Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Atmosphere in D&D: Are You Sure We’re In a Dungeon?

One of the stereotypical images of a Dungeons and Dragons game is the group sitting around a table in a dark basement.  While often seen negatively, it does highlight one of the important qualities of a good D&D game – atmosphere.  An excellent Dungeon Master can describe a situation is such a way that the players really feel immersed in the experience – the bright living room becomes a gloomy forest with a few well-chosen and well-orated words.  I am aiming to become that good, but I don’t think I am as of yet.  One of the tools which can help this process however, is to have at least a vaguely similar atmosphere in the real world to the one you are trying to create in their minds.  The basement therefore rears its eerie head once again.

Of course, some people just have awesome rooms
Here’s a story for you.  When I first started playing D&D, I was living in Brazil.  I ran a campaign in my friend’s living room – a quest filled with undead-infested cities and chasing elves through dark woods.  The only problem with this was, not only was I a rubbish DM, but it was a little difficult to make the atmosphere convincing when his living room was gloriously sunny with a beautiful view looking out over Ipanema Beach.  The lovely sunshine meant that every so often I would be saying “You enter the cathedral slowly, uncomfortably aware of the unholy aura emanating from the blood-soaked altar at the end of the aisle.  Shadows swirl about the place, obscuring the corners of the hall.”  The players would then look outside and look confused.  Sometimes, suspension of disbelief is a little more difficult.

Always appropriate
So other DMs have solved it with darkened rooms and relevant music.  I find music to be the most useful type of scene setter, because it is a lot easier to come by compared to an appropriately decorated/lighted room.  Muse makes excellent battle music, and Rhapsody of Fire have an entire album describing their own fantasy adventure which is fun to listen to.  I find Youtube to be a saviour of games, though.  A good mixture of music from Zelda, Bleach, and Kingdom Hearts gives a wide variety of moods available, and everyone enjoys listening to Gerudo Valley.  However, if it is possible to get a comfortable room which is appropriately themed to the campaign, then that’s certainly a help.  The artistically inclined could simply decorate the room with certain additions like tree branches.  I’m sure there are other ways of doing things, but I am not so inclined.

So DM’s out there, how do you deal with this?  Music is easy and effective, but does anyone go any further in creating a setting that is actually believable to the players?  A sunny living room is not always the ideal spot, unless you run a desert campaign I suppose.

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