Increasing Immersion on Game Night, Gaming With All Five Senses – Ask The Bellhop

There are a lot of different products out there that claim they can help improve engagement and immersion during your roleplaying and board game sessions. Today we are going to look at some of those options.

Owlbear writes:

What are your thoughts on game experience enhancing products? Sound/Music for the ears, candles for the scent and, game related snacks?

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Game enhancing products can be a great way to increase immersion but you have to be careful to not go too far.

Personally, I am a huge fan of game enhancements of all kinds. I love anything that increases the feeling of immersion when playing a game. This is true for both board games and RPGs. I really like anything that will help me forget I’m playing a game and instead make me feel like I’m part of an experience. 

There is a caveat though; things can be taken too far. I love things that increase immersion but hate things that bring me out of the game, things that remind me that I’m back in the real world.

Because of this using game enhancing products can be a balancing act. The key is to to make sure that the game being played (whatever game that is) is still the focus of everyone’s attention. Anything outside the game should be there to subtly enhance that game not distract from it.  Anything you can add to the experience that helps people keep that focus on the game is good and anything that distracts from the game is bad.

Below I’m going to discuss some of the things that I’ve looked into for enhancing my board game night experiences. Some of which worked and some of which didn’t. I will be starting off with the three senses that Owlbear mentioned in their question but will also touch on the other two sesses as well. 

Using sound to enhance your game night experience.

We took a pretty deep dive into music and sound effects at the game table back in September 2018. Without going into as much detail as I did then I will say that I think that audio can be fantastic for enhancing your roleplaying games and I also think that a bit of background music or ambience can increase player immersion even when playing board games.

One source of background music and ambience, that I first mentioned in the September sound article, and that I continue to use now is Tabletop Audio.  If you have ever checked out any of our Gloomhaven Actual Play Videos, this is the site that I have running in the background providing the ambience.  This site has all kinds of soundscapes covering pretty much any genre and setting you can imagine.

While you can use the site for free, you can also support them on Patreon which will unlock a number of Patron-exclusive soundscapes.  

Another digital tool I like to use to add some audio to my game night is Syrinscape. You can run Syrinscape over the web or download the software on pretty much any type of device. It is a combination of background ambience generator and soundboard. Syrinscape offers a lot more control over what you will be hearing over Tabletop Audio, offering a number of sliders and toolbars for each of its sounds. 

Syrinscape also offers a number of soundboards for adding sound effects to your game in addition to background audio. 

The only downfall to Syrinscape is the cost. They have a couple of different models including the ability to buy specific soundscapes for a one time fee and various subscription models. Since our original Sound and Audio post, Syrinscape has established a number of official RPG licences. You can get D&D Syrinscape with “official D&D Sounds,” Pathfinder and Starfinder Syrinscape and even Call of Cthulhu Syrinscape with specific sounds for specific Call of Cthulhu Modules. All at a price of course.

For some other suggestions on how to add sound to your game night check out our original Music and Sound Effects to Enhance Your Game article

Scent is the sense most tied to memory, and there are now ways you can use that at the game table.

Adventure scents add a totally new level to immersion in gaming.It has been said that scent is the sense that is most tied to memory and can have the most powerful emotional impact and I think the idea of making use of that during a game is pretty brilliant.

I have personally used scent in my game by lighting some incense before the players come over or by lighting some lightly scented candles during an appropriate RPG scene. I’ve found that works rather well. Even just some basic incense that makes the room smell like something different from the norm can help make players think they are somewhere other than a game room. 

Nowadays there are a number of companies that are offering tabletop scents. There are gaming focused candles and fragrances beads from a small handful of companies. These are scents that are much more diverse than various types of incense. Here you will find scents like Ancient Library, City Streets, Engine Room, and Vampire’s Lair. 

While I have checked a few of these out at cons I’ve never taken the plunge and brought them home. One of my main concerns is that none of the scent based products I’ve looked at seemed to be strong enough to fill a room. This leads to players having to pass around a jar of scents and each sniff it, which completely breaks any sense of immersion. 

Another problem I can see is that if a scent did fill the room, it would linger when you no longer want it present, as well as conflicting with any other scent you pull out. I can just imagine the potential problem of moving from the Halfling’s Kitchen into the Fetid Swam and what my game room would smell like overall by the time we got to the Treasure Chamber. 

Due to this, I think it would be best to pick one scent for a session and use it for a pivotal scene. I would love to have something I can open up under the table without telling the players and that will slowly fill the room. A scent that the players will pick up subconsciously at first and begin to notice as the scene goes on.

If you are interested in trying out scents one of the brands I see all the time at cons is Adventure Scents from OddFish Games. They appear to be the industry leader when it comes to scent effects for tabletop games. Cantrip Candles is another company I’ve seen that is selling tabletop themed candles. Dungeon Scents is another candle based olfactory option.

One other thing you have to consider when using scents is if any of the players have sensitivities or allergies and of course you always need to be extra careful if you are using a candle with an open flame.

Adding a sense of taste to your game night. Having themed food while gaming can be awesome.

Having gaming related food during game night is something that for me goes back years, and is something I’ve always enjoyed. Many years ago we used to show up to play Fantasy RPGs with a big hunk of Summer Sausage and a knife and cut off chunks and snack on that while playing. 

The one thing that I really enjoy doing, that can help with immersion, is to tie the food you are eating to the game you are playing.

If you are playing a fantasy game, putting out a charcuterie board covered with meats, cheeses and fresh breads can be a great touch. (I personally get my charcuterie meat from Carnivore Club. They send me a box with five or six different cured, seasons, and/or dried meats each month. These are great for representing travel rations or medieval tavern fare). 

If you are playing something like Legend of the Five Rings or another Japanese themed game, maybe it’s a good night to serve some ramen. If you are going to go with pot noodles be sure to at least add a ramen egg or two and yes I know it’s a bit anachronistic as ramen was only invented in Japan in the last 100 years, but L5R is fantasy anyway and I love me some ramen.

The big thing with food at game night is to make sure you are following game night food etiquette. This is a topic we covered back in January 2019 and everything we said then is still valid now.

The main point we tried to make back then is that you need to make sure you are protecting the games while you are eating. This can be done by separating the snacking and eating from the games, eating before or after the game. Or by making sure to avoid greasy, sticky, powdery foods as well as making sure your games themselves are protected by doing things like sleeving cards.

You also need to make sure you have enough for everyone to take part, and watch for dietary preferences as well as restrictions. You don’t want to show up with too little food for everyone to take part and you want to make sure that everyone has something present they can and will eat.

Lighting can be used to set the mood and increase immersion on game night.

One sense that Owlbear didn’t mention in their question is sight. Enhancing game night immersion through lighting is something that I have been experimenting with for a few years now with mixed success.

While I love the idea that when the party of adventurers dives underwater to visit the Mer-King the lights in the room change over to shifting blues and greens, and I loved making the room turn green when a goblin shaman was casting a spell, most of these effects, while cool, ended up actually taking players out of the game instead of making them feel more immersed. 

There are a couple of problems I’ve found when fiddling with lighting effects for my game night.

For one it’s not easy to do on the fly, at least based on all of the apps I’ve tried out. While you can do some amazing stuff with a single scene I never found anything for quickly switching between scenes and more importantly swapping back to normal lights. Which leads me to the bigger problem, of when the lights are off, flashing, or shifting colours, it’s really had to read the game components. Whether that be your hand of cards, the board, or your character sheet.

While I had really high hopes for my Philips Hue lighting system, I find I almost never use it for doing anything cool during a game. If I do bother to take the time to create a scene and use it during a game, it’s for that special encounter, that epic battle for the centre of the board or the final showdown vs the big boss. When doing that I make sure I only have one scene set up and have it ready to go at the touch of a button. It’s not something I use every session or every scene.

What I do really like having programmable lighting available for is to make things easier to see when playing a variety of games. My lights have “Focus” and “Concentrate” settings that I find quite good for board games that have pieces that are close in colour or for games with lots of small text. These settings help enhance the contrast of everything in the room. I find I need to use these for games like Raiders of the North Sea as with standard lights I have a hard time telling the grey meeple from the black ones. 

The final thing you do need to worry about when using lights during your games are people who are prone to photosensitive seizures. Be sure to check with your group before springing flashing lights on them.

Some games are doing interesting things to incorporate the sense of touch to the experience.

When I think of the sense of touch and games I think of a very interesting game that came out in 2018 called Nyctophobia: Vampire Encounter. This game is doing something rather interesting with touch. It is a horror themed game where players cannot see the board and have to rely on touch to navigate their way to safety. It was created by the designer Catherine Stippell who was inspired by a blind relative to create a game that mirrored their experiences with all board games.

There are also a couple of kids games that my girls had when they were younger that were touch-based. Laundry Jumble has players reaching into a fabric washing machine trying to pull out the right clothing items using their sense of touch and Master Fox has blindfolded players feeling around in a box for a specific meeple where there are a number of them in there with similar textures. 

On the RPG side of things, people have also been adding the element of touch to their games for years by creating props for their players to touch and interact with during play. RPG staples like tea-stained maps, puzzle boxes, costume jewellery treasure, and more.

Overall though I think specifically adding the element of touch and texture to tabletop games is something where there is a lot of room to grow. I’m personally looking forward to more games that use touch in interesting ways.

What kinds of things have you used to increase immersion on your game nights? Let us know in the comments!

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