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. Ancalagon's Avatar
      Ancalagon -
      Whenever the party is ambushed by goblins or bandits, shoot a random player with a crossbow

    1. Koloth's Avatar
      Koloth -
      Sometimes modern things can seem proper. I used a pair of RR switch lights my dad got when the RR surplussed them. Replace the oil lamps with LED floods and you have table lights.

      For cheap artwork to hang on the walls, you can use things like Order of the Stick panels in a 8 x 10" frame. Or visit the art room at a convention and find some $5~10 prints.

      Also, don't be so quick to dismiss the '2 page character sheet' player. Maybe their previous DM was one who ran an adventure path and discouraged script deviations.
    1. Zardnaar's Avatar
      Zardnaar -
      We ran a polar game once so went an played in Antarctica. 5 PCs went in 3 game home.

      Playing Darksun in the Sahara is interesting. Thought we would do some raiding but the local Tuaregs got a bit upset. They cheated though since when have AK-47's been legal in larping?
    1. AmerginLiath's Avatar
      AmerginLiath -
      Quote Originally Posted by Over the Hill Gamer View Post
      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.
      There’s also the fact that many of us have hearing issues that such conflicting sounds exacerbate. I’m “frequency-deaf” of a sort, so trying to clearly process music and voice together is nearly impossible (live concerts are a muddy wall of sound to me).

      Keep visual and auditory handicaps in mind (including “minor” ones) when planning out these flourishes, lest you get the opposite desired result.
    1. AmerginLiath's Avatar
      AmerginLiath -
      Quote Originally Posted by Ancalagon View Post
      Whenever the party is ambushed by goblins or bandits, shoot a random player with a crossbow

      All joking aside, a rubber band gun or nerf pistol under the table for just that moment would be unforgettable!
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by AmerginLiath View Post
      There’s also the fact that many of us have hearing issues that such conflicting sounds exacerbate. I’m “frequency-deaf” of a sort, so trying to clearly process music and voice together is nearly impossible (live concerts are a muddy wall of sound to me).

      Keep visual and auditory handicaps in mind (including “minor” ones) when planning out these flourishes, lest you get the opposite desired result.
      100% agree. I'd give XP twice if I could!

      I developed notable sensory issues about 5 years ago. They'd been there all along to a lesser degree, but got markedly worse in 2013. They've abated from what they were but get worse with prolonged exposure. A room with sound effects, scents, and flashing lights? I'd be a quivering ball of goo.

      It's not helped by the fact that RPG music is usually incredibly cheesy, but that's an aesthetic judgment.
    1. Sleepy Walker's Avatar
      Sleepy Walker -
      Sound effects/Sound tracks____In my experiences soundtracks can really enhance an session or battle, but a poorly chosen song at the wrong time can really bring people out of the experience. This means that there is a certain amount of overhead when dealing with sound tracks and the like. I've recently dipped into this while DMing my adventure and found that 50% of a good youtube soundtrack is not for me or my adventure. This means I have to spend hours culling the herd in Audacity on top of the hours I spend finding the songs in the first place.

      Sound effects can be really nice, but finding the right ones takes a fair amount of time as well. Once a library is generated it can really add that surprise factor in an ambush or add in the creepy factor for a mysterious foe. I've found that certain effects have a lot more effect than others so crossbows firing, arrows hissing through the air, or a monster's inhuman growl can really set the mood.

      Physical Items/Props_______ Giving players physical items is an excellent way to bring something real to the adventure. I have experienced magical items being represented by individual note cards and I really enjoyed that. It also made trading, tracking, and recovering items from player corpses very simple.

      I am currently going to experiment representing gems and small art pieces with painted acrylic clear gem-like bits. I've found that painting one side creates a luminous effect on the clear half (seeing the pigment through the transparent acrylic) which is perfect for emeralds, saphires, quartz, etc, and painting both sides is perfect for gems like Jade.... and other similar gemstones (haven't run into the other kinds yet). They are super easy to paint and the ones I found come in two sizes, so I just made my own value for each gem type based on the size. I figure if I have a base general price for exactly two sizes I can then easily identify them when they are traded in and can spend more time bartering on how they actually look instead of looking up what they are worth and having them be weightless coins vouchers. Added bonus is that they already look like diamonds, the most desired type of gemstone, just not cut into the traditional diamond shape.

      Drawing/Mapping: Setting one person to be the cartographer can really bring that person focus, especially if they have troubles focusing or is otherwise quiet. Sometimes the time it takes to describe the scene well enough to make a good drawing would be better spent just drawing it yourself.


      Summary
      Sound tracks: Low return on investment, requires careful DM selection based on situation, draws DM resources both out and in game (time/timing).
      Sound Effect: Low return on investment but better than sound tracks, similar problems as sound tracks until library generated.

      Item cards: Decent return on investment, low DM cost, helps give important items a tangible presence
      Monetary props: Have yet to implement, expect issues with players losing gems but otherwise a very positive response. Should give an added dynamic to trading gems in or getting them appraised. Makes gems easier on the DM and not being forced to automatically tell the player what it is worth or make notes which may not be used for months of real time.

      Cartographer: Excellent for bringing focus or purpose to one player, side benefit of having something visible for the other players. Can be excessively time consuming for complex environments.
    1. Ancalagon's Avatar
      Ancalagon -
      Have players draw their characters.

      seriously. It doesn't matter if they are crap at drawing. It engages different parts of the brain, and they bond more with their character.
    1. Li Shenron's Avatar
      Li Shenron -
      Always great articles from Annie!

      Quote Originally Posted by Annie Bulloch View Post
      Music
      This is a big deal for us. We have maybe a dozen playlists on Spotify to highlight the mood of certain scenes, from taverns to wilderness to dungeons and so on.

      The key in my opinion is to keep the music really in the background, never in the foreground! That usually means to keep the volume fairly low, and avoid any music draws too much attention. I've seen many times some gaming group put on some epic rock or heavy metal, thinking it's going to be cool, then after 15 minutes you just hate it and have to shut it off... the music should not distract you from the game. Save your favourite high-calories songs for the moments between the game, such as when you level up your PCs.

      Quote Originally Posted by Annie Bulloch View Post
      Decor and Lighting
      I've never really done anything more than dimming the lights.

      Quote Originally Posted by Annie Bulloch View Post
      Snacks
      I used to hate snacks at the gaming table long ago, then I realized that what I really hated is having snacks and books around at the same time. I am just too jealous of my books and don't want them getting dirty or greasy So eventually I stopped banning snacks and started banning books.

      Quote Originally Posted by Annie Bulloch View Post
      Scented Products
      That's a bit too far for me
    1. Li Shenron's Avatar
      Li Shenron -
      Quote Originally Posted by Draegn View Post
      When the weather is nice we sit with low lights under the stars in the orangery.
      Ah... but you can't do that in 5e, you'd be blind.
    1. EthanSental's Avatar
      EthanSental -
      How can sound tracks be used to provide shock, awe and enjoyment - recent pirate boat session, group think the approaching pirate boat is there to attack but notice it listing to a side as pirates are are bailing water. They are engaged in conversation as the boats tie off and talk. There's been sea sounds lowly playing in the background...then I hit play on the jaws soundtrack as their little skif is banged into by the great white shark. That was fun as heck seeing their facial expressions. Can't capture that without the sound track

      All groups will have different opinions, but our group enjoys things like that.
    1. Annie Bulloch's Avatar
      Annie Bulloch -
      Quote Originally Posted by Li Shenron View Post
      That's a bit too far for me
      Me too! I'm allergic to most scented items, and it's even worse for my husband. I think it's really cool that the products exist, but they definitely are not for everyone.

      We do a good job of keeping greasy snacks and books separate. I'm very conscientious about that.
    1. Staffan's Avatar
      Staffan -
      Quote Originally Posted by Annie Bulloch View Post
      Me too! I'm allergic to most scented items, and it's even worse for my husband. I think it's really cool that the products exist, but they definitely are not for everyone.
      Thank you for calling that out. I'm allergic to scented stuff (or at least some of it, and after one run-in I decided it wasn't worth experimenting to see how broad the allergy was), and I know from experience with other things that unless you are allergic or know someone with that particular allergy, it's easy to miss. As I was reading the article, my mind went "Oh, I'd better post a warning about that... oh, she got it. Cool."
    1. Annie Bulloch's Avatar
      Annie Bulloch -
      Yeah, it's important to realize you might accidentally deploy what amounts to a chemical weapon for some people! That's not my idea of fun.
    1. Li Shenron's Avatar
      Li Shenron -
      Quote Originally Posted by skinnydwarf View Post
      For background thematic sounds, https://tabletopaudio.com/ is pretty great. Incredible, even
      I didn't know this. It's awesome!
    1. Laurefindel's Avatar
      Laurefindel -
      About ambiance lighting, it’s always easier to accommodate your home than other common play areas. Sometimes you wish you could dim the light, but all you get is a greenish cold-white fluorescent lighting the whole room. Oftentimes there isn’t much you can do about it, but there are times where colour filters* can be installed (Just four pieces of masking tape) to turn it into soft warm amber light.

      If you feel crafty, a patchwork of various tones of ambers and yellows and oranges will breakup the uniformity and make for even better ambiance lighting.

      * coloured filters, or “gels”, are dyed, transparent polyester sheets used in theatre, music and film industry. Your local sound and lighting equipment rental place likely has a selection, or can easily order them. Of course there’s Amazon and online stores by manufacturers, and art supply stores may also have something similar
    1. Annie Bulloch's Avatar
      Annie Bulloch -
      Yeah, that's tricky. We tried to counter the fluorescent lights with the wall and floor colors in my shop's game room, which seems to work pretty well. It's not exactly mood lighting, but it's not like an office building in there either.
    1. guachi's Avatar
      guachi -
      Quote Originally Posted by pming View Post
      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.
      Snipped lots and left the summary. I just realized I can tell I loved my last campaign I DMed because I had piles of stuff. The DM from my favorite campaign way back in college had piles of stuff. I had so much stuff I had to upload it to a Google Drive to share with the PCs.

      Even using a published game world, which both I and the DM from my favorite campaign did, a DM should have piles of notes that accumulate throughout the campaign.

      EDIT: Adding that with YouTube I've actually used music and sounds. Most often I found songs that were evocative of the music the PCs were actually hearing and I'd turn it up a little louder. But my favorite use of music was one scene where the module (B10 Night's Dark Terrror. Best D&D module ever.) has goblins attacking a homestead. During the night the goblins play drums and I found a 1 hour track of tribal drums.

      At one point in the track all the sound stops. One of the players said, "That doesn't sound good". So incorporated the silence into the game based on the players statement. The actual module, by coincidence, has a midnight attack that is launched right after the drums stop to creep the players out.
    1. Josiah Stoll's Avatar
      Josiah Stoll -
      Quote Originally Posted by Annie Bulloch View Post
      Yeah, that's tricky. We tried to counter the fluorescent lights with the wall and floor colors in my shop's game room, which seems to work pretty well. It's not exactly mood lighting, but it's not like an office building in there either.
      What color is that? I’m no interior designer, but I love the idea.
    1. Annie Bulloch's Avatar
      Annie Bulloch -
      Quote Originally Posted by Josiah Stoll View Post
      What color is that? I’m no interior designer, but I love the idea.
      The floor has vivid blue tile. The room is shaped like a long rectangle. The short wall at one end is a charcoal gray -- that's where the big TV is mounted, and the dark color makes it easier to look at the screen when it's on. The long walls are a lighter, silvery gray color, and the opposite short wall(s) around the restroom and soda machine are the same yellow we used in some areas of the sales floor. We have a lot of art and such on the walls too. Overall it helps it feel warm instead of sterile and oppressive.
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