On the go? Listen to the audio version of the article here:
D&D night has arrived. It’s also a storytelling night at the Surly Treant Tavern. The air within bustles with loud conversation alongside the smells of hearty stew and fragrant ale. It’s a bit hot, too, what with the cooking fire and oil lamps that fill the space with a warm yellow glow. The children assembled to hear the tales, giggling and pointing at the enormous, rainbow-clad orog bard, who smiled back at them with jeweled tusks. If you can picture this scene, then you have experienced some degree of “immersion”, but what is it?
Immersion is the core of interactive storytelling, like in good RPGs. When immersed, we become engrossed in a story, think in the world’s terms, and feel real emotion from in-game events. It goes beyond mere suspension of disbelief—and, with the right tools, you can craft it.
I’m not about to say it’s simple or easy, but it is certainly achievable through deliberate practice and an active imagination, which you’re bound to develop at the gaming table. Although this is more of a DM-facing article, players, too, have plenty to benefit from in this crash course.
Most of these are broad topics that branch out quite a bit, and some of them would require entire articles of their own to adequately cover. For immersion, however, we can get away with leaving out aspects that don’t directly contribute to it.
Let’s get started.
This section covers the more “writerly” things you do moment to moment in your sessions. It’s possible to excel at them on an improvisational basis, but most of us benefit from having notes to fall back on.
As a DM, you live and die by your command of the spoken word; it’s how you generate the world and, with time, bring it to life.
To produce immersion, you must wield your language with finesse: it’s verbal fencing, not a brawl. Think “finesse”; less is more. The particular type of language in question is, more often than not, evocative—you’re generating worlds in others’ minds with nothing but your words.
Using Evocative Language
Evocative language refers to the experiential qualities of what it describes.
It’s never alone in any piece of narration—it needs the context provided by explanatory language—but it’s what imbues it with immersive power and conveys a tone.
Consider describing something unsettlingly out-of-place in a scene to your players. You can say it as I just did, or you can add experiential depth to it by bringing in evocative language. We’re all familiar with the proverbial sore thumb, but it fails to convey the unsettling part of the situation. Here’s how Haruki Murakami does it in the second 1Q84 book:
…he could never have missed anyone as strange-looking as Ushigawa, who would have stood out like a centipede in a sugar bowl.
Here’s a typical poisonous Japanese centipede, by the way. They happen to be symbols of evil in Japanese folklore, which probably doesn’t surprise you if you played Sekiro. Clever choice on Murakami’s part and, to his credit, the metaphor still lands without the added context.
Returning to something with comfortingly fewer legs, consider the intro paragraph. Would it be any better off by including the number of people and tables at the tavern or describing the orog as “three meters tall and colorfully dressed”? I don’t think so.
Still, the people I’ve shown it to reported feeling drawn into the scene, as I did when reading it aloud. It conveys a cozy, relaxed atmosphere. Here’s the simple trick I used to achieve this.
Why you Should Evoke their Senses
By weaving sensory descriptors into your scenes, you amp up their experiential density, thus making them more vivid. Sprinkle them in between more humdrum spatial descriptions and game-mechanic information if there is any to convey. This will make situations more engaging from the get-go.
Notice how I tackled the soundscape, the smells, the physical sensation of warmth, and the type of lighting within the tavern.
You can even play around with synaesthesia by associating different types of sensory stimulus to enrich descriptions. A warm yellow glow from the lamp; a cold, blue one from the eyes of your wraith-possed fellow. A sour sound from an awful Performance check with a viola, but a sweet trill from an exceptionally played flute.
Emotionally charged words help, too. Suppose you mean to convey abandonment and hopelessness. Perhaps the players are crossing the abandoned orchard of a haunted castle. The trees are “too old and strangled with ivy and hung with lichen to bear more than a few blackened leaves.” Good stuff, yeah? I lifted it from Tolkien’s description of Mirkwood in The Hobbit.
Conversely, if you want the orchard to feel menacing and corrupted, you could say that the gaunt trees lean, their wiry limbs claw at them hungrily.
You’d likely include warm and cold, in context, among emotionally charged words. Interestingly, there’s quite a bit of scholarly work to back it. Embodied cognition is the name of the game.
These are how you convey experiences with few words, so you can keep the ball rolling while also giving your players’ imaginations something to latch on to.
You can even use evocative language to come up with powerful lines for NPCs to say. Once again, let’s use a Tolkien example:
“My armor is like tenfold shields, my teeth are swords, my claws spears, the shock of my tail is a thunderbolt, my wings a hurricane, and my breath death!” says the dragon Smaug.
This line is powerful in its excess. It conveys the brutality of the dragon perfectly. Just the kind of thing to use sparingly, its effect can be enhanced by good timing when you drop it on your players. Not every bit of dialogue should be a one-liner. Not every description needs to be a literary masterpiece. There must be a mixture to create tension, contrast.
Moving on to our next subject:
Trim The Fat
Yes, often fat is flavor, as with the above example, but most people don’t munch on fist-sized hunks of lard and call it a balanced meal.
Different forms of media have different requirements, and what works in one may not translate well to the other. DMing is neither novel writing nor script writing. D&D, and indeed any TTRPG, is an interactive, conversational medium.
A session where the DM’s monologue is occasionally interrupted by player actions—instead of a conversation between all involved—is not a good one. Imagine trying to play a computer RPG and not being able to do two or three things in a row without the action being frozen for an info dump or a lengthy description. You’d want a refund.
In a TTRPG, we don’t have the luxury of graphics and sound effects animating everything; we trade it for the flexibility of nearly everything being on the table and a tailored experience because the action happens in our minds. A DM’s job isn’t to do all of the imagining for the players but to guide the imaginations in a way that creates fun, memorable, shared experiences.
This is why it’s paramount to stick to essential information most of the time and deliver it in a way that provides the most interesting, deep experience possible. You’ll have to play it by ear when deciding when a little excess fat will actually build immersion, as opposed to a break in the flow.
Looking to challenge your players?
Puzzles and Riddles can be tricky! Too easy and they’re pointless; Too hard and it’s pure frustration. What is a DM to do?
For easy-to-use resources for any D&D game, check out the selections at Dungeon Vault!
Now, here’s a hard-to-master skill, regardless of the medium. Trimming the fat is definitely a big step towards pacing control, though. Clarity when presenting the player’s options and relevant information is also a must.
The reason why pacing impacts performance—as anyone who’s daydreamed in school can attest—is that nothing sends your mind farther away than a tedious slog of a chemistry class or, in this case, lengthily described, uneventful travel.
On the player side of things, recognize the lulls in the session’s rhythm as prime opportunities for roleplay and quiet character moments. This way, you won’t need to worry about having the time to do your cool character stuff when things are happening fast.
Back to DMing: move too fast, though, trim all the fat out, and rush through set dressing too quickly to dispense any worldbuilding goodness, and your players won’t have a chance to get immersed at all. They’ll just zip across the surface of your campaign like a water strider.
Combat benefits from speed, however. It’s an aspect of the game where going fast is actually more immersive. There’s plenty you and your players can do to maintain immersion once the initiative order is set:
- Have pre-rolled initiatives for the enemies, and possibly the Player Characters (PCs)
- Have enemies of the same type go together in the initiative order.
- Use action-based design! Shake up the order of things by including interesting reactions and Legendary/Lair Actions.
- Study what the enemies can do in advance and close to the session as well, especially if you’re running spellcasters. The same applies to players so they can be on top of their class features and so on.
- Use evocative language to describe actions; encourage your players to do the same for their PCs.
- Roleplay in combat! Enemies talk to each other in a fight, just like the PCs! You can even hide clues and lore within these “barks” they shout at each other.
Sound Effects and Soundtracks to Enhance the Mood
I’ve impressed the importance of your words when running a game enough. They are the production line of immersion. Still, you can grease its wheels further.
The right choice of music or ambient sound can be helpful, and the occasional sound effect, too. For in-person play, you can find plenty of all of this on Youtube (here’s my battle playlist) and Spotify. If I were to run the situation described in the intro paragraph, I’d have something like this as the soundscape.
If you’re playing on discord, as many of us are these days, you can also use something like RhythmBot to stream music on your server.
Most of us are not Matt-Mercer-level squeaky door and thunder sound makers, but the internet is full of these. If you have time, I recommend hitting the free SFX libraries during prep time for a little extra oomph. There are also services and apps dedicated to this, like Syrinscape and Tabletop Audio.
While roleplay does fit snuggly with the other elements described under the Narration Skills header, it deviates from “writerly” and game-mechanic duties by crossing over with acting. The sheer volume that goes into this makes it deserve its own header.
For our detailed guide on making social encounters great, you can click here! The TL;DR for immersion is:
- NPCs should behave like real people, not plot devices. They have wants, needs, and fears (including beyond their stated goal). They want to be perceived in a certain way and may or may not be successful at it. They also exist within a network of relationships. No man, woman, mind-flayer, or devil is an island.
- It’s immersive to allow using different ability scores when performing a skill check depending on how the player roleplays it. Let them roll Intimidation with Strength when threatening to crush someone’s skull, let them try their hand at Persuasion with Intelligence when they’re talking about their field of arcane study, etc.
- Consider what PCs say when performing social ability checks to modify the DC or give them advantage/disadvantage. If the party “face” accidentally insults the noble they’re trying to gain assistance from, impose disadvantage on the skill check, for instance.
- Have medium-to-long-term consequences of player actions come back to bite them or be unexpectedly helpful.
- Be ready to make people up on the spot due to unexpected player decisions. It’s good to have an NPC improv aid handy. There’s one in the linked article.
And finally: a little color goes a long way. Give characters distinctive accents, pitches, catchphrases, recurring words, and more to make them stand out. You don’t need to do everything for every character, and none of these require you to be a proper actor.
I myself like to experiment with voices, but I’m limited with accents. I daresay my monster noises are top-notch, but screeching and growling like a beast is hardly useful in conversation.
Remember: your bad impression of a Russian/Irish/Indian/Swedish accent can be a real accent in a fantasy world! I, for one, welcome dwarves that sound like Metro characters.
You can even resort to apps that change your voice if you’re playing online. Voicemod (PC), Morphvox (Mac & PC), and Voxal (Mac) are all decent options. These should enable you to sound like Smaug, even if you’re a soprano singer.
What Railroading is and How it Affects Player Agency
You’re met with a challenge. After giving it some thought, you find a clever workaround that circumvents a lot of the work it would otherwise require.
You fail. Not because it or your execution of it is flawed, but because the master of the universe really wants you to do it the other way. The result is a bunch of unlikely to impossible stuff foiling your clever idea.
I would rightly curse such a capricious demiurge.
This happens to be the experience of players subjected to railroading by a DM. Let’s quickly define this term:
Railroading is what a DM does when they’re so enamored with what they have planned that they shoot down reasonable player ideas that would change the course of the campaign. They rob players of agency.
Not to be confused with having a plot or simply ushering PCs along a path. For there to be an adventure, the DM has to curate the player’s experience. In most campaigns, the DM is in charge of setting up the challenges and deciding what choices are even there to be made.
What makes tabletop RPGs unique is that the players can change the conditions of the tests and come up with unexpected solutions. A good DM can adapt to player action, make the world react to it. If you run D&D or any other TTRPG, but you don’t want the players to ever surprise you or make you change things, you have two options:
- Learn to appreciate this fundamental aspect of the hobby, or
- Go write a book, game, novel, or some other scripted adventure. This way, all the characters serve your will without pesky people affecting your precious story.
Taking away player agency is about interfering with the player’s power over their own character and what they can do to the world they inhabit. This breaks the fragile bubble of immersion with a mighty swing of enduring, justified frustration.
This is not a plea to make everything a sandbox in which everything is player directed—which is a style of play in itself—but to let the players have narrative authority through their characters. If there’s a non-negotiable element in the adventure itinerary, it should be stated clearly and agreed upon before play starts. Put it in your session zero.
Worldbuilding: How to Breathe Life into Your Environment
Some of you might be surprised this isn’t closer to the top. I was, too, when I settled on a structure.
Worldbuilding sounds straightforward, but it’s a tad nebulous. As a DM, you will deliver it to your players with your narration skills and roleplay, which we’ve already covered, so this section is about the backstage work.
Wordbuilding concerns itself with scenery, culture, power structures, overarching themes, moral assumptions, and more. Regardless of whether you’re playing in a parallel version of our reality or a high-fantasy explosion of magic in all things, it’s the connective tissue that holds everything else together. You have to worldbuild even if your story is set in a single room (which would be odd for a D&D game).
Here are the basics to get started:
What genre(s) do you want to explore in your campaign?
This will help you create the tone and mood of the world. If you want your game to have a Darkest Dungeon feel (lethal and punishing), you don’t build it like it’s The Legend of Zelda (light and forgiving). Consider the aesthetics, the naming conventions of your chosen genre(s), and what assumptions it makes about people and power.
On that note, if you intend the campaign to be mostly about espionage and courtly intrigue, monster ecology (where monsters live and how they act) is likely not what you should focus on.
You can, of course, subvert genre conventions, but these must be intentional, well-thought-out deviations that don’t undermine the core of what you’re going for. It can be funny, but it tends to be a bit jarring.
What’s the scope of the campaign, space- and time-wise?
How far will your PCs range in their adventures? Is extraplanar travel a possibility? How long will the campaign last? Knowing the answers to these questions early on can guide your hand.
If everything happens within a single barony, for instance, you can be very granular when building it out. If there’s a lot of far-reaching travel, you’re better off building things from a bird’s eye view and zooming in to flesh-out location-specific bits only when the party turns its attention that way.
From the above two points, you can derive a set of ground rules to follow—or break cleverly—when creating content for your campaign. Note-taking is important to ensure things stay consistent.
The next few headers concern aspects of the world that need to be worked on as you move forward. Any one of them can serve as a jumping-off point to develop the others. Start with what comes more naturally.
I’m not an anthropologist, so expect over-simplification.
For the purposes of this article, culture means the collection of a group’s values, beliefs, customs, and institutions. I believe the best way to go about this section is by actually describing a culture in these terms:
Norse society of the Viking Period was hypermasculine. The ultimate compliment to receive in this society drengligr meant at once manly, courageous, and honorable—at least in their dealings with people of similar social standing. These were all characteristics valued by this society. Sometimes women were described as drengligr, too, upon showing particular courage or fairness, for instance.
This culture predates modern notions of race, not engaging in much of what we understand as racism today, but was super classist. They revered nobility, even foreign, enemy nobility.
As a result, the reigning standards of beauty were predicated on class and gender. Pale women were seen as more beautiful. Pale women could stay indoors and do “woman’s work” because their families were well-off enough that they didn’t need to do “man’s work.” Men were supposed to be sunburnt and rugged from outdoor work (which includes raiding as a viking, which was a job).
Still, Norse women had it better than their counterparts in Christian Europe. They could own and run businesses and usually had a say in their marriages. A Norse woman could, in fact, get a divorce if her husband treated them in an undrengr way.
The Norse also valued sharp wit and oral storytelling. They didn’t write much. Many of their storied heroes were poets (skalds) as well as warriors. As a pre-industrial society, the seasons were also a big deal for them, and there were festivities associated with them.
Finally, their main religion was polytheistic and decentralized. It also had hints of animism that can be seen in tales such as Baldr’s Death and the practice of mounting carved dragon heads on the prows of their ships to ward off spirits of land and sea (which doubled as status symbols).
Wherever there are competing interests, there’s politics. If everyone had the same opinions and power struggles didn’t exist, the place occupied by politics in society would be entirely taken over by management.
At its core, politics is about changing the landscape of power to meet a goal.
You can choose to leave politics out of your campaign, it’s not required, but it does enrich the setting. When including politics in your game, it doesn’t have to be the focus. It can just be an underlying tension, something that makes the world feel alive and in flux. Now, for an example of a very political campaign idea, check out The Prince in our single-player D&D guide.
If your game contains a lot of politics, you can leverage uncertainty and ambiguity about ulterior motives and what people are willing to do for them. In this case, the PCs have to work to figure out that “these are the good guys, those are the baddies.”
There may not even be a baddie, just a side they agree more with. Perhaps the PCs just need everyone to get their heads out of their asses to respond to something that threatens everything; it’s a common trope because it works. Or maybe, the PCs are the baddies.
Thinking about some of the mechanics of political power, it pays off to consider how money and favors flow between important groups and people of note, what secrets could upset the current balance of things if uncovered, what are the blood ties involved, and so on.
I believe I don’t need to explain how the above paragraph commits a bit of an immersion sin by posing a situation that doesn’t make sense based on our understanding of ecology. It could be turned into a cool plot hook if you think of a weird, possibly magical, reason why polar bears would be on a tropical island, but as is, it doesn’t work.
The example is a bit on the nose, but it shows well how matters of geography and ecology can be immersion breakers. If you really want to put ankhegs in your tundra, you better homebrew a version of it that looks like it can survive in the bitter cold (and burrow in frozen ground if you want to keep this ability) or figure out why they’re there.
For some convenient ways to check what monsters go with what environments, see the Dungeon Master’s Guide (pgs 302 to 305) and Kobold Fight Club. If you need a hand with wandering monsters, we have an article for that.
There are a couple geographic staples that can make your world more believable.
Every settlement needs a water source. Throughout human history, civilization always arose near potable water bodies or rivers. A smaller village might not be cut through by a river, but a city almost certainly is, if not bordering a lake. Especially seats of power: having a convenient source of drinking water like this is key to withstanding a siege.
Your world might be super high-magic, but it still sounds like quite the stretch to have a whole city’s water demand be met by clerics and druids conjuring water—unless their situation has changed drastically through history.
In fact, the natural conditions where a society develops play a big role in how it develops. Defensible positions with access to water make for good capitals. Plenty of useful animals that can be domesticated are also hugely advantageous, as highlighted by Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel. (Fun fact: Zebras can’t be domesticated)
Consider how horses allowed the Hittites to take entire provinces of Egypt, the local superpower, in Antiquity.
The distribution of things like rivers, metal reserves, arable land, and good timber/building materials also molds the flow of trade and motivates invasions. The Viking invaders were enchanted by the fertile valleys of England. Farming wasn’t as good back where they came from.
To go deeper into geography to enrich your worldbuilding, I suggest these videos in addition to Guns, Germs and Steel:
Take the Stuff You Like, Stick It In Your Game
We all have our passions, hobbies, and favorite concepts from outside D&D. We know them well enough to talk about them unrehearsed and unscripted. They already influence your DMing even if you don’t overtly reference them.
There is no shame in appropriating cool stuff you saw elsewhere, like from a book or a manga, into your world. Focus on integration, so it’s not jarring, and give it your personal spin. You can splice entire subplots or philosophical concepts from books into your campaign to great effect.
I saw MCDM’s Into The Bowels of Vallenguard and immediately decided I wanted halflings riding big, black dogs. They are a feature of my world now, and there are badass mastiff-riding halfling mercenary bands for hire in the lake docks of Llowaya. You know the taverns they like by how many dogs are howling out front.
Another way to take what you like and stick it in your game is letting your other interests enrich the world in a way unique to your game.
Another personal example: I’m into craft beer. Drinking it, making it, reading about it. I’m also interested in mead, whiskey, gin, and wine. As a result, I use booze as a way to talk about the world. There are beer-making monasteries, a little patch of forest known for the exceptional juniper picked by local elves to sell to gin makers, and much more. When the PCs enter a tavern, the players know I know what’s on tap. I can even include magical brews as quests, and here’s an article semi-related to that.
This kind of thing adds up to give your campaign a flavor that’s all your own.
(Exhales) Oh boy, this was a long one. Still with me, or came down here for the TL;DR? Very well, let’s review the main points of the article:
- Immersion is the state of mind in which you feel like you’re in the story. You think according to the fiction’s rules, and your feelings can be stirred by the fiction.
- To make your DMing more immersive, use more evocative language: vocabulary and phrasal structures that refer to the experiential qualities of what they describe.
- Experiential qualities can be sensory or emotional, and you can conjure up one aspect with the other, as well as play with synaesthesia.
- DMing narration needs to be economic, which is why you should use evocative language to increase the experiential depth of what you choose to describe.
- Pacing affects immersion: too slow, people get bored; too fast, and they don’t have the chance to get immersed.
- Use ambient sounds, music, and sound effects to reinforce the tone of the session.
- NPCs should behave like people, not plot devices. Check this article for in-depth content on social encounters.
- Curate your player’s experience of the world, but don’t do it at the expense of their agency.
- Worldbuilding is the backbone of a lot of what you do as a DM. The backstage work of creating the world and everything in it affects immersion when you express it to the players during sessions.
- When creating cultures, carefully assemble them in such a way that their values, institutions, beliefs, and customs work together. Or have two major factors clash and lead the world on the cusp of a meltdown. Either or.
- Politics is about changing the landscape of power to achieve goals. This is often done by manipulating resources, information, and favors.
- Match enemies to appropriate terrains to avoid jarring breaks in immersion.
- Consider how features of the natural landscape affect people’s affairs.
- Take the stuff you like, stick it in your game. I like beer, and I can express worldbuilding through booze-talk in my game. What do you like? Incorporate that.