Ah, the dungeon! The smell of mildew emanating from the damp stone walls. The feel of the stone under your boots. The drip, drip, drip of water from somewhere in the distance. The smoky scent of your torches in the thick air, struggling to push back the gloom…
The life of an RPG hero is one that should engage all five senses, but I find that, far too often, a GameMaster won’t take the time to scent a full scene. Oh, sure, when the undead show up, there may be a scent of rot, and the attacking stirges may clue you in to their presence with a loud buzzing sound. More often than not, however, adventurers end up with little more than a visual description of their surroundings.
Our senses can go a long way towards determining our moods, and they can be manipulated to evoke a particular atmosphere. And what’s even more exciting is when you go after your *players’* senses to really help with the immersion of their RP experience.
Description Beyond Sight
Although visual awareness of an adventurer’s surroundings is most likely to inform his or her tactical choices, in “reality”, an adventurer should be getting information from all five senses. When I’m Dungeon Mastering, I try to really give my players a sense of what their characters are experiencing. To evoke the feeling of being in a town in fall, I might describe the foliage in the trees changing color, but then I’ll evoke other things that make me feel like it’s fall. The sound of the leaves crunching underfoot. A brisk chill in the air. The scent of fires burning merrily in fireplaces around town. The slightly frozen ground underfoot and the way it dulls the sound of footsteps.
Of all the senses, sounds are probably number two after sight in terms of getting attention from DMs. Maybe you’ve actually roared as a monster, or described the bird calls the bandits are using to communicate. That’s a good start. Of all the senses that should be evoked but often aren’t, smell is extremely important. Scent memories are very powerful, and you can often evoke them more easily than you imagine. You can describe the smell of dankness as the players descend into a cave, of course. But if you say there’s a rank odor rising, like the smell of a reptile house at the zoo, then describe a whiff of ozone in the air, sharp and high, then you’ve really foreshadowed the appearance of a blue dragon!
The senses of touch and taste have their place too. Food can be delicious, of course, and wine can be sweet or tart, or what have you. If you mention that there’s a staleness to the iron rations the players have left, it can really point out that they’re getting to the end of their provisions. When the players encounter a gelatinous cube, try describing the odd feeling of walking into jell-o first, followed by the stinging of jellyfish tentacles, then an all over burning sensation that makes them want to scream…only they don’t dare for fear of getting a mouthful of it. Your players will remember the encounter, believe me.
Go After Your Players
If your players buy into the sensory input, then their role-playing will be more organic and “real”. To that end, I often target my players’ senses, knowing that it’ll be easier for them to understand how to react if they understand what their characters are experiencing.
In this medium, visual reference is a relatively easy one to engage. A picture can be literally worth a thousand words. If you give your players a map, you’re not just giving them a cool prop…you’re actually making the map you’re describing or the landscape you’ve created more real to them. If you provide an illustration of an NPC, that will cement the NPC’s look to them as effectively, if not more so, than a very detailed description. This is also something that can be done if you’re a player. Just wearing a single piece of costuming, such as a hat or scarf, or having a single prop, such as a holy symbol, can really remind people of who and what you’re playing.
Sound is another relatively easy sense to target. Injecting accents or emotions into your NPCs’ speech will really help differentiate them. The eladrin sage has a smooth, rich voice and a cultured British accent. The human barkeep has a bit of a Scottish lilt and a deep, gruff voice and boisterous manner. The kobold chief has a high, squeaky-sounding voice. Voices can really make an NPC memorable. Again, this is something a player can do, too. My half-orc paladin was really well represented by a deep, gruff voice. When I started playing a Halfling rogue in a different campaign with the same players, my higher voice and Cockney accent really helped to differentiate the characters.
Beyond this use of your players’ hearing, however, there are two often-underused other ways to engage them: soundtracks & soundscapes.
I am a believer in the effect of a soundtrack. I buy a lot of game and movie soundtracks, as well as traditional Medieval and Renaissance music compilations. I take the time to listen to the tracks and break them into different categories. A browse through my iTunes playlists finds sections like “D&D – Town”, “D&D – Reverence”, “D&D – Impending Doom”, and “D&D – The Exotic East”. By doing so, I create ready soundtracks to enhance the mood of my game. When players hear the pounding drums and minor chords, they know things are beginning to get hairy, and many of them roll of initiative, just in case.
Soundscapes are something I’ve only started trying recently, and I’ve found them to be incredibly effective for setting a mood. There are plenty of programs you can use to create a soundscape. I particularly recommend a product called Softrope, which allows you to put together very complex soundscapes in no time. Using a website like http://www.freesound.org/ or sound effects CDs, you can put together various sound effects and music to create the sound of what your player characters are hearing. I compiled lute music, clinking glasses, and an actual pub recording from England to create a tavern mix. Some slowed down honey-bees combined with barn owl screeches have become my stirge-cave soundscape. I used some arctic winds combined with boots crunching in snow and breath panting to start a scene recently in which the players were running through snow towards a battle. The players leaned in, listening, nodding…they could feel the tension building.
You can really go after the other senses, too, particularly taste and smell. I don’t recommend trying to simulate terrible smells, as you run the risk of having them linger. The scent of spices or dead flowers, however, could evoke a mummy’s tomb. The smell of fresh bread could lead into a tavern scene, especially if you then actually served fresh bread and butter to the players.
One memorable scent-related trick I pulled involved lapsang tea. If you’re not familiar with this tea, it has a strong, smoky smell. I aged a map prop by soaking it in tea (a nifty trick for making a visually striking document for your players). I used lapsang, which gave an odd, gray color to the paper and infused the map with that smoky smell. My players were fascinated. Later on, when I gave them another document that had the same smell (from the same sort of tea), they guessed that the two documents were related, which was just what I’d wanted them to realize.
Taste can be tricky to go after, but not impossible. I often try to have appropriate foods, such as cheese, bread, and sliced meats on the table. This makes a good gaming snack, and it can be used to call out the scene in a tavern, especially if I’m playing with adults who’re enjoying beer or cider. If you really want to get fancy, try cooking some foods with a Medieval background. My favorite website on the subject is http://www.godecookery.com/. Try serving up something even as simple as cold chicken with a Lombard mustard or sauce Saracens. It will please palettes and set a mood.
It’s Your Turn
If you’re running a game, consider trying some of these tricks. I think you’ll be surprised at how effective they can be in setting a mood.
If you have a story on how your senses were particularly engaged by a GM, or how you, as a GM, engaged your players’ senses, please share it. I love creating my RPGs as an immersive experience, and we can all always use advice and interesting, fresh ideas. I look forward to hearing from you.
See what I did there?