Burn Everything Gaming

RPGs and more

Bringing a World to life: 5 easy steps

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So you have a little adventure you want to run for a group. They find a village and spend the night. That night, the dead come out of their graves and walk into the nearby swamp. The party follows the dead people to a necromancer’s tower. They deal with the necromancer, and everyone gets experience points.
So does that description have anyone on the edge of their seats desperate to run that sort of adventure? Of course not. It is very short and very bland. Sure it gets the information across, but it is not exciting. And really, an adventure like this should be exciting!
More and more RPGs are coming out that encourage the players to participate in the story and the creation of the world. I love this direction our hobby is taking! Of course, that actually makes a GMs job even harder when it comes to bringing everyone’s world to life.
So today I’d like to share some tips that others have shared with me over the years about bringing your world to life.

1: Building the Foundation

It is the Game Master’s job to build the foundation that the game’s story is built upon. And not just the campaign as a whole, but every scene of every adventure of every campaign needs a good foundation. When you skip laying out the foundation, the game often stalls and players will likely sidetrack in unhelpful directions.
Introductory descriptions are a HUGE part of this! If you want players to feel safe spending the night in a village, tell them how friendly everyone smiles at them as they approach. Describe the few shabby wooden buildings so they know this is a poor community. Point out that the tanner smells horrible so they remember he has been working.
By establishing the foundation to this scene, the players are more likely to behave a certain way. They have been drawn into the world that their actions will now shape. And it will come as much more of a shock when the bodies start clawing their way out of their graves.

2: Give NPCs Their Own Agendas

Once the foundation is established, a big part of the game becomes an exchange of reactions. The players react to the foundation, the GM reacts to the players, and the players react to the GM’s reaction. This is good since it keeps the player characters engaged in the story.
To go one step further in making the world feel real, be sure that NPCs have agendas of their own. If everything is a reaction game, then the players will feel like the world only exists on their schedule and have trouble getting vested into the world.
Have an NPC do something on their own. Sure the undead are trekking through the marsh with listless expressions and a faint green glow in their eyes (or eye sockets), but other NPCs live in the village too! Maybe a young teenage couple follows the undead into the swamp, giving the players another hook to follow the story (and some serious consequences if they do not pursue the story to the next step). Plus there is a whole new level of plot for your players to consider: are the kids in on what is going on?
While the answer to that question is probably a resounding NO, the fact that you are getting players to consider such things already reveals that you are getting players invested in the story from different angles. They will take NPC motivations seriously, as well as the consequences of their actions because they believe what they do really matters. They are invested in the world.

3: Keep the Action Going

The oldest piece of advice I remember reading about an RPG is to have a bad guy kick in the door whenever something slows down. For those games that are not quite as combat-heavy, the principle still holds the same: keep the action going. Otherwise you will get lulls that become boring, and that will often cost you the player investment that you worked so hard to obtain.
If the players are watching cautiously, trying to plan on how to approach the large stone tower that has shows signs of slowly sinking into the swamp over the years, have one of the teens run in while the other one stays behind. If they still try to discuss a plan, throw a flash of green light coming from the tower. Then have some undead come out of the tower after the villager that stayed outside.
At some point, the players will try to stop things from happening. They will push into the tower and likely avoid exploring every room because there is a sense of urgency. They need to deal with the necromancer NOW. Excitement has built up for the final confrontation!

4: Throw Those Curveballs!

Player characters are going to throw you some surprises, and you really should do the same. The discovery of surprise is one of the biggest appealing experiences an RPG offers, and without it a game can lose a lot of steam really fast!
The players expect an epic battle with a necromancer, but why not make it interesting by having the necromancer turn out to be a vampire. The players are shocked! They are not at a high enough level to deal with a vampire. The direct approach is suddenly a frightening prospect, and they will want to consider alternative ways of dealing with this menace.
Of course the necromancer is not really a vampire. He is just able to cast an Alter Appearance spell to create the illusion while his bubbling cauldron maintains the actual spell that animates the undead. If the players commit to the combat, or if they are clever enough in a social encounter, then they will be able to discover the trick and react to the amateur charlatan’s deception as they see fit, making the conclusion even more exciting.

5: Listen To the Players

We as GMs love feedback. We want to know that our players are having fun, that they enjoy our game and our story, and we want to know how to make the game even more fun. Most players are not going to communicate any of that directly, even if they are asked, so be sure to listen to the players while you play.
Put their suggestions into your world. Character backgrounds, city building, and repeat reactions are big clues at what the players are looking for. Even better than answers to the question “What do you want in this game?” because really, who actually knows what they want?
If the players want to capture the necromancer alive, give them a chance to do so. If one of the players expects him to bolt at the first chance, have him bolt but give that player’s character a chance to stop him. If the party wants more combat, throw in a swamp gator for the trip back. If they keep trying to talk their way out of situations, give them some angry parents to talk to when they get back to the village. If they talk about turning one of the kids into a follower, have that teen follow the PC party out of town.
And if the players complain about how something happened, like the village not being able to pay them much, either set up a new encounter with bandits that have just scored big or else play up the gratitude of the peasants so much that the party still feels appreciated without a shiny reward.

Q?: Closing Thoughts

I would highly recommend watching Critical Role, visiting Gnome Stew, and logging into the forums of whatever RPG system you fancy for more tips and tricks at making your game more fun for everyone involved.
And as always, I would love to hear from you as well so feel free to share some tips of your own right here!

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Author: Burn Everything Gaming

Website that mostly produces Actual Play Podcast as well as game reviews and other musings on the topic. Hope you enjoy.

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