggest impact of music is how it help me get into the appropriate gming tempo; the pacing and energy of combat or the tension of horror sequences is easier to achieve when I have music to get me in the mood as I narrate.

    It’s not a tool for every table, but me and my group cannot imagine going back to a passive soundtrack or no soundtrack at-all. If music is used, it has to be used well (in my book!).

    • I’ve tried this because I listen to podcasts and I find it works very well there. But I forgot those are heavily edited, and when I tried it myself I found it was chaos. Switching tracks took seconds, the playlist would sometimes be completely inappropriate (because even quiet songs have crescendos at the wrong points in the game), it just held up the game because of the time it took to switch and look up tracks.
      I don’t have the multitasking capability to add managing the music to my already big list of things I have to manage as a GM.

  5. I love your stuff Angry, but I’ve got to disagree with you on soundtracks. I run a gothic horror themed adventure at the moment and it just makes it so much more spooky with a howling wind effect in the background and maybe a bell tolling once in a while. Plus a bell toll shuts everyone up really quickly if you want to keep the game moving…

  6. Gasp. The AngryGM is… well, “wrong” isn’t the correct word, because he is never wrong. Let’s say “not 100% correct”.

    I agree that music is absolutely no substitute to any of the advice given, and is no replacement for the GMs abilities. And as much as it may be able to enhance mood, it can just as easily detract from the mood by becoming repetitive / annoying, destroying immersion, or becoming an obstacle to communication.

    However, the key to background music is that it needs to be unobtrusive. It shouldn’t interfere with speaking or listening, and yet is should have a purpose, which is to convey a certain mood. It shouldn’t get annoying or overly repetitive. The few tracks you may use that are high paced or short loops should generally be recycled quickly. (e.g. if you have a high paced battle soundtrack, just ensure that you aren’t looping only that ad naseum, but maybe 2 or 3 similar paced tracks one after another, so that it doesn’t quickly get annoying).

    Some various and different examples:

    Gamal Gommaa – Sahara Saidi: (notice how at 2:34 it changes tone and cadence, then starts to pick up speed again, and then reverts to the original pace… it’s much more difficult to get annoyed quickly due to this variation).

    Benjamin Bartlett’s Islands of Green

    Anything from the Fallout 2 soundtrack is superb in this regards.

    Mr. Oizo’s Analog Worms Sequel:

    DJ Spooky, Machinic Phyllum:

    Dial up 700% slow:

    Could these be annoying: you fucken bet! But if you have the right volume and don’t overdo it, it could work really well for the right game in the background. It does require that you as a GM take on yet another responsibility (as a DJ), which, along with everything else you already do, may be a bit much.

  7. I think that like many things music in your game depends on a few factor’s. Mainly your group and what they can handle. Like Angry stated however most GM’s especially new ones should refrain from using music during the game.

  8. I feel like the biggest detractor from “the mood of the game” are the players themselves. Hell, I’ve even been guilty of it myself and the bigger the gaming group, the harder it’s going to be to maintain the mood of the game. I almost wish there was a universal GM symbol for “ok, guys, this is a major set piece of the adventure, stop being chuckle *f#$%s”. *I only edited my response since you seem to not use out-and-out of profanity.

  9. Pingback: Dear Angry: “Music Has Charms to Soothe the Savage Breast…” | The Mad Adventurers Society

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