One of the nicest things people have said about my various RPG campaigns is that they tend to feel like real places that the players get a glimpse into on a weekly (or so) basis. They look forward to visiting places that they like, they actually smile or scowl when certain NPCs pop up, and they’re always looking for news and rumors of distant places.
It’s nonsense, of course, on one level. My world doesn’t actually go on living when the players aren’t there. But I’ve managed to create the illusion of the world changing and evolving through a series of tricks I’ve learned over the years.
I thought I’d share some of the tips I’ve picked up with you, my gentle readers. These are some tricks for making your players feel that, contrary to the world shutting down when they’re not there, it keeps going without them.
Rumors from Afar
Back in the days of 1st Edition D&D, we got the first Oriental Adventures handbook. While I wasn’t hugely interested in running a campaign set in a fantasy Asia, there was something in it that fascinated me and got lots and lots of use. There was a table of events that you could roll on for each region of your campaign world. You could use this to develop stories, to help with characters asking for news from abroad, and so on. I embraced this concept wholeheartedly, developing huge calendars of events for all the regions of my campaign world and keeping track of them in a notebook that looked something like a database spreadsheet.
While I no longer feel bound to do a ton of random table rolling, I do think about what’s happening in those parts of the world that are relatively close to where the characters are, or where they’re likely to be. Then, when my players meet travelers on the road, or are listening to rumors in a tavern, I can speak about rumors, even having the travelers contradict one another. “I’ve heard that the orcs are massing in the south due to an insult given by the southern barbarians.” “Well, I heard they’re seeking something down there, and the insult is just an excuse.”
In the “Sandbox with Benefits” model I’ve described in previous articles, the rumor mill is a tremendous tool for me. I can throw out tidbits that might be stories and see which ones the players are interested in. Right at the beginning of my campaign, the player character were hearing rumors of a brewing war in the south with orcs. Now, months later, they followed up on these rumors, and the orcish war is currently the central storyline.
In real life, people don’t stay static. Relationships change. People take on new jobs. People move away. People die, and new people are born. If the NPCs in your game stay static, then they seem more like the NPCs in a computer game…always there, waiting for the PCs to come and talk to them, with no life of their own.
I’m a huge fan of the Ultima series of computer games, and I’ve played them all. In Ultima 1-4, the NPCs stay static, with no movements. They are, literally, only there for the PCs to talk to. In Ultima 5, they added a little touch that made a huge difference. NPCs were given paths and locations based on the time of day. An NPC might be sleeping at night, go to visit her husband in jail in the morning, go into a shop to run it during the day, head to the tavern for dinner, then visit her husband again, then go home and go to sleep.
This little element made a tremendous jump in the reality of Britannia for me. The people suddenly seemed so much more real to me, because they weren’t just standing in one place, waiting for me. They seemed to have their own lives, which I imagined were still going on when I left town.
NPCs in your campaign should feel the same way. When the PCs have been away from a town a while, I do a little thinking about what might be transpiring there after they leave. Did I hint that the town cobbler was romantically interested in a barmaid? I might have the two more obviously involved when the PCs come in next time, or I might go the opposite route and have the barmaid flirting with the blacksmith while the cobbler watches, broken-hearted. Maybe the PCs will step in and encourage the cobbler to be brave, or encourage him to find a new interest. Are these details significant? Well, no. But they will make things feel more real.
Weather Or Not…
It’s funny…there’s something in our culture so basic and prevalent that talking about it has almost become a watch-word for having a banal conversation. But despite this, it’s pretty rare to hear it mentioned in a game, unless it’s to illustrate an extreme. I’m speaking, of course, about the weather
While it’s all good to set an exciting battle during a thunderstorm, or to talk about a blinding blizzard, these tend to be extremes. Most days are straightforward, with average weather, but it’s nice to know when it’s average and when it’s not.
I use a random weather generator to jot some notes about what the weather is in the area the PCs are traveling in. While I don’t tell my players the weather every moment of every day, I can say things like, “Your journey of a week is mostly overcast, punctuated by occasional showers. It’s unusually warm for this time of year.” Once again, it’s not a crucial detail. It’s just a little thing, but it enhances the reality of the game world.
I’m not going to suggest that you should be aware of the intricacies of a world economy, but it doesn’t hurt to know some sweeping details. I don’t know the in-and-outs of supply and demand in my world, but I can tell you that the Dwarves of Kurdenheim trade coal to the halflings of Dalenshire for swamp pepper along a series of rivers that’re referred to as the Pepper Route.
Not only does a little detail like this make the place feel real, it also makes for possible story fodder. If there’s a bad year for swamp peppers, then the halflings might be in for a cold winter. This could lead to all kinds of stories, as the PCs try to help their halfling friends, or the halflings move further south along their rivers, causing them to come into conflict with the yuan-ti who live in the bayous.
It doesn’t take a ton of effort to add a few details that can make the difference in your campaign world feeling real. If it seems like a world with real world details like an economy, weather, a calendar, a history, and people who live and grow, your players will come to appreciate it for itself and not just a tableau that waits for them to come in and experience it.
Do you think I go too far in what I do to make my campaign live? Do you have your own tricks to make your campaign world come alive? Share your thoughts with all of us.