GMs: Set the Mood For Your RPG Sessions With Smart Lights

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As a good DM, you’ve probably put together playlists of just the right mood music. Have you considered changing up your lighting, though? With modern (and increasingly inexpensive) smart lighting, you can pull off some fancy tricks to get your players into the game.

Get the Right Smart Lights

First, you’ll want to get the right smart lights for your gaming session. Plenty of companies from LIFX to IKEA sell smart light bulbs, but a DM’s needs are a little more robust than just turning lights on and off. Philips Hue, widely considered to be one of the best smart lighting platforms around, offers the widest selection of bulb options and smart features.

Philips Hue has a variety of bulb options. You can get the normal A19-type bulbs you find in most lamps, candelabra style bulbs, LED strips, or even standalone lamps. It’s not the cheapest platform around—and if you’re in a DIY mood, you could make things like your own LED strips for cheaper—but it is a versatile, self-contained system.

For this guide, we’ll focus on Philips Hue, but you can accomplish many of the same things with other smart lights. Take a few ideas and play with them or see what else you can do to tailor your lights to your gaming session.

Turn Your Lamps Into Flickering Candles and Fires


The Philips Hue platform has an experimental section called Labs where you can try out unique ways to control your smart lights. For example, this Candlelight Romance formula automatically sets your color bulbs to a dim orange, adjusting the brightness every second or so to simulate the flickering ambient light of candles. The effect feels more immersive than merely setting your lights to orange, while the brightness levels don’t change so often that they become distracting.

The formula lets you limit how much the lights flicker, which is perfect for creating a steady, homey setting for an inn. If you venture into a dimly lit dungeon, you can turn down the maximum brightness setting on your “candles” for a more eerie effect. This formula pairs especially well with the Hue Go which can be a table-safe stand-in for a campfire.

Time Your Lighting Changes For Dramatic Effect


With a push of the button on your smartphone, you can turn a bright light into a foreboding red or a soothing blue. If you want to bring your players even deeper into the story, you can change the lighting before they even realize what’s happened. Third-party Android app Lampshade for Philips Hue and LIFX lets you set custom patterns for your lights that carry out over time.

With this tool, you can create a routine that will slowly dim your lights over an hour, as the long night drags on. Or, you could set up a routine that changes the color over, say, 30 seconds. For example, we created a routine that, for the first minute or so, did nothing, but then turned the lights red over the course of half a minute. If you can time your storytelling just right, the lights turning red as you get to an ominous part of the story can be an amazing effect.

Sync Your Lights to Music or Your TV


Good ambient music can make or break an atmosphere, and your smart lights can be a part of that. There are many third-party apps like Hue Disco (for iOS and Android) that can control your lights to a rhythm. However, one of the best is  the official Hue Sync app. This app for Windows and Mac OS lets you create areas of lights that respond to the video or music you’re playing. It only works with full-color bulbs, but the tradeoff is worth it.

If you’re watching a video—say you’ve put on an ambient scene on a nearby display—an LED strip behind the TV will match the colors along the edge of the display. Even better, overhead lights can match the beat and intensity to music you play. For example, put on the Bridge of Khazad Dum soundtrack while your adventurers are facing an enemy and your lights will dim during the quiet moments, and flash brightly when the energy picks up. You can choose from a few color palettes and make the lights more or less intense to match the mood of your session. You might need to play around with which music works, but you have some solid options.

It’s a little more expensive to get a smart light system than it is to plug your laptop or phone into a speaker. However, the result can be an immersive, engrossing environment for your players.

Do you have a sweet trick for setting the mood in your games? Let us know in the comments below.

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Image credit: Eric Ravenscraft

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