Okay, so I wrote a brief summary and waffle about the oneshot I was running, but I thought I’d write more about atmosphere. I was going for a very specific atmosphere in that game and I think I nailed it with the aid of a few cheap tricks.Nothing I haven’t used before to be honest, also one shots are in themselves easier to generate atmosphere for – I find in general as longer running games run you get more of a day to day regular feel about them. One shots on the other hand almost anything can happen, and people are more focused as its less regular, so the focus is more present in general.
The atmosphere I was aiming for in this event was a mystical, slightly primitive, separate from the day to day, so we rearranged the tables, got everyone gathered around (I think theres nothing worse than running in a spread out group of tables, in many ways I’d quite like to run with a more circular table, then everyone can easily see everyone), described a little background, gave out characters, got people choosing names and genders and things. That’s something I find works well as a first trick, give someone a simple few paragraphs of background but leave out a few pertinent details on purpose, give them space to stretch the character and make it theirs and bond with it – and names, genders, bits and bobs of racial or religious backgrounds, musical tastes, these things seem to give people hooks into otherwise unknown characters.
Anyway, once people had eaten, and gathered and talked, I set the background up with gentle background music playing at an appropriately low volume, in this case Wardruna which included all the drumming and background hums and chants, and when luck was good and the music fitted the scene I’d sort of rope it in to the atmosphere, this was mostly in the ritual contexts when they were performing magic as sometimes the drumming fit nicely, although I was also using humming, and drumming on my legs (and certain players had fun joining in) to keep this rhythm going, a lot of my cues I think were sound linked, I also used a singing bowl to indicate when particularly magical or strange events were going on and sort of deliminate between normal everyday life and entering into stranger places, and had the players be given a chant orally that they had to write down, and later got them to deliver it as a group.
I added to the noise thing by having some particularly strangely voiced spirit creatures with odd turns of phrase, the Princes of the Tree’s that they met were in many ways slightly stereotypical fairy creatures, they that that slightly slithery, we talk behind your back to each other about doing horrible things, slightly gollum, creepy thing going on. So a whole bag of accessible vocal tropes. However I paired that up with use of body language. There’s something fun as a ref about adopting body language for various NPCs as a hook for them, and indeed getting up, moving around, interacting with players helps create atmosphere and break down that barrier between them and the experience.
Anyway, the Princes were long of hand for strangling, and thus I was standing from my chair, making sure to use body language, creaking the table like branches in the wind, looking directly at people, all that kind of goodness. Simple tricks to make them more horrid and direct. This contrasted with the normal tree’s they met who were much more friendly and clearly based of gossipy little old ladies, and they gave much more open body language. The large bear creature was much more big hands with open fingers moving slowly, big paws full of claws and slightly hunched shoulders and sitting spread legged. Half these visual cues probably weren’t visible to the players directly or consciously, but were probably more serving as hooks for me to get into the various NPCs, so hopefully they came across quite well as contrasts.
In addition to this I was burning a candle, this added to the small Garou altar I’d built before me (singing bowl, prop knife, candle, hip flask), and also I was aiming for it to play back into the mystical thing – a burning candle as a focal point to the altar and to the game in front of the Ref. I was also adding to the primative thing, giving the place an atmosphere of more outside, more natural by adding drops of birch tar oil to the candle, while it probably would have worked better in an incense stove or oil burner this was an easy way of doing it, was good enough and meant I was carrying one less breakable thing, also because I was sat in front of it and leaning over it a bunch as various NPCs when I got to bed that night I smelled gently of wood smoke :)
So yeah – atmosphere. Easy to generate at first, wears off with repetition, pick a few tricks that work – background music chosen carefully and quiet, simple props for indicating in game events (singing bowl, bell, claps, drumming) or starting and ending play, a couple of small in game props to help set the table apart from its regular uses and make it clearly an in-game-thing, and optionally add use of gentle smells, nothing too overpowering as these can be a bit much sometimes. For making scenes and NPCs memorable add vocal tricks, add body language, don’t be static in your chair, don’t fear to get up and get involved in players, don’t worry if they do it too. The real trick is getting it to work between sessions, needing to keep things the same enough to add mental associations back to them, but not so the same that people’s brains just regard them as normal. Essentially the same issues of theatre and ritual :)