Friday, December 16, 2011

Storytelling for Mood

by Bill Dimmick
Storytelling for Mood
by Tobie Abad
Originally published on 2001

note: When I first wrote this article, so many people reacted with its contents about being very different from anything they've done.  Nowadays, of course, the approach of using such techniques seems pretty common (which I feel is a great thing!)  Still, new gamers are born everyday so this article may still help others.
Various techniques, tricks and approaches one can use to create mood in roleplaying games. Range from the easy to the very challenging approaches.

Many Storytellers have wanted to try and achieve a more engaging game approach that makes their players get totally engulfed into the storyline. It is one of the dreams of many storytellers to craft a game so well that the players are drawn into the setting and mood so much that they portray their characters to the hilt.

How does one, who has never ever approaching gaming in this manner, learn to do so?

This article seeks to give a few suggestions on what approaches I use to achive a wonderful range of depth in a roleplaying game. All these approaches listed are tried and tested and my players can attest to the fact that they work if done correctly.

Never forget, though, learning to do it correctly is like learning to do anything else... it takes practice.
Music
Learning how to cue music, keep it at just the right volume, change tracks and fade out the unnecessary tunes without breaking away from the act of storytelling is very, very difficult to do.Avoid using a list that has each track and scene written down. Learn to improvise. Having a list causes an unnecessary delay. Makes you become anal-retentive to what music should be used.

In terms of equipment, I recommend a portable CD player (with a REPEAT function) and two portable speakers. If you can, use batteries (for the possible brownout situation which is prevalent here in Asia) or an outlet (provided it is not in a place that would disrupt things.)

 I don't recommend large stereos and component systems NO MATTER HOW NEAT they sound in the room. Have the music too loud, you'll have your players focusing on it more than your game.

 Practice shifting tracks without looking at the player. Practice fading the music out using the volume switch without looking. When you're daring enough, practice loading and unloading CDs and replacing CDs from case to player without looking! Trust me, its possible. I've learned it without breaking or scratching any CD.

 Use music that isn't too familiar. Avoid all music that have lyrics if you want to use the track for ambient sound. Only use songs that are familiar or have lyrics when they are INTENDED to be heard. The famous IMPERIAL MARCH can never be used at any other game other than a Star Wars game. (Unless you want your players to think of Darth Vader even if it isnt a Star Wars game).

Try listening to independent artists. Check out foreign labels. Even try classical ones. Opera. Instrumental scores. Movie soundtracks of obscure titles.

 Experiment with different uses for music, so you're players don't fall into a "He's grabbing a CD, ready for a fight scene" attitude. For example, try playing a soft mellow song and leave it looping even as the scene shifts into an assassination attempt. Or play a wonderful dance track when you announce the Prince is holding court... then yell at an imaginary Brujah to "Shut the blasted thing," and cut the song on cue. You can also play a loud song and force the players to scream when they talk to each other, as if they really are in a club or a concert... then fade the music slowly as they walk away from the source of the noise (note: wonderful little mood builder if the PCs are facing an Assamite.)

 Lastly, do NOT... and I repeat.. do not sing WITH the music. Bad enough if the music distracts your players. Don't make it worse by causing the distraction yourself.

Mannerism and Acting
We all know how much we find ourselves pulled into the story shown on either the Stage or the Screen. Theater and Film has shown us that if the viewers (or in our case, gamers) are presented with people acting out and voicing out roles consistently, they slowly slip into actually believing that the roles are who they are seeing on stage or on the screen.The same applies in roleplaying games. Do not be afraid to create an accent, to act out tears, to scream when the character is angry, to crumple your face when depressed, to cry if you can... go for the hilt without crossing physical boundaries.

The Prince is angry at the coterie? Scream and seethe and even slam your hand on the table (watch the dice and the cd player!), then stand up, pace around and try to calm down.

Try to listen to how people talk around you. Observe how acting is done on movies, on film, on stage. Try your own approaches.

Every storyteller has their own range and peaks. Don't feel dismayed if you can't approach all the charcaters you want. Highlight those you wish. Acting not only makes the game more interesting; it encourages the players to act out and speak in character as well. 
by angelicodevil6

Light and Psychology
Try sitting higher than the players if they are facing the Prince or anyone of higher position or power. Try keeping the light against your face and the shadows over your features if you want to make them worry.And watch the players falter in their decisions, worry more often than before and act with more caution.
Why would that happen? Because you just used phsychological tricks on them. :-)

Should I spoil these secrets on this article, at the risk of other players seeing this? Hmm... read up on such tricks then, on your own. 

Quotes and Signatures
Give NPCs a signature or a quote. Think of Darth Vader's Imperial March, or of Hannibal Lecter's use of deep profound ideas. Or try having a consistent item or object in the character's possession (Indiana Jones' hat, Batman's dark fashion approach) and consistently mention that detail.The NPC develops a motif of its own, and a new mood forms. The more your brood over such details, the more the mood establishes around the NPC, giving the impression that he/she's in charge and that the Players better be careful.

Try giving important NPCs a theme song. Play it softly when they are around. Then hint on the song if you can in other scenes. I once had a villain whose song played whenever she faced the troupe. In one game, I had a town brutally burnt to the ground. When the PCs were investigating it, I played her song again. Just as the PCs would have in the scene, the players seethed and mumbled to each other the villain's name. 

Language
Use accents. Use foreign words. Make mistakes in grammar, figures of speech and the like if necessary. Everything comes more to life in a scene where the players can hear what the place is like. Have foreign gibberish yelled at the background if the PCs are in a foreign market place. Toss some side commentary of the people nearby who are witnesses to the scene. Make everything and everyone come alive with just a few phrases on the side.Imagine setting a fight in the department store. Bullets flying, people screaming. Then start telling your players, "Oh my god.. oh my god... my water broke..." then shift to a male voice, "hold on, honey.. hold on..." Isn't that better than simply stating "The couple beside you needs help. The wife is about to give birth."
by erin MC hammer

Last thing about show rather than telling
Keep in mind, while it can always be good to learn to "show" rather than "tell" your players things (especially when in some cases you might end up being redundant in what you're doing) consider also the fact that not showing or telling EVERYTHING can be a great way to build the mood.  NPCs can lie.  Or make mistakes.  Documents can be falsified or untrue.  Keep the players guessing.   Maybe the witness they trusted all those sessions ago happens to have been wrong as well?  Can you imagine how effectively that would make the players feel the frustration their characters have too?     Or maybe the files they found, based their plans on, and used to accuse the villain of his treachery is on the grand moment of accusation discovered to have been faked.   Know the potential stories and developed mood you can utilize through incomplete information and misdirection.

Keep the game alive and as lively as the real world. Don't be afraid to make the gaming AREA itself your stage. You are everything in the game other than the PCs decisions.... why not try to represent the ones you can to the fullest?
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