Becoming a Dungeon Master: Bringing Your World To Life

So after a week off and letting you run a few sessions on your own, I wanted to let that sit and digest. I’m sure you’re still learning the ropes and the rules by heart, but all of that will come with time.

So this week, we will talk about breathing more life into your already living world. If you missed the last segment you can find it here.

How you describe your world and its personalities mattesr to your players; from the smallest blades of grass to the grandest cities, how you describe your world will pull your players in. We will discuss why I feel details matter in your world,  the use of your senses,  and how to give identity to your NPCs and settlements.

Why Details Matter

“The devil’s in the details” is an idiom for a reason. There is meaning in between the lines, and hidden in the details. Think of the details of your world as if they were blades of grass; the more blades of grass, the more things you can hide and surprise your players with.

It Engrosses Your Players

When you set up a detailed stage for your players, you paint a vivid picture for them. In doing that, it pulls your players in and gives them an accurate representation of what is around them.

Say your players walk into a capital city. What do they see? Who do they hear shouting? What does the air smell like? A city can give your players ample opportunities for engagement if they know what’s around them.

When you describe your environment, you could be overly simple and abbreviated. Or you could describe the people, ground texture, smell of the air, and the sounds filling the characters’ ears.

It Gives Your Players Reasons to Look Around

A player is more inclined to interact with random NPCs that you paint interestingly. If you narrate that the players see a group of gnomes huddled around a cart in the market square, as there is shouting from one cart to another, they would be more inclined to check out the hubbub.

They could also engage the gnomes themselves, giving you opportunity to RP with your players with an NPC that doesn’t even mean a huge deal to the story. Even if it was in passing or a simple conversation about the weather or government, that small interaction the players have with the world brings them in at such an intimate level.

If you describe the buildings that surround them, they will feel like they are a part of the town. And the more detail you add to important buildings, the more inclined your players will feel to investigate. If they are traveling down a road and you describe the weather, atmosphere and maybe the sound of a nearby creek, your players may want to venture off the path. In doing that, they now give you opportunity to make up an encounter or even side-quest on the fly.

It’s Just Fun

Honestly, the details are one of the most enjoyable parts to narrating, for me. I love painting the picture of the world to my players and seeing them stare into space as they develop that photograph in their minds’ eyes. I find it so incredibly satisfying to see that spark in my players’ eyes when I mention a detail, and they get an “Aha!” moment when they delve into my world.

Remember, the more blades of grass to hide interesting things, the more inclined your players will be to part those blades and see what lurks behind them.

Use Your Senses

Our senses of touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste are what gives us information about our world. So, why wouldn’t your players’ characters have the same senses?

Sight is important in describing your world, yes. But sound, smell, touch and even taste can give your players crucial information, given the proper context. And while doing that, will also suck them deeper into your universe.

Sight

Sight is the obvious primary sense all story-tellers go for when painting the canvas of their world. You have a “mind’s eye” for a reason; you close your eyes and you can easily picture a memory, a scene, or a fantasy.

There isn’t much to talk about regarding sight, other than it is the bare-bones method in narration. You will need to at least describe to your players what surrounds them, what their characters see and what’s available to them.

Sound

Sound is the next lair of detail description you will want to employ. You can get away with solely visual imagery, yes, but sound can add more depth to your environment. Sound will add emotion and tone (no pun intended) to your scene.  If your players have a soundscape to imagine, the movies in their heads will be more in sync with what you’re describing.

You can describe to your players that they are “walking through a green forest”. Or, you can narrate “walking through a green forest, with the sounds of birds chirping in the canopy, and the sound of a brook whispering nearby”.  Your players now have not only a vivid scene to play with, but information at their disposal; the druid knows there are birds he can talk to and the ranger knows that water nearby can lead to hydration and survival.

The music in the tavern is uplifting! The townsfolk must be a happy crowd! But, what if the band isn’t very good? Well, the tavern probably can’t afford the best around. Is it sad? Something must be bothering the musicians.

The party hears the clinking of china and the low rumble and murmur of the dinner crowd at a nice restaurant. The crackling of firewood swaddling the babbling of a boiling stew on the hearth.

Describing soundscapes to your players will not only give them valuable information, but pull them up to their ears in your narrative.

Smell and Touch

Sight and sound are details you will want to focus on until you perfect the craft of scene construction. Once you’re comfortable with describing the scene in a timely manner, (you don’t want to bog your session down stumbling over words and getting way too specific with details) you should start sprinkling in smells and touch sensations.

Smell and memory have a heavy, heavy connection called olfactory memory. And memories, as you know, can lead to vivid images in your mind’s eye. Knowing this tidbit of science, you would be surprised at how far mentioning the smell of the dirt or a beer soaked floorboard can go.  Chances are, you are going to describe a scent to one of your players that will trigger a cascade of memories and even emotional responses.

Touch can be tricky, and can be used in contextually appropriate situations; describing the feeling of their enemy’s blood being slick on the hilt of their sword. The feeling of rocks shifting under their feet. The cool, summer breeze tickling their neck under the blazing summer sun.

Using scent and touch sparingly to add accents to your scene can do wonders, once you practice the craft of storytelling. But remember, not to bog yourself down; practice makes perfect, which leads to efficiency.

Your NPCs are Alive

Your NPCs are alive and have personalities. They have interests, motives, and feelings. Even if an NPC has no connection to the story or quest, their presence and interactions can still add to the world.

They are the living, breathing, and thinking bodies of your universe who have names. They are the ones who witness the actions of your party. Your NPCs are the ones who bear grudges against the party member who swindled them out of gold. They add depth to your players’ interactions with the world.

They also add risk.

I mentioned that NPCs are living and breathing organisms in your fantasy world. They also have eyes and a conscience. The risk comes from their witnessing of evil or selfish acts. It comes from civilians finding a body out of the context of battle or self defense. The average person would not stand idly by as they see a sketchy stranger pickpocket their neighbor. They would report them to the authorities or even take matters into their own hands.

If your players are in a criminal hideout, they have to ensure that they aren’t only convincing the crime boss their speaking to, but the entire room of his goons also watching.

Your players have to think before they act or speak.

Finally, random NPCs that your players walk up to and interact with hold potential for fun mini side-quests. But that’s something you don’t have to worry about until you are proficient in “on-the-fly quest building”. Sometimes, that can feel disjointed and unnatural, if you aren’t practiced in it. However, you can use those unexpected and random interactions to gently guide your players to the actual quest hooks. Sort of miniature and subtle hooks.

Conclusion

Your world is a living, breathing, thinking landscape. It reacts to your players’ interactions, Do your world justice and paint it with brightly colored swatches from the pallet of techniques at your disposal!

Describe the crashing of the ocean waves against the rocks, while the salty smelling sea air caresses their cheeks, as they stand on a cliff, watching the sunset. Describe the babbling of a busy tavern after a parade filled with the smell of expended firecrackers and fried deserts.

Paint the picture of random gnome NPCs whispering amongst themselves about rumors they heard of nearby dungeons. And describe the smell of sulfur and the heat of fire they feel when they come face to face with angry dragons.

Published by

Erick Schwartz

Writer and streamer! My life is Star Wars with The Witcher a close second, introduced to me via the books! Video games are a big hobby of mine, and include driving, space and flight sims, fighting, and story-driven games!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.