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Engaging the Senses | Tabletop RPGs

I have been running rolplaying games at Twenty Sided Store and recently we concluded a 6-week campaign season of Curse of Strahd, a Dungeons & Dragons Ravenloft adventure and just kicked off the first organized play campaign of Numenera by Monte Cook Games, an excellent science-fantasy roleplaying game (RPG) that uses the Cypher System.

So, I thought it would be a good time to talk about setting, tone & theme in roleplaying games, specifically through engaging the senses. Vivid smells, sounds, and colors can be described through physically engaging your players’ senses and actually immersing them into your fictional worlds.

A little preparation can go a long way to making a campaign engaging to the senses. In Curse of Strahd, it was important to capture the essence of a classic gothic horror tale of gloom and mystery set in the foreign land of Barovia. Similarly, part of the fun of the Numenera setting is exploring an Earth - a billion years in the future, a world where nanomachines, interdimensional aliens, hyper-evolved cephalopods, and a host of other weird phenomena have rendered the world almost incomprehensible.

Lets get started...

Sound

In most tabletop RPGs, sound is the primary way of learning about the game world. Players talk and listen to the Dungeon Master (DM) - a clever use of sound, or sound effects, can really enhance a game.

For example, when I ran a game of Sorcerer, a game about demons, corruption, moral decay, and the limits of ambition, I made sure to have an off-putting (but not too obtrusive) background track on loop. Then, as the DM, when I roleplayed the different Non-Player Characters (NPCs) I would modulate my voice in volume, tone, and accent to make each character feel more distinct.

In the Numenera campaign, I might play some white noise as the adventurers explore an exotic vehicle that has crashed and buried inself in the sand. What’s that strange, rhythmic tapping that they hear in the forest? - as I proceed to tap under the table using a ruler to create added suspense.

Humans are exceptionally good at noticing and reacting to changes in sound patterns, something storytellers often exploit when telling ghost stories. In the Curse of Strahd campaign, I would speak slowly and softly as the players explored a location, and then slam my hands on the table for dramatic impact when a trap springs or a monster appears, making the players jump. I'll admit, this is easy to overuse, but you can never go wrong with vocalizing the creak of an old door or replicating the pitter-patter of rain on the roof in which the adventurers are huddled for protection.

Sight

Sight is the second most common way of engaging your players. Most DMs have used images or minis at some point in their career. Let's go further than that...

As a performer, I love costumes. During the Curse of Strahd campaign I dressed in black, slicked back my hair, and wore copious amounts of eye-makeup and black lipstick to set the tone for the campaign. For the Numenera campaign, maybe I'll don a weird hairstyle or apply some intricate makeup.

Props are cool too. Before a home game I'll pull out and arrange my old Halloween props - tomb stones, spiders, cauldrons... (trying not use the overly gimmicky ones, of course).
Lighting is the best prop and can really change the vibe in the room. For a simple effect, try lighting some candles over a dark tablecloth.

Hand drawn maps or Dwarven Forge dungeon tiles covering the table for the players to interact with are also a sweet alternative. When Monte Cook visited the store to run a Numenera game, owner Lauren painted a large underwater battle map to immerse the players in the setting.

Touch

Giving people things to touch and fiddle with has long been a technique used in many different venues, from classrooms to interactive theater spaces, as a way to hold people’s interest.
Using simple handouts, even a sheet of paper with a fragment of Strahd Von Zarovich’s journal on it is much more interactive for a player than simply listening to the DM read the text. If you want to go all out, stain the paper with tea to make it look aged.

In Numenera, players can find Cyphers, which are like consumable magic items, meant to be used frequently. Using a deck of cards to represent the tangible objects instead of marks on a character sheet, is a great way to encourage players to use the Cyphers fast and freely. Monte Cook Games has created a Cypher Deck (which the store stocks) that I use often. To up the ante, hand the player an actual object when they find a Cypher, like a tiny potion bottle filled with red colored liquid or bits of an old malfunctioning electronic device.

Taste and Smell

Yes, you can of course, cook up some tavern stew for your players to eat while they gather information, but food and scents can also be used more subtly. At a convention I was at recently, I signed up to play Golden Sky Stories, a lovely game about friendship, dreams and magic in pastoral Japan. As we gathered to the table, the DM offered us jam cookies before we started. This reinforced the tone of joyous delight among the party, straight off the bat, without using any words. I would love a glass of dry red wine, before venturing into Castle Ravenloft!

For Numenera, I might try doing the opposite. A rose-petal potpourri placed on the table, while describing buzzing ceramic automatons trailing electrical cabling above. The unusual juxtaposition might help underscore the weird nature of the world.

Go the distance

Anything that immerses your players more fully into the world, or even just enhances the mood of the world, will intrigue your players. During Curse of Strahd, I used the Tarroka deck, a D&D themed tarot deck, to read the players fortunes. The fortune-telling performance was mainly about setting up the atmosphere, but it also was used to further the plot in a meaningful way.

Engaging your players' senses is a powerful way to achieve atmospheric immersion. So go ahead. Sing at your players. Feed them fritters. Tell them to close their eyes and hand them peeled grapes. It’s sure to be memorable!

D&D | A Brief History of Ravenloft

D&D Curse of Strahd The night watch is a lonely job. All around you, your companions lie snug in their sleeping bags around a roaring fire. You, on the other hand, are fully awake and ready to guard against the dangers of the night. Or so you think. Your armor is heavy and cumbersome, and the wind has a way of finding the seams of your armor, shooting the chill straight to your bones. The fire your companions enjoy offers no comfort; it might as well be on the other side of the earth. The fatigue and cold threaten to drag you under, but the sounds keep you awake. The hooting of a far-off owl. Or is it an Owlbear? Is that wolf howling at the moon, or signaling to its pack the easy prey in your camp? Your eyes strain, trying to focus. It’s hard to see anything through the thick fog that has set in. All around you is a sense of foreboding malice, like two giant hands squeezing you between them.

You run back to the fire to wake your companions. But there is no fire. There are no companions left. There is just you, the night, and the fog.

D&D Curse of Strahd is the new hardcover adventure campaign from Wizards of the Coast. In celebration, we are taking a look back at one of the most influential stories in D&D history, and how it informed the making of D&D Fifth Edition, Curse of Strahd.

Join us in Celebration!

D&D Curse of Strahd Launch Event

TOMORROW FRI March 3rd @ 7pm - Sign Up Now!
The Mist calls to you.

D&D Ravenloft : brief history

A brief history of D&D Ravenloft

THE BEGINNING

In the early 1980s, Tracy Hickman encountered a vampire during one of his first games of Dungeons & Dragons. The encounter felt… off. He knew that the vampire was an option on a random encounters table, and such, it felt out of place in this dungeon.

“Where did you come from,” he thought, reminiscing about this event on the official D&D podcast.

“You’re a vampire, for cryin’ out loud! You should have an enormous castle and an entire setting built around you.” That random encounter led Hickman and his wife, Laura, to come up with their own vampire and a castle for him to lair in. The result was a game called Vampyr that the Hickmans would playtest with family and friends every year around Halloween. Vampyr would see print in October, 1983 as Dungeon Module I6: Ravenloft, after Tracy Hickman joined TSR.

Castle Ravenloft is a dungeon complex located in a village (or plane in the Multiverse) called, Barovia. Ravenloft, as it became known as, introduced new concepts that helped move the game beyond its roots. Hickman traded high-fantasy for Gothic horror, and wrote the first published D&D adventure to incorporate horror themes.

In addition to the thematic shift, Ravenloft had a modular story that changed every time it was played. The Dungeon Master set up several key elements of the story randomly before starting the game, or could do this in play through the fortune-teller Madam Eva.

New Tarokka Deck by Gale Force 9 - coming soon...

There is also the main antagonist, Strahd von Zarovich, himself. Strahd was not just some final boss that waited for the party in the last room of the dungeon - he had goals, and the means to achieve them. He could torment the party at any time he wanted, and always seemed to have the upper hand.

In fact, in the original module, there is a full page dedicated to Strahd and how to play him. Dungeon Masters were encouraged to run Strahd as expertly as the players ran their own characters. It was necessary for DMs to portray Strahd effectively. Strahd von Zarovich marked one of the first three-dimensional D&D villains. He wasn’t a cult leader, evil dragon, or a kill-crazy, blood-hungry vampire either. He had pathos, and a reason why he did the monstrous things he did. The entire adventure focused on the tragedy of Strahd von Zarovich and how his obsession cursed him forever.

Over 30 years after its publication, the Ravenloft setting is still highly regarded by D&D fans. Its uniqueness, captivating villain, and massive dungeon layout, combined with the modular story, made the classic Ravenloft adventure an iconic module that still sees play today as a Halloween tradition, and earns a spot on many best modules of all time lists. But when the tide turned from 1st Edition to 2nd Edition, TSR had more plans for Barovia and Count Strahd.

THE SETTING

When 2nd Edition AD&D came out in the 1990s, the D&D Multiverse exploded. Stories, like Hickman's, got expanded into fully fleshed world settings, giving players and DMs more flavorful choices for their campaigns.

Ravenloft become D&D’s de-facto horror setting. The mists of Ravenloft expanded throughout the multiverse, calling to the dark-hearted and whisking them away to another realm. Ravenloft became the Demiplane of Dread and was ruled by a particularly evil individual, a Darklord, that was under the sway of what the game calls the Dark Powers. These Dark Powers are abstract entities of evil and darkness that hold absolute power in Ravenloft. The Dark Ppowers corrupted minds and hearts, turning good people evil, and turning evil people - like Strahd von Zarovich - into monsters.

The Ravenloft campaign setting offered players a very different game from the core worlds of Greyhawk and the Forgotten Realms that were already well established at the time. Players were strangers in a strange land, beset on all sides by evil, out-matched and ill-equipped, and in danger of being turned into the very evil they fought. Players gravitated toward this type of game, making Ravenloft one of the most popular non-traditional D&D campaign settings to this day.

Ravenloft lasted all the way through 2nd Edition. When Wizards of the Coast acquired TSR and released 3rd Edition, active work on the campaign setting ceased. WotC licensed Ravenloft to White Wolf, makers of the World of Darkness RPG and Vampire: the Masquerade. White Wolf released a few rulebooks to update Ravenloft to 3rd Edition, but it took ten years for Wizards of the Coast to finally return to the Ravenloft setting with D&D Curse of Strahd.

D&D CURSE OF STRAHD

Chris Perkins, Dungeon Master to the Stars, brings back the classic Ravenloft setting to 5th Edition. D&D Curse of Strahd takes us back through the Mist into Barovia. The original authors, Tracy and Laura Hickman, where brought on as writers and added a wealth of depth to the setting that they wished they could’ve added - if only page-count and printing costs weren’t an issue back in the day.

D&D Curse of Strahd returns to the dark land of Barovia, surrounded by Mists. It is ruled by the evil Strahd von Zarovich from his Castle Ravenloft. D&D Curse of Strahd weaves the Count into the very fabric of the story so that every place, every person, and every thing connects back to him in some way. The land of Barovia is cursed, as Strahd himself is cursed, and the players will be cursed as well if they cannot escape.

The Raven

EVENTS...

D&D Curse of Strahd releases to premiere game stores (that’s us!) TOMORROW Friday, March 4th.

Grab your sword and shield, but don’t forget your holy symbol, and sign up to play!

To mark the occasion, Twenty Sided Store has put together a special Launch Event at 7pm to inspire the new campaign season. SIGN UP NOW!

Players who sign up for the event have a chance to pre-order D&D Curse of Strahd.

Coming Soon...

Death House Mini-Campaign Tuesday's @ 6pm - 10pm - 4 week mini-campaign, March 8 - March 29.

Stay Tuned to our EVENTS PAGE for more *D&D Curse of Strahd *Events this Season.

Until next time, happy gaming!