An important part of every tabletop RPG session is creating the right mood and atmosphere. No matter the style of game, no matter what game, the atmosphere can make or break it. There are many ways of setting the mood, using everything from music, pictures, spoken word, play location, to tactile objects to represent characters (minis) or even three-dimensional environments for the miniatures.
The easiest way to set the mood and create atmosphere is to use miniatures for the players and enemies and to use what most people call “terrain.” Miniatures can be anything from little Lego people with customize outfits and items to carefully molded pewter statues with carefully molded armor and weaponry, all of which is painstakingly painted to match the player’s idea of the character. A lot of the time, the most common type of miniatures is any object that is small enough or a “close enough” plastic miniature of the kind that is readily available at any gaming shop. Terrain follows similar rules. It can be painstakingly created and highly detailed or super simple. The most common form, used for almost every grid-based RPG I’ve ever played, is a wet-erase or dry-erase mat marked out with a grid of squares, one inch long on each side. Both of things, terrain and miniatures, can create a great deal of atmosphere very easily. Even the least immersive players can get absorbed into the game with the right terrain and miniatures. The downside is that doing this stuff that well takes a huge amount of time or money. Stand-ins and a playmat is the most cost-effective way of doing it, but it doesn’t do much more than let the players see the shape of the world and where their character stands in relation to their allies and enemies.
If you had players who are willing to make more of an investment in each session, music can work amazingly. Music can directly appeal to people’s emotions, so you can help make your players feel the tension of harsh negotiations or the relief of finally reaching their destination by carefully selecting your playlist. Video game music makes an excellent background to battles and there are numerous YouTube videos full of nothing but the sounds of a city to make your players feel like they’re really in a bustling metropolis. Other sound effects, if you’re feeling really ambitious, can add an entire additional layer. The sound of horses, the blast of fireballs, the din of battle, even the moans of the dying or damned. It takes a lot of work to have everything up and in a form you can use without breaking the moment you’re trying to enhance, but it is still a lot easier than creating exact miniatures and terrain for your sessions.
Another great way to help set the right atmosphere for your players is to use pictures. There are a lot of resources available online, so you can find a picture of almost anything if you aren’t feeling up to creating custom images. Pictures of dark dungeons, great manors, the various enemies they’ll fight, and even weapons they find. If you’ve got artists amongst your players, you can encourage them to create pictures of their own characters (and maybe their allies as well) that they can keep up-to-date instead of a miniature. While not terribly immersive unless you’ve got a picture for everything that the players can always look at (which is a lot easier to do for online sessions or if you’ve got a big TV near where you play), it can really help the players fix the world in their minds more completely. Plus, you never know what good can come from encouraging the creation and usage of art. In one of my first big campaigns, a player was constantly drawing during each session and his humorous pictures and the renderings of some of the scenes he wanted to preserve added a lot of fun to the games for the other players.
My preferred method requires a great deal of participation from the players. Since I don’t always have the time to prepare pictures and playlists, I rely mostly on spoken words and descriptions in addition to simple miniatures and a playmat. Spoken words and descriptions take a lot more work and skill from the DM during the session, which can steal their focus from other things like tracking enemies, improvising numbers for their game, or even accidentally reveal something that was supposed to be a secret. To counter this, when I describe the atmosphere and give details on where the players are located, I also change my level of detail based on their level of observation and awareness. I also vary the level of detail at somewhat random, beyond the basics, so my players never know if I’m describing something more because its important or because I’ve picked this situation as my “slightly more description” moment. It requires very firm mental images on my part, which means I have to be pretty prepared for each session, but not in as detail-oriented a manner as I would need for music, pictures, or terrain. It can also be used to mess with my players by consistently giving greater-than-average detail on something insignificant.
There are definitely more ways to help set the mood for your session, but the above are the ones most commonly used. Not many people are willing or able to relocate their entire game and related materials to a remote location like a cave or the food court of a mall, so I’ve only ever heard of it happening once. To a friend of a friend of a friend. The furthest I’ve ever gone is to move the game into the basement or outside, but that’s mostly for non-game reasons like wanting to dampen our noise or wanting to enjoy the sunshine and cool breeze on a gorgeous day. While the amount of detail you want to put in will likely change from group to group and campaign to campaign, you’ll eventually find your comfort zone and generally stick to that level. Whatever you do, though, just make sure you don’t get lazy.