torytelling is more than simply voice and action. The effects that create your playing environment also make your story come to life. When you’re running a story, you don’t want your players to merely imagine their playing in a world where ghosts walk and bodies rise from the grave. You want them to feel they’re there.
Setting the stage is, thankfully, relatively simple. It requires some effort and imagination, but with a minimum of experience you’ll have Necropoli looming in no time. To help you get started, we’ve provided some hints and ideas. Ultimately, though, creating an environment is limited only by your imagination. Take the advice we provide and run with it.
More than anything else, the setting of a story has impact on a story’s feel. Setting should therefore be taken into careful consideration when deciding on your story’s mood (which is discussed later). The location you choose must fit the needs of your game as well as the atmosphere you have in mind.
The first practical step in planning a game is finding a good place to play. Where you play the game is influenced by the specific needs of your story. Factors like the number of players involved, theme, mood, and nature of the plot all have an influence on the type of location you choose.
The scale of the game is your first consideration. Make certain you have enough room for all the players to move about. Multiple rooms or areas are helpful. The best layout usually involves a central meeting room that all the players can congregate in and multiple smaller sites for secret meetings. Possibilities include college campuses, museums, coffeehouses, conventions, parks, shopping malls, office buildings, warehouses, community centers, or someone’s house.
Obviously care must be taken when using some of these sites. You must ensure that all of the players are courteous and unobtrusive when playing in a public place. No “mundanes” should ever realize a game is being played, and players need to understand that the session is over if anyone finds out about the game and is disturbed by what you’re doing.
Some sites are more conducive to certain types of stories. You may find a particular location is your favorite, but even then, you should keep your mind open to change. A change of locale, even if for only one scene, can help revive a dying chronicle.
Most locations (or “sets”) can be decorated to convey a specific mood. You must seek out sites that cater to the style of your game and nature of its plot. For best results, the setting should have a basis in reality. In other words, if you’re looking for a calm and intellectual setting, perhaps a museum or art gallery is appropriate. When choosing a location, look for an area that establishes the mood and atmosphere you’re after.
Sometimes it’s necessary to use one area for different settings within the same story. Actual set changes should be performed quickly and efficiently. Lengthy set changes leave players bored. When your scene is changed, give it a last once-over, making sure everything is in place. A scene change should be just that. When the players enter the room again, they should have the distinct feeling that they’re entering a new place. Your new decoration don’t even need to be overly complicated. A quick shift of the couch or table, switching or removing a throw rug, draping a love seat, and moving or removing chairs all help to change the feel of a room without necessitating major alterations. Changing the lighting and music can also make a big difference in a set’s feel.
Ambiance and Mood
Establishing the right feel for a scene is governed by setting and environment. However, ambiance and mood are established and maintained by elements that are imposed upon the environment. Effects like music and lighting are often the finishing touches for completing a scene.
- Music – Music can be an integral part of establishing the mood or a story. It lends a hand in creating drama and, when appropriate, tension. When planning your story be certain to select music that complements your intended mood. Also make sure you have a variety of music on hand in case the mood changes. However take care not to let the music get obtrusive or too familiar. If your players have to shout over thundering lyrics, or if your ghosts find themselves singing along to your soundtrack, your game will rapidly dissolve into chaos.
- Audio Effects – Above and beyond music, certain sound and effects can enhance an evening. Horror and sound effect CDs, found in any music store, are a good place to start. A good CD can provide a variety of sound effects to simulate many different events, like tires screeching, gunshots, or barking dogs. Proper timing of these sounds is critical. If you’re able to pre-mix a tape of effects, you can play them at appropriate moments in the story. Preparation is the key. Have your effects cued up ahead of time so that, with the mere touch of a button, hideous screams can be heard by all. Preparation makes for more drama than having to delay the game while you set up the right sound.
- Lighting Effects – The Underworld is, not surprisingly, a place of dim lights and many shadows. With a minimum of effort, you can reproduce this sort of effect for your game of Oblivion. Remember, a few well-placed shadows can hide a great many anomalies that might otherwise distract your players from the game. Avoid high wattages and white light. Multicolored light bulbs have the broadest effect. By arranging multicolored light bulbs in different parts of the room, you can create shadowy areas and still have well-lit “white light” areas where the colors intersect. If you have track lighting, recessed multicolored bulbs work very well. If you can get multicolored bulbs, cloth draped over lights works just as well (but avoid putting cloth in direct contact with hot bulbs). The key is contrast from low wattage bulbs. Keeping enough low lights to contrast with one another results in plenty of light so see by and plenty of shadows to hide in. Play around with different combinations to determine what works best for your mood and scene. While candles may be very atmospheric, they should be used extremely sparingly. Recreating the desolation of the Shadowlands in theory is a good thing, but doing so by burning down your site generally has a detrimental effect on a chronicle. Even without candles, though, if you keep your wattage low, avoid direct white light, and experiment with you color schemes, you should be able to find the right combination to create the proper atmosphere for your story.
After you’ve got a story, players, a place to play, and even selected a cool soundtrack to accompany the game, something else is still needed to bring the story to life. This is the point at which props come in. Props for a story don’t need to be grandiose or expensive. Most props can be found in your own home or your grandparent’s attic.
In most forms of theatre, props play an extensive role. In fact, in modern movies, props can at times overwhelm the viewer, sometimes detracting from the film. In this game, props should be kept relatively simple and should not attract more attention than the story itself. Only a few touches are needed to help a player’s imagination fill in the blanks. Since this is a storytelling game, imagination is of the utmost importance. This is not to say that you should be sparing with props. If you have the available materials, go wild. Just make sure that the props are not the focus of the story. The spotlight should always remain on the characters, not on what surrounds them.
General props are items that can help you further a story by giving players something that they can physically examine. The Storyteller should be wary of how often physical props are used and what impact they have on the story. If they are allowed to dominate a story, players may begin to rely on them rather than interacting with one another. Be sure to inform players when props will be used in a story. Otherwise, they are likely to disregard and important clue, considering it just another feature of the place you’re playing in.
Many items can be used as general props to help enhance your story. Books, jewelry, documents, and pieces of artwork are a few examples. These props can be used to actually give information, or they can merely give insight into the character of the person possessing the prop. Sometimes an item has to be represented by an item card, as in the case of weapons. Also, a card may be discreetly attached to an item, giving more information to a player who inspects the item.
Creative and effective usage of general props can make a story more interesting for everyone, particularly if props are used to represent Fetters with plot (as well as character) significance. The important thing is to stay focused and avoid overloading yourself with them. If the come up with an idea for a prop, but are unable to implement it, don’t panic – your story can stand on its own. After all, people, not things, make a story.
Personal props, like costumes, are used by players to help distinguish them as their characters. These props can be particularly useful for Narrator characters, especially when Narrators must often change from character to character.
Many different items can be used to help portray a character. Cloaks, jackets, scarves, hats, canes, and jewelry are only a few of the accessories that can give a character a distinctive look. You may want to provide certain items to players to aid them in this manner, especially if players are uncertain of the characters they are playing. For example, if you plan a story involving a Renegade gang, you may supply players with matching bandannas to identify them as gang members.
Many personal props can be found right in your own home. Searching through the attics of relatives can reveal old clothing and jewelry. Costume jewelry works best; real jewels can be far too valuable to lend out for a game. Should all else fail, second-hand stores can be great places to pick up a few last-minute props at an affordable price. All manner of clothing, including hats, canes, and costume jewelry, can be acquired at such emporiums.
In many stories, not much is needed by way of personal props. Sometimes, only a cane or piece of jewelry can make a character. The most important thing to remember is to have fun with props, avoiding dangerous ones.
Weapons should never be used as props. In addition, props must be understood to be someone’s property, not some character’s property. If your players start taking home the props that belong to their characters, perhaps it’s time to reconsider using props at all. If you choose to go this route, cards (like those used to represent weapons) are best.