Not only are tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons and FATE a blast to play, they can actually improve your life. Whether you’re new to tabletop RPGs, or you’re a goblin-slaying veteran, there are plenty of tricks to make your games even more immersive and fun.
Images by Nick Criscuolo, 8one6.
Get Your Players On the Same Page
Nothing ruins a captivating game faster than players who seem to be at odds with each other and their game master (GM). Some players like lots of battles they can “win,” while some prefer a focus on narrative and character-building moments. Whether you’re running the game, or just a player who wants to make a helpful suggestion to the group, it’s best to get everyone on the same page. It’s perfectly fine if each player wants different things out their game, but it’s important to respect and understand what everyone is after before you get the ball rolling.
Chris Chinn’s aptly named Same Page Tool will make things easier for everyone. It’s a simple questionnaire filled with questions that help you clarify what the GM’s role is, what the player’s roles are, as well as things like deciding how strictly the rules should be followed. You can also supplement that with Adam Dray’s excellent “list of issues to be discussed”. These items include session scheduling, game locations, hosting duties, and other important information regarding things outside of the actual gameplay. Nothing is more aggravating than starting an exciting campaign and never continuing it because such things were never coordinated.
If you’re introducing a new player to your game (either new to the group or just new to RPGs in general), Erik Schmidt at Learn Tabletop RPGs suggests you run a very simple introductory session for them:
Run it like the pilot episode of a TV show. It should be action-packed, it should hint at a larger world, and it should leave the participants wanting more…. Keep the first session relatively short. New players are taking a lot in, and three or four hours should be sufficient immersion for them to get a feel for the game. You’ll likely know well before the end of the session whether they’re into it or not — often body language is a dead giveaway…
Regardless of how the session went, let the new player know it’s ok if they’re still trying to find their bearings. Ask them if there was anything that confused them, what they enjoyed, what they disliked, and if they have anything they’d like to see incorporated. If they’re very new to tabletop RPGs, Becky Chambers at The Mary Sue suggests you have them talk about their character in the third person as opposed to the more common first person. This makes them more comfortable because they can describe the character’s appearance and actions without feeling like they have to do silly voices or act a certain way. They can say something like, “Wittsohn the dwarf leaps from the ledge to attack the goblin below” instead of (in a dwarven accent) “I leap from the ledge with me axe held high above me ‘ead, screaming as I aim for the goblin’s skull, AHHHHHHHHH!” They may eventually shift into first-person, but for now, it’s better they remain comfortable.
Put Away Your Phones (Or at Least Activate Aeroplane Mode)
Role-playing games require attentive focus and, often times, strong personal connection between you, the GM, and the other players. I reached out to writer and seasoned GM Stephen James Wardle, the creator of the D&D YouTube series Threshold for some tips (full disclosure: he’s my personal DM/GM and he rocks), and he said the most important thing is to ditch distracting devices:
Cell phones kill the game. Forcing everyone to be on camera for Threshold made the mobile phones go away, and that has improved games 100 fold. I plan shorter 1-2 hour sessions, and everyone can put their devices away for that long. It’s not hard, and it makes everyone’s engagement that much better. This one change (coupled with the restraint of not talking over each other) is the single greatest change you could make to your game.
Phones and tablets are alright if the GM or players want to use them for character sheets and other apps, but make sure they’re at least in silent or aeroplane mode. If you absolutely must have your phone on, put it on vibrate and keep it in your pocket unless you think it’s an emergency.
Use Sound to Set the Scene
A healthy imagination is a must when it comes to tabletop RPGs, but you can help everyone become more immersed in the game by employing their senses. Fortunately, hearing, one of the most important senses when it comes to immersion, is also one of the easiest to play with. Not only does it help create a world in players’ minds, it drowns out sounds (like the dishwasher, the neighbour’s dog, or sounds of the city) that might break the illusion.
Wardle recommends you start by using ambient noise to create your desired atmosphere. It’s particularly helpful for horror RPGs (like Call of Cthulhu), where it can be more difficult to maintain the right mood. We’ve featured a fewambient noise sources for productivity, but those can easily be used to set an epic scene as well. A busy coffee shop can be a bustling tavern, and some sleepy time frogs can be a midnight trip through a dangerous swamp. When we play, Wardle prefers the free ambient-mixer.com. You can mix and match multiple samples, like rain, wind, various bodies of water, trains, fantasy towns, and even the Slytherin common room at Hogwarts. You have complete control over your desired soundscape. Other free sources, like Tabletop Audio, are definitely worth looking into as well.
If you’re willing to spring a bit of money toward your sound, Syrinscape is also a viable, albeit premium, software option. The app is available for Windows, OS X, iOS, and Android, and provides users with access to fantasy, horror, and sci-fi soundscapes that can truly be bent to your will. It costs $US10 ($14) a month for a subscription, or $US3.99 ($5) to buy specific sound packs to use whenever you want. It’s probably only ideal for those who play RPGs regularly, but if you have a dedicated group, you can all split the cost for next to nothing.
Depending on when and where your game is set, music can be used to set the scene just as well as ambient noise — and often times it’s even better. For example, if you’re playing Vampire the Masquerade (a vampire RPG set in modern times), some new wave, goth rock, darkwave, or post punk can set the mood quite well. If you’re playing a game like Call of Cthulhu (a horror game set in the early 1900s), some early jazz and tunes from the 1920s is perfect. Even Dungeons & Dragons can be enhanced by some modern music, like instrumental metal or new age soundscapes. So hop onto Pandora, Spotify, Apple Music, or Google Play Music and start finding some perfect radio stations (or create some custom playlists from your favourite game and movie soundtracks).
Incorporate the Other Senses
Sight, touch, and smell can help elevate almost any tabletop session. Mood lighting doesn’t take very much effort, but it can turn your playspace into almost anything you want. A little candlelight can transform your dining room into a dark and dingy cave. A small, fluorescent lantern can make your living room feel like a ship that’s lost main power. If you’re willing to throw down some cash, you can even create lighting presets with special wi-fi enabled bulbs like Philips Hue or Lifx. With the tap of your smartphone, you can transform your players from location to location in an instant.
To appeal to your group’s sense of touch, Luke Turpeinen at Across the Board Games suggests you have a few props for each session. As Turpeinen explains, however, you need to choose the props carefully and avoid going overboard:
I think that too much in the way of costuming and props can take away from the story, and distracts players, but a key prop or two can go a long way extending immersion into a game. You could draw up the mad scribblings left by the cult of the Elder God and hand them out to the players, or you could have them find a flash drive with digitised ancient texts that they can “study” between sessions. Maybe if they find a clue hidden within, they can gain some advantage in the story?
Even something as simple as a hand drawn map or talisman they can hold in their hands will help suck them into the game’s world. And while taste and smell are probably best saved for snack breaks, Paul at Dice of Doom suggests a few smells can really draw players in:
Say the party visits a fortune teller’s tent. Why not light up some incense? Give the experience a little realism, some more immersion. Or how about exploring a musty old basement? Put some mouldering old object from your cellar in a ziploc bag and open the bag up at the appropriate time.
Anything from scented candles that give off the scent of the ocean, to some pine needles that make players feel like they’re trekking through a forest can make for some really amazing scenes. Don’t overdo it, of course, but a fragrance or two can turn your plot’s pivotal moments into something unforgettable.
Use Apps to Streamline Character Creation
While many purists prefer to do things the old-fashioned way, a few apps can make character creation and management a piece of cake, especially if you’re new to RPGs. The Hero Lab software can simplify the process of character creation if you’re willing to fork over $US30 ($41). It makes creating characters for games like Pathfinder, Shadowrun, Call of Cthulhu, and several other popular RPGs super simple. The app runs on Windows, OS X, iOS, and you can even download a free trial at their web site. If you’re more of a D&D 5E player, this free character generator from ForgedAnvil is great. The only downside is you need Microsoft Excel to run it, but it will work fine in a trial version.
Once you have your digital character sheets, Nate at SyncRPG recommends you use Google Drive to share them with your GM. Whenever your GM has a question regarding your character’s stats, equipment, items, or other points of interest, they can pull your character sheet up without derailing the game session. If they ever have a hard time with how an ability works, the GM can make their own notes and keep things flowing the next time they get stuck. This can be super helpful even if you just scan handmade character sheets and share them the same way.
If you’re not the most creative person, deciding what your character looks like can be agonizing. Everyone wants to look awesome, right? Hero Machine lets anyone design the character of their dreams with a few clicks of your mouse. You can download the client on Windows and OS X for about $US10 ($14), but it’s completely free to use within your browser, so go nuts. Now everyone can see how amazing you look in your shiny armour.
Make Future Sessions Better by Recording Your Game Audio
If you have a dedicated group of experienced players, you can really up your game by recording some of your sessions and giving them a listen. Tabletop RPGs require you to translate your imagination into spoken word, and it can be tough to get out of your own head. To combat this, Wardle suggests you record some of your session audio with a recorder or smartphone app:
Once we started playing D&D with the cameras on, we sat all the players down in front of the TV and re-watched the sessions we recorded a day or so before. What we learned from those recordings was doing things that made our games more viewable also made them more enjoyable to play. We noticed how often we talked over each other and how that made the players and GM miss important information, which is crucial in a collaborative game. Watching or listening to yourself, while it seems silly, can highlight some bad habits you may have picked up.
This can be especially beneficial for the more cerebral players and GMs out there who unintentionally forget to relay the incredible actions and emotions they’re experiencing in their mind. For example, your character may be feeling betrayed, but if you don’t say something, no one will ever know that. Are you listening to your companions enough? Are you describing the epic things you’re imagining in your head? By identifying your habits as a player, you’ll know how to make your future sessions even more fun.
Borrow Your Favourite Mechanics from Other Games
If you’re usually the GM for your group of friends, Wardle recommends you read about and play as many other game systems as possible.You may have a favourite tabletop RPG you like to play, but when you have control of the world you play in, knowledge literally becomes power. You can take the gameplay mechanics you like from other games and incorporate them however you like into your favourite game. As Wardle explains, the narrative is the most important thing a GM needs to focus on, but new rules can shake things up in a good way:
… mechanics are a tool, where as storytelling is the game. The more tools and systems in your toolbox, the better your games will be. When I need to design rules for a specific moment or mechanic, I can fall back on my experience playing other systems to know what works in that situation.
If you find a new game system you like, get some friends together and play a “one-shot” campaign to get a feel for how it works and take the best bits with you.
Stephen James Wardle is a writer who works in television and the creator/Dungeon Master of the D&D YouTube web series “Threshold.” He provided some helpful insight for this Lifehacker piece and we thank him for it.