Monday, November 4, 2019

DMs, When It Comes To World Building, There's No Such Thing As Wasted Effort

How many times have you slaved over a dungeon layout, a unique monster, or a deeply thought out bit of world lore, only to have your party skate right past it without so much as slowing down? If you've been a dungeon master for any length of time, the answer is probably more times than you can readily count. And there are typically two reactions to this scenario. The first is to contrive some reason that the party is forced to stop and admire all of the hard work that you did, typically by throwing the brakes on to make them ask about the lore, fight the monster, or acquire a macguffin. The second is to sigh, close your notebook, and then when the players go home at the end of the night, to drink and think about what could have happened.

It could have been a great dungeon... but they didn't want to explore it. Why do I bother?
However, for those DMs who get caught up in "wasted" effort, I think you need to be reminded of something. You're the one who makes the world go round... you can always bring that thing back around again somewhere else, if you think creatively about it.

A Great Re-Structuring Is Always Possible

The most obvious example of these situations is when the players miss something you spent a lot of time working on, hoping they would find. Maybe it was this massive dungeon complex hidden behind a wall, or a crumbling temple that your party could see off in the distance, but they decided to nope right past because it wasn't part of their current mission.

That's fine. Because if the players never saw it, they won't realize that you just moved it to a different location later up the road.

And we'll just move you... here. This spot's perfect!
I mentioned this way back in Herd Your Players, Don't Railroad Them, but it bears repeating. If you wanted your party to explore an area you put a lot of time and effort into, but they didn't take the bait, just move the area to another spot, and make it more relevant. If your players didn't see the dungeon, meet the NPC, face off with the monster, etc., then as far as they know it doesn't exist. You are the only one who will know that you're recycling an "old" location/person/fight and connecting it to a different spot. Additionally, you'll look super prepared because you have something ready to go, complete with map notes, diagrams, riddles, etc.

Lore Isn't Wasted (Even If No One Bites The Hook)

Sometimes the thing you want your party to interact with is less tangible. Maybe it's the history of a particular knightly order, or the legends swirling around the royal family, or the rumors on the street about girls who are going missing on the second night of every full moon. It might be interesting background, but the key thing to remember is that unless these lore details are actually part of your party's current adventure, that's all they are; part of the scenery.

Just mentioning these things exist means they're doing their job, even if no one pursues them.

Anyone curious about the Dragon Pikers? Anybody? Come on, guys...
Background lore and details like this set the tone for a place. While you might think it's fascinating that each of the gargoyles perched on major public buildings has a name and a history associated with it in the city of Evernight found at the base of the Obsidian Mount, gushing about it won't endear that fact to your players. Instead, just describe what they see, and let them react appropriately. Work references to the gargoyles into the way people speak, making warding signs and invoking the creatures' names the way others might offer prayers to saints. Have certain, specific gargoyles crouched over doors, or left inside like household altars, to drive home how important they are in this town, and show how people touch the statues as a way to gain good luck, or protection, or how they'll pay one of the statues' heads the way we might knock on wood to avoid ill fate.

Some players might wonder what's going on, and either ask to make checks or talk to your NPCs to find out. Others will simply nod, and take it as part of the atmosphere. And even if the religious import, cultural significance, etc. of this worship is never discussed, its very existence is enough to make the place unique... that means it did its job. The goal is not to inundate your players with a guided tour of this fantasy setting's religion, but rather to use that aspect to make the place feel unusual and different. Mission accomplished.

If your players are overcome with curiosity and ask questions, you know the answers. If they don't ask, they still have the haunting visuals you've described, and the feeling of eyes watching them from above. Either way, it's a win for you as the DM. The lore is a bonus, but force-feeding it to your players is going to bore them, rather than engage them. If they don't ask, don't take time away from their actions to tell them.

Looking For Some Inspiration?

Another option I'd suggest for all the DMs out there is to keep some lists handy so you can just grab names, places, and backstories as you need them. This can save you a lot of work, and a lot of staring off into space as you try to spitball an NPC's name, or layout the rumors about a location or a person. If you're looking for some inspiration, might I suggest some of the following by yours truly?

- A Baker's Dozen of Rumors (And The Truth Behind Them): Each of these rumors can be used to add a little flavor to a game, but they also have enough meat behind them that you could build an entire session out of them. Handy to have on-hand if you need a plot, but can't spitball something in a hurry.

- 100 NPCs You Might Meet At The Tavern: Perhaps my bestseller yet (at Electrum status at time of writing) this one has a bit of everything. So whether you need merchants or scholars, gang lords or private muscle, you can find a little of everything in this collection, ready to go!

- A Baker's Dozen of Noble Families: Every family has a story, and noble families tend to have several. Whether you want shining lords or corrupt patriarchies, there's a bit of everything in this particular collection of the high and the mighty.

- 100 Knightly Orders: That crack about unique knights above wasn't just a crack. Elite troops and stand-out orders with their heraldry and histories can capture the imagination, but coming up with them on the fly isn't easy. So, here's a hundred of them ready for their marching orders!

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That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. Hopefully you enjoyed, and if you've used run these kinds of games before, leave us a comment to let us know what worked for you!

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1 comment:

  1. I've lost count of the times I've moved something the players ignored or missed to another session. Great article!