Film and theatre have the advantage that their audience can’t look to closely at the sets they’ve built. It’s not something we have with LRP and we typically have a significantly lower budget. Players are willing to overlook many of the holes in our set dressing, but hiding them a bit makes this easier for them to do. A smoke machine is often your friend. Lighting and sound kit is also useful. Not cheap, but it can make a massive difference and it’s something you can build up over time.
I’ve spent the weekend at Rockets, Rayguns and Really Nice Tea. We were there to assist with set builds and dressing and also with lighting, smoke and sound. It was very far away In Mandala terms ‘far away’ is a drive of more than two hours. This one was five. We were a little cheeky and borrowed their crew for parts of the build. They seemed okay with this, and it meant the job was completed very quickly. They dressed one of the rooms for us while we were working out electrics and lighting. We were walking through the spaces with them, and I got the impression it wasn’t something they had done before. It’s something we find very useful when doing a build so I thought I’d mention it here.
So, how to best dress a space? Decide how you want it to feel. We wanted the players to be a little on edge and uncertain, so a cluttered environment was good. Most monster costumes look best in low lighting, so a night time set with a few coloured lights and some lasers was good. It meant that the light was in motion, and reacted well with the smoke that we also used (after checking for smoke detectors).
Once you know what effect you’re after walk through the space you’ll be using and work out how you want things to reveal themselves. I’m lucky – I can picture how things will look. Dividing space can be useful as it makes sight lines shorter, splits people up and means people explore. A large open space can be intimidating. Contrast is awesome. Work out the effects you’re after and layout the space you’re using. We’re great fans of hiding large things in dark corners. Obfuscating edges, and making things hard to see. This is at least in part because we like making players a bit uncomfortable. It’s the same reason we’d put a child in a place that looks dark and menacing and then have the child prove utterly evil.
Most of the set dressing in the caves was done with two rolls of weed suppressant fabric and a lot of tarp. It’s cheap and works well. We also had a couple of geodesic domes, but I will leave Jim to tell you how they were made as they’re his creations. I will only comment that I approve of tents you can dismantle with a drill. and that he makes hugely extensive dome and tunnel systems look easy.
We’re pretty bad at dressing the outside. At Alone events we’ve often decided that rather than adjust the outside we’ll make the players wear a coloured gel in their masks to give it a more alien feel. They protested that they need to see. They may have had a point. Apparently gels that are fine when tested standing still with ambient light from city centre streetlights are utterly opaque using the light of a wind up torch and things mist up quickly if you make your players run. We think our last design worked okay, but it took us three events to get to it.
One of the cheap and easy to book sites in the Midlands is Consall. It has a lot of bunks, a mix of buildings and the main one is in the carpark. It opens onto the carpark and you can’t hide it. Except we did. We were fed up of years of photos of people roleplaying in a car park and decided we’d try and do something about it. The main road to the upper buildings also ran through here and we had to make sure we could remove dressing quickly enough for an ambulance or similar to get through, but a hessian wall is fine for that. We made it high enough to completely hide the cars, and then covered the outside of the temporary buildings opposite as well. Adding a gate and some more fencing on the other side of the buildings gave an enclosed village square with a fire pit in the middle. It was a far more ic space, and made the game feel different than your typical Consall fare.
Set dressing isn’t necessary. It makes it a lot easier to direct what your players are thinking and does help to keep things in character and atmospheric. Being properly immersed in a world makes the world matter more. It ties people into the story by giving them a clear setting. There’s a lot we can do relatively cheaply to make things look and feel better. It’s always worth taking time to think through how you’re going to use your space as, done well, it’s one of the greatest assets you have.