This sounds like something a drama teacher would say, but don’t worry, I mean something very specific by it, which I’ll go into in detail. This is the Advanced section of Rule #2: Present your checks properly. Like that rule, it focuses on GMing manner, and how you present the game to the players. Unlike the previous article, though, I’ll dive into a lot of detail, and use some ideas plundered from philosophy to try to explain how we make our worlds and characters feel like real places and people, and how you can do this better. Keep it real, Spiderlings.
Advanced: I am the lore!
1: Never reveal when you’ve been improvising. I spoke a little on this in an article over on the “player tips” thread. The key point here is a concept known as “intersubjectivity”. This is the idea, roughly, that the fiction of the game world is made to feel more real because it’s independent of any one player’s knowledge (although not independent of every player’s knowledge). First, there are statistics and rules agreed on by everyone that give as close to a sense of objectivity as is possible, given the sort of thing an RPG is (meaning: Made up). But that’s just the skeleton of the game – the really interesting thing is that the existence of other people at the table means you can forget or misremember things that are true in the fiction, and be reminded or corrected by other people at the table. This wouldn’t work if you were the only one playing.
The GM is an important part of this equation. The fact that they know things about the world that the players don’t means the players can have the experience of exploring the world and discovering things in it, rather than wandering around a film set that’s being built as they move through it. This, though, requires that everything the players encounter have the appearance of being set in stone. If the GM cops to improvising a particular scene or character, then the illusion of an explorable world shatters; the players realise that the fiction is, really, entirely subject to the GM’s whims.
Think of it like this: Every world in the video game Minecraft is randomly generated, which means that each world is different. But as soon as you generate a world, it is set – the world won’t change, except for ordinary tings like animals moving around, plants growing etc. The game generates different wide areas as you go to them, but, importantly, according to a predetermined formula, meaning that those areas too are effectively set at the point where the world is generated. This means that every dungeon and seam of precious minerals is there from the outset for you to go and find, and they’ll still be there even if you don’t find them.
Now imagine if you knew that the game only generated ten feet around you at any given time, and did so in a way that was different every time you played, so there’s no sense in which the world is predetermined. Suddenly it ceases to be a game about exploration and finding what’s out there, and becomes a game about rolling the dice to see what comes up next. This doesn’t necessarily entail a difference in gameplay, but it is a very different experience. You’re no longer an explorer discovering a strange land; you’re more like Jim Carey in The Truman Show.
Players know that the GM must improvise some things sometimes. But players also have a tendency to think the GM thoroughly plans a lot more of the material in the game than they do. As Sly Flourish notes, you can get by improvising a dungeon with some tight, consistent theming, and by hitting the right beats at the right moments, and the players will be none the wiser. Another good trick is to keep a list of various items, and when the players ask to search a room, throw them one or two that make sense. This way you never have to have an empty room, but you also don’t have to populate every room with distinct items that might never be found, just in case the players search it. You’ll know that this is an arbitrary handout, but the players will think they’ve been smart and found something (this works for when you need an NPC in a pinch too). In the Minecraft example, the ten-foot-world could be how the game actually works, but provided you think the world is already there, you’ll still feel like you’re exploring. Treat your notes as a black box, and whenever the players discover something, they’ll assume you put it there intentionally, and that it was there all along.
(To my players: I never use any of the advice given above; I populate every house, keep and dungeon room, and create names, backstories and motivations for all of my NPCs, who exist and go about their business whether you encounter them or not, honest.)
2: Use neutral phrasing. Tricky one, this. A lot of the fun of D&D comes from larking about with your friends, doing stupid or inadvisable things with hilarious consequences. I’m not here to tell you not to join in with the banter, as if the GM has to remain po faced and aloof to run an effective game. Quite the contrary; you’ll run a better game if you join in with the fun. But GMs have a habit of poking fun at their players for attempting things they construe as hare-brained. The phrase “I suppose you can try“, often accompanied by a small smirk, is a classic one for GMs, and earns rightful player dread. It also, often, stops the game flat, as the player tries to back off mid-action and renegotiate. Crucially, what the player is doing when they do this is attempting to guess the GM’s mind. This is one of the worst things to happen to the game; the players are no longer engaging with the fiction, they are trying to guess what you think the one right answer is. In this sense, The Smirk (as I’ll call it for short) is very distantly related to the phenomenon known as railroading; it tells the players that there’s an answer that GM already has in mind, and any off-the-wall plans they might have don’t have a hope in hell of succeeding. A few instances of The Smirk won’t ruin your game, by any stretch, but overuse will turn your game into Phoebe Ball.
This is the exact opposite of what you want – obviously, as a GM, one of your core goals is to get the players to come up with inventive and interesting solutions, and to engage with the fiction, not to try to guess your mind. But it also shows a lack of awareness of the players. Players hardly ever propose obviously foolish actions for no reason. Chances are, if you’re tempted to employ The Smirk, one of a few things has happened.
One possibility, and the most likely, is that the player missed or misunderstood some piece of crucial information that makes their plan look like it’ll obviously fail. Another possibility is that they aren’t telling you the whole plan, and you don’t understand what they’re actually up to (“I knew the Otyugh would attack me if it saw me; in fact, I was counting on it…”). Players reveal plans piecemeal like this when their relationship with the GM has an adversarial tone, and they suspect that the GM would scupper the plan rather than allow it to go through if told how it was supposed to work. Watch out for this symptom; if your players try to break up their plans into easily achievable chunks, it’s probably because they think you’d jump on any attempt to do something interesting or complex.
The last possibility is that the player is stuck, or bored, and just wants to shake up the situation by having something happen. This is the point at which to drop in a new clue or complication, or even end the scene. Unless the player in question is a noted attention hog (and few are, really), the fact that they’ve had nothing to do for so long they’ve actually started acting out is a clue that the GM needs to shake things up and get the party back on track. And this is the point about all three of these possible reasons the player could be asking to do something stupid: As a GM, they’re actually all your lookout. You can be forgiven for not making every detail clear, or even for struggling to cultivate the right sort of relationship with your players, but don’t then make fun of them for problems you’ve created. If nothing else, it only serves to exacerbate the same sorts of problems; players will be less likely to trust you to see their plans as feasible, and more inclined to play the game of trying to guess your intentions, rather than the game you want them to play.
So before you reach for The Smirk, check what the player wants to get out of the action. If they really are just confused about how plausible it is that it could work, explain the situation to them, and make sure they have a reasonable amount of information to infer the consequences. If they’re withholding plans from you, consider reminding them, gently, that their plans are more likely to succeed if they let you know how they’re supposed to pan out, rather than treating you as a human physics engine (see the previous article if cultivating this sort of player trust is proving challenging). And if their reason is “Just to see what happens”, let them get on with it, and smirk away; they are doing something stupid after all, in full knowledge of what that entails. But then make sure to drop in something to shake up the scene, or wrap it up and move on – it’s perfectly fine to treat being at a dead loss as the failure state for a scene, especially in investigation-style games. Just make sure you’re in the clear before hitting them with The Smirk; it’s fine in and of itself, but deploying it wrong can harm your relationship with your players, and thus their engagement with your game.
3: Give your world laws. This doesn’t have to mean you should give your world a codified legal system, although some idea of how that works certainly comes under this heading. It also doesn’t mean you need to run the game like a complex simulation, with factions the players have never heard of engaging in covert warfare, accurate weather patterns and such. All that stuff can be fun (I got quite into geology researching for a campaign based in the Underdark), but it doesn’t get directly at what makes players tick. The sort of law I have in mind when I say “give your world laws” is a sort of general, actionable law, meaning simply “something based on which the players can predict outcomes and act accordingly”.
This means it can be based on behaviour, statistics, and more than a little fuzzy logic. The best laws of this sort are usually generalisations about interpersonal relationships, which, as a category of “law”, are extremely prone to exceptions. Note that I said “exceptions”, and not “counterexamples”; the laws of your world are axiomatic, and are irrefutable by anyone except you. Just make sure the exceptions aren’t likely to wrong-foot any of the players’ plans.
The point of these laws is to give the players something to grab onto, so they don’t have to make decisions in a vacuum. The core of the rpg experience is making informed decisions with meaningful consequences. This means exactly what it says: Players’ choices have to affect the outcome (or they at least have to feel like they do), but even more importantly, they have to have enough information to know what choice is likely to lead to what outcome. I stand by that “even more importantly”; players will despair if they work hard to prevent an avalanche flattening the village and it happens anyway, but if they don’t even know where to start, that’ll break their engagement with the game. The first might be seen as railroading of some form, but you’ll at least have had a game – your players will have cared enough to want the town not to be flattened. There can be no such compulsion to action if the players are at a loss as to what action to take.
Managing the information the players have access to, then, is crucial to the core engagement of rpgs. This is why choosing between an identical left and right turn in a trackless dungeon is not a free choice in the sense we’re interested in here. And the exact same reason is also (as I was reminded a few weeks ago) why plonking your players down in a setting and saying “Do whatever you want” is not a free choice in the same sense. Players need laws in order to make plans and decisions, because laws allow them to see how the plans and decisions will turn out. The more detailed these plans, the more specific these laws need to be. The most basic laws, like the laws of physics, and the law that says “if you hit it enough with a sword, it will die” are not enough to come up with interesting plans. More specific laws, like “if you show the baron a picture of his ex-wife, he’ll fly into a bloodthirsty rage”, are good for the sorts of plans you want to encourage, although you have to take care to a) telegraph them, and b) keep them fairly open, rather than gearing them to a specific outcome you want to see – remember that you want to have your players be inventive, not be guessing what you think the right solution is.
More than this, laws give your setting a distinctive feel. A homebrew setting with giant floating islands or nomadic, alien elves doesn’t by itself feel very much different than any other setting – it’s just the standard D&D high-fantasy setting that happens to have those things in. You can achieve a world that feels much more distinctive by introducing laws that are much less flashy: Elves love outsiders, but are forbidden from spending more than a week among them; anyone digging more than a certain depth in the earth is visited by a horrible plague; Dwarves get terrible vertigo, but some are obsessed with inventing flying machines. These feel deeper and more distinctive than a vista the characters might wander past – they give them something to investigate, and potentially something to leverage. Discovering these laws, if the characters didn’t know about them already, feels like discovering something about the world, not just discovering more stuff that’s in it.
Finally, lacking distinctive laws can make your setting feel cobbled together, which will impair roleplay and immersion for players. This bit applies more to homebrew settings and games set in the “generic” D&D fantasy world (technically the Forgotten Realms, but in practice usually unnamed and mapped by the GM). Again, though, failing to emphasise the distinctive laws of the world in a published module will have much the same effect. As a minimum, you should establish and convey to the players how common magic is, how the fantasy races stand to one another (How common are they? What are their relations? Are they each from a specific place?), and how powerful and out of the ordinary are the PCs and the threats they face. If you don’t let your players know where your world falls on each of these points, it will feel wooly and confused.
Take magic as a quick example: Are the people awed by simple displays of magic or other player power? If they live in a low-magic setting, why not? Do they assume it’s stage magician trickery? Do the city guards in a high magic setting pursue their duty cautiously, knowing that anyone could have magical powers, without showing any outward sign? If not, why not? Do they have magical protection, or magic of their own? What determines who has magical powers and who doesn’t? Not being clear on this sort of thing makes it hard for players to read NPCs, and makes them less believable; it’s hard to understand how they think, or think of them as coherent characters, if you can’t understand what the world looks like to them. It also makes it harder to plan; players don’t know if they have the option to wow a crowd or intimidate a guard, and don’t know if they’ll get their asses kicked or be burned as witches by an angry mob. I could honestly write a whole article about each of the aspects I mentioned above (keep an eye out for that), so I won’t pursue it further. The important takeaway is that laws (as opposed to stuff) comprise the important setting details for enabling player immersion and planning.
My suggestion, then, is this: Whether you are running a homebrew setting, a generic fantasy setting, or a published module, think of three general laws that the world of your campaign always obeys, but for a few exceptions. One of these should be clear to the players from the start, one they should have a hazy idea of, and one they should discover through play. As an example, here are mine from my current campaign (spoilers for my Vaults of Yannastra players in the following list):
1: People know about the Vaults under the city of Yannastra, but no-one is allowed down there by law. The players know this from the start. This tells them a few things: They can hide loot in the Vaults without fear of it being picked up by the citizenry; they will be the only (ahem) law-abiding citizens in the Vaults (everything else will be a monster or the more desperate ne’er-do-wells); anything they find down there will probably be secret, lost, or forgotten about; if they’re caught by the watch entering or exiting the Vaults, there’ll be trouble. All of this gives the players opportunities, leverage, and the ability to concoct plans.
2: Tieflings are especially disliked, to the point of being officially outlawed. This tells the players that it’s best to hide your identity if you’re a tiefling in Yannastra. But they only know about half the story: In the kingdoms to the south, tieflings are welcome, even seen as blessed, which they’ll discover if/when they travel there. This will feel like a real discovery, because it’s an exception to the laws the players have come to expect; it plays into and subverts something they know about and have experienced, rather than being a piece of set-dressing.
3: The only true cosmological facts concern the lawful/chaotic spectrum. The characters have no idea how this works initially, so major spoilers here: The gods all have different aspects under which they appear, with the unifying feature being their allegiance to either Order or Chaos. So the Lady, the deity the party are loosely working for, is a lawful good goddess of healing. But unbeknown to them, she is also the goddess of undeath, a manifestation of primordial Order, which gives her dominion over the keeping and passing of life, although not its creation. Much of the story will involve the characters learning smidgeons of this background – just enough pieces to, eventually, put together to deliver a revelation. This sort of law is the opposite of the previous one; rather than extending their knowledge of a law by introducing wrinkles and exceptions, it takes what facts they know and casts them in a new light. Suddenly, they can take anomalies they didn’t understand previously – the behaviour of certain undead, for instance, or similarities between (aspects of) gods with apparently different agendas – and see them as fitting under the law they’ve discovered. The world made sense all along, they just needed to see it in the right way.
This last point is ambitious to be sure – I’ll let you know how it turns out – but it shows the other way you can make your world feel more real with laws than with stuff. Laws allow you to make sense of things you don’t understand, and see why and how they happen. In the real world, we often encounter events or phenomena without understanding the principles behind them. We then learn those principles later, and come to arrange our observations in a neat structure. This shows that the world has a structure – one that isn’t instantaneously observable, and that is therefore discoverable. Putting laws into your world that are not immediately obvious in this way is the “meta” version of having a secret on your map that the players might discover or might not; it makes the world feel more real because the secret will be there independently of what the players experience. This is that “intersubjectivity” stuff I was talking about in a previous post. Of course, your players only have this experience when they actually make the discovery, which is why you should tease them with wrinkles in half understood laws (point #2 in the list), so that they know this is how the world fist together.
Lastly, because the “Laws” section has taken up more than half the post now, I picked the three laws above to demonstrate a spread of types of things that could be construed as laws in the relevant sense; a legal ruling, an interpersonal rule, and a cosmological law. So the world’s having a structure (a very wooly idea, certainly) doesn’t just mean metaphysically – it has to do with all of the activities the characters might engage in, and all the phenomena they’ll encounter. Don’t feel limited, then, in the laws you can introduce.7
What we should have established, after the long slog is done, is that presentation matters deeply; it’s not just a gloss on the rpg experience, but affects some key parts of it. As a GM, you are the mouthpiece of the world. If you come across as parochial or arbitrary, your players will lose faith in your world, and find their ability to play in it curtailed. Rule #3, then is: Present your world as if it were real.
That was a long one. Thanks for reading all the way (or at least some of it if you skipped some). I’ll try to move away from such long articles in the future – I’m still finding my “blogging voice”, and homing in on the things I want to write about. I’ll probably be doing fewer of the Golden Rules style of article, which feels a bit strident. I want to help people run and play better games, but I think getting people to think about how they run games is better for that than telling them how they should run games.