DMs Corner: Setting a Stage
Updated: Aug 7, 2018
A good way to aid your players in their immersion into your world is to take a few moments to set the stage before important encounters.
While it is always essential for players to have a general grasp of where they are, what their environment is like, who is or is not hostile, and who they might interact with, adding some additional flare at key moments in your adventure can go a long way to making the experience feel more complete.
First, be sure that you have a good grasp on the scenario that is about to unfold. You don’t want to misspeak or describe an element that is less than fully present. Take a few extra moments and think about the scenery, the atmosphere, the temperature, the feel in the very air itself. Then, when you feel you’ve imagined the location thoroughly, and only then, proceed with planning your description. A moment of patience at the beginning can go a long way in really flushing out an encounter.
Now, be purposeful in what you describe first, and what you describe last. The first thing you describe about a lair, a castle, a fortress, that is the foundation all of the other details will be built on. This is the first element that strikes your party, that captivates them, that remains with them. All other details only exist in so much as they relate to this tone setter. The last details you share will be the accents, the cherries on top. This is the symbolic reminder in the distance, the outstanding horror of a realization, the last shiver of terror that you leave the terrified party with. Your opening and your closing are crucial to the description.
An easy trap to fall into is overstating the scene. While it is important to elaborate on details and atmosphere, it is equally important not to get so hung up on details that the dialogue becomes cumbersome, or worse yet, tiresome. Make the reveals big and impactful, insightful and meaningful, but not longwinded and a drudge.
Consider which elements of your stage will be significant in the imminent encounter, and mention them in passing with particular emphasis. The towering spire that can be knocked over, the aged steel gate that will imminently be sundered, the gaping maw that will expand consuming all who stand too near. Foreshadowing upcoming events will make those events stand out more, and make your players feel more connected to what is about to transpire.
Lastly, you may consider adding props to aid in the story telling to really finalize your setting. Perhaps a miniature or piece of terrain on the game board, or a portrait showing the villain in great detail. Maybe you find an old vile at a thrift store or in a closet and print off a map that you roll up and hand to the party. By adding a real, tangible element to the setting beyond the description, you succeed in making the story lift from the pages an literally into the hands of your players!
What are your most memorable encounters? What elements of the setting strand out the most in your mind’s eye? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
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Originally published by Ed