Getting out of Anywhere Americana
By Tyler Omichinski
Some of the best experiences I have ever had in gaming have been when the setting is somewhere other than “anytown America.” Most recently, I have been playing through a campaign taking place in Gold Rush era Dawson City (its in Canada for those not in the know), and I’m running a modern day Call of Cthulhu scenario also in Canada. Setting plays an integral part in RPG scenarios and ensuring that everyone has fun at the table.
Tell me if you’ve heard this one before; your party heads into a bar and its just, you know, your every day bar. The result is everyone at your table coming up with a different image, not necessarily a bad thing, and not really appreciating the development of any mood. Adding even the scantest of details, like some light brushstrokes on a painting to denote shadow, can do worlds to develop the ambiance of your games. In a recent game, I had my players go to a small rural town and it became a regular occurrence that people recognized them throughout town as being inherently outsiders. This, combined with some clever descriptors like pointing out that the bar has its preexisting cliques of hunters on one side and townies on another and probably too many deer heads on the wall, sold the image of a rural town subsisting mostly on hunting.
The trick, in my opinion, is a light touch. Like a cartoonist, you need to fill in enough details for someone to figure out what they’re looking at, but you don’t need to draw every single brick. Instead, imagine that you were walking into the room that your players have just entered. Think about what is the first couple of things you would notice and describe those. The players will often appreciate this and have a better understanding of the setting and the scenario. It also helps to establish the appropriate mood. While we’re all supposed to have fun playing games it is all too easy for a horror game to turn into slapstick via inappropriate mood.
A key way to accomplish this is through the clever use of cliches. An overused cliche, or one that is dull, results in a dull setting. Proper use of a cliche, or the upsetting of a cliche, will spark the player’s minds. Douglas Adams had an amazing skill for this, one of his great sentences exemplifying this is “It hung in the air in exactly the way that bricks don’t.” This toys with the conceptions of the player and can make for a spectacular development of mood.