by David Schibeci
atmosphere n. 3. a general pervasive feeling or mood. 4. the prevailing tone or mood of a novel, symphony, painting, etc.
The New Collins Concise Dictionary of the English Language, © 1994 Wllm. Collins Sons & Co. Ltd.
One of the most important elements of an adventure or a campaign that the Games Master must provide is the overall mood, flavour or tone - collectively called the atmosphere. The distinction between campaign atmosphere and adventure atmosphere is not a mistake, as even they may look like the same thing, they are clearly different.
Campaign and Adventure Atmosphere
The campaign atmosphere describes the overall tone of every adventure in a particular world. For example, in the Dragon Warriors world of Legend, the overall tone of the campaign could be that of realism. It is a darkish world, but has elements of action, adventure and romance interlaced through this dark background. It is not as dark and gritty as Australian Realm's world, Unae, but a lot less childish and banal than TSR's Forgotten Realms. Legend is supposed to be adventurous and mysterious, but retain an portion of darkness about it to add depth. It is this darkness that is the key to the world, as how the Games Master varies its inclusion and exclusion throughout the game sets the adventure mood. Therefore it is very important to retain this atmosphere in every adventure played in the campaign. Elthrea is similar in tone, but has a stronger emphasis on adventure, romance and action. Elthrea is a place where heroes live and die, and where legends are made. Barsaive is very similar in tone to Elthrea, it is a place of magic and wonder but there is a dark undercurrent hovering beneath the surface. The adventurers in Barsaive are heroes, legends in their own right, and have been set on the world to defeat horrors. Horrors provide tension and danger in Barsaive, and are the dark element used throughout.
Adventure atmosphere, as most would have gathered already, is the particular tone of the individual adventure. Though it should stick to the overall campaign atmosphere, a fair amount of leeway should be applied. As mentioned above, the darkness in each adventure placed in Legend goes a long way to making the individual adventures distinct and enjoyable. One adventure may be more light hearted than another, one grimmer than another, or one more romantic than another. Though it should always refer back to the campaign atmosphere, it must also have a unique atmosphere of its own to provide the adventure with a unique flavour.
This brings me to another point: consistency. The campaign atmosphere should be consistent. If there are a series of adventure, the series atmosphere should be consistent. Of course variation is allowed, but having the first part in a trilogy a comic adventure and the last the grim destruction of a city will cause the series to fail. Atmosphere should change gradually, as any wild variations are disconcerting.
Atmosphere can be provided in a number of subtle ways, but one of the most effective is music. Music provided in the background of an adventure can provide a very clear atmosphere, from dark and brooding, to light and adventurous. The volume of music can be decreased to produce low anxiety, and increased at the climax of the adventure to heighten the anticipation. The ways in which music can be manipulated to provide atmosphere are numerous.
One hard and fast rule should be used: don't use any inappropriate music. If you want to have a gritty and realistic campaign like Unae, using the Imperial March from Star Wars is not going to help, and will in fact detract as the characters bounce up and down to the music. However if you have a light hearted campaign for Star Wars, then music form the three movies will be very appropriate. Normally it is best to use music that is not well know, so as not to distract the characters or detract from the atmosphere. Examples of distracting and well known music are the title themes from Doctor Who, Star Trek (any generation) or, as mentioned before, Star Wars.
Soundtracks and instrumental music are the best sources of music, though carefully chosen spoken songs can be used effectively (though should be used sparingly as they distract characters) such as I Want Tomorrow by Enya at the end of an adventure.
Reading - Pace and Description
Music, though one way, is not the only way of providing atmosphere. One of the most important is the way in which the Games Master delivers his adventure . . . his reading. A lot of this relies on his writing style as well, and so I will discuss reading in two parts - written and spoken - then talk generally on deliverance.
What is written on the page is very important, as it demonstrates how prepared or organised the Games Master is. Though descriptions of every part of the adventure are not required, and would in fact be a waste of time, a few key descriptions can be very useful. A carefully crafted introduction for the adventure can be very advantageous, as the Games Master can choose words which evoke the very atmosphere he wants. If the description is short and quick, this gives he characters a feeling of tension which is perfect for fast paced adventures. If the description is longer and flowing, then a grander feel is given to the adventure. One important note should be made. Descriptions should not be too long or too exuberant. A long-winded description is always distracting and detracts from the atmosphere. At the start and end of an adventure should be the only places allowed for a long description, and anywhere else a shorter, punchier dialogue should be used.
Even better than written descriptions is background material. Background material give the Games Master a lot of hints in what is being achieved by certain parts of the adventure, as well as providing the adventure with a lot of flavour. Background information should be well thought out well in advance of the actual adventuring session, as it always has to be consistent and coherent. Background information is the back drop of an adventure and is key in providing atmosphere.
Going to the other extreme, no preparation, is disastrous. Even though 'winging it' can be entertaining and sometimes enjoyable, it normally detracts from the characters appreciation of the Games Master. There can be no consistency or coherency. The Games Master must be always on their toes, and deliver line after line of perfect prose which is often impossible. A lot of the Games Master's descriptions, however, should be produced on the spot as it provides a raw feel, and when done well can provide they special edge. This should always be backed up by background information to provide consistency, and it is up the Games Master to provide fluidity. Only the most experienced Games Master can provide the edge required for spontaneous adventuring. It is an art remember?
Deliverance, therefore, is of great importance. A halting, badly though out speech will bore the characters senseless. A sharp, fluid description will inspire characters and provide them with an evening of enjoyment. Pace is one important element. At the start the pace should be slow, and build up to a climax. Action scenes should always be spoken fast, to provide tension and that 'one edge' feeling. At tense points in the game, the pace can be slower, as it stretches the character's tension and heightens their worry. Pace should always be varied, as a monotonous reading of prepared speech is almost as bad as no preparation at all.
One of the most subtle, yet most effective ways, of add to atmosphere is by the selection of the time and day when the session is going to be played. I am not talking about the exact time and day, but broader definitions such as wether the session is played in the morning, afternoon or the evening.
Morning adventures are generally a bad idea, as the session is going to be broken by lunch which severely detracts from the atmosphere. A well planned adventure, however, can use this inevitable break as a cliff-hanger in the adventure, or the end of the prologue. Both of these times are suitable for breaks and can enhance the adventure.
Afternoon adventures neither enhance nor distract from the game, and is the standard time for playing. The bulk of most adventures are played at this time as they are convenient and lend well to playing.
Night is one of the best times for playing adventures, but only dark and spooky adventures. Ghost adventures are magnified in their tension by playing at night as compared to day, and even the dullest adventure can be made mysterious by playing at night. It is best to use as little light as possible in the room, otherwise the sense of darkness is diminished. However a balance must be struck between the ability to see and the need for darkness.
In general, atmosphere is a key element in proper Games Mastering. It is the hinge between a good adventure and a great one. It sets mediocre Games Masters apart from brilliant ones. Atmosphere is a tool in roleplaying which should be utilised to its fullest.