The DM’s guide to: Creating immersive table-top sessions
Atmosphere’s a tricky thing. You want to plunge your players into the thick of the action. Leave them stranded on a dusty track or usher them into a sprawling Bazaar; full of exotic scents, milling crowds and alien treasures.
The bric-a-brac of a fantasy world. You want them to taste the smoke from their campfire or steel themselves in fear: hunkering down in their seats as they try to sneak their characters through a gloomy, echoing cavern in the Underdark.
But it can be tough to get them there. All too often, dedicated party members will find themselves bantering over your epic descriptions, or pulling out their phones in the thick of the action. They’ll glaze over during important conversations or start laughing at some inside joke - just as you’re building up to a big reveal and you’re forced to grit your teeth as hours of tension dissolve before your very eyes…
And that’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with a light-hearted session. Immersion’s not for everyone, but what about when you do want to take things up a notch, and make sure that your players are really feeling the atmosphere?
There’s no simple answer to such a multi-faceted question. You already knew that, or you wouldn’t have clicked this link. But there are some sure-fire ways to get them invested in your game. Skills you can learn and tricks you can use to make sure that they slip into your setting without complaint: Barely cognizant of the fact that you’ve ushered them there yourself.
Keen to learn more? We’ve pooled our cumulative experience to give you a detailed run-down that’ll transform your tabletop gaming sessions -- and some tips for video gaming: Perfect for those of us unlucky enough to be living under quarantine restrictions for the next few months.
Step 1: Play with lighting
We live in a multi-sensory world, and our brains are adapted to evaluate all sorts of different inputs. But a lot of DM’s rely on words (and words alone) to evoke an atmosphere. Now, it’s worth noting that words can be very powerful (more on that below) but they’re only part of the picture.
If you really want to drag people into your fictional world, you’ll need to start stimulating the rest of their senses.
Lighting is a great way to start. A few, well-placed mood lights add instant atmosphere to your gaming table and you can tweak them to reflect aspects of your setting. Cool blues and greens for eerie forests, or a warm yellow for that campfire glow. Bright white for visits to the
Some DMs also find it helps to crowd their tables with flickering candles or brass oil lamps; replete with the scent of slowly melting wax and those oh-so-atmospheric plumes of soot-black smoke. But we’re obliged to tell you that open flames can be very dangerous, so if you do decide to go this route, please take care to ensure that you’re being safe!
Not sure how to change up your lighting? Just experiment. You can replace regular lightbulbs with coloured alternatives, or invest in some smart light bulbs, which allow you to pick a colour with the touch of a button.
You’ll also find quirky lamps and lights at Ikea, or buy some discreet strip- or spot-lights on Amazon or a similar site. These products are great because they tend to be battery powered or charged via a relatively thin cable, and they’re also designed to be stuck on or under shelves/mantlepieces etc.
Step 2: Pull together an atmospheric playlist
Sound is important too. We’re hard-wired to respond to musical cues and playing suitably atmospheric music is a sure-fire way to immerse your party in the moment. Pick out a rousing, orchestral march for those epic fight scenes, or play a jaunty folk song while they’re talking in a tavern.
You could also go a step further and play crowd noises while they’re trying to move through a bustling market place -- or recordings of rainfall while they’re creeping through a gloomy forest.
And the best bit? You don’t even have to muck about finding music during your session. If you have a rough idea of what they’ll face during a session, you can just queue up a custom playlist on Spotify (apple music or whatever else you use) and then just play a track whenever it’s relevant.
And if that’s still too much faff, try using natural lulls in gameplay to find and locate your next track. Some DMs like to queue music while their party are talking amongst themselves, or rolling initiative during a fight scene to save themselves from multi-tasking.
Step 3: Set the table
Few of us have a dedicated gaming room; replete with a custom table and atmospheric décor, but you can still kit out your table so that it immerses your players. Try losing the bric-a-brac of your day-to-day life: The fruit bowl and the placemats. The vase of flowers and the plain black coasters you trot out whenever messy guests roll up to your front door.
Sure, they help to protect your table, but they also act as a permanent reminder of your table’s dual purpose -- pulling your players out of the game, and preventing them from slipping into the zone.
Instead, try laying out some RPG-themed coasters and custom dice-shakers that look like they might belong in a 12th century tavern. Roll out the black table-cloth and place a few battered tomes on your side of the table for some instant atmosphere.
You could even try serving your mid-game snacks in earthenware bowls, or giving your players quills instead of pens. It’s the little touches that really sell an atmosphere and the more effort you put into preparing your space, the more you’ll find your party engaging with the mood you’re trying to invoke.
Step 4: Experiment with smells
Smell is such an underrated sense. It’s closely linked to memory and most people find that certain scents generate a tangible, emotional reaction. Or else transport them back to a specific place or time.
The great news is that you can use this to create a lot of atmosphere. Try putting out a small bowl of spices just before your party visits a market. Or try burning incense while they’re sneaking into the evil cultist temple.
You can also try more mundane scents like pine needles for a woodland setting or the smell of fresh bread when they enter a small town/village (bonus points if you time mid-game snacks so that they smell food as they’re walking into a town, and then get to snack while their characters are taking a short rest.)
And if you want to kill two birds with one stone, try buying some scented candles. The flickering flames will be plenty atmospheric in their own right, and herby, green scents are a shoe-in for most fantasy settings.
Step 5: Experiment with voice-changing software
This one might sound a little left-field, but voice altering software is a great way to build atmosphere. Especially if you’re not good at accents, or you want a particular encounter to really stand out.
Simple voice changing software can make you sound like a hideous demon; or replicate the booming, bass tones of a brass dragon. You could also raise the pitch of your voice for eerie, ethereal, elven characters or an otherworldly angel.
And the best bit? This one works on Roll20 and other - online - gaming platforms, which is ideal if you’re trying to evoke atmosphere when you’re stuck at home...
Think we’ve missed something obvious?
We’ve run more games than we can count, but we’ll be the first to admit that we’re always learning new things about tabletop gaming. If you’ve got any extra tips - or you think we’ve missed an obvious point - do feel free to drop us a message on social media.