Listen! Do you smell that?

Ok!  Sorry!  Late, I know…been busy building up a new campaign!

What does a quote from Ghostbusters have to do with reffing, eh? Would you be surprised (or believe me) if I said a fair amount?  In a movie, like Ghostbusters, you have to trust the characters in the movie to tell you about anything non-visual or auditory.  And in an RPG, the ref must provide even those sensory inputs.  So, whatever the characters sense: smell, taste, see, hear, feel, or whatever other senses they have, the character trusts in the ref to fulfill those experiences.  I will tell you now, that I think this is one of my weakest ref skills.  I get too caught up in the storytelling and the experience to remember what you have always been taught makes a believable setting….Sensory details.  Some refs, Like my Number One Son are very good at evoking just the right detail to enhance the setting.  When I try, I usually end up to spartan; “It’s a rough stone room” or sounding like bad prose from a jr high literature class; “This cold stone causes chills to go up your spine as the rough floor almost seems to grip your feet.  The air is heavy with dampness and stale rusty smells that remind you of cold mornings near grandfathers iron mine in long winter.  You can hear water incessantly trickling down walls, flowing onto slime slicked stone floors, and moldy stagnant water gathers in the slippery corners, jauntily reflecting your torchlight…”  and it goes on…and on….

The second is VERY evocative, but not much is added to the setting, and the players begin to bore almost as if I had picked up the unedited module and read straight from the page…wait?  is that Bad?  (no, bad maybe, but not BAD!  I’ll explain later…because presentation is part of the evocation!)  As a ref, it is important to think about what you are trying to get across, and keep the sensory along those lines.  Let me ‘splain, as this is the heart of evocative sensory explanation: You can significantly alter a players (and characters) actions in a scene by how you present the environment.  If you are looking to keep a setting fairly neutral, your description should neither highlight, nor diminish details.  Usually a strong visual impression, with a secondary sense like smell or sound.  Nothing that really detracts from what is going on, but keeps the mind’s eye (and nose or ear) in the game world.  If you want a mysterious setting, speak softly, this will cause the players to strain to hear and make them more attentive, as their character would/should be.  In this kind of setting, nothing should be detailed until someone takes the time to examine it.  It needn’t be vague, just simple or unfinished.  “The daylight is muted, and there lots of noises beyond the dim window.  The room is in shambles with things strewn and broken…”  You may also add a single strong impression, if it is not obvious: “There is a strong almost metallic scent lingering in the air…”  While it may take a bit, they will find a broken bottle of ether, its contents soaked into a book and the carpet.

Let me do a few more recommendations before going onto the last point.  If you are doing horror, once again, use a soft voice.  This is similar to the scary stories where you tell the story slowly and softly only to end with a great big “BOO!” to get people to jump, the classic “Watch this video carefully…its hilarious”.  In horror settings, it is more about the unseen and the unknown to set the mood.  Seeing things becomes less important.  Don’t spend much time on what they see…describe the distant groan, or the creak of an unknown door.  A soft drip of water off set becomes a clock counting down to doom.  A cold breeze makes the hair on the back of the head stand up…something moving in the shadows catches their eye, but now they can’t find it…Horror really is about evoking the mood to make the game work.  (Which is why my horror games are mediocre at best)  Terror on the other hand is fast and visceral.  Things happen, blood is spilled, screams are heard, people are flayed before your eyes…In horror, the characters are hunted by the off-screen darkness.  In Terror, the slow character is leaped upon, and their throat torn open to spurt blood on the other characters.  Evoking senses can really help set a scene, but it also cements a scene.  It is well know phenomenon that certain senses are strongly linked to memories, particularly smell.  Although you may not actually create the smell or the sound, letting your players imagine it will cause them to associate with possibly strong memories thereby fixing the scene in their imagination!  This tool, like no other tool I know of, can make your games not just memorable but vibrant.  Ask players about favorite games…then ask them if they remember sense associated with them…particular visuals, or perhaps the ashy taste on the wind!

As a final comment on evoking a scene, let me get back to a point I made earlier; Presentation.  The way you present things help keep a player’s head in their characters mind.  If you are over the top, very loud or very soft…using big theatrical hand gestures and lots of props, the players may be amused, but you are engaging them, and that is what they want!  Feel free to overact!  There is nothing wrong with reading a passage right out of the module, BUT…do not stop being loud and grandiloquent to stop and read haltingly.  (If you have never heard that, you need to listen!  It not only illustrates what I am talking about, but it is DAMN funny!)  (and, I will probably reference again when I talk about handling players…)  When you are reading the prose, particularly if it has important information, or fits the feel exactly, never fear using it…but do it in your best Vincent Karloff, or Boris Price!  Your players will appreciate it, you’ll have fun doing it, and it will not be easily forgotten!