Breathing in Life: 5 Ways to Make Your Campaign World Feel Real

According to the basic history of the D&D World, the Primordials fashioned the world from the raw stuff of the Elemental Chaos. When they were done, they rested, and it was at this time that the Gods came and breathed life into the world.
In a way, I feel like one big difference between a decent DM or GM is just that. Using the basic building blocks you’ve been given by a game, anyone can create a campaign. It takes a little something more to breathe in life. And when it happens, it’s a very special thing.

Now, I know every campaign world I create is a fantasy place. I know that no NPC I create had ever lived or walked or breathed. I know that I can never visit, in the flesh, the countries I’ve coaxed from my mind.

And yet, when a game is going really well, I can sometimes believe that the world I’ve made is a real place. I can feel like I could almost touch it…almost cross some invisible barrier and go there.

Needless to say, having spent thirty-two years with a hobby of inventing worlds and adventures, I’ve pinpointed some commonalities in the games I’ve run that’ve given me this feeling. I’d like to share with you some of the tricks I’ve picked up for making your world feel a bit more like a real place.

Consistency is Key

I’m going to lead off with the absolute most important rule. If you want your world to feel real, then, like the real world, facts can’t change without reason.

I’m not saying that facts can’t change; you want your world to evolve in a natural way. What I mean is that, if you describe Lord Mugwort as a man with red hair one week and bald the next, then your players are going to stop buying into the world’s reality, and then you will as well. In fact, if you let that happen, I would say you’ve given up already.

Perhaps the simplest way to keep track of campaign consistency is to keep a bible for your campaign. No, I don’t mean a book with lots of begetting in it…I mean a document in which you set down details that you can go back and refer to later on, as in a writer’s bible. Personally, I’ve taken to using the fantastic website Obsidian Portal to make a wiki for my campaigns. Since it lets me put certain entries as GM only, as well as having GM only portions of entries that my players can’t see and secrets I can share with specific players, I find it a very useful living document I can share with my players. There are lots of other similar resources out there, as well.

Visual (and Other Senses) Reference

I’ve written before about appealing to your players’ senses in order to enhance a game’s experience. What I may not have made clear is that this is also a fantastic tool for enhancing your campaign’s realism.

When I made a wiki for my Beyond the Mountains of Madness, I combed through dozens of webpages with photos from the 1920s and 1930s. I made sure that all the main characters, and some of the minor characters, had photos in their entries. I also found photos of the kind of ship they were sailing on, some of the areas of Antarctica (and elsewhere) they visited, and more. I also used music from the 20s and 30s to enhance scenes and set the feeling of the game world. This created a false reality that everyone could buy into, and it made the whole campaign become more real for us.

For my D&D game, I scour websites like National Geographic for great photos of natural places. I also track down photo albums from Renaissance Faires and movies set in Medieval Europe or similar settings. I add these photos to my wiki, giving my players a picture to think of when they encounter an NPC or visit a specific place.

I also use specific types of music not only to set a mood, but to establish the nature and character of a location or people. When the players are visiting the Halfling bayous, I use Acadian Fiddle Music to set a specific feel. The eladrin get Celtic flutes, while the related elves get Native American flute music. The mysteries of the Summerling church are represented by Byzantine sacred music, while harsh metallic drums and brass instruments herald the hobgoblins of Gristamere.

In some cases, I even like to serve certain foods to suggest the culture that reflects them. Spicy Halfling cuisine. Thick wheat breads from the bread-basket lands of Summerlund. Hearty, aged, dwarven cheese. Dried fruits and nuts from the elven forests of Faerinwold. Exotic curries from far away Velnar. Anything that makes the culture a little more real is worthwhile.

Trivialities and Traditions

Mother Ableby is a genius with marzipan and sometimes makes confections in the shape of fanciful characters and creatures, including a set of figures of the player characters. The corrupt gnome town reeve, Gyzzel Markrand, is never seen outside without his expensive fur hat. “Madman” Muldoon loves the pigs he gave up adventuring to raise, and he has them sleep in his house to keep them safe. Are any of these details campaign makers or breakers? No. Do they make these people seem more real? Of course they do. My players love Mother Ableby for making those marzipan figures. They hate the Reeve, and I wouldn’t be shocked if they go after that hat, eventually. They have respect and like for the irascible Muldoon, and they’ve helped work on his pig-sty…which he’s never quite satisfied with enough to move the pigs out of his cozy home.

Trivial details can go a long way towards turning a set of stats into a person who seems real to your players. Likewise, trivial details can make a place seem real as well. The Jolly Waterman Tavern and Inn almost always has a rowdy crowd of Halfling river-workers. When the players head through Ostford Keep, they can expect the plump Lord Folthos Brookfield to try and impress them with the bounty of his table. When they get home to Seowyn’s Crossing, at least one of them makes it a point to visit the Furrows, the family of the childhood friend who didn’t make it to adulthood. These locations have meaning to my players, and that helps them to feel real.

Holidays are a marvelous way to give character and tradition to your games as well. Highsummer is a time of warmth and play, when many young lovers slip off into the brightly lit night. During New Year, presents are exchanged, lanterns are lit, and the God of Death is said to quietly stalk through the deserted night streets. At the Spring Faire, a young woman of the village is elected the Spring Queen and then courted by the young men for her favor. Nothing here that will alter a campaign, although any of them could have stories around them, but they can become something your players expect and look forward to.

Props

I’ve done a whole article on props, and I won’t repeat it here. I’m only mentioning them in as much as they can make things feel more realistic in your game. I recently found a small necklace that could be opened to reveal a small storage space. I made a tiny map and folded it up, placing it inside. When my players were handling it, one spotted this face and opened it. His big grin when he found the map was very rewarding. If they’d all missed it, I would’ve called for a Perception check, or used passive Perception, but this was a fun way to make the discovery of the map more real.

Another great moment was when I found a number of matching earrings. One of my players has a shifter ranger whose family was wiped out by goblins, and all she has to go on is an earring she ripped off in her struggle with them. I gave her player one of the earrings when the game started, and it was great when I then had an NPC toss another one of the earrings on the table, showing that he knew where to find the goblins the ranger had been searching for. It was a very cool moment to see the emotions on the player’s face while handling the earring. These moments definitely made the scene seem that much more real.

Beyond the Players

One more big piece of advice here: the players are and should be the focus of your campaign world, but they shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all. There’s a lot of wisdom that suggests that you should start with a small region and not develop details you don’t need. I agree with this idea, in general, but I think it’s naïve to only develop things your players will see firsthand. I think you can make some minor details available to help your players believe in the world you’ve created.

For example, if none of your players are playing dwarves, it’s sort of senseless to write the history of a dwarven kingdom they’re unlikely to ever visit. On the other hand, knowing some basic details about this dwarven nation is useful if you have a group of dwarves show up from this country. It will mean that these dwarves won’t just be generic; they’ll have an identity, and they’ll mean something in your game. They’ll help to make it all more real.

Your Turn

Do you have any tricks that you use to make your games more real to your players? Has a GM ever really made a game, setting, or NPC feel very vividly real for you? Let us all know about it.

About GGG

Andy/GGG is a gay geek guy for sure. He's been playing D&D since he was 10, and he equates reading Tolkien with religion to some degree. He's a writer/developer for a Live Action RPG called The Isles, and he writes a comic called Circles, a gay, furry slice-of-life piece that comes out way too infrequently.

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