The GM: Window to the World

In my first article for this blog I ruminated on what I see the GM as being. I suggested the GM is a storyteller born out of the ancient storytelling tradition that adapts more modern methods of conveying narrative to this ancient style. However, I finished by voicing the opinion that possibly the most important, unique, and special aspect of what the GM does is seen in the intimate connection a GM can form with his or her audience; a connection formed by telling the story in person and receiving immediate contributions and feedback from the audience.  I did not elaborate on this connection, but I feel doing so will be both interesting and informative, as it is such a key part of the game and a GM’s role in it. This important connection between a GM and the players occurs quite naturally, as the GM acts as the players conduit to the world of the game and story. Players and GM share the story, world, and the experience of interacting with this world. Any gaming group you talk with will have numerous stories about their sessions, stories that bond them together. These stories are all the more meaningful as they are a collaboration of GM and players and are unique to the world.

But how are these connections facilitated by the GM? I have already made it clear that more is required than just telling a story, and admittedly, if one tells a story to a live audience some connection will be made. But tabletop RPGs ask more of an audience and GM than to simply listen to a story as it’s told, and to clap, sigh, or cheer when appropriate. These games ask the GM to make a world for the purpose of allowing the players to explore it, and it asks the players to imagine themselves in this world and really commit to being characters there. This is what a GM must strive to facilitate, and the best way to do this is by creating an atmosphere to do so. By atmosphere I mean creating an environment conducive to getting players immersed in the story and conveying the world to them though more than just the story itself. A GM’s ability to create an atmosphere not only plays a key role in involving the players in the story, but in doing so he creates a more personal connection with the gaming group.

In his book Pawn of Prophecy, David Eddings wrote of his “storyteller” character“His stories were not always new, but there was in his telling of them a special kind of magic. His voice could roll like thunder or hush down in to a zephyer-like whisper. He could make the sound of rain and of wind, and even, most miraculously the sound of snow falling. His stories were filled with sounds that made them come alive, and through the words with which he wove the tales, sight and smell and the very feel of strange times and places seemed to come to life before his spellbound listeners.” I have always seen this as what I want to achieve as a GM and at times what a GM actually can achieve. A GM cannot use Tolkienesque detailed and descriptive prose to bring his or her world to life. That will just put the players to sleep. A GM might try using comparisons, similar to “The old man looked much as you might expect a wizard too.” Of course, effective as this is at conveying the concept to the players, it also draws them out of the story by deliberately reminding them of the real world. This also places all the onus on their imaginations, and can backfire as each player imagines a different idea of a wizard. I believe what is required is a means of conveying as much as possible with as little language as possible, without referencing what lies outside the story.

My answer is atmosphere, exactly as Eddings describes. The atmosphere can suggest numerous details to an audience by playing on the audience’s expectations of the elements that create the atmosphere. These expectations are developed from their previous experiences with these elements. Whenever I create a Christmas holiday campaign I set it in a snowy area, suggest the cold (I have even left a window open at the campaign’s start once), and the players respond well, as these elements are familiar to them and relatable to that time of year. However, atmosphere can be created in numerous ways, each adding to the overall feel of the world that rests in the background while the stories are told. It develops though the session and can carry on between sessions, always informing how players see, understand, and relate to the world. This is a fairly general description of atmosphere however, so let us explore some more specific examples of how a GM creates atmosphere during a session.

First, there are props. These can be almost anything, but are meant to be examples of what is in the world to help players imagine in. Most table top rpgs encourage prop use through the use of models in combat, and I find my use of props often surrounds this. The games’ character and enemy models are props, as are the grid maps combat occurs upon. Creating my own grid maps is one way I have found to add to the atmosphere, as you are able to create a map perfect for the situation required, rather than manipulating mass produced grid maps to fit the instance of their use. Furthermore, adding three dimensional aspects to these maps can really help the players imagine the scene. These additions can be purchased, as my gaming group once did to get this, This kind of prop can add a great deal of atmosphere, bringing the scene to life and adding to the story. They are also good if unlike me, you do not have a basement full of home-made terrain pieces lying around. While I originally started making terrain for Warhammer games, I have found sets made for D&D or Pathfinder can really add a lot to how the players understand the space, visualize the rest of the area you cannot show, and overall it draws them into the story and situation as a good atmosphere tends to do.

Of course, another way of creating atmosphere which is very much in the same vein as props. That method is to use images. If you are familiar with the ever expanding chronicle entitled To Sail the Southern Seas you will have seen several examples of my use of images in that campaign. The main map is a wonderful image that gives the player a better sense of what the world looks like and it’s geography. It also allows them to connect place they are hearing about to a place on this map. I used another image, a cutaway of the ship from this campaign, the Astrologer’s Albatross, to give the players a sense of the ship. I know it helped me visualize the ship, and I believe it’s worked similarly for the players. Images need not be so expansive though. I have used them to illustrate details of the world, such as the symbol found at the scene of a murder, or a flag flown by a ship. Again, it’s about giving these details a simple form that communicates much more than pages of text might. This also ensures a more common view of the world between you and each of the players. You merely need point at the image and instantly everyone has a uniform concept to work with, saving you from having to deal with confusions resulting from several different interpretations of the same descriptions. It even works when a lack of Photoshop has you creating and editing images in MS Paint. Finally, images of characters, PC or NPC, are invaluable. Now, I lack the artistic ability to really bring characters to life, so I must resort to google image searches to fine likenesses of my characters. Theses certainly have pitfalls original art would avoid, but I must admit they are quicker, and can still work well. When I handed my group the image below to introduce them to how my NPC Kathier looked, he instantly became a memorable character. I was informed by one player that he was “hot”, and as a result Kalthier’s character took on a new element, making him a better character and more memorable villain/ally. He was a love him or hate him character, with those attracted to him supporting him while others players were eager to end his existence. When GMing, images really can add a lot to an atmosphere, giving players visual cues description could not easily manage to do.

Kalthier, an image I used in a previous campaign.

Kalthier, an image I used in a previous campaign.

Atmosphere has a connotation of something felt by more than just one’s visual senses, and until now you make have thought the word seemed out of place. However, I assure you, I realize this, and we can now look at how you can create atmosphere beyond visual aides. One such method is music. Music can add a great deal to a campaign, and is amazing for bringing players into the world and setting as mood. It can either be used as background to do these things, or can be used in set piece moments to add an extra element of importance and make the event more memorable.  For background music there are whole CDs specially made to serve as background music to a campaign, with tracks fitting different scenarios. Additionally you can select other songs, and music you think can be set behind your story to fit the desired mood and add what you want added to the atmosphere you are creating. Anything can work, and everyone will have different ideas of what will contribute to the atmosphere appropriately. In a single gaming session one may want ambient background music, background music particularly suited to highlight an epic moment or build in suspense, as well as music to adequately pump up players during combat. This means that there is a lot of room to choose different music and songs to add to your atmosphere.

Additionally, one can use music in set-piece moments to really increase the moment’s impact. I am a particular fan of this. I once used the track “A Hero Comes Home” by Alan Silvestri from the film Beowulf to great effect as the music played at a funeral for a character well known and respected by the party. The players really got into the mournful scene I was trying to create, and I was pleased to see it have such an impact. Of course using music like this takes a bit of thought to set the scene properly and can lose its impact if overused, but when it works, it really adds to a campaign’s atmosphere.

Another way of adding to the atmosphere is a particular favourite of mine. Images are one way to bring characters to life, and of course detailed and deep character sketches are another. However I have found that hearing a character speak can also help players relate to and imagine characters. This requires the GM to speak in character and bring the character alive with a unique voice, individual speech patterns and even accents for characters. When players can identify a character just by hearing his voice, that character will seem more real to them. If the voice has an accent or speech pattern, not only does the character become more alive to them, but you as the GM can influence opinions of the character by playing of their expectations surrounding certain vocal styles or accents. Admittedly, this can play of stereotypes associated with accents which can be crass if poorly done, but if used with all understanding your goal is not to mock, you can achieve interesting results which will help create an atmosphere. Hopefully I can discuss how accents can help build characters in another article, but for now, understand that a dwarf with a deep Scottish brogue immediately connects players with their expectations of a character with such an accent and can be used to convey a great deal about a character. A stylized speech pattern can also be used to convey worlds and help the players get a feel for the character and situation. A deep voice that speaks slowly, enunciates, and uses harsh language makes for an interesting villain that gives the scene he is in a threatening tone, while the fast talking and incredibly polite sales person can have some players responding with suspicion of his goods. A character that slurs his speech due to a consuming a liberal amount of ale can add a bit of levity to an adventure. An atmosphere can quickly be established by using a bit of vocal talent to give a character a voice.

Now, once you have an atmosphere created, there is the concern of maintaining it. As atmosphere is all about the interaction between players and the GM, any breakdown of the atmosphere results from both sides. It comes down to how the GM creates it, how the players respond to it, and how you both act to resolve issues that effect that all important atmosphere. This is key, as one cannot prevent the atmosphere from breaking down on occasion. Eventually, even the greatest GM’s world will have a slight flaw in it, be it an issue with its logic, an error in the continuity, or an unexpected reaction to some element of your story or atmosphere; and if the flaw exists, a player will notice it. This can happen often enough, despite your best efforts, and it is a threat whether you follow prewritten modules or fully create your own material. You cannot be perfect, so you will eventually go over a bump that the players notice. At that point, how you and your players deal with it becomes key.

Now, there is no quicker way to break immersion in the story and eliminate an atmosphere’s effect than a cultural reference uttered during a session. However, I will not discuss that here, but look for a full article on this issue soon. Instead, let us look at another big cause of a collapse in your game’s atmosphere, any perceived issue in the fictional world. Even Tolkien had a few plot holes one could question, and so will your world. Here you can do some preventative work to eliminate any plot holes in gaps in logic. Simply know your world. For me that means making notes, determining key details, having some parts done in depth while others are largely conceptual, and then filling in any blanks with common sense. More often than not if you lay things out logically you will be ok. Another method is to make sure you are as prepared as possible. It may be less work, but if you know your world inside and out and have binders of notes, you should not run into to many issues.

You cannot avoid every issued though, if only because at times you will never think of looking at the world from the different perspective a player will examine it from. When players ask questions that reveal a hole, you already have a loss of immersion. First off, remember that at least your audience was interested enough to pay attention and notice that flaw. Then you need to address it. I find that telling players to ignore it only makes them more critical and you atmosphere crumbles as they start looking for more flaws. They will deliberately avoid being drawn into the story by the atmosphere because their suspiciously looking for other flaws in the foundation of the house you are trying to sell them. Instead take a moment, consider the world, and see if there is a reason for the perceived flaw you can explain to the player. But, do not jump to invent a reason if you find they have you dead to rights. Better to admit there’s a mistake, loose immersion in the story, and get right back to it and draw them in again than leave them thinking about your confusing or rushed explanation and noting more issues with that hastily erected narrative patch than there was in the original flaw. When it comes right down to it, while it feels great to come back with the perfect explanation and defend your creation, if you screwed up, and you will, best to admit it. Otherwise, you end up with a dwarf ‘s mind put into a badger’s body and your players are thinking even the worst science fiction would not be this ridiculous. (Do not ask. I am sure I’ll write about it at some point, but suffice it to say, I raced to cover an issue and ended up shredding my world a bit.)

Finally, let us note where else you can be your own atmosphere’s worst enemy. Because everyone responds to the elements of props, imagery, music, and characters differently, at times what you see as the perfect method of creating atmosphere for your campaign will instead ensure that a player cannot be sucked into your story. If a player recognizes an element you are using to create atmosphere, they may not respond to it as you hope. In my current nautical campaign, I wisely decided against using music from Pirates of the Caribbean. While such music might have made players thing of those movies and give a sea going feeling to the atmosphere, my players agree that it is more likely that such music would just make them think of those movies. They would not imagine my unique world, just that world created in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, as that is the world they associate the music with. You can run into similar issue with props or images. If a player cannot see the wizard you want them to because the image you have to represent the character is a picture of Gandalf, and it therefore only reminds them of Gandalf, the image obviously will not create the desire atmospheric effect.

Music can also be distracting for some. A player has asked me to limit my use of music as this player finds it hard to concentrate on what I am saying while also listening to the music. Images such as maps can also distract a player, and lead them to ignore your description of a town as they are busy seeing what the map shows is around the town. Be careful not to let elements overshadow your story. The atmosphere should draw players into the story, not obscure it from them.

A GM should also make sure they do not over reach in order to create an atmosphere. There is a desire to do as much as possible to build an atmosphere that will really draw players in, but too much will draw players out as well, particularly if your attempts to do a great deal fall short. I discussed my love of accents. What I failed to mention is that if you use an accent poorly, or slip up while trying an accent or speech pattern, you can instantly shatter the atmosphere. I have a particular problem some days with every accent devolving into a deep Scottish accent. When this happens in mid speech, not only does the character lose credibility, but my friends naturally come out of the story and world to join in the laughter at my error. Ever imagined a mindflayer with a Scottish brogue? No? You should stop by a game of mine when I have a bad day for accents.

When considering atmosphere, I do think it is an important tool for a GM to use and master. Without it, it is much harder for players to become immersed in the story. Atmosphere allows a GM to create elements of the world and story around the players, making it seem more real through visual, auditory, and other sensory input. It can set the mood, provide examples of what is seen and heard, and gives everyone similar reference points for understanding the world. I have discussed several of my preferred methods of developing an atmosphere in this article, but do not imagine that these are all of a GM’s options. I have never used costumes, smells, and have little in the way of sound effects in my campaigns beyond what I can produce with my own voice. There is a whole array of methods of creating atmosphere, and exploration is the best way to learn what works and what does not. Just be careful not to try too much at once. As I suggested, moderation will work wonders. So, try out some of these ideas next time you play. Even a subtle prop or background track can really create an atmosphere for a game, and draw your group into to the world. It can even draw you together as you share in the experience, and make the game more interesting and fun for everyone.

One comment

  1. “Why is everyone in this city a dwarf?!”

    But seriously, good read. To anyone that’s never had the chance to play in a campaign run by Nick, take my word for it: the man puts real effort into his worlds. The games are definitely better for the work.

Leave a Reply to sianwalton Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: