Thursday, September 22, 2011

Balancing Act 5: Playing Environment

The typical image of a gaming group is of a group of friends dressed in casual wear, sitting around a well-lit dining table or a card table on comfortable chairs, drinking Mountain Dew and eating doritoes. This comforting scene of friendship and domesticity doesn’t really lend itself to immersion in a horror game. So, what can you do about it?
Get rid of some of those staples for a start. If it represents comfort and safety, get remove it. Sure it might make for a useful contrast during the cheerier preludes or respites, but otherwise it’s just hampering.

Physical Location.
Change it up. You could game in a cramped and leaky shed during a rain storm (who needs audio files?) or in a musty old garage in the dead of winter with nothing but a space heater and some blankets. You could game outside under the stars by the river on a picnic basket. You can gather around an old desk, seated on uncomfortable chairs or overturned milk crates. You could do it somewhere really unique – like in a child’s bedroom (ideally while the child is having a sleep over). Dare to be different. If it doesn’t work, try something else.
  • Don't let them get too comfortable. Dining tables and chairs will keep them far more focused and worried than comfortable couches. Don't take this too far, however, as you don't want players distracted by real world pain.
  • Never let there be television! Television's flashing lights are a real immersion killer. Have it out of sight and out of ear shot if other people will be listening to it.
  • Use an out of the way place. Horror is not a genre that can be easily played in a main thoroughfare. Have them crowd around the bedroom floor if you have to, just don't let your mum / husband / children interrupt you regularly by just passing through.
Lighting.Think about the lighting. Remember that the players shouldn't have to squint to see their dice so if it's dark, give them flashlights. Don't rely on candles to read your sheets by as they rarely provide enough light for that. Either keep it dim throughout or change it according to the mood that you're attempting to evoke.
  • Bright lights work for daylight scenes and cheery preludes (to provide contrast).
  • Turn out the lights and provide flash lights to help them get into the spirit of a torch lit investigation.
  • Use lamps to give a Noir feel.
  • Use fire – candles, lanterns, fireplaces – to give an old world or otherwise primeval feel.
  • Coloured lights can also work a treat but save them for special occasions or else they’ll lose their flavor.
Let there be music! Music can provide a terrifically moody edge in any game and can really assist with transitions between locations and moods. It can also help differentiate between switches between two sides of a split party – simply switch from the Nightclub soundtrack to the Creepy soundtrack to really give the players an idea of whose turn it is. This is especially good if you’re not going to split the players into separate rooms when their characters split – which, while a valid tactic, isn’t always necessary.

In another sequence of posts I'll start talking about sensory maps and how to connect the environment to the genre to aid with immersion. In the meantime, what playing environments do you use in your game and which ones do you think were most conducive to horror?

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