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Making use of physical ambience

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This blog focuses on digital ambience: sound and visuals created by computers. No matter how and where we play our games, however, digital ambience does not exist in a vacuum; it always interacts with physical ambience: sounds, visuals, and other sensations from the physical world around us.

Physical ambience comes in many different forms, whether natural or man-made. It includes lighting, temperature, weather, noise, and everything else in the environment around the gaming table.

There are at least two significant ways to use physical ambience in your games: as a complement to your digital ambience, or as a contrast to it.

The goal of using physical ambience as a complement is to match it as closely as possible with the digital ambience in order to amplify the experience. As an example, consider an adventure set in a warm, bright jungle. In this scenario, physical ambience in the form of heat and sunshine can immerse the players in the story in a way that digital ambience can’t.

The goal of using physical ambience as a contrast is also to amplify the experience, but in the opposite way: by having it differ sharply from the digital ambience. As an example, consider the same jungle adventure described above being played on a cold winter’s day. When the snow is falling outside, just seeing images of a sweltering jungle can be enough to make the players feel warmer inside and ready to pretend for a few hours that they are in a different place.

While physical ambience can be a powerful tool to use, it should be noted that it’s also difficult to wield, since much of it cannot be controlled. Unless you live in a place with a very homogeneous, predictable climate, factors like sunshine and temperature can easily ruin all of your plans. In some cases, such as a sudden downpour, you might be able to integrate this unpredictability into your game by having it also rain in-universe. In the worst case, it means that you cannot make any assumptions whatsoever about your physical ambience.

Although the unpredictability of physical ambience makes it difficult to include in your planning, simply being aware of its potential can give you ideas on how to improve the gaming experience when the physical ambience does turn out in your favor. For instance, if the weather turns out to match out your jungle adventure, you can capitalize on this when the characters go down into the mysterious ruins, by closing the curtains to recreate the darkness below and opening a window to simulate a cool breeze.

In the future, we might have better tools for integrating physical ambience into our games. Until then, simply keeping it in the back of your head can provide opportunities for unique and memorable sessions that go beyond the limitations of digital ambience.

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