Atmosphere? Rather, Atmosfear!

Wednesday Night, March 9 (Episode 1)

Level 1 adventurers, traveling through the fog-cloaked trees of the Whispering Wood, discover their first body, picked to the bone and roughly two days old.      

This entire session helps players understand their characters at a deeper level and introduce a dark and ominous world. When I have a new group of players, I like to gauge player’s motivations and play styles. Placing a skeleton before them is the first test. Are the heroes more story-centric, caring about details and narrative? Do they continue on without a care, looking for monsters to slay? Or perhaps will they move slowly and carefully, playing more to “how you act” than “what is happening?” Learning how the players will react helps you design a game that touches on everything the players and you want.

Moving forward cautiously, the adventurers encounter another body the following day. Roderick, the cleric, determines that this corpse is only a day old and that there are no signs of how it died.        

Your world, like mine, may be rife with dangerous encounters. Players expect dungeons and sometimes dragons. Danger does not have to be apparent to the players and often when given opportunities for imagination, the players role-play how their characters are feeling. In this scene, players are faced with no immediate threat: there is only the prospect of danger. By never showing any particular monster or villain, the heroes are forced to construct their own understanding of “what is out there.” As a result: a deliciously tense atmosphere settles on the table.

Then they heard a scream and discover a small girl crying. After comforting the girl, they meet a half-elf named Silviel Blackmore and a musician named Madame Lemay. Silviel asks the heroes to join her caravan in exchange for food and directions, the heroes accept. The adventurers seemingly find themselves in a safe and welcoming environment. Yet they soon discover that the corpses left on the road were a product of the caravan’s harsh practices. Drawing woodchips from a bucket, the caravan elects one individual to vanish into the fog to never return in hopes that it will keep the fog from killing them all (an homage to Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”).

“What I think is obvious is not really that obvious” is one of the most important things I learned as a DM. You can have a scream, you can have a heavy fog, but often these small details need something to act as an epicenter. Hence the lottery. From the looks on my player’s faces, this device confirmed their suspicions that there is something terribly wrong… and the tension grows.

Our heroes are informed that leaving the caravan would certainly spell doom and that participating in the drawing is a necessity. While there would be a great inclination to avoid facing this fate, the adventurers also notice that their presence is greatly appreciated – Caravan folk step up to shake their hands, proclaim their thanks or give them gifts.

Because this entire session focuses on letting the players get to know their characters, conundrums offer the players a wonderful chance to role-play. In this instance, players needed to figure out how their characters would feel and whether or not they could/would stop the lottery, or if they would go off into the woods and try to fight the spirits alone.

After days of travel, the heroes are invited to get their fortunes read by Madame Lemay. During their reading, they are informed that one of party will die that evening… at that very moment screams echo from outside. Leaving the wagon, the intrepid band is faced with a chaotic scene as zombies of those left to the fog attack Silviel and her people. A small girl hides underneath the wagon as a skeleton claws for her.

When I was first starting to DM, I was told by a colleague, “Give them (players) something to care for beyond themselves.” Thus arrives the little girl and Silviel, who serve as objective points in the scene. Without them, the heroes can hunker down, run away or avoid the situation. These characters add drama, putting a new layer of challenges in the scene as they struggle against the undead. Will the heroes flee and leave them behind or will the heroes fight to save them?

Left with only a few hit points among them, our adventurers drag the lifeless body of Silviel from the battle— the sounds of carnage still going on behind them. Trekking through the fog with Silviel’s body and little girl in tow, the haggard heroes free themselves from the fog and discover that they are standing in the overcast fields of Ravenloft and the Domain of Dread. Tugging on the coattails of the Warlock, the little girl whispers, “Where do we go now?”

I don’t know about you, but I feel that finishing a session does not always mean the adventurers are relishing in a victory or reap a great reward. I don’t mean that you should beat the characters down, leaving them sad, crushed and not looking forward to the next excursion. Rather, in this session, the little girl acts as a spring board for the characters. Where do we go? What do we do? These are important questions for the players and their characters to answer as they help propel the narrative.

Lessons I’ve learned:

  • Atmosphere gives adventurers a way to get into character – whether that is running in fear, trying to be a dramatic soul, or something equally as dynamic.
  • Even though you may be tempted to do so, you don’t need to slay NPCs or smear blood on the walls of your temple. The absent monsters illustrate that players can often create their own fear and as a result their heroes will act accordingly. Seeing a monster often destroys the fear.
  • The little details keep adventurers in the moment. There doesn’t have to be too many, but one here and one there reminds players to keep on their toes and deepens the experience.

Next week, I tackle how to incite a conflict between players without provoking a real fight.


See you at the table.


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