5 Tips to Create Game Room Atmosphere

From Joel Fox

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0444

A Brief Word From Johnn

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A Guide to Session Notes URL Correction

In Issue #440 I posted the incorrect link to Scot Newbury’s article, A Guide to Session Notes. The correct address is:


Have a game-full week.


Johnn Four,
[email protected]

“Balance in your life between work and your personal life is very important. Without balance, you eventually burnout, negatively affecting your performance at work.”

– Byron & Catherine Pulsifer, from What Are the Benefits to Me?

5 Tips to Create Game Room Atmosphere

Atmosphere while playing is an important consideration that is often overlooked. Sometimes other issues take the foreground, such as simply keeping everyone on-task, or handling the many facets of GMing. Ironically, focusing on these issues becomes unnecessary if atmosphere is correctly established, as a good atmosphere while gaming can help establish mood, keep players on task, and help you focus on your responsibilities as a GM.


Lighting is probably the easiest aspect of establishing atmosphere. A common replacement for fluorescent or halogen light bulbs is candles, which can help establish mood for a number of campaign settings. With candles come a number of problems, however, such as an increased fire hazard, keeping them lit, replacing them when they run out, need for increased ventilation, etc.

One alternative to candles is repositioning or masking light sources. By moving lamps into an adjacent room and letting light leak in through a doorway, or by putting thin cloth carefully over lamps you can still make things more natural and less sterile.

Patterned cloth or silk works great to change light color, and is easily found at craft or thrift stores. Colored light bulbs can produce the same affect, though this might be more expensive. Additional low-intensity light sources, such as mood lights or lava lamps, can add to the atmosphere as well. Instead of keeping lighting static, change it based on where the party is or what they’re doing (soft silk light for taverns, red light for fiery caverns, blue light for underground pools, and so on).


Sound is probably the next thing that springs to mind when considering atmosphere. Most people consider music during gaming, often leaving a CD or the radio on in the background. Any old music won’t help establish mood; in fact, most modern music will probably detract from it, distracting player and GM alike.

A number of internet radio stations are available that play classical, baroque, Celtic, and romantic era music, any of which would be suitable to most fantasy settings. If a computer with an internet collection is not readily available, most public libraries loan out audio CDs, including the aforementioned musical selections.

Another idea is playing video game music, which is actually a lot easier than it sounds. A number of plugins exist for Winamp that allow special music files from video games to be easily played. A basic introduction to these files, as well as a wide variety of music from most older consoles, is available at:

www.zophar.net (See Music Playback Utilities and Music on the right-hand menu.)

I like to play music from a variety of SNES and Genesis RPGs and fantasy-themed games, such as Actraiser, Bahamut Lagoon, Final Fantasy 4-6, Ogre Battle, and Ys, but other settings (i.e. sci-fi, westerns) might require different music (i.e. Soldiers of Fortune, Front Mission).

Like lighting, music can be changed to suit the current circumstances the party faces, or just setting-appropriate music will suffice. Other than music, ‘sound machines’ that produce white noise to help people sleep can also be helpful, producing background sounds (the sounds of the ocean for a maritime adventure, the jungle for a steamy expedition, and so on) that can go along with music or be a substitute for it. Sound effects like creaking doors and such might seem like a good idea, but looking through sound tables constantly will probably detract from the mood rather than heighten it.

Remove Distractions

Atmosphere is more than light and music. Every aspect of the immediate environment can help to add to or detract from the mood. If the phone is ringing every ten minutes, or a television is clearly heard in the background, something isn’t right: try to shut off distractions and such before playing.

Sometimes just picking the right room can add a lot to the atmosphere: a dusty attic or dank basement could be an ideal location. Natural light might help or hurt the atmosphere, depending on your game: if necessary, cover windows and such with blankets.

Wind is another factor: open windows or use box fans if on the deck of a seabound vessel or atop a wind-swept hillock. Smells? Cook some foods native to the world, burn some incense or potpourri, or maybe set off a few legal fireworks just to get that scent of sulfur in the air. Just do what you can to make where you are where the party is.

Room Arrangement

Aside from where you are, changing how you are can make a big impact as well. No, I’m not talking about wearing capes and toting mail-order longswords. I’m talking about the arrangement of the room. Where the GM and where the players sit is definitely something to consider. Placing the PCs on one side of the room and you on the other, or elevating yourself above the players, can change the dynamics of the player-GM relationship.

With a strong division between you and the players, they might feel more alone in a frightening world, whereas if you’re there with them, they might instead feel a closeness with the NPCs you represent.

Toying with these arrangements can produce a number of effects on the mood.

Remote Atmosphere

One last subject I want to touch on is playing not-in- person, as in play-by-post or using an online desktop such as MapTool. It might seem harder to establish atmosphere when using these methods, but just do what you can: encourage each player to take as many of the previous steps as possible to create their own mini-atmospheres. Have them listen to the same internet radio station in playing on an online desktop, or have them listen to a certain track as they read the latest posts in a play-by-post.

Comments from Johnn

Thanks for the great tips, Joel!

Here are some related links GMs looking to tweak game room atmosphere might be interested in:

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have some GM advice you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Villain’s Escape

From rekres

“The old movie chase favorite: use a large moving object or a closing door that closes just behind the villain.”

Old movie chase favorite subverted: PCs chasing villain who gets a little bit ahead. Villain activates ‘secret escape route’ but doesn’t enter, instead hides/turns invisible in same room. PCs rush in, see escape route closing, spend minutes figuring out how to get it open. They do so and then enter the secret escape route and the door closes behind them. Only then do they discover it is a dead end and no obvious opening switch on the far side. They spend precious minutes trying to get it open while the villain has time to truly escape.

General advice to GMs: Avoid the whole villain has to escape cliche in the first place. The villain should never personally confront the PCs. That is what henchman and mini- bosses are for. If the PCs beat the villain, then he wasn’t the true villain after all.

Save the true villain for the finale of the season. While building up, allow the PCs to kill off sub-bosses, but always remind them the real threat is elsewhere. It builds up frustration. It also makes the finale more rewarding. But you have to be careful not to frustrate the players too much.

For PBeM or Online RPG – Common Writing Mistakes in RPGs

From Dariel Quiogue

When one writes roleplaying game material, it’s necessary to make it as clear as possible so our players can understand it, making it more convenient to use. This goes double if we’re sharing our creations, either professionally or through community sites like Roleplayingtips.com.

One thing I notice often is the misuse of some common words, such as canon when one means cannon, or hoard vs. horde. In some cases the word is not misspelled, but the word is entirely different from what you mean. I hope this short list of common mistakes and their solutions will help my fellow GM’s write more clearly.

  • * Hoard vs Horde Hoard and horde are both valid words in English, but they mean different things. You just have to be sure you’re using the right one when you use either of them. They are not interchangeable in meaning.A __hoard__ is a vast collection of something, usually, one hopes, treasure.Ex: “Over a thousand years, the dragon had accumulated a huge __hoard__ of gold and gems.”A __horde__ is a vast assemblage of people, usually in the sense of being an army.Ex: “The orcish _horde_ came pouring into Dorthonion through the passes of Ered Wethrin.”
  • Rouge vs Rogue Again, two valid words, different meanings. Rouge is makeup, specifically red paint or powder for the face, and rogue is the word you want for describing a character with sneaky abilities.Ex: “To disguise himself as a lady of the court, the _rogue_ made sure to paint his face with plenty of _rouge_.”
  • Dessert vs Desert This is simple. _Dessert_ is what you want to have after your main course, and a _desert_ is where you don’t want to be stuck without water. Just one s more or less, and you’ve got a very different meaning.
  • It’s vs. Its I write for and copy-edit a magazine, and even articles sent in by long-time writers sometimes suffer from this confusion. For some it’s just a matter of typographical error, specially when you’re on a tight deadline, but I’ve met some writers who can’t get it consistently right._It’s_ is a contraction of “It is,” while _its_ is a possessive. You generally use ‘its’ in the same way you would use his or her, when the possessor of what you’re talking about is not a human being.Ex: “‘_It’s_ beautiful, isn’t it’, said the dragon as it looked over _its_ magically restored coat of golden scales.”If you want to check if your usage is correct, try rewriting the sentence in your head and change it’s and its with other words, like so: “‘_It is_ beautiful, isn’t it,’ said the dragon as he looked over _his_ magically restored coat of golden scales.” Note that by using his instead of its, you personify the dragon a bit more – which may or may not be what you want.
  • Canon vs. Cannon Cannon is what goes ‘boom’, and canon is that which is considered true and accepted, as in scripture or in game world info.Ex: “When the rebels refused to recant and accept standard Church _canon_, the Cardinal brought up his troops and their _cannon_, planning a very loud and very final sermon for the heretics.”
  • Lose vs Loose Again another matter of just one letter more or less changing what you mean. To lose something means it’s gone missing, and to loose something means to unfasten or let go.Ex: “If you _lose_ this amulet the armies of darkness will run _loose_ upon the world …”
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Adventure Worksheet

From Michael Downey

Johnn: Michael sent me a great, simple, one-pager MS Word worksheet to help organize and craft your adventures. Check it out:

Adventure_Worksheet [DOC]

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GURPS Worksheet

From Steve Ellis

Johnn: Steve sent me the following Excel file with several GURPS worksheets: stats for the PCs and NPCs, game calendar, party treasure, and settlements.

GURPS Worksheets.xls

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Tips For Guiding A Shy Player To Roleplay

From Psykie

My group has had problems with shy players, and I know others have as well. As such, the others in our group have gotten together and made a list of ideas that we have tried; some successfully, some not so.

The following are the ideas that were received positively:

  • Place the player in situations they have to roleplay. This one at first seemed like a bad idea, and we were worried it would make the player uncomfortable. It did, but only at first. Once we got him rolling, it came naturally and resulted in some of the best roleplaying of the session. The main problem with this one was actually the other players becoming impatient.
  • Encourage the player when they do well. Just don’t go overboard, and make sure to encourage everyone, so you don’t seem like you are patronizing the player.
  • Make roleplaying one of the main sources of XP. I play a WFRP game, and 90% of the XP they get is for roleplaying. This doesn’t work as well for DnD, but it can still be used to some extent.
  • Make storylines that focus in part on the player, and make his role vital. For instance, I ran a ‘Shadows over Bögenhafen’ like adventure, where the shy player was made the imposter. This worked well as he was the centre of attention.
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A Living World

From Psykie

My group has commented before on some groups saying, “Adventure seems to find the characters, not the characters finding the adventure.” They are saying things seem only to happen around the players’ actions.

What I do, which my group responds well to, and which I learned to do from a tip on RPG.net forums, is to make a calendar of the campaign and write in world events that will happen at certain times, regardless (or unless) of the PCs’ actions.

This should only be done with bigger things, or set events, to make sure that one extra day spent in the wilds hasn’t set every adventure back a day, or makes the PCs late to every quest.

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Adventure Idea: Lich’s Special Keep Follow-Up

From Mike Evans

re: Roleplaying Tips Issue #441

I just wanted to extend a very big thank you to Joel Fox for taking the time to read my submission from issue 442 and submit a wonderful amount of feedback, ideas, and his opinion.

I also wanted to let all who read my request know that I had a sit down and discussed with my players that they need to grab the proverbial bull by the horns and seek out adventure now that the Blight is over and the conflict is not right in front of their faces. They are in a booming/growing town, that when the Blight was active, was small and more of a haven.

This session, I am pleased to say, they all went out of their way to be active, and even though it might have been rough in some places, it was great! I can see they enjoyed it, and they will probably be more active from now on…which makes me a happy lil DM.