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Game Mastery: Establishing Atmosphere

Updated on January 6, 2016
Stormy skies, high winds, and a gloomy overgrown tower ruin
Stormy skies, high winds, and a gloomy overgrown tower ruin

In tabletop role-playing games (TRPGs) a Game-Master (GM) faces multiple dilemmas but the foremost is in establishing atmosphere. You can engage your players initially with details but to keep them focused in order to immerse them in the shared fantasy is another matter. Mood and atmosphere can help to emotionally invest and thereby immerse the players in the game. The skillful use of atmosphere adds to the enjoyment and memorability of the session and is a vital skill of the GM.

A lack of atmosphere and mood however, can disengage players from an on-going game causing them to turn towards out-of-game (OOG) distractions also ruining the interactive component which is the core of the game. Bland scenes with no atmosphere will not catch the players’ attentions and thus not engage them and therefore they cannot be immersed in the game.

The Beige Room

The worst example of the lack of atmosphere is the “Beige Room”. This is a room or scene that might be detailed in its description, it doesn’t necessarily lack information, but which does not provoke the players either into feeling anything about it or engaging them in any way. If the players don’t feel anything for the descriptions (especially curiosity) then they will most likely ignore them and thus will not be engaged enough to act on the info the GM is giving them. Basically, it might as well be an empty beige room and for the most part the players will treat it that way.

Atmosphere is what catches the players’ attentions. It can be used by the GM to focus the players’ attentions on specific points of interest, and maintain the players’ interest in the game. When players stumble into a Beige Room then the impetus to keep the game moving is suddenly put directly into their laps and with information that is either too sparse for them to act on or that which they simply don’t care to act on.

A good GM will keep ‘play-style’ in mind, that is, mind those portions of the game that players may be more or less interested in, bits of the game which naturally attract the interest of certain individuals. Some players will be more concerned with forwarding what they see as the plot, exploration of the game world, or other specific aspects of the in-game world. Naturally these players will be more invested in certain aspects of the game than others and it’s up to the GM to know their players in this respect in order to try to take advantage of this knowledge and craft their campaigns in a way that can hook those players perhaps even more quickly than those with a more general interest.

Catching the players’ attention and then getting them to enter into the exchange of information is the core of all TRPGs.

Engagement, Engrossment, and Immersion

Engagement is not the same as immersion. Engagement happens when the attention of a participant is focused on a single aspect of the game enough for them to desire to continue or initiate an exchange. Engagement is required for immersion however; if the player is not focused on at least a part of the game they cannot be immersed in their version of the RPG Narrative. To engage a player’s attention it is vital to ‘hook’ them with a vital or strange detail. Then the GM should lay some atmosphere over that scene that as it is being described to the players.

Catching the players’ attention and then getting them to enter into the exchange of information (known as a Play-Unit), that is, the core of all TRPGs begins engagement on the part of the players. When a player is engaged they may still drop out of the game-flow if their attentions are diverted or they are frustrated, if they are not then they will enter into engrossment which is when they begin analyzing and/or exploring the imaginary contents of the game world.

Again they can be side-tracked by boredom or frustration but if they are not then they should be able to keep the exchange of in-game information going not just between themselves and the GM but with the other players as well. It is after this last process begins that the players can be considered to be becoming immersed in the game world. The players will react and act on the virtual information which they are exchanging back-and-forth.

Immersion is the willing suspension of disbelief which arises from the player making decisions for their character and it is characterized by the players engaging in the exchange between themselves and the other participants, most notably the GM. Immersion is achieved by the exchange of descriptive information describing what the Player Characters (PCs) are experiencing within the game world.

It is this exchange which builds the details and incidents that construct the fantasy world in minds of the participants and which not only initiates immersion but also maintains immersion in the game world. The road to immersion begins with the participant that always initiates the exchange which is the GM. The key here at the beginning of a scenario within a greater adventure and/or campaign is to immediately engage the players; this is done by catching their attention with detail and keeping it trained via atmosphere.

The horizon black with storm clouds and the violent winds are chilling to the bone. A horribly bent skeleton of a tree clings to the rocks.
The horizon black with storm clouds and the violent winds are chilling to the bone. A horribly bent skeleton of a tree clings to the rocks.

Atmosphere & Mood

In common usage the words ‘atmosphere’ and ‘mood’ are pretty much synonymous but for the sake of simplicity ‘atmosphere’ will be defined as the culmination of all the sensory detail put into a scene by the GM and ‘mood’ as just the raw emotion or ‘feel’ of a scene felt by the participants or how that scene makes them feel. That is Atmosphere is built of the sensory data of a scene and Mood uses that data to characterize the whole scene to provoke an emotional response or a ‘feeling’ about the place providing an overall tone.

The tone can help to orient the players, helping them to settle on a path of action and even tease out certain character reactions, helping to expand those characters or helping to emotionally define them within the context of the group as individuals. The GM, to enhance the forward momentum of the game and to gently nudge players in a certain direction, can use atmosphere as a subtle tool. This use of subtlety also allows the GM to observe both the players’ personal reaction and that of their characters.

All of this is dependent on the GMs ability to build atmosphere through establishing mood and tone in a scene. Tone does compound over time and the tone used for all of the memorable and important scenes in a campaign will congeal into the overall tone of the campaign. To establish a mood, tone, and thereby atmosphere, the GM can make use of several techniques.

The GM cannot only make use of the techniques of authors of the written word but should also pay close attention to the verbal techniques of traditional story-tellers.

The Techniques

There are several techniques that the GM can use to establish atmosphere: the use of verb tenses, word choice & usage, modality, sense descriptions, background details, and delivery. These are either derivative of or used by authors of fiction. The GM cannot only make use of the techniques of authors of the written word but should also pay attention to the verbal techniques of traditional story-tellers and maybe even public speakers. Of course, the act of game-mastering is for the most part much more informal, involves much more improvisation, and two-way communication than public speaking.

A tense refers to marking a verb or statement to indicate the time relative to the utterance of the statement. The tense appended to the descriptions will have an immediate effect which is also known in some circles as Temporal Immersion. This is when the audience, which when delivering information or descriptions the Players or to the GM, is transported to the timeframe in which the events of the game are occurring or the timeframe in which their characters are supposed to be existing. Use present tense for things happening in the now of the game to facilitate immediacy and pay attention to your tenses, keeping them appropriate such as when describing something that has historical significance use Historical Tense.

As tense is important in order to frame a statement or description in time, which words the GM uses in their descriptions are as important to mood. A GM should choose their words wisely, especially where mood is important and where/when they are trying to build atmosphere. Mind the sound of the words used and make sure to use words the players will be familiar with, if not be prepared to clearly and concisely to explain them. If the narration is broken, the establishment of mood and the atmosphere it is building may also be diminished if not out-rightly broken.

Try to pay attention in the order in which certain details are introduced and how they are juxtaposed, especially when dishing out details such as uttering two seemingly contradicting details in succession can have any number of unforeseen effects, the worst of which can be hilarity when a grim mood is desired. To help reduce the incidence of this, a GM needs to be aware of the emotional content of certain words, especially when in juxtaposition. This emotional content is known as Modality.

Modality is the emotional responses that an object/NPC should invoke in the players told to them within the description, either directly or symbolically, using a mutually understood image, metaphor, or turn of phrase. The GM should try to append the feeling they want to go with a certain description such as disgust, apprehension, wonder, etc. or accentuate it if it is already inherent. These emotional qualities are valuable in not just building atmosphere but are also useful in subtly manipulating the players when necessary. Of course, sense description makes strong use of modality in certain cases and is another indispensible component in the establishment of atmosphere and mood.

Sense Descriptions consist of the Visual, Scent, Temperature, Texture, Sound, Taste (where applicable), and Intuition (general feelings just felt rather than actually sensed about a certain thing/situation but more descriptive than that such as goose bumps, a chill over the skin not due to the air temp, or the sense that someone just walked over your grave, the hairs on the back of your neck, etc.); basically, the stimuli that the PCs may be experiencing within the game world and that which must be described to the players. These solidify the atmosphere and mood of a place into a tangible reality that the players should be able to identify with. It’s with sense description that the GM can lay subtle clues and add details to place that may not be apparent otherwise.

Background Details, especially those that invoke an emotional reaction in certain players (or should) in specific characters, can communicate extra information hinting at other stories...

These sensory details are the primary strokes which will set the scene in the players’ imaginations but it’s the additional visual details which may be implied in using shorthand such as a general statement of place (i.e. a basement, a sewer tunnel, a morgue, etc.) which will deliver the background but a few extra details thrown in by the GM can help to not only make the space unique but also add to the atmosphere. Note when using short-hand the GM does run the danger of putting a Beige Room before the players.

Background Details, especially those that invoke an emotional reaction in certain players (or should) in specific characters, can communicate extra information hinting at other stories possibly expanding the game world and can help towards immersion. These non-important background hints can add to the atmosphere if they are concomitant or relevant to the mood and atmosphere. The GM should give at least 3 details which are more important to establishing mood and atmosphere than to any plotline present in the game. Any less than that and the impact will be much less than desired and may unintentionally emphasize those that are given, possibly making them out to be something they’re not in the minds of the players.

The GM’s technique of how they deliver in-game information is the final component and is the most obvious and superficial in the techniques to establish atmosphere. It can in certain terms remain unused but is useful in driving home the desired atmosphere to their audience, the players. Obviously, this technique can be the one where the GM can let their penchant for the theatrical loose but they should mind as to what impression that will make on the players, because if the delivery of a moody, eerie piece is delivered in imitation of a cartoon, Boris Karloff, then it could come off as kitschy. Also overt theatrics and voice talent is not a real requirement for this step.

The delivery doesn’t need to be theatrical in nature with the GM changing their voice or gesticulating wildly. It requires that the GM adopts the proper tone in line with what they are communicating. A brief flourish at the end is typically better than trying to deliver a full-on performance, such as simply gesturing in the direction of an imaginary detail or a finishing facial expression (widened eyes etc.) but be careful with these as well as they can contradict the desired effect if done badly.

To establish atmosphere a GM needs to keep in mind:

  • The Tense in which they are speaking and/or referring to (past, present, future, possible/imminent future, historical).
  • Word Choice & Word Usage (the words you choose to use in your descriptions matter)
  • Modality (the emotional content that certain words, names, or objects carry is important and incredibly useful as well as particularly powerful)
  • Sense Descriptions (Visual, Scent, Temperature, Texture, Sound, Taste, and Intuition; what are the PCs experiencing and what mood is it carrying or enhancing)
  • Background Details (At least 3 details added to a generic backdrop can make the place stand out in the minds of the players and adds to atmosphere)
  • Delivery (How the description is said and how the players hear it matters as this last step is most useful to drive the accumulated information home thickening it into atmosphere)

The next step ... is to add in at least 3 moody details then move into the sensory descriptions.

The Initial Dive

After deciding on which of the previous elements and techniques the GM will be making use of and defining, it’s time to take the Initial Dive. This is referring to the entry point where the players’ attention is naturally attracted by something happening in-game and starts with stating the location. The GM should get the general location out of the way using shorthand if possible (i.e. a basement, a prison cell, etc.) then follow with a simple description of player position/orientation and then ease into mood/atmosphere description. Basically, the GM should start with orienting the PC’s positions in the scene, their physical positions and what is in their individual eye-lines. After this the GM can smoothly begin to go into description, hopefully building the atmosphere that they want to establish for the players layer-by-layer.

The next step after general location and player orientation is to add in the moody details (at least three) present in the current location and then go into the sensory descriptions. The entire time the GM needs to keep in mind the modality of the adjectives and object-descriptions as well as those that may be implicit in or that they may have attached to the background shorthand (e.g. evil-smelling tavern). Following the previously described 6 techniques as needed, the GM should be able to build a certain feel, hopefully the sense of place and mood that they are looking for.

It is the player reaction that the GM has to look at and try to read to gauge their level of success, especially how the players direct their characters after the initial dive. The player behaviors to watch are the length of time and level of agonizing over what actions to take, the level of apprehension with which they make their decisions, and their initial knee-jerk reaction. These initial reactions are in facial expression and any immediate responses such as laughter, questions, or an immediate hunkering up to the table with a contemplative look. If the players are reacting they are engaged though inappropriate or unintended laughter it will throw their focus away from the game. If they begin asking questions or mulling things over then they are engrossed.

To be most effective in establishing atmosphere the GM should follow these steps where necessary:

  • Establish the general location using background short-hand if possible.
  • Orient the PCs (what are their physical positions and eye-lines in the scene)
  • Add in at least 3 “moody” details.
  • Then go into the sensory descriptions.

The only thing visible in the reeking darkness, a grinning yellowed skull.
The only thing visible in the reeking darkness, a grinning yellowed skull.

Conclusion

Atmosphere tweaks player interest and as long as the GM can present information that gets them to react then they are engaged and atmosphere and mood leads to engrossment and therefore player immersion in the fantasy. Mood also subtly influences player and thus character actions/reactions creating immersion on a somewhat subliminal level adding to the plethora of GM tools with which to run games.

The establishment of atmosphere is not always necessary however and when it is, the depth of detail and level of immersion will vary. It will be the GMs call to decide at which points to invoke a specific atmosphere or feeling or an atmosphere may slowly congeal through the details supplied by the GM in response to the Players’ questions. Using this technique a GM can emphasize a plot-point that they want to highlight for the players without being too overt.

Atmosphere is a vital and powerful GM Tool and very Important to Tabletop RPG Sessions in general. The skillful use of atmosphere adds to the enjoyment of the game and helps along the players’ immersion in the game world. It can be used to invoke and attach emotional value to certain in-game incidents, items, or characters and can solidify images and scenes in the minds of all of the participants occasionally burning said items into the brains of the participants forevermore (be careful with that by the way). Setting the atmosphere in a TRPG session is an invaluable asset not just for the Game-Master but for all of the Players as well.

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