I’ve had the recent good fortune to enjoy a vacation. I went to Kauai, in Hawaii, and while I was there, I got to thinking about D&D. Yes, I am that much of a geek.
It rains a lot on Kauai, mostly in fierce bursts that last, at most, for a few hours. Sometimes it rains longer. Sometimes it’s just a passing shower that lasts no more than a few seconds. Then the sun comes back.
Seattle’s a little different. Here we get gray skies for days on end. And rain—lots of rain. The rain doesn’t typically come in fierce bursts. It’s usually more of a protracted drizzle. It’s the price we pay for living near the water between two amazing mountain ranges, and enjoy an utter lack of deadly hurricanes and tornadoes. But I digress.
My point is that these two distinct parts of the world feel different, and it’s not just the weather. There’s something about these climates—they affect dress, skin tone, attitude, cuisine. The differences are abundant. Sometimes they’re subtle, sometimes they’re obvious. But they’re all around you, available to experience with all your five senses.
That full range of sensory input isn’t a luxury we often get at the D&D table, when we DMs are asked to convey the atmosphere or tone of an adventure using just our voices. Sure, sometimes we’ll pull out different tricks to add to the experience—a custom soundtrack, maybe some art or maps—but it’s tough. More often than not, in my experience, DMs either forget or neglect to address this in the adventures they run precisely because it is so difficult.
To this end, I’ve decided to start a new exercise before each of my sessions. I’m going to take a couple of minutes and really envision myself in the adventure I’m running, specifically focusing on three elements: setting, level, and the adventure’s specific style.
Setting: I want to put myself, momentarily, into the boots of my adventurers. I want to think about what the air feels like. Is it hot or cold? Dry or humid? What does it smell like here? Are there irritants around? Bugs? Sand in my sandals? And what are the locals—monsters and NPCs—wearing? How do they cope? What impact has this region had on their culture? Their dress? Their mannerisms?
Level: We’ve said since 4th Edition launched that each tier of play should feel like a different experience. At paragon tier, the stakes the heroes are facing should be bigger—regional rather than local. At epic, all bets are off. The world (or perhaps more than one world) is at stake. How can I convey that in play? Who will suffer should the adventurers fail? Who stands to gain if they succeed?
Style: Chris Perkins recently ran a Halloween-themed adventure in our Wednesday game. We faced a horde of Nerull cultists trying to resurrect their dead god, possessed townsfolk (real, genuine pod people thanks to a local vine horror), and for good measure, an undead beholder. But the adventure was creepy as hell. Chris spent a lot of time describing the most disturbing bits in detail. By the end, having liberated the town, we still couldn’t wait to see it in our rearview mirror. This month’s Chaos Scar adventure, “The Tainted Spiral,” is an adventure featuring aberrant creatures. Stylistically, mind flayers and their ilk have occupied a great, Lovecraftian horror space in D&D since its earliest days. What about other adventures? Surely, each one has some sort of theme or tone? How can I identify and communicate it?
We can get caught up in the minutiae of running an adventure or an encounter, making it easy to overlook the big picture. But it’s the big picture elements that will create an engaging, immersive experience for your players, and that’s what will make your adventure memorable.
What about you? What do you do to communicate the mood and atmosphere of an adventure? What sorts of tools or methods make this easier? Send your ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to hear from you!