How to Bring Your World to Life

I am often asked by rookie game masters how to bring their game to life. What they are actually asking is, how do you get players to visualise the world? If a player can visualise their character in the world, or if they can see themselves as that character, then they have achieved suspension of disbelief. This get your players more involved in your game.

How do you get your players to suspend disbelief?

Use vivid scene descriptions. For example, how would we describe the fight between Annakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi’s just before Anakin is turned into Darth Vader on Mustafar?

How about:

The base is disintegrating around you. You move to the outer section to chase Annakin, now known as Darth Vader. The heat beyond the shielding is intense because the base is perched high above a river of lava with many supporting beams stretching out over it.  Far below you see mining droids moving about the lava flow. You also see many hover platforms for collecting minerals floating just above the lava.

Ah Star Wars, big personalities and even larger stage!
This description provides lots of details. And details creates immersion. In addition, the description creates tension. There’s danger afoot, there’s a chase underway, and there are a few clues about potential choices the players might make.

However, description only takes you so far. We can make a player aware of the environment with a description, but you also want to evoke an experience. And you want this experience to evoke emotion.

The tool we use to do this is often overlooked, and that is the tool known as the Non Player Character (NPC).

How to use NPCs to make your game more believable

A good NPC evokes emotion and attachment to your campaign. If players are commenting that your NPCs feel two dimensional, then those NPCs are wasting space in your adventure.

Every NPC in your game does not need to be well developed with a full backstory and a practiced mannerism, though key NPCs that interact closely with the player characters (PCs) should have some design consideration.

Consider the above description of Mustafar with the following text added to it:

Player (of Obi-Wan): I say to him “You were the Chosen One! It was said you would destroy the Sith, not join them! Bring balance to the Force, not leave it in darkness!”
DM : He sneers his utter contempt at you. You feel his hatred of you as a palpable thing and know he is fully given over to the dark side. He spits the following words at you as his face twists into an inhuman grimace: “I hate you!”

Player (of Obi-Wan): “You were my brother, Anakin. I loved you.”

This interaction turns the fiery hell of Mustafar into an emotional experience where the greatest conflict of both Jedi is played out metaphorically and literally. It is this interaction of player with NPC that causes this scene to be so memorable.

In the above example, it would be essential to have statistics for Darth Vader at hand because play would be interspersed with their battle as the mine collapses around them. But you can still achieve the same feeling with NPCs that have no statistics as long as you have planned their purpose in the adventure.

Think about why you need the NPC

Plan your big moments with your NPC’s in mind
Try to think of the scenes you want to create in your night’s adventure and imagine how they will play out. Try and predict what your players will do. Maybe they are heading into the underbelly of Coruscant trying to chase a bounty hunter that interfered with their last mission.

Where will the players need to ask the questions? Maybe seedy bars? If so, you can plan a few bar names and plot your bartenders.

Do you want the players to find the bounty hunter with little problem? Then have the bartender respect the characters and hand them the information in good faith. If you want them to work for it, make the bartender a surly type that does not react well to authority but is willing to give information at a price.

The more you understand the purpose of the NPC the better you can play it. Every NPC you develop past the the role of an extra should have a purpose. Think about that purpose and why you want the NPC to fill it.

NPC creation can be as easy as a few short notes
Consider how they can be represented and what they will likely do in response to your players’ actions. Your game still requires extras (people in the seedy bar the players aren’t interacting with, the hustle of the regular Coruscant populace, etc.) but they are just backdrop and require little preparation.

Also, expect your players to want to interact with NPCs you haven’t developed. Be prepared for this. Have a website name generator open on your tablet or some names written down so you can assign a name at the drop of a hat. The players will think you have prepared the character as you ad lib their response and further bolster their suspension of disbelief. Record the name in a notebook and develop the character for later in case they want to track them down later.

The NPC is one of the most powerful tools in the GM’s toolbox. The setting description helps players visualise their surroundings, but it is the interactions with the denizens and people of the campaign that will bring your game to life for your group.

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