Creating a good atmosphere with your games locations is both amazing and hard to accomplish. Adding to the tale that is retold over drinks another day is a great feeling for a GM, but a problem arises when the setting is all there is. A carefully crafted setting can bring great excitement and create an eerie mood, for instance, but if the encounters are all similar the setting slowly loses its majesties. If every room and hallway that the players get into is of a similar style, everything around it becomes routine; making any positive impressions made fade into a faint grey shroud.
A large, vaulted-ceiling room, or a hangar, or similar large space shouldn’t lead to another large, nearly identical, room. Similarly, a series of nearly identical, narrow, cramped spaces aren’t very interesting either. This creates confusion and boredom for the players. The worst thing you can have at the table is the glazed look of the players hearing for the second time any information you’ve already given them.
A Variety of Things
You fight this tendency by planning variety in dimension and changing the style of the rooms. Populate the rooms with a selection of interesting items and things to look at or interact with. The vaulted entrance leads to a broad hallway which then leads to a cramped office. The hallway has a few large portraits or tapestries, the office is cramped and packed with desk trinkets, books, and paperwork. Rooms with encounters in them add to the variety by taking into account the different styles, flavors, and available space, as well as the items present.
While suspense based games are entirely about the atmosphere that the setting provides, most RPGs are about the things you do there. A wonderfully described entrance is evocative but without things for people to play with it becomes additional setting information; a mere landmark for the next place the players go.
There needs to be something worth doing in each room that’s described. If there isn’t anything to do in a room examine why you have the players there. Is the room really necessary? As a player I want to interact with things, show me a crazy old man in a dungeon saying he can’t touch the bread in front of him and I get a hankering to eat that bread, or at least shove it in the fighters’ mouth.
While making notes on items in a room that the players will get to and explore, link them back to the main adventure. Showcase or embellish the ones that a more crucial and have what might be considered a better or more interesting story to them. If there is something completely plot dependent about them, leave that in the players’ hands. With the extra items note how they tie back and create side quests, but they should never be crucial to moving the adventure forward.
Overloaded with Things
Many people have fond memories of the old adventure games where you could vacuum up every single thing that wasn’t nailed down and, in some Rube Goldberg fashion, they would all be used to make the final crazy thing you need. While this is okay game design, expecting players to write down absolutely everything and everyone that they come into contact with can get to be ridiculous. Although, this can lead to many wonderful and unexpected things as players vacuum the trinkets up and apply them to the challenges ahead.
‘Theater of the Mind’ is very imprecise and items called out in a description will not be remembered in their entirety. The first item brought up might not ever be recalled when the time comes. Because of these anticipated faults of memory these items can’t be crucial.
Having a motif show up through several rooms and then placing that motif earlier and earlier in subsequent descriptions allows it to become normalized. It is a little trick showing how the characters are starting to see it less as something that stands out, and more as just part of the background. This allows you to layer new, related ideas on top of it. The Illuminati symbols you’ve been teasing via flavor text that were just a part of the room, are now on the items that players can touch creating an Illuminati tome instead of just an ordinary book.
One Last Thing
A good rule of thumb for a room which the players are likely to investigate is to have the room and two to three things to talk about. Describe them in an ascending level of importance, from the cool to the needed. Go from the interesting medieval tapestry to the open box of cigars on the desk emblazoned with an occult symbol and end on the corpse still slowly spinning on the leather bound office chair. This way, the spinning corpse is the most important item in the room (in case the players were in doubt) and the tapestry, the least. Whether or not this is actually the case remains to be seen, but, as far as the players are concerned, their attention is focused squarely on the corpse first.
Players with a free hand to explore where they like are difficult for the GM. He’s never quite sure what is needed and what will catch his players eyes. Massive rooms where the party can spend half a session exploring only to have them pick up one tangentially related item and walk out are not uncommon. Equally common among players is the tendency to grab any five items, dump them in a test tube just to see what happens and then abandon the laboratory at the first sign of earnest fizzing.
Directing differing lines of inquiry for the players by highlighting objects in a variety of different ways can make the small initial investment of time grow to become a great set of quests that may have been completely unexpected.
How have unique objects been used in your games? Have there been any objects that your players have picked up that have changed the direction of your campaign?