I’ve talked up why my next roleplaying campaign is using Star Trek as a setting, and why I’ve chosen the system we’ll be using for what I laughably refer to as ‘rules’, but so far, the thing I’ve probably put the most work into concerns making the setting come to life, and creating an experience that my players will find as immersive as possible.
Immersion, in any gaming sense, is paramount. Well, maybe not for a game of monopoly, but even then, if you’ve found yourself yelling at the board, or sweating over whether or not you land on Mayfair... that’s pretty much what’s happening. A game reaches its peak when we forget we’re sitting in a chair at a desk or around a table, when instead we feel like we are the Battleship, or the elite soldier in the FPS of the month.
In a video game, there’s a mess of tricks that developers can pull to increase this all important sensation. Making sure the UI matches the setting is one, from the scrolls and gems of a fantasy MMO, to the more augmented reality style of shooters, those bits of apparent window dressing do a lot to set the scene. In fact, speaking of shooters, I think it’s Battlefield 3 that takes the cake when it comes to making you feel ‘in the game’, with its full body leaps and animations whenever you bound over an obstacle. I don’t know about you, but BF3 actually gets me moving in my chair in a way other shooters just fail at.
Immersion counts for a hell of a lot when it comes to roleplaying games, assuming you’re aiming for something more than a beer-fuelled session that’s little more than a racially motivated home invasion (those poor orcs – what did they ever do to you?!). I’ve a close friend of mine that I met... gosh, back in 1993 at a roleplaying convention, in a game; the things is, my memory *now* is not of the crappy costumes we were wearing, or the daggy school corridor we were in the at the time, but rather the metallic passageway of a mighty starship, while we, elite rogue-assassin and hard-bitten mercenary, took on the might of the Imperium. That’s where we met, in a very curiously real sense. Because of the scene-setting of the GMs, our own knowledge of the setting, and just a few hints of costuming, the game was lifted into a higher plane.
I often joke that there needs to be a word for feeling nostalgia for people and places who, technically, have never existed. It’s probably ‘madness’...
My loose grip on reality aside, what I’m trying to say is that a game will have more impact if you make a bit of effort to add to the realism. In a simple Dungeons and Dragons tabletop game, you can make a huge difference by using actual hand-drawn maps and character sketches, by adding appropriate music, or hell, even lighting a few candles. Remember, you’re trying to create an atmosphere, and anything you can do to suggest that is going to make a better game.
One of the beautiful things about the human mind is that even with just a few points of data, it can fill in the whole picture. That’s the trick with any game – get enough of those points right, and the brain will meet you halfway.
Running a live-action Star Trek game, though... that requires a few more tricks, and a little bit more effort.
Klingons off the starboard... couch!
First up, I’m not talking about the kind of effort that guy who turned his apartment into a real live Trek replica. Though, if I had a spare million, I might consider it. No, it’s the little things.
First up, by just re-arranging some furniture you can do a damn fine job of suggesting a bridge layout. Move couches aside, but a single chair in the center of the room, a couple of chairs in front of it... Boom, a starship bridge. Orient it all toward a large window, and that’s your viewscreen – even better if it has blinds you can pull down to create a blank canvas.
In my own apartment, it’s a combined lounge-dining arrangement, but that’s good, because the dining room table becomes the ready-room, where all the big important discussions take place. Pick another room or two, and these can stand in for Engineering, random crew accommodation, or Sickbay. Even better if one of these rooms is your study, and has a computer in it. Already, you’ve got most of the sets you’ll see on the show – not dressed up or anything, but even having the spaces separate makes a huge different. When the players can be presented with a problem, and the person playing the Captain can stand up, tug his uniform, and tell his officers to assemble in the ready room, the impact of being 'in' those spaces can have an enormous impact.
And that, rather neatly, if I do say so myself, brings us to costuming – and, scoff if you will, but we will be costumuing, at least a bit. I’ve played in and run Trek games in the past where everyone got hold of actual replica uniforms; it’s fantastic, but it’s a big outlay, and a lot of effort to acquire or make something that’ll look good on your particular shape. What I’ll instead be asking of my players is that they wear a t-shirt or something similar of the appropriate colour (red for Command, mustard for Security and Engineering, and blue for Science and so on), with a black skirt or pants. It’s just a visual cue to the setting, and given it is a more or less military setting, it’s important to have that sense of uniform. Similarly, for post Next-gen Trek games – mine’s set in 2370 – comm-badges are essential. That motion of tapping your badge to talk or receive a communication is not only an important piece of stage-setting theatre, but a great way to tell the GM you’re about to ask a question of the computer or a player not present.
Finally, there’s props, and that’s something which is now easier than ever before. In my playing group, I think everyone has an iPhone, and a lot of have iPads – with the right app, that’s your Tricorders and PADDs right there! Even better, being as they are connected devices, they can be used for gameplay information. If the person controlling the ship’s sensors has an iPad in front of them, I don’t have to tell them anything – I can literally email them a screen or some text for them to digest, disseminate or whatever. If they're investigating some artifact, I can hand them a USB stick and tell them to go 'down' to the Engineering and have a look at it. I can make myself, as the GM, almost invisible. Have you ever played in a game where the GM has described something in detail to a player, only to have that player turn around and just say ‘Yeah, what he said’? With some simple tricks – and these are all very easy to pull off – a game can be elevated to a whole other level.
With a modern TV, I can display a slideshow of LCARS-style images, purely for scene-setting, have a ‘ship background’ sound effect (which you can find on the Generations soundtrack) repeating on the PCs standing in for the Engineering stations, and appropriate soundtrack music from the stereo.
Is it deeply and almost uncomfortable nerdy? For some people, yeah, you bet. But screw that – I roll dice and pretend to be an elf, and I’m proud. This is just another level of make-believe, and that’s what roleplaying is all about.
Next week, we'll look at how you can integrate your players' characters into the ongoing plot, and how important it is to help them flesh out real backgrounds and motivations. We're almost ready for launch...