An Essay on Mood
What is mood? That's actually a hard question to answer, and on discussing it with a fellow gm, much of mood itself is actually hard to pin down with words, even though it seems to be vital and conducive to a good game session, even though it isn't in the recipe RPG books provide as an ingredient like plot or theme are.
So here we hope to explore what mood is, how it drives a campaign forwards(or, by it's very absence undercuts the campaign), and hopefully have some good, specific, in-game examples.
I am shooting for, say, informative and punchy, to steal a line from the World of Darkness Mirrors Q&A, not wordy and overblown. It is designed to read as little as needed, not necessarily as much as is crammable. So, without further ado....
What is Mood, Exactly?
Mood is the settings on the control panel of your campaign, essentially. It lets you adjust the knobs, levers and dials that control different aspects of RPG gaming there are to change, like genre, theme, and even style of roleplay all according to your tastes. However, trying to define mood in the same way you define, say, plot, seems sometimes like trying to describe the moment in fishing when you catch a fish. It's very ephemeral, seems very mysterious to some, and yet it can potentially make or break your gaming experience.
How is that possible? This is because, in essence, mood is the beating heart of your campaign. You don't go into a horror game expecting divine providence and unexpected good fortune, just as you don't go into a comedy game expecting dark occurences and tragic developments. The mood gives you a distinctive feel for your game, like a drummer in a band setting the beat, or the inciting incident in a movie. It really sets a precedent, almost subliminally so, for how things are gonna go down in your campaign. Mood also has a lot of analogue words, especially for new players, things like feel, as in “I really liked the feel of X”, or “X felt more real to me than the rest of the session”, and mood can have such an impact that players will be talking about one scene you ran days, months or years ago to this day. That's how deeply mood can affect a game. Mood hits you in the gut and gets your intuition going at the same time, and obviously it doesn't work alone.
What is it Good For?
Mood Reinforces Theme
Mood and theme go hand in hand really, like yin and yang. Theme is the kinds of actions or choices your character will be faced with in this campaign, or this session, even this system.
It's really important, and mood is what reinforces this choice all the time, constantly keeping
your story, the players choices and style of roleplay you are looking for on track, as well as being able to guide unplanned scenes or even sessions to work with your theme. Mood is like the aspects of film students learn about in directing that aren't readily obvious to the person who watches the movie. Things like how colors can convey emotions, or how framing a shot from a perspective makes it a different shot, and basically marks your campaign with your own, personal, stamp of individuality.
Conveys Style of Roleplaying(and reinforces it)
It may sound lame, but mood basically tells your players what sort of actions are appropriate to
your game. It allows the players to riff off of your mood and either emphasize with it, or contrast to it. They will immediately know(and hopefully follow) the guidelines you set down with mood in what actions are useful and what are pointless, and more often than not, players will help build up your mood for you, allowing you to keep the “feel” of your campaign without
having to work to reinforce it all the time. Riffing off mood to contradict that feel every so often is very, very good as it breaks tedium and relieves tension. A deadly serious campaign might have one or two howling in laughter moments each session to break tension, whereas players in
a laugh out loud comedy might take turns playing the “straight man” for each gag or joke. This
of course necessitates a good group dynamic, but that's another topic.
Mood sets Atmosphere/Immersion/Pacing
Mood sets atmosphere(and pacing) however you want it by describing something so as to lead to a certain conclusion based on feelings rather than purely statistical facts in the description.
Mood done effectively also leads naturally to immersion by conveying the meanings behind the actions or encounters in the rpg, leading the characters to the right conclusion as though they were following a trail of breadcrumbs. Atmosphere in RPGs are the things you don't directly experience, but have to imagine in your head. You don't really even “see” or “touch” or “taste” anything, it's all an exercise in imagination. Atmosphere is the RPG analogue to the missing senses.
For example: The gm says, “you see an old oak tree, the bark is full of mossy lichen and sap,
and it's limbs seem to waver without wind in time to a pulsating chime of sound, 'help me', faintly but over and over, as though someone is trapped inside the trunk.” You don't get to see
the oak tree or any of that(obviously), but atmosphere fires the imagination because it involves
analogues of the five senses, allowing you to imagine what would normally be absent, and therefore uninvolved in the mental exercise of imagination and immersion roleplay produces.
Mood Conveys Genre
Genre, as we all know, is the type of story you'd like to tell. Show, don't tell(atmosphere helps) and use mood to set your story firmly in the right genre. Maybe you'd like to tell a noteworthy
love story this time, or an action heroes game, or something as mixed and specific as Cthulhu in Space. It doesn't matter, it's all up to you anyway, what does matter is that mood tells that story.
Sure, without plot there is no story, but mood is how you convey that plot.
Maybe you have a horror detective game, and you have to tell the players somehow that the
murderer is hiding in the upstairs of the local curio shop.
Scene: gm says “You have all tracked the murderer to a back alley, but there the footprints
disappear without a trace. The alley is filled with trash, debris, and the homeless, as well as a
business card laying face down on the pavement.”
(Players) 'We pick up the business card and examine it after questioning the homeless man and scanning all exits for footprints.'
Well, now they've gone and jumped the gun, so use mood again and reestablish the scene.
“Ok, one thing at a time, you ask the homeless man about the footprints?” “He seems really
depressed as he shakes his head and coughs into his hand, waving you away”
'Ok, we check for more footprints.'
“After scanning the area, you find no traces of other footprints anywhere around here.”
'Is there anyone else in the area?'
“NO, the only person here is the homeless man, and he has passed out now.”
'What does the business card advertise?'
“Rare Books and Collectibles, a shop on 8th Ave.”
'We travel there to investigate it.'
Now, in this example, you've just used mood to convey a theme of bleakness and isolation in the
middle of a bustling city(which you probably used mood to convey as busy all the time before),
and the players may not realize it yet, but they've just stepped into a little piece of the killer's
world, the deserted parts of the city with no patrol cars around and where noone leaves anything
of value unguarded. But, and it's a big but, you also left them a direction, as mood should always include direction.
Unifying other Storytelling Elements through Mood
Mood interconnects all these elements to create a unified whole, in a sense uniting your setting and plot with your players and npcs with your theme and atmosphere elements, and adds a host of derived value to them such as meaning, flavour, and subtexts. This is because you can also change up your own mood recipe to throw in, say, a red herring to an investigation game, or
a lucid nightmare to your horror game, and make it stick as something more than a random
encounter generated by dice. (I hate those)
How to Establish Mood
Mood and Theme
Mood and theme should reinforce each other constantly, that is work hand in hand, like a tag team. An action in a thematic scene should play in the mood that works for it, and vice versa.
Obviously, every action isn't thematic, but most of the campaign defining ones are. So think of a
dynamic duo of mood and theme to give your campaign life before you start. Mood and theme can require a deft touch though, more than most parts of a campaign, especially for new gms it
can be difficult to get a “flow” going with mood and theme. If you hamhand or ignore mood or theme too much, it can really fuck up your campaign. You can't have every love interest die tragically to reinforce the theme “tragically unloved”, just like you can't make every moment of
a supernatural horror game supernatural and horrific. Conversely, ignoring either one is going to make the campaign seem incomplete and deficient. Theme is theme, and mood is mood, and that's fine, but they should play off of each other all the time.
Make sure before you play that your theme plays well with the mood that you like.
Some aren't so mixable, at least not without the proper skills, and so you should be careful making them polar opposites at least. They don't have to be the same either, and it's a careful
balance every time. I play World of Darkness, but I play a subset of the core genre of Gothic Horror called Mystery Occult Horror, with themes like Enigmatic Horror, or say Revealing the Dark Occult World Below the Veneer of Civilization. It's not too far off to be a disconnect from
the themes in the books based on Gothic Horror, but it's not an exact analogue either, just as Cthulhu or Survival Horror might not be. I substitute, in this case, scenes of pure monstrousness
and political jockeying for enigmatic and chilling scenes that convey frightening conundrums.
It works well for me, and mood comes more naturally to me than some I've gamed with, so I
keep it that way, as a subgenre. The point is however much it seems like work, you should get
your moods and themes to cooperate and have a good time.
Mood and Genre
Mood should be able to play into genre, but genre is not a piece of how you storytell like theme, and so shouldn't have to play back into mood. Genre is a flavour of story, and mood gives you
tastes of that flavour. Your taste in stories of other mediums like books or movies may differ, but we're talking about your tastes in what stories you gm for. Within a genre if you study it long enough, you'll notice how it works, what tricks it uses, etc, but that's not always apparent, especially to new gms.
As an example, if you want an action game with lots of car chase scenes,
you should have mood paired with setpieces of the subgenre of Action Car Chases, like say restored muscle cars with extra options, like nitrous oxide, and then use the mood to encourage the players to play in that genres' forte, which is high speed car chases with possibly other exciting actions like shooting at each other or racing.
Mood and Atmosphere
Mood works well with atmosphere to provide meaning and intuition to your atmospheric scenes, often resulting in intuitive leaps as players digest and analyze your atmosphere. Mood
and atmosphere together often give the most extraordinary player responses across the board, as well as getting the whole group involved. Even a well placed “you see” or “you hear” can get
a good response if described well, but when you hit them with three to five senses at once and
a meaning(more specifically an implicit meaning), you can expect to arouse all of the group's
curiousity at once. It's a good way to get people involved.
As an Example:
I ran a one-shot campaign based off of the short story, “The Mist” by Stephen King, way before
it was a movie, and I had a deadly simple scene that caused my players to remember the campaign to this day. First I described the overall location, the fact that there were shapes in the mist, and then I waited. Sure enough, a player decided to wave their hand through the mist.
I responded with something pretty eloquently worded, but it summed up like “a chilly film clings to your hand and the mist resettles into it's former shape.” That description, combined with the previous location description with the shapes, set them off for the rest of the one-shot as to how the mist was “strange” and had “weird things” therefore in it, and could be “dangerous” or at least “unsafe”, far before I revealed any of the monsters or had any action scenes take place. This also illustrates how atmosphere with mood creates great foreshadowing,
and of course how it dunks the players into being fully immersed.
Mood and Pacing
Mood can easily quicken or draw out a storyline or “side quest” as long or short as you want it,
as long as you know how to do it.
The main trick to quicken it is time and other factors based on time, such as a murder being pinned on you(with a moody scene establishing this) and you have so long to prove your innocence or you're jailed. Another trick is how near or far away limiting factors to your being such as danger are. You're not gonna pick up the pocketwatch in the jungle until later if a T-Rex is chasing you.
Drawing it out is a little trickier, as it depends on the players more. The gm can easily force the
the players into a fight or flight mode and quicken the game, but slowing it down is harder, much like snowboarding. You have to essentially brake these factors and again use tricks, but
it can be done. Maybe that T-Rex leaves after other prey, and you're free to examine the pocketwatch again(receding danger). Or something is so changed in an established part of the
setting that it demands investigation, at least cursory investigation. The old woman on welfare you visited for information? Her house is now deserted, with all different furniture and even appliances.