Once upon a time, I sat in on a Curse of Strahd game. We rolled up our dudes, plopped down at the table, and got ready for some standard intro text. You wake up in a spooky scary land full of spooks. What’s your marching order? That’s what I was expecting anyway. As it turned out, this mess was anything but standard. Our GM had rigged up a fog machine. He had the lights on automatic dimmers. Red spotlights were set to give him the full Bela Lugosi effect. And by the time the organ music kicked in, I’ll be damned if it wasn’t von Zarovich himself at the head of the table. My GM happens to be very good at what he does.

Things simmered down into a more standard adventuring experience after that, but the special effects had elevated the session from “merely good” to “outstanding.”

Contrast this to my own experiences in the special effects department. I’d decided to steal an old Penny Arcade concept and construct some Styrofoam planetoids. I’d mounted everyone’s minis on spikes so that they could walk around the miniature worlds like they were playing analog Mario Galaxy, fighting bizarre elemental creatures as they hopped between gravity fields. I got plenty of oohs and ahhs from the crowd at first, but thing quickly devolved. I failed to explain my mini game adequately. The bizarre theme was a poor fit for what I’d billed as a courtly musketeers game. And to top things off, when I realized that the encounter wasn’t the big hit I’d hoped for, I rushed the group along just to get to the next thing (read: I railroaded the crap out of ’em).

Lesson learned. Elaborate props and novel encounter design can’t save a bad session.

So by all means, draft elaborate handouts and craft elaborate sets. Build your dungeons, ready you fog machines, and get those dimmer switches ready to go. But just remember: special effects are no substitute for good fundamentals. Even if they can make a good session great, you’ve got to build upon a solid foundation.

Question of the day then! What is the most elaborate sound effect, lighting effect, or physical prop you’ve seen in a game? Did it single-handedly make your game night amazing, or was it just a cheap thrill without much impact? Tell us all about those sweet handouts and cool voice-changers down in the comments!


ARE YOU A ROLL20 ADDICT? Are you tired of googling endlessly for the perfect tokens? Then have we got a Patreon tier for you! As a card-carrying Familiar, you’ll receive a weekly downloadable Roll20 Token to use in your own online games, as well as access to all of our previously posted Tokens. It’s like your own personal NPC codex!