Lighting Basics for Role-Playing

By Andre Kruppa

Lighting is one of the most important elements that can be controlled to influence the experience of the participants in scenarios and adventures. The reason for this is that it has a substantial conscious and subconscious effect on the players as they perceive the environment. Game lighting works the same way as the lighting for a play. A dim blue light often signals night or dark spaces, a bright white or yellowish light can signal a bright day or a brilliantly lit room, the absence of light can feel very claustrophobic, and so forth. Compelling lighting techniques can be achieved with anything from a few basic pieces of equipment to an elaborate setup.

A good example of how effective lighting can be in influencing mood is the arrangement of a romantic dinner for that special someone. Typically, lights are turned down or off, and a few candles are placed upon the table to create an intimate atmosphere. Anyone who has done this can immediately feel the difference in mood as the environment changes from brightly lit to gently illuminated with warm and intimate candlelight.

There are a number of atmospheric effects that can be achieved with simple lighting techniques. A simple dimmable light, like that over many dining-room tables, can be very effective by allowing some control of the brightness of the room. It can be left at the brightest setting for a daylight scene and bright interiors, and reduced accordingly for darker scenes. A few flashlights can be placed on the table, and some parts of the scenario can be played in the dark. Scenes played in the dark can strongly signal feelings of mystery, fear, and claustrophobia. Most people have some latent fear of the dark, and this plays to that, helping to set the mood.

The Game Master can benefit highly from a book light and a book stand to create a screened space for keeping notes, dice, and hidden reference materials in the form of a book or tablet. Laptops and similar self-illuminating devices are, unfortunately, a poor choice for this, as they throw a lot of light and can distract from the look that is being created. A book light ensures that needed information can be seen and is easily turned off when unneeded. It even can be turned to light the face of the Game Master for a scene or effect.

To allow full control of the light in a room, curtains and blackout shades are very helpful. For those who prefer not to take this step, games can be played at night. Alternatively, windows can be temporarily blacked out with black trash bags taped with painters’ tape (which usually won’t pull paint off of walls) or can be covered with blankets. Preparing the room or choosing a time to run that allows control of light in the space is important. For those who black out spaces often, like myself, a roll of black plastic tablecloth material, available at most event and party stores, can be very helpful, along with rolls of narrow and wide painter’s tape and a pair of decent scissors. This material can then be cut to fit and taped in place.

One way to add a blue wash of light for night scenes, which still allows players to see, is to clip a blue floodlight over the table onto an existing fixture. The bulb can be mounted in a clamp light of the kind with a simple rubber-covered clamp and removable shield; these can be found at most hardware stores and are commonly used for work lights. The blue floodlight can be left on; it is unlikely to be noticeable when the rest of the lights are on, but it becomes increasingly apparent as the lights are dimmed.

If the space does not have dimmable lights, a number of fixtures can simply be turned on and off as needed. Playing with flashlights and changing the light for different scenes has a profound physiological and psychological effect. Even the most basic lighting goes a long way to frame the scene, setting the mood and creating atmosphere.

This is an excerpt from the Lighting Basics chapter of Bringing Theater to the Mind: A Guide to Using Theatrical Elements in Role-Playing available on both Amazon and RPGNow!