atmosphere: not just for breathing

Question from JZ:

But cultivating more serious genres is always a challenge for me. I’ve been pondering running some darker-themed, atmospheric games at some point in the future. So I was wondering if anyone had some pointers. Has anyone out there run a really good moody and atmospheric game? Or played in one? What was done to cultivate that aura? Anyone?

If you ask for moody and atmospheric, I think you are asking for something that is =not= the 2×4 upside the PC’s head. Because darker media usually means blood, gore, shocks galore. And those are also the usual 2×4 attention getters.

Shadows and atmosphere require you introduce something that has its own logic and consistency, but does appear threatening or opaque. Being in a castle/house where the doors do not have nice familiar handles that open them. The doors also make odd snapping noises when forced opened. These noises continue even after you walk away.
This is atmospheric.
Just as a writer would, you should plan to hook the five senses to immerse the Players. Sounds, visuals, and scents that give the setting an edge is my advice. It is easier to do that you think, the method is inherent to the GM’s control of environment. You are the data-conduit for the Player.
Another approach is cultural edge. Once you realize the NPC you are dealing with doesn’t share your cultural values, you get atmosphere in spades for the same reasons as above. It is a harder, more cerebral type of setting to portray. The Chaosi, the Fae, the Weir in my Amber games all have a distinct cultural impression that adds lots of atmosphere.
So I also carefully sidestep ‘earth-centric’ culture when in Amber. Atmosphere is spoiled by too many references to the latest film or TV commercial. Because I know it will slip in, I try to discourage this by having NPCs ask for explanations of the cross-cultural idiom at each and every use.
Surprise! Players trim their usage of modern idiom and keep it in OOC remarks.
Dark themes depend on the age of players and juxtipositions of description. It also depends on Players “buying into” your theme and not trying to “out cool” your premise by =not= being impressed.
There is a category of Amber PC I usually refer to as ‘teflon’ that demonstrates that they are not impressed by anything but themselves. This PC type is a killer to all your expectations and work to support immersion. This type is also un-sticky and can drag energy out of the game on other fronts.
Recently, Jvstim made an analogy about cats and wolves and game energy.

“Cats” are player characters who are loners, who do not stick well with others, who prefer their own agenda and their own terms. Other characters which get near them wind up getting scratched.
“Wolves” are pack player characters, who prefer stickiness, who like to do things with other player characters/family members.

Sticky PCs are useful in so many ways.