Creating a More Immersive D&D Experience
  • Creating a More Immersive D&D Experience


    When the GM puts in the effort to create a game session for your party, and everyone makes time in their busy lives to show up, you might as well make the most of the occasion. Setting the scene for your game and creating a space where you can relax can help immerse you in the experience. Whether you prefer to create an atmosphere that suggests the setting of your game, or choose to focus on the fact that you are hanging out with your friends for a few hours, you can find little ways to make it special.


    Music
    I like playing music in the background during games. It creates a nice ambiance and can set the tone for the action. I know some GMs carefully curate an array of playlists with music for every mood and setting, switching between them as needed, but I am nowhere near that level yet.

    Fortunately, streaming music services like Spotify and Pandora (or even YouTube) are full of playlists other people already have created. They usually are stocked with scores from movies and video games, and maybe some medieval or Renaissance-style music in the mix. There's a whole niche market of people who write music specifically for use in RPGs, including artists such as Midnight Syndicate or Kevin MacLeod. Look up those names and let the recommendation algorithm introduce you to hundreds of hours of game-appropriate music. You also can round out your playlists with ambient tracks of sound effects including gentle rain or thunderstorms, daytime bird calls, night time crickets, the sound of waves, or Halloween-style ghostly noises and howls.

    Decor and Lighting
    Not everyone has the space, budget, or desire to dedicate a whole space to gaming. But when it's game night, you can always break out a few extra items with your dice and other equipment. You can add subtle touches like a tablecloth that sets the mood, or light candles in the room. You don't even have to use real candles if you're worried about open flames and excess heat -- LED candles look great, many have a natural-looking flickering setting, and some are even remote controlled.

    To add an easy faux-medieval touch to the table, serve drinks in steins and goblets. You can find plenty of attractive options for sale, but some are only meant to be decorative, so make sure you buy ones that are made from food-safe materials if you're going to use them. They're perfect for ale and wine, of course, but there's nothing stopping you from drinking iced tea out of a bejeweled chalice if you want to.
    If you are inclined to add more elaborate or permanent decor, you have a lot of options too. You can buy wall-mounted LED torch sconces, tapestries, or even fantasy creature models. WizKids has produced a line of these which so far includes a red dragon head, a mindflayer head, and a very impressive beholder. They're not cheap, and can be tricky to hang (particularly the beholder, which has to be mounted in the ceiling), but they are a lot of fun.


    I DM Adventurer's League inside this beholder's anti-magic cone every Wednesday night at my shop.

    Snacks
    Honestly, what's a party without snacks? Gathering people together to enjoy food is one of society's oldest bonding rituals. Plenty of people bring their own individual snacks, and that's fine, but you could take it a step further if everyone wants to. You can approach it as a dinner with friends, even if you're just sharing a pizza, or go the themed menu route with imaginary tavern classics. One of these days, I'm going to serve stew in homemade bread bowls at one of my games. But that's a lot of work, so you could choose a simpler option and serve charcuterie and cheese trays, fruit, and fresh bread. Or just make nachos -- the point is to make it a fun experience for the group.

    Scented Products
    Scent is a major sensory trigger that can create a lot of atmosphere with a little whiff. Now there are scented products on the market that are designed specifically for use in RPG scene-setting. They come in forms such as candles, sachets, or pots of scented beads you can place on your game table. Some are subtle scents intended to produce a general mood, but others are very specific. You can find incense-tinged scents meant to evoke a temple or ritual, or the scent of a forest or ocean, a campfire or tavern, but you also can find more esoteric varieties such as alchemist's lab or ancient library, and less pleasant aromas like dungeon, swamp, or moldy crypt...if you think that's something your party would appreciate. Which leads to an extremely important caveat on this item:

    Many people cannot tolerate exposure to scented products! Allergies are common and can be very serious. Your game isn't going to be much fun if it comes to a grinding halt when a player fails a real-life CON save against a scented item. It could cause everything from sneezing or a sore throat to a migraine, asthma attack or worse. Therefore, I strongly recommend getting explicit consent from everyone who will be in the area before using such a product. Even if you think the scent isn't that strong, it might have a big impact on someone who is sensitive to it.

    Do you have any favorite game time mood setters? Want to share a recipe? Tell me about it in the comments! (And let me know if you want to see recipes in future columns, because that's one of my specialties.)

    contributed by Annie Bulloch
    Comments 53 Comments
    1. Ralif Redhammer's Avatar
      Ralif Redhammer -
      Music is my go-to choice for setting atmosphere. I use Pandora, and I generally find it useful to put a player in charge of monitoring the selection for off-key choices (like the time the station based on the Skyrim soundtrack decided to play Big Beat tunes, because Fallout).

      I usually use stainless steel goblets and flagons to serve drinks (though for myself I often favor a tiki mug), though thatís more that people donít have to worry about breaking anything.

      Iíve burned incense or candles now and then, though that was more do to a stinky player, before he finally got himself kicked out of the group.

      Iím a big fan of Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab. When Iím playing, I try to match my scent to my character, using the particular RPG series oil (dwarf, bard, cleric, etc.).
    1. Flexor the Mighty! -
      I have tried music and while keeping it low in the background doesn't hurt not sure it helps much. And if its too loud its an issue. I mostly try to remove things that interfere with communication at the table, which to me is the key to immersion.
    1. Cergorach's Avatar
      Cergorach -
      Tsk! Be more immersive:
      I am this beholder every Wednesday night.
    1. EthanSental's Avatar
      EthanSental -
      Great article.

      I use scented candles (dank dungeon for that wet earth smell) and campfire. I burned the dank dungeon about 30 minutes before we start and they immediately noticed it when they walked in as we left off the last session when they were going underground. Throw in Syrinscape for background sounds and it helps build immersion. I've used plenty of adventure scents packets from odd fish games and they help as well for key settings for the session. Add these to the 3d terrain and it's a fun romp for our group.
    1. Annie Bulloch's Avatar
      Annie Bulloch -
      Quote Originally Posted by Cergorach View Post
      Tsk! Be more immersive:
      I am this beholder every Wednesday night.
      If it helps, I did kill a PC with a beholder recently.
    1. skinnydwarf -
      For background thematic sounds, https://tabletopaudio.com/ is pretty great. Incredible, even
    1. Annie Bulloch's Avatar
      Annie Bulloch -
      Ah, good find! I didn't know about that one.
    1. EvilDwarf's Avatar
      EvilDwarf -
      Quote Originally Posted by skinnydwarf View Post
      For background thematic sounds, https://tabletopaudio.com/ is pretty great. Incredible, even
      Tabletop Audio has been my go to for several years now. I can't speak about it more highly. We switched out to a Starfinder campaign (we're back to 5e tonight LOL--I'll let you guess why) and Tabletop was great for science fiction, too. Interesting that it should be mentioned today--I had donated a few months ago, and donated again today. So, I was glad to see someone give it plug! I hope others donate, too, to keep it going (I am not affiliated with the site!).
    1. Mercule's Avatar
      Mercule -
      When I played WoD, years ago, we did pretty well with atmosphere. My wife and I have always dug the old oil lamps and had enough to adequately light the play room so no one got eye strain. I usually opened the session with a themed music selection, but tend to avoid overdoing it during games because it quickly becomes white noise -- though I did find some pretty good music for Black Spiral Dancers that could almost make you dizzy on surround sound.

      We take our D&D a bit less serious (and always have). I've played with soundboard apps and the above link, but my computer speakers are generally between me and the players, so I have to compete with it for volume or leave it too quiet to be heard by the whole table. I used to use the Savage World GM Screen with the player side having maps and thematic images. Lately, I've been going minimalist, though, which means open die rolls, using D&D Beyond, OneNote, etc. instead of a stack of books or even a screen -- I still use a battle mat, and the players have minis, but I use all the odd dice I've accumulated over 35 years of gaming, instead of minis for monsters.
    1. Juomari Veren's Avatar
      Juomari Veren -
      I've never been able to get into the mentality of using music for atmosphere in D&D games. I prefer using minis and making terrain to use with my players infinitely more. For whatever reason just listening to music doesn't usually do enough to set the scene or immerse me, as player or DM.
    1. Fandabidozi's Avatar
      Fandabidozi -
      Gaming soundtracks like those for Baldurs Gate or Diablo II work really well.
    1. pming's Avatar
      pming -
      Hiya!

      You want your players to become "more immersed" in the game? Encourage them to use a pencil and paper. I'm dead serious. Get them to take notes, doodle pics of symbols the see on some trap, draw artistically rendered maps (more looks, not so accurate), write down names of people they meet and deal with, etc.

      Nothing, and I mean NOTHING will get a player more involved in the game more than that player writing stuff down themselves. And yes, this includes the "old school mapping" that someone has a tread on that I commented about. If someone says "this is my favourite character", and they hand you a two page character sheet...don't expect much "immersion" from them. If they pull out a three-ringed binder stuffed with pages, bits of cloth, maybe a piece of leather tied around a feather....just weird 'crazy lady that lives in the attic' sort of clutter. Well, that's the type of person that might be a bit TOO immersed. But err on the side of "crazy attic lady" than "2-page involvement dude" if you have to.

      When a player starts showing you maps they drew of the Palace of the Silver Princess from 1986, sketches they did of their characters gear when they were 11 years old, and multi-page write ups of their "Journel of Grenda the Guild Thief"...and seeing them so damn proud and excited about reminiscing? Ahhh....now THAT'S the stuff!

      When a player hands you a standard 2pg character sheet and says "Huh? Oh, he's a 14th level Fighter. He's got...[insert mechanical numbers and abilities]" and that's about it. Well, that person doesn't "get" one of the biggest cool-factors of RPG's, imnsho. They may have a tonne of fun playing...but they are playing for the "numbers", not so much the "story".

      In capping it all up: Immersion is something the Player does, and that the DM can only help/encourage. Scented candles, subdued lighting and background music will only get you so far.

      PS: In case it wasn't obvious...the DM has to be just as "immersed" in their campaign world. If a player says "The Ruby Coast? Why is it called that?", you had better dang well be willing and able to pull out a swack of paper showing maps, histories, NPC's that live and lived in the area that made a name for themselves, the local areas favourite foods, customs, music, dress style, sayings, etc. You know, "all that so-called 'boring' stuff that most players won't ever actually encounter". Yeah, all that stuff? That's the important stuff. That's the stuff that holds your world together and lets the players immerse themselves by writing down stuff they hear you say about something, in their Journel that made an impression on them. "Grenda discovered a new favourite food on the Ruby Coast today. It was a mix of....", complete with a picture of the food, DIRECTLY ties that PC, and Player, to your Campaign World, and you. Shared creation, you might say. But you will never get that if all you detail is "CR appropriate encounters" that only serve to point the PC's the the next encounter. Nobody will remember the fight with 6 pirates on the beach. They will remember the "Ruby Crab BBQ Hot-Pots" they had them making Con saves or turn red from the spices....and how the locals accepted them as members of the society because they tried the dish (regardless of the Con saves outcome).

      ^_^

      Paul L. Ming
    1. EthanSental's Avatar
      EthanSental -
      Quote Originally Posted by Juomari Veren View Post
      I've never been able to get into the mentality of using music for atmosphere in D&D games. I prefer using minis and making terrain to use with my players infinitely more. For whatever reason just listening to music doesn't usually do enough to set the scene or immerse me, as player or DM.
      Im not into music in the background (like critical role used to do) but sound effects like tavern noises, jungle noises, rain if it's raining in the game etc.
    1. Over the Hill Gamer's Avatar
      Over the Hill Gamer -
      I find music, decor, and scents to be distractions. A quiet, relaxing room with conveniently located drinks and snacks and a small group of interested, enthusiastic players who understand the spirit of the game are all you need for total immersion. And of course a good story.
    1. Draegn's Avatar
      Draegn -
      When the weather is nice we sit with low lights under the stars in the orangery.
    1. Ganymede81's Avatar
      Ganymede81 -
      One of my tricks is to forego describing an element of the game and instead let one of the players do it instead. I might let a player describe how a particular magic item looks or detail an NPC. It adds some buy-in on the player's part and helps spice up the world.
    1. lxqueen's Avatar
      lxqueen -
      Tabletop Audio is one of the best options IMO - between their ambient 10-minute loops, and their custom soundboards.

      For people who want to "fire and forget" with some background music, there's also Sword Coast Soundscapes on YouTube - 3 hour long pieces, with many inspired by D&D locations from the 5e adventures.

      Also worth mentioning, another benefit of using a service like YouTube or similar is also if you run online but don't need maps all the time, you can run on Discord and add in a bot to play music.
    1. Augreth's Avatar
      Augreth -
      Music is key to an immersive evening, but sometime sound effects (e.g. from Platemail Games) add a uniqueness to the moment.

      I made myself some playlists in Apple Music for different moods, for example ďBattleĒ, ďMysticĒ or the like.

      As for decoration, candles create a nice atmosphere, but sometimes make it hard to read.
    1. Polyhedral Columbia's Avatar
      Polyhedral Columbia -
      thanks for this
    1. Altamont Ravenard's Avatar
      Altamont Ravenard -
      Things that encourage immersion are as important, IMO as making sure that the environment is free of elements that ruin or negatively affect immersion, ie various sources of distraction that have nothing to do with the game, like background tv for example. Also, IME, it helps either to get the out-of-game talk out of the way before the game begins, or have shorts breaks during the game for non-game related discussions. As my gaming group doesn't see each other much outside of game time, we usually have some catching up to do.

      Do you guys feel that props add to the immersion or deter from it? Play money / coins / gems, keys, a model chest or coffer, hand-made player handouts, etc...

      AR
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