Welcome back to The Beginner’s Guide for Dungeon Masters series, the step-by-step guide to help new DMs plunge into the world of Dungeon Mastering. Last time, we talked about building a compelling plot and setting. Today, we will focus on ways to make your world come alive for your players. There are several ways to do this, and several tools you can use to help you on the way. For the sake of making this simpler, I’m going to use an example setting and plot to illustrate what I’m saying – in this case, bandits attacking trade lines, preventing critical supplies from reaching temples to aid in healing. The main plot is obvious – go kill those bandits so the temples can get their healing supplies. Easy, right?
But how do you make your game come alive with this plot? Make radiant events that occur because the main plot is unresolved. The city lacks healing supplies. Have encounters that reflect a lack of healing supplies coming into town. Want to buy a healing potion? It’s 300 gold now that the supply is so low. Temple courtyards are filled with the sick, who are too numerous to be treated. Temple services and spellcasting are hampered or nonexistent as they are too overwhelmed by the lack of supplies. People who could be treated on a normal day perish. Guards are less willing to intervene in violent conflicts for fear of being untreated, and this leads to increased criminal activity. Riots break out as criminals raid the storage warehouse that keeps a supply of medical goods stockpiled in case of emergencies, causing the shortage to get worse and flooding the black market with stolen healing supplies. A shopkeeper is asking for donations. His wife is sick, and without her regular care from the temple clerics, she will slowly and painfully perish. Already she is bedridden, unable to move and struggling to breathe. He offers his entire life savings if the adventurers can get the supply lines open again, or at least arrange for his wife to be cared for through the conflict. These are all radiant, indirect events triggered by the main plot that serve to reinforce the urgency of the story. The players can still interact with it, however they wish, but the world continues to move with or without their direct input. The world is living.
This is the first and biggest part – the main plot has consequences that should be felt elsewhere, whenever logical. It helps with immersion. But another important thing to consider is that many times, the world continues on like normal, with absolutely nothing unusual happening. Don’t let your players just travel from point A to B with no events. Here we move to a discussion on random events and Encounter Tables. Encounter Tables allow you to roll a dice to determine what, if any, events occur as the party travels. These events can be harmless, like a grand opening of a clothing shop or a broken cabbage card blocking the road, while some might require a perception check to even notice, like a pickpocket coming to take whatever they can. Events can happen anywhere, wilderness or city or sewer. The goal of random encounters is to build ambiance in the game without breaking up the flow of the session too much.
Encounter Tables are super easy to do. Sit down with a sheet of paper and make a list of random encounters. Lists have no set length; brainstorm until you have anywhere from 20 to 70 ideas, depending on the area. For example, in a bustling city like Waterdeep, I’ve made two lists of 100 separate and unique events. One for the daytime, and one for the night, because a lot can happen in the big city. But in the middle of a desert, you might be pushing yourself to come up with 15 logical encounters. If making your own encounter list is hard, don’t worry – Wizards of the Coast has you covered. In Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, they have an entire chapter of premade encounter lists for a large variety of settings, with 4 lists for each setting geared towards different level ranges for your party. It’s extremely helpful if you need something to reference on the fly.
Once you have your Encounter Table made, assign a number to everything on the list, anywhere from one to one hundred. You will have to assign a range of numbers to some event options, so pick the ones you want to see happen most to give the widest range. Then, you can roll a d20 to see if the party encounters an event. In a bustling city, that might occur on an eleven or higher. On the road, it might only happen on a roll of eighteen or higher. But when the dice dictate the event is going to occur, roll a d100 and refer to your table for the event! Little events like this let your players see into the world a little more, give more opportunities for roleplay, and occasionally introduce NPCs that the party fall in love with, or open up new angles to approach the main quest line. Using the example above, if the party is pickpocketed by a member of the same criminal group that has been causing trouble, you can have them chase down the pickpocket to a safehouse for the gang. Now, suddenly, the party is in a hostile area and notices a crate full of healing potions. Suddenly, the random encounter has come full circle back to the central driving plot of your game, with the players in the unique position of having a ton of healing supplies to do with as they please… assuming they survive the encounter with the thugs and pickpockets first!
Finally, give your NPCs character whenever possible. That’s not to say every single NPC has to be super memorable, but your players will be more invested in a world where the people they interact with feel real and fleshed out. A bored store manager who is very tired and burned out of his job is much more interesting to interact with than “what’ll it be today” every single time. Describe how the NPC carries themselves, speak like someone who is pulling a double because the other guy called out, make the person as alive as possible, and your world will feel more alive as well. Describe their appearance, that sunken look in their eyes from lack of sleep and the stress-induced receding hairline. Can you see this guy in your head? So can your players, and they’ll remember him for the next time. They might even bring him a coffee. Again, don’t overdo it. It’s ok to have fully neutral interactions with NPCs. But every once in a while? Give the players someone memorable or, at the very least, three dimensional. You might find they go back to that NPC in particular because they liked them. You never know until you give your players the opportunity to interact with what you’ve made.
These are some of the most useful tricks that I use when I DM my game for my friends. Detail is your friend, and even just describing the difference between a brand-new sword and one that’s seen plenty of use can be enough to bring your world a little more alive. These tools I’ve given you will help with that. Remember the most important rule, though: If your players are having fun, you’re doing a good job. There’s no such thing as a perfect Dungeon Master, just ones who have been doing it longer than others, and everybody has a different style. You’ll get better and better, and more comfortable with your own style of DMing, but first you have to start. So, go run that game that’s been bouncing around in your head this whole time!
See you next session!
Kenny, Dungeon Master Extraordinaire