There is a power in Quests.
Frodo and Sam's journey into darkest Mordor, the only thing sustaining them, their friendship. Tiny amidst the darkness that surrounds them.
Doomed Captain Ahab after his white whale, driven by the madness that is only calm when it contemplates itself.
Indiana Jones chasing a trail of adventure, seeking the rumored relic, stumbling across the dangerous and exotic in equal measure.
Captain Willard heading down the river in a lonesome boat in the midst of the Vietnam war, heading into the heart of darkness to find the mysterious Colonel Kurtz.
There is a power in quests.
I am using the term quest loosely here. Quests tend to be most associated with the fantasy genre. I tend to define quest focused stories as those that involve an protagonist traveling into unknown physical terrain (although also often psychological) after a singular obsessive goal.
I find stories involving quests compelling. I find they can also be great tools for helping focus a campaign giving it direction and purpose.
So far in my series about creating a Weirdcrawl I have created this basic setup:
You have civilization at one end.
And a strange wonder at the other end.
Before continuing, I'd like to take a step back now because I don't want a weirdcrawl to just be traveling to a wonder. I want it to be a quest. While there is lore and setting information about the wonder, the real story is not the wonder, it's the one that emerges during the journey to it.
Atmosphere in RPGS
Most RPGs don't talk much about atmosphere. I think because most of the time because it feels like something that belongs in the realm of traditional storytelling. Atmosphere in literature is commonly defined as being formed through an authors choice of descriptive language. If applied to RPGs in this manner it tends to lead to a lot of boring read out loud text and a GMing style that tends to restrict player choice or comes across as hamfisted in trying to set a tone.
However, I think it's important to talk about atmosphere in RPGs because a thematic and emotional atmosphere is going to be created at the table no matter what a GM does. I think atmosphere in RPGs can be defined in the following manner:
The emotional sum of player reactions to things they encounter and interact with in the setting.If a game is to be interesting, most things the players encounter won't be of neutral emotion. Encountering an ordinary peasant on the way to market isn't a very interesting or engaging encounter. Encountering one who is acting suspiciously and is hiding something horrific, or a very earnest with a family of seven in tow who is begging for your help, is much more engaging.
If your game features a lot of horrific and disturbing things, it's likely to have an atmosphere of horror. If your game is more upbeat and full of fanciful creatures it's more likely to be one of wonder and curiosity.
In this manner I think an atmosphere can be created in RPGs through paying attention to what kind emotions surround the content that players are presented with in the setting. I think trying to cultivate an atmosphere is beneficial as it helps connect sessions together emotionally and thematically. If they are exploring a war ravaged land with lots of poor and starving people, there's likely to be themes of the horrors and futility of war arising. This can add depth and context to each session.
As players explore a setting, I think they shouldn't just learn more and more about it, they should feel more and more strongly about it.
A Variety of Wonders
In the weirdcrawl I am constructing I think the setting should contain a variety of wonders that evoke a variety of atmospheres. Playing a game with the same emotional content and atmosphere gets boring after a while. The first time you venture into an evil swamp full of horrific things might be fun, but the tenth time going somewhere dark and nasty, not so much.
Additionally, by having wonders with a different sense of atmosphere, it also allows for the player to select what kind of game they are comfortable with and enjoy the most. If they don't like horror, they don't have to journey to the Obsidian Statue of the Forgotten Leper King in the swamp. They can decide to journey to the Graveyard of the Porcelain Elephants instead.
In either case the structure of the journey would stay largely the same: the party has a wonder, an end goal that they are traveling too and are going to encounter all kinds of obstacles along the way and have to make decisions about how to best get there and at what cost. But just like how just like how each example movie or book I listed above has a different atmosphere, so too can each wonder.
Creating an Atmosphere in a Weirdcrawl
There are two dichotomies that I think are useful to consider when trying to create an atmosphere for a weird wonder:
Beauty/Revulsion: beauty being the pleasing aesthetic qualities of a thing and revulsion being the unpleasant aesthetic qualities of a thing. A typical example of this would be our appreciation of the finely proportioned human body and our revulsion towards dead or rotting flesh. Beauty and revulsion can be used to create an immediate visceral reaction to something.
Whimsy/Dread: whimsy being a pleasurable curiosity and wonderment to something, while dread being apprehension or anxiety to something. Whimsy and dread can be used to create a more long term emotional reaction to something. A typical example of this would be our interest or longing to try and catch sight of a colorful toucan in the wild, and our dread in knowing that we are being stalked by a tiger.
Together these four different emotions can be mixed to create four different atmospheres defined by a immediate visceral reaction and a long term emotional reaction. I think selecting one of these four atmospheres goes along way when thinking about what kind of obstacles and things you want to have in front of the players on their journey to the wonder.
Atmosphere of The Eire
These quests contain a strange unearthly wonder and beauty at first. The clockwork ornery that models all the celestial bodies that ever were and will be, in wonderous motion. The village around a looming black tower with no windows were the villagers are helpful. A marble clad lighthouse carved by the gods on a strange isle off the coast whose circling light never falters.
There is a sense of other-worldliness to these quests. Nothing really appears that dangerous, not at first. Things appear fine, maybe even friendly. But there is something off about things. You can't quite put your finger on it, but something is behaving strangely. It all begins to evoke a sense of dread.
Maybe the villagers are a little too helpful. Maybe the midnight lighthouse is inhabited by a living immortal marble statue who sees mortals as but curiosities. Maybe the orrery is now worshiped by an insane madman who uses it to predict all the parties actions.
In these quests the guardians are often like wolves in a sheep's clothing. They may seem friendly and rational at first but at heart are not. The party is subject to their often powerful whims and will have to find some means of either outwitting them or navigating their byzantine logic if they wish to reach the wonder.
Atmosphere of The Odd
These quests appear gruesome and dangerous, perhaps even sinister at first. Ruined temples in dark shadow, a deep hole with a descending spiral staircase, a graveyard of rotting elephants, but amid it all there is a sense of the mysterious, a sense of curiosity, a sense of even the whimsical at times.
Maybe the ruined temple is full of friendly ghosts. Maybe at the bottom of the deep hole lies a race of strange dwarves who speak in riddles. Maybe the graveyard of rotting elephants contains a highly intelligent undead variety who are misunderstood.
In these quests the guardians often a bit like a sheep in wolfs clothing. They seem dangerous or repulsive at first but contain a hidden life and often humour. They make for an interesting twist and play at the party's expectations. They may aid the party on their quest to the wonder, if you are able to earn their trust and respect.
Atmosphere of The Marvelous
These quests appear fanciful and strange. A great green rolling ocean that lies across a desert where people have lived so long in the sand they think the ocean, that much wondrous water, is but a myth. A staircase that leads to the moon where silver dragons stream across its surface and fight the nightgaunts. A whirlpool in which mermaids swim and which leads to their underwater kingdom.
These quests tend to be full of unabashed whimsy. There is danger yes, but a sense of curiosity of playful risk to the journey. A sense of both youthfulness and wisdom, of dangerous folly and gracious humility.
In these quests the guardians guard the wonder because it is truly a precious and innocent thing. A thing of true wonder that should scare exist in the world. That like a shimmering bubble, it could be extinguished in a heartbeat. So much so that the guardians often worship the wonder or hold it in high regard. They will harm and prevent the party from reaching the wonder if they deem them unworthy or a risk to it.
Atmosphere of The Blighted
These quests appear doomed. The cursed swamp that lies over a great battle long ago where the dead now do dwell, the barrow mound that houses the nameless king of iron who harbours endless hate, the nest of the reaping locusts who will one day eat the flesh of all men as death itself awakes.
There are some places one should just not go. Places were a malign evil saturates the very land. These quests tend to be into the heart of darkness itself. Journeys done for great reasons or for great rewards, preferably both. Journey's where the weak will falter, where only the hardened will survive.
In these quests the guardians will oppose the party at every turn and seek only their destruction. For they guard a great prize, the wonder is the source of their evil and malign power. They will be loath to be parted from it. They and the wonder can only be destroyed, never bargained with, and if the party seizes it as their own they may find themselves slowly becoming monsters themselves.