The role of DM is not just that of referee, but to create an atmosphere which will draw the players into the game. This is especially important for DnD, which can often turn into a bland exercise in rules and die-rolls. Many a DM has found himself with an every-shrinking player-base as players get worn out or lose interest.
This is hard to to well and easy to do poorly. One of the major pitfalls in trying to create this atmosphere is for the DM to become a heavy-handed story teller, rather than letting the players dictate the course of the game. This often has the opposite effect than the one desired, making the game less engaging for players, rather than more.
So here are a few approaches to creating a game atmosphere which will draw players in:
The thirst for knowledge is a powerful emotion and all exploration-based adventures are built around it. Some methods of piquing curiosity are:
- Exotic setting to discover. Tekumel uses this approach
- Remote, legendary dungeon to explore, about which little fact is initially known
- Ever-deepening political web for characters to become enmeshed in
- Mystery to solve with strange, sometimes contradictory clues/leads
- Twists! X wasn't what you expected, though perhaps you should have suspected it. This keeps players guessing, although it needs to be done in moderation
Fear is another powerful emotion which is easily lost in the plethora of rules and die rolls. It can add a lot of interest and player commitment to an adventure, though you need to counter-balance it with promise of riches, reward, etc. Fear of the Unknown is a big factor in this:
- Unknown Monsters- this can mean creating your own monsters, or simply describing a monster rather than naming it, so that players don't immediately associate it with a list of statistics. Also, renaming existing monsters, possibly with randomly generated names
- Unknown Locations- don't give too much background information about a dungeon, just fearful, possibly contradictory hints
- Variety of Traps- keeps players on their toes
- Fog of War- don't map unexplored areas, don't show enemies who the player cannot see(even if they've started shooting arrows!)
- We're walking into a trap! To proceed, players must enter area where retreat is difficult, they can be easily flanked. Monsters take advantage of this regularly.
- Real Danger to characters- players know you are willing to kill their characters, though not unfairly. Reward caution.
- The Unknowable- the ultimate fear of the unknown, in the spirit of Lovecraft
It's still a game right? Isn't that what games are about? Having fun? This factor is perhaps the most variable, depending on your players. One players' fun is anther's tedium. In any case:
- Puzzle Solving- some players love a challenge to their cleverness/inginuity
- Mini-Games- there are all sorts of tables and rules to support this. A drinking contest, duelling, hunting, a joust
- Party Politics- the dynamics between characters, pitting them against one another with a conflict of interest--will they overcome it and work together or constantly plot against one another
- Player Choice- is a big factor in this, since it allows players to choose what interests them and for them to feel their decisions count. This can be done at the most basic level, allowing players to choose a scary adventure, a political one, one of knavery or heroism, overland vs. dungeon, to fight or to flee, to take risks or play it safe
- Inspiration- some players want to play adventures inspired by their favorite fiction or historical events. Superhero RPGs and many other specialty RPGs take this approach. Some people want their DnD Tolkienesque, while others want it Pulp Fantasy inspired
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