Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Behold the wonder of light

Few things make a mod like lights in the dark. Lighting effects, in a game like NERO where so much has to be imagined, are of great importance. When the final battle begins, with the horrific creature that was spawned from the plane of shadow, the glowing eyes of his minions and the flashing strobes of his terrible magics build the feeling more than any words or costumes could. Below I will take a look at a couple of effects that you can do for fairly cheap and what they can be used for.

The first and simplest is strobe lights. In a dark room with white accents strobes look like all kinds of things. Set on slow they can be lightning flashing. Slightly faster they might represent magic or a powerful place. Faster still they can add a manic air to a combat, like everything is sped up to superhuman speeds. One interesting idea that I have used in the past and probably will use again is to use strobe speed to denote the passage of time. The strobes get faster either throughout the course of a single fight, or throughout the passage through a series of rooms, acting as a sort of clock for the module. Strobes are available at party stores or online and they can generally be had for 10 dollars or less, if you can get one of the giant mega strobes for around 50 dollars they can generally light an entire mod shack.

Black lighting requires slightly more foresight. Costumes need to be accented with UV sensitive paint or dye, faces can be painted with UV sensitive make up, walls and floors can have glyphs and symbols marked in laundry detergent. The best use of black lights, in my opinion is the surprise factor. If the module starts out with normal lighting as a role-play module and then shifts to a black light, dark combat module, the shock value alone will greatly enhance immersion. I have also seen an interesting use of black lights as a detect magic spell, all magic items on the module were painted with laundry detergent and players capable of seeing them were give black light pen lights, this was pretty cool from a game perspective and it made the players feel useful.

My personal favorite lighting tool that I have ever used is the color changing spot light. Just having the option of changing an entire room to a different hue opens up realms of possibility. Fire can be represented by a tight beam spot on the floor, in the next room that same spot could hold water. A dragons breath can be portrayed as an elongated blast from a spot light. Patterns can be programmed into some of the better models allowing module runners to still participate in the active part of the module while having the spotlight do its thing. I personally just purchased a Chauvet RG400 for the upcoming Lumberton season and I am really excited about everything I can do with it.

All in all lights are pretty simple, you can use them to immerse your players and make the game seem more real. In addition, combining them with other environmental props like fog machines and rope lights can really get the juices flowing. What do those of you who run plot do with lights? What do those of you who do not run plot like to see done with lights?


  1. One of the favorite mods I've run involved using a handheld black light to search a dark room for a blacklight-sensitive glyph. Combined with a little music, the atmosphere was really great.

  2. These are good ideas, but let me speak a word of caution. I personally won't participate in a combat mod that uses strobe lights because I have seen so many unsafe conditions created by them. For RP only, non-combat mods or non-combat times during mods, I have no problem with strobe lights.

    Also, if using strobes or another form of flashing lights, make sure you warn your players about their use and give them the option of sitting that portion out because some players may have seizure disorders (some of which may be undiagnosed) or other photosensitivity.

  3. I love combat with strobes, I do give the warning about seizures. Truthfully NERO combat has an inherent risk involved and I do not believe that it is significantly increased with strobes.

  4. Quick note about strobes and seizures... Only 1 out of 20 people with epilepsy have episodes triggered by strobes. The "at risk" frequency is between 5 and 30 flashes per second. If you have this rare kind of sensitivity, they should really let the staff know about it in advance (just like if you have a peanut allergy or something). This removes the need for staff to chant a blanket warning every time they use a lighting effect.

  5. NERO (at least in the southeast) uses colored rope lights for circles of power, but I've seen other games use them to good effect to give atmospheric lighting to an otherwise dark mod space.

    For general IG spaces, there are all sorts of nice, pretty cheap alternatives to leaving on the overhead lights. Most of these are also somewhat dim, which can be more mysterious and dramatic (and makes flaws and OOG stuff less noticeable)

    -Fake flame lights that you can get at halloween shops.

    -String lighting (or fairy lights, like for christmas trees) can be used on their own or draped behind some cloth for a soft glow. The LED ones are especially bright. Around Halloween, places like Target often sell them in wacky colors like orange and purple, but you can also find them online.

    -LED candles can give the look of something lit by candlelight without all that worry about things catching fire. The tealight ones are cheapest, but you can often find larger ones at after-Christmas sales. At one event I played, someone had made a bunch of lantern props with carved and painted foam, semi-opaque paper, and wooden dowls, and one of these inside. Until you picked one up, you would have no idea it wasn’t real.

    -Garden or party stores often have a great selection of lights, from string lights with flowers, lanterns and other shapes to solar-powered lanterns.

    -LEDs are king. They're bright, cold, dirt-cheap, and come in all shapes and sizes. I've found single-LED lights that you can twist on and off in the wedding section of craft stores, but I suspect you could find them online too.
    Once you have the LEDs, you just have to find a neat way to diffuse the light. Cloth or Asian-style paper lanterns work great for that.
    For one event, I bought some gothic-looking glass and metal lanterns at Target (yay for Halloween stock), and suspended an LED from a piece of thread inside. It looked like a ghostly light was floating inside the lantern.

    In addition to atmosphere, I like it when light is used for a specific IG effect:

    -For a mod in a large, dark space, you can provide a light source, but tell PCs that they are only protected from some ill effect as long they stay within the light.

    -Have PCs protect a light source, which their enemies can destroy (turn off) if they get to it. If you split the PCs into multiple groups doing this in a nighttime fight, it can be pretty scary to watch the light across the field go out, and wonder if your friends survived.

    -I once ran a mod in which PCs were caught in a maze that was being overtaken by creatures of darkness. They had a confederate NPC who had told them that the lights’ dimming was a sign that the creatures were approaching. So while a large portion of the mod was puzzle solving, whenever the lights went dark, PCs knew to prepare for a fight. After a few cycles of light and darkness, the PCs were conditioned to tense up every time the lights dimmed.

    When they finally reached the entrance to the place they were looking for, in the center of the labyrinth, we turned off all the lights, and it went pitch black. It was for a roleplay encounter, but they were really on edge!

    In response to Dan-
    I don't know if it's reasonable to expect all players to self-report medical stuff that might come up in the course of gameplay. It relies on them anticipating that something might be present at the game.
    It's one thing if you require players to submit medical information before they play the game, but few people, when visiting a new game or chapter, are going to feel comfortable taking the initiative to list their (possibly irrelevant) medical frailties to strangers. So I think it's wise for the staff, at the very least, to warn players "we sometimes use flashing lights in this game," and give them the opportunity to respond if there's a problem.

  6. Just one caveat on tavern lighting. While giant bright horrible florescent lights are not good, I think the super ultra extra dim lighting that some games do goes too far to the other side. It makes everyone sleepier and makes it that much more eye straining to share notes, decode stuff, etc. So I like atmospheric lighting, I just dislike the other extreme.