Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Invoking Wonder In Roleplaying Games

Setting descriptions are pivotal to invoke wonder.
(Skyrim: A videogame that does it well)
Mysticism.  Wonder.  Awe.  These are the things that you feel when you take a step back and feel the weight of history upon your shoulders or marvel at a wondrous element of nature.  You must open up your heart and your mind to truly feel these sensations especially as you have doubtless taken in greater and more awe-inspiring settings on the movie screen and in videogames which rely on the visual medium.  How does one bring such elements to the roleplaying table?

Why is this?

Well, there's a certain element of vulnerability that comes part and parcel with opening up your mind's eye and that's generally something we strive to avoid (especially in laid back Australia).  Due to this much of the true wonders described by the Storyteller are simply filed under "Interesting".  This is made worse by the fact that most wonders described in a roleplaying game aren't new experiences and wonder tends to be a bit diminished by repetition.  Children may love the idea of unicorns but adults rarely do simply because they've dealt with it so much.

So how can you change this for a game like Fianyarr?

You need players willing to immerse themselves in the game world and/or their character's skins.  You can lead a player to water but you can't make them drink.  If they just want to sit back and munch doritoes while joking with the others or have their eyes peeled for the next clue in the investigation or are tactically considering the scenery for the best ambush points then they're not really going to feel any wonder about that colossal statue.

You also need some damn fine description.  And no, not description that you read off from a piece of paper.  If you can't ad lib it then you'll need to memorise the description.  This'll also be handy because it'll encourage you to keep it short.  If you can't nail it in 50 words then you won't nail it at all.  50 words up front followed by a liberal sprinkling of reminders and other details can go a long way while a full page description up front or, worse, simply producing a picture won't do.

Why won't producing a picture do?  Well when was the last time your heart soared at the sight of a photograph?  Pictures are external things that are quite distinct from us more often than not.  They can assist you in your descriptions or help players understand what things look like but they very rarely get a heartfelt response.  A painting can help as if it's quite evocative but make sure it's large enough that you don't need all the players leaning forward in their seats to see it.

You could get everyone to close their eyes and let your descriptions fill their mind.  Let them paint their own picture as you describe it.  It sure helps sometimes when I close my eyes to imagine a place I'm about to describe (though I usually do this before game begins).  You'll need a certain type of player to pull this one off.  Trying this with players prone to joking around, giggliness, or are defensive (in other words, most players) will just ruin the ambiance more so than if you said a single line of description while yawning.

The other thing is to set the mood in-game.  A bunch of weary characters just looking for a spot to sit down aren't going to marvel at the sparkling chasm - they're going to groan.  If you want the players to feel something then you'll need to reach them via their characters.  Spin tales of the chasm before they get there (briefly, don't make the players too suspicious).  Place a few NPCs to get them in the mood beforehand so they're looking at the journey as an exciting exploration rather than a humdrum task to get to more monsters or a terrifying flight across the countryside.

Remember your tone of voice as well.  Speak about it with wonder in your voice.  Slow down your voice and let each word fall upon their ears.  If you sound bored or matter-of-fact then the players will take their cue from you.

Sensory maps can also help here.  Exotic incense, candlelight / gaslight / torchlight, and a velvet tablecloth can all remind players that the game is more than just another slashfest.  It's a story.  You're the storyteller.  And what you're going to tell them is amazing.

Oh and giving your players the heads up at the start of the campaign that you want to aim for a rich and evocative setting can't hurt either.  There are some players who'd love to open their minds if forewarned but will otherwise enter the campaign with different expectations and lazy antics if they don't know that this time will be different.


  1. Wonder is tough... I think I look a lot to the external to help set feelings in a game. I'm a bit of a one trick pony to trying to get moods across a game...sounds.

    Sound effects and music. I read my "box text" descriptions over different type of music, or with something in the background. (water dripping, storms, rivers, wind howling, traffic.)

    If I want to set a feeling of wonder I choose something fitting:

    I had a friend back in the day who ran a Call of the Cthulhu campaign by oil lamp! Warm summer evenings and low flickering light, very quiet talking = terribly mysterious.

    1. Now I really want an oil lamp!

    2. He had an old antique kerosene lamp and it looked the part! I think a camping lantern would work too. When you face to face rp CoC, do you turn the lights down or anything? I have not tried to run a CoC game since college. To bring forth a mysterious feel to the actual physical room I think would really help get players, and the GM, in the right mood.

    3. I've only rarely had a chance to tabletop Call of Cthulhu, though I have run some Call of Cthulhu stuff through World of Darkness due to player preferences. And yeah, I often have the lights off for the horror adventures, in part to point out that this isn't your usual World of Darkness session. I've tried gaming by candles but it's just not good enough to see the sheets by. Flashlights (or a camping lantern) would work much better.