Mood-Enhancers—and Mood-Breakers—In Tabletop Role-Playing Games

There are days when I wish that the table-top role-playing game (RPG) industry would release The Game-master’s Guide to GMing, or something similar. I say this because pretty much every role-playing game out there has to devote a section in the rules to the perennial topic of “How do you run one of these things, anyway?” Obviously, you have to put that kind of information in there, because otherwise anybody who is coming into the hobby cold will be utterly confused about how to run a RPG campaign; but read enough of these things and you start skipping ahead to the maps.

I bring all of this up because one of the most common topics for horror game campaigns is on how to evoke the proper mood. To be fair, that’s pretty important. To be even more fair, a certain percentage of this kind of advice is harder than it looks. To give just a few examples:

Music is often invoked as a killer way of getting the right mood going for a game. Well… yes. It can be. If your players and you have the same musical tastes, and the same emotional reactions to particular pieces. If you stick to instrumental music, or vocals that aren’t in any language that your players can speak. If you pick music that lasts for longer than any one particular scene. And if you’re inhumanly good at instantly reprogramming your MP3 player to play the thematically appropriate music on command. In other words: don’t micromanage the music, and make it strictly background. Or just play something appropriate while people are still settling in and getting out their dice bags.

Player handouts and props are beloved of many game lines, and sometimes not even because they’re a great way to fill up a few pages of blank space. And, again, sure: good stuff to have. So go ahead and take those scissors to that expensive book that you just bought… or break the book’s binding trying to photocopy the images… or, wait: buy it in ebook form, and print out the relevant pages! Seriously, the proliferation of cheap printers and PDFs is a wonderful and welcome technological advance in this particular hobby. Unfortunately, nobody has figured out yet how to ensure that the player who takes possession of the handouts on the party’s behalf is also the person who will show up for every game AND who will not use said handouts to wipe up grape juice stains. Possibly your party should just let the GM keep all the handouts. Who knows? Maybe he’ll get confused and scribble usefully plot-revealing notes on them.

Pacing, which in this case refers to how quickly or slowly the plot advances, is likewise a perennial favorite topic on how to create the proper mood. However, it is not always asked: why do the players care if the plot is advancing? I mean, it’s easy to figure out why the GM wants to advance the plot; it’s his plot (either his own idea, or an idea that he’s adopted). Naturally he wants to see it go along. Whether or not the players agree with him is a different story — and sometimes the players are right, and sometimes the players are wrong. As you might have guessed, I’m not personally a big fan of the GM vs. Party dynamic, although there are games out there where it’s an absolutely important and integral part of the system. But even there the adversarial dynamic is still collaborative, and understood from the start.

I don’t want to discount mood; the purpose of role-play to play roles, as it were. And many people need assistance to get into their role. But it needs to be thoughtful assistance — on everybody’s part. Because there’s one particular mood that can easily permeate a gaming atmosphere, and it’s not a particularly welcome one: Sullen. Sullen players resent the GM’s heavy-handedness. Sullen GMs resent the players’ indifference. Quite often both sets of resentments are going on at once. This is not optimal for the campaign’s long-term survival.

PS: One last, Halloween-based observation: if you’re running a game on Halloween and you want to run something horror-themed, for the love of God do something at Scooby-Doo levels of emotional intensity. Unless you have players who genuinely love it when their precious, precious characters suddenly get into deadly peril without warning…