There’s a familiar pattern to settling into running a game – putting the players through some more standard plots, getting a feel for the setting and elements, and kicking off some strong running threads. But as the plot runs, many STs may find themselves running headlong into one of the big events for the venue. Maybe the Toreadors are hosting a salon, or the sept is organizing a moot, or the Summer King wants to host a grand series of Summer Games. Or maybe OOC events have arranged for something big, as your domain’s Featured Game of the Month approaches.
Although 75% of LARPing is using one’s imagination, there may be a need to create a more tangible experience – something that makes the players believe they’re in a grand hall decorated by immortal creatures, or in the heart of a caern, or in a resplendent Hollow in the depths of the Hedge. Or sometimes, the story need to get visceral – emphasizing the mood and atmosphere when the players go on a Hive dive, plunge into the hospital a Tzimisce is using for “raw ingredients,” or wander into the depths of the Shadow/Underworld/Hedge/otherworld of choice. Here, then, are some techniques that can be used to give the players a great sense of a tangible, immersive experience.
Many groups manage to secure an indoor space for their games, be it a theater, a hotel ballroom, a warehouse, or a player’s house. The benefit on indoor gaming is that it allows you to go wild with setting atmosphere without necessarily drawing a huge amount of attention from the outside world.
Not every scene needs to be lit dramatically, but it can help. Public gatherings – the “main space” of any venue, the place where the PCs regularly gather and discuss matters – may require nothing more than standard lighting, creating an atmosphere of the “normal.” Then again, if it’s a special occasion in game, special lighting may help. Is the local sept holding a moot in a darkened cave? Turn down the lights, provide a good central light source to replicate a bonfire, and let the magic happen.
Outside of the main gathering, however, lighting may be useful for setting up a location. If the characters have forged their way into a dark part of the Shadow, or even into the Underworld, it might help to take them to a dimly-lit room to sell the idea that they’ve gone somewhere beyond the physical world (but not so dimly lit that no one can see their cards or sheets). And if the game calls for the kind of surprise that would benefit from a good change of lightning – like, say, a Lasombra-led strike on Elysium – don’t be afraid to hit the switch to drive it home.
It’s not an essential element, but music can help to sell the mood and sense of a gather or location quite well. Whether it’s selling the air of mystery that comes with one of the various otherworlds or just putting on something that characters might dance to, the choice of soundtrack can easily add depth to a scene. One thing to keep in mind is music volume. If the music is too loud, players will have trouble hearing each other and this may limit player interaction.
Diegetic music is music that has a reason to be there in-story. And there are many cases where it would make sense to have something playing in the background, especially when it comes to social gathers. This element can be brought into play with player collaboration, or independently. Often, the ST may be the one to declare the setting for the game (“All right, Elysium is at the museum tonight”), and in doing so, can pick the tunes to fit. Is it a miniature gala at the modern art museum, hosted by the Prince? Bring in something orchestral yet subdued, classical and elegant. Is the gathering’s at a dance club instead? Trend more towards modern music, be it EDM or retro. Are the Spring Queens hosting a big party and getting a goblin band to play? Aim for orchestral, but something with a otherworldly, off-center flare – think a Danny Elfman soundtrack that doesn’t go the full Beetlejuice.
In these cases, it’s also a good idea to consult with the player who might be hosting the gathering to get their input on personal tastes. That way, the soundtrack can be tailored to fit the tastes of the character, adding that personal element. And don’t be afraid to go for some of the standards – while Masquerade have pointed out that Kindred are sick of hearing “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” at Elysium, sometimes it’s good for a laugh.
Sometimes music helps to set the scene more than the mood. Non-diegetic music helps to create an atmosphere and tempo that fleshes out a certain environment or situation. More often than not, it’s orchestral or instrumental, but sometimes popular music can work for dissonant effect – imagine a scene where the players enter a house and find what looks like a mass suicide, only to hear “Seasons in the Sun” by Terry Jacques playing on a distant stereo. A visit to an otherworld can be enhanced by the right track – perhaps something from Nine Inch Nails’ Ghosts albums for a voyage through the Underworld or Dark Umbra. Instrumental music can also help make combat more dynamic – earth-rumbling bass and high-pitched strings can help sell the action of a climactic battle, especially in high-ferocity venues such as Apocalypse and Forsaken.
Some good instrumental/orchestral artists for mood setting include E. S. Posthumus, Audiomachine, David Warner, and Two Steps from Hell. Although much of the music veers towards the bombastic drums-and-strings associated with movie trailers, there are some subdued, atmospheric pieces that focus on subdued majesty and – sometimes – discordant, unnerving melodies. The more subdued tracks can easily sell an emotional scene – being in the presence of a powerful spirit, for instance, or walking into an Atlantean ruin. Just make sure that such music is used mainly to sell the important stuff, and with restraint – not every fight with “mook”-level enemies requires epic battle music, and mass combat won’t go any faster if no one can hear the ST over the bombastic choirs.
Nothing can help to sell a setting like proper decoration. Of course, one of the complexities of décor is that it’s the element that often requires the most money and/or investment. But at the same time, players will often buy the simple stuff if it helps to set the mood. The Winter Court’s function may be strung up with silvery snowflake chains bought at Party City, but honestly, it’s hard to get Hedgespun chains of unmelting snow in real life – and it at least marks the territory as such. You may not be able to rent out the dining room at the hottest hotel in the city for a game, but a few tables with some nice tablecloths and candelabras can help to set the tone.
Setting the tone for an otherworld through décor may be more difficult – but it can be done. First of all, every domain will likely have somebody who’s very interested in crafting – and, of course, a lot more people interested in Prestige. Soliciting the players for help on crafting a scene can always be helpful. Crafting everything from grand tableaus on old sheets to possible “land” props out of papier mache can really help to sell the idea that you’ve walked out of the physical world and into somewhere else entirely.
Dedicated Breakout Space
Sometimes, it’s not necessarily a matter of the players leading the plot. Sometimes, it’s clear that the players will need to go somewhere – not necessarily because they’re being pushed towards it, but because events have progressed to such a point that they need to hit it up. Having a room set aside at the start of game for certain scenes allows for time to prepare the room to fully capture the experience. If the players are planning on voyaging into the Umbra, then there’s time to get the lights just right, set up some of the features of where they’re heading, and create a more realized landscape.
Dedicated NPC Portrayers
There’s not much need to isolate players who might otherwise enjoy the game whenever an NPC is called for, but having someone actually portray and act for a prominent, plot-important NPC can help sell the idea of the character as an independent actor, rather than an extension of the ST’s will. See if there are players of the domain but not part of the venue that would like to contribute. Brief them on the character, give them a sheet, and give them some ideas of how to respond in rough circumstances.
Not every group has indoor space available for every game. Some groups meet in public parks, or on the quad of a nearby campus, or in the courtyard of a local municipal building. As such, there’s a reduced chance to “control” one’s surroundings, as props may be unwieldy and lighting is often at the whim of the elements. It’s still quite possible to set the scene, though. Some simple props, easy to carry and not all that ostentatious, may not draw much attention from outside observers while serving as hallmarks to the players. Having an NPC be represented by a player will still cut out a presence that the other players can fully interact with, and with a little advanced scouting of the area, it might be possible to find “breakout spaces” that might capture the feel of a certain area (like, say, the cover under a bridge for a trip underground).
Another issue of outdoor venues – especially ones on common grounds – is that they can easily draw people who aren’t part of the game. As some players may be self-conscious about LARPing in public, creating a scene festooned with props and elaborately-outfitted individuals may be a bit much. In these instances, keep it simple. Try to make use of NPC players, but keep them around the same level of dress as the players – allow them to make use of gestures, voice, and acting techniques to sell the character as more than human (if they are). Seek out possible “breakout spaces” to set a scene, and maybe consider playing some music for the appropriate environment, if it’s not too loud and won’t rouse the neighbors.
The Simplest Way to Set Atmosphere
In some cases, whether the venue is inside or outside, there may be a lack of “easy” ways to set the tone. Maybe there’s no good music, maybe no one has the time or money to make or buy the props, maybe no one wants to NPC and the only good breakout space is an old broom closet. But there’s something that can always bring about good immersion – a good description. If there’s an in-character venue in mind for the game, then make sure to draw up a good description – one that’s short, pithy, but rich in detail, easy to recite and in a way that allows the players to fill in the blanks. Emphasize the variety of stalls at the Goblin Market, the pulsing walls of a failed Tzimisce experiment, the crumbling majesty of an Atlantean temple, or the foul stench of a Wyrm-tainted piece of the Umbra. Sometimes the best image is the one that’s crafted in the head, passed from the ST’s lips to the players’ minds.