This is Part 2 of a Series on Emotion in Gaming. You can see the rest of this series here:
The most effective way to influence your players and the game world they are in, is through external forces; I.e. forces not contained within the game world. Humans have 5 senses which we perceive the world through (well, technically somewhere near 21, but for this we will focus on the main well-known 5) but are only able to experience a roleplaying game through their imagination (not one of the 5) right? Wrong.
By invoking stimuli for the 5 senses you draw your players from the physical-world to the imagined. The sword hilt the clasp at when they face the mighty dragon is felt. The scent of cherry blossoms when they meet their future paramour for the first time is smelt. The warming curry they eat when they travel to the exotic East is tasted. The haunting creaks of the forlorn house are heard. And the beast that waits within is seen.
The idea of using outside stimuli in games is not revolutionary, but it is under appreciated, and under explored. Please note however that all of these techniques are labour intensive, and might cost the GM some money, so it is advisable that you, as the GM, consult with your players and see if they are willing to share the costs with you.
First off is the easiest sense to trick; Sight. We can all paint miniatures (to a certain extent), or draw pictures, or even Google them to represent the people, places and things that the players encounter, but it is the truly great GM who crafts and enacts.
Consider making a costume (or wearing some props) and roleplaying as an NPC in those specifics. Even a single pipe, or a hat, or mask can evoke great emotion from people. These don’t have to be expensive items either, as any party or costume shot should stock cheap props like this.
The next step, however, is filming yourself. This technique only works in situations where the players would view the NPC as a recording (so Sci-Fi and Modern mainly, but Fantasy is also possible (astral projections, hololithic charms, etc)). Basically you done your costume ahead of time (make sure to disguise the room you are in – darkening the backdrop is a cheap and mysterious method of doing this) and film yourself speaking in the NPC’s accent. Then, hook the video up to a computer or TV screen when you are in game, and play it back for your players. If you have any competency with it, you could use video editing software to add effects.
Furthermore, you could make props to hand out to the players, leading us to:
Touch is just as easy, if not, easier. In this you only need to build the props, not act.
Toy guns can be spray painted and touched up to look like Sci-Fi or modern weapons, toy swords can be purchased, or made easily out of wood, etc.
This is both the most expensive, and yet the most immediately rewarding method. You are able to give your players something to hold and be fascinated by. And literally anything can do. It is even possible to find props and craft adventures around them: old keys, simple 3D puzzles, treasure (stones, coins, statues, jewellery, etc), parchment (made from tea or coffee stained paper), can all be the spring board for an adventure.
Sound is an often touched on subject. Background music in games. I won’t go into it because of this, as there are plenty of articles on Gnome Stew (see link bar) or a quick search of RPG.net (again, link bar) will render plenty of results.
“You never forget a smell” is a common phrase, and it is very true. If you can procure an array of incense (and no one in your group is allergic, or asthmatic) then you have one of the greatest tools for NPC identification and immersion.
Perhaps there is a princess who always wears the same perfume, or a monster which gives off a very unlikely scent?
Incense can be expensive, so use it sparingly. Also make sure to take breaks during your games so as to air the room out (otherwise it can get very husky and the concentrated smell can cause headaches). Playing with a window open is a good idea.
Taste. My favourite.
I love to cook. I love to eat. I love to drink.
Nothing evokes emotion in me (or, to a much larger extent, humanity as a whole) quite like food and drink, and the element of flavour. In this way, you can bring your players into the world you create.
Cook your players a setting appropriate meal (historical recipes are everywhere on the internet, and a quick Google search will come up with many) and serve a drink that fits as well. Are your players the humble guests of a Count (who happens to be a vampire)? If so, serve red meat, medium-rare and a glass of red wine. Are they in a seedy tavern? A stew and some sourdough will do wonders! And don’t forget the mead or ale to wash it down.
For setting specific ideas, in Dark Heresy, you could serve coffee and call it ReCaf, alcohol and call it amansec, and digestive biscuits and call them bone-starch rations.
Let your imagination run wild, and cook your players something evocative!
I hope to talk to you again soon,