In looking around roleplaying games, the point of a game's atmosphere seems to stick out again and again as a key differentiating factor. This is probably one of the most important parts of integrating story and game, particularly in the ruleset. Atmosphere can make or break a game, and I can personally attest to that. Without the proper atmosphere, a game can become little more than a fun hang-out time, where you all kill monsters and such. Now, that's not always a bad atmosphere to have, but when you want to tell a story, that won't fly.
Atmosphere in the Rules
The first major place you can look to for generating atmosphere is the ruleset itself. Some systems (I'm looking at you, d20) do very little to contribute to the gaming atmosphere. Your character has generic statistics, and the only time that atmosphere is invoked is in the form of special abilities. Even then, the majority of atmosphere generated comes from the flavor text in the rules, and the story told.
In contrast, something such as the World of Darkness system has a strong atmospheric focus in some of its rules. There's a statistic to measure a character's humanity, which is affected by their actions (if dropped low enough, it causes them to go mad), and there's also rules interaction with their morality via a chosen Virtue and Vice. The concept of Willpower makes an appearance as well. It all keys into the idea of "Can you maintain your sanity and humanity against an onslaught of Them?"
Atmosphere While Running the Game
Another big atmosphere area, regardless of the system, is what the Game Master can do while running the game. This issue has been tackled again and again by many authors, and the typical advice is to use audio cues, lighting, and physical props in your game. The program RPG-SoundMixer is one tool that can be used to dynamically create an ambient soundtrack for a gaming session. Music and sound are an incredibly important element that often gets overlooked, because of the work required and the spontaneous element of gaming. A dynamic sound system, coupled with the ability to trigger certain sounds on a key press, seems to be a good solution.
For optimum effect, lighting should be controlled, although this will not always be possible during the game. However, the presence of physical props is something that will be very possible. Encourage the GM to be creative when using props. Character sheets and miniatures on a battlemap can even be viewed as physical props. A prop is any physical object which helps the players feel more connected to the story of the game. If the players are supposed to find seven lost gems to set in a magical crown, draw up a picture of the crown, and draw in gems, one at a time, as they find them. This is a lot more tangible than simply writing down "Gems: 2/7". Visual cues are very important...in fact, I'll probably touch on that in a future post, in more depth.
This only goes halfway. These techniques can be given, but they have to be received by the players as well. So, players, it's your job to act along with the atmosphere. The GM can't force you to feel like you're in the story, but he can make it easier for you. As always, enjoy the experience, and live the adventure!
- Good evening, afternoon, or whatever time it happens to be there, ladies and gents! I happen to be Andy, who happens to be a freelance web designer, musician, writer, and whatnot.Roman Catholic, student of tabletop gaming, and someday soon I'll have my own designs in the field!
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