One of the things that I love to do at the gaming table is to create a sensory experience for the players. I like to use music to set the mood, handouts and props to give a tactile feel, and unique pieces of scenery on the gaming space to create a sense of perspective. I love to get the players mentally involved in the game with outside props like this.

I often fail.

I start out with the best intentions. I prepare a bunch of unique props to bring into play. I lay out play lists of songs that fit the moments I want to make perfectly. I spend time and money getting miniatures and making battlemat pieces. Then the game goes a whole different way than I had intended.

Think of it like this: There is a metaphorical bucket that holds all the gameplay elements that I prep beforehand. My NPCs, maps, written out descriptions, props, music, plotlines, encounters, etc. As we game I pull out elements at the appropriate times. However, about an hour in I notice the bucket is overflowing with new gameplay elements. The players keep giving me new hooks for cool instances that could happen in this session, and I drop them in the bucket. I haven’t prepared any props to back these new elements, so I’ve got to improvise something to keep them on the same level as the elements that I have prepared for. So how do you still create a sensory experience for new elements without any preparation?

The prime instrument in the storyteller GM’s toolbox. Giving a vivid description of a gameplay element can make it stand toe to toe with an element that has outside props supporting it. Find a visual element of the element, close your eyes, and describe the most evocative thing about it. “The crudely sewn up scar, a reminder of her defeat at your hands in your last meeting, still drips ichor and pus.” From there move to something nearby and describe the most evocative thing about it: “Her crystal blue eyes gleam with an unquenchable hatred, through the dingy strands of her rain drenched red hair.” Then finish with a description of something that brings the element into the action. Makes it less of a passive set piece and more of an element that the players can interact with: “Heaving breathes pull her frame into agitated motion as she lunges forward, a gun drawn from her stitched leather coat.”

Organize Many Buckets Of Usable Props
You can avoid a lack of appropriate props by having lots of props that fit more than one instance. I tend to take a lot of time to divide my gaming music up into folders that fit a specific mood. I leave my Winamp on shuffle, and then just play that folder. It usually has two or three songs that evoke the same mood and have similar sounds or rhythms. That gives me some leeway to just leave it playing and focus on more important elements of the game. Then there is always the big box of miniatures. A couple of minutes (it’s a big box) of digging and I can find something that fits the scene. The key to this approach is organization. Keep props so that you can narrow in on the right one at the right time.

Love The Dry Erase Board/Scrap Paper
When I want the players to focus in on something that I hadn’t prepared for, I often make a quick sketch drawing of it. While I’m no artist, the sketch usually suffices to give a visual element for the players to glomp onto. It is crude, but it draws their attention to the odd symbols on the door or the strange shape of the broken stone that I want to stand out.

Use The Players, Luke
If you are working off of a gameplay element that is provided or inspired by the players, use them to support it. Get some shared narrative into the game. If a player says she would love to get a new sword, or switch to a different type of weapon, then ask her to describe the sword that she finds at the bazaar or draw out a rough picture of it. Give her some free reign to do it, and you will get the other players listening with apt attention, and probably wanting to describe their own cool elements.

So what do you do to support unexpected gameplay elements? How do you keep them on par with prepared elements that you have support for?

6 replies
  1. PaPeRoTTo
    PaPeRoTTo says:

    First Post Dance ^^

    I prefer to create “the Scene” instead of creating “the Session”.. that’s because i never get using all the things i prepared for my players.. but if I prepare the Scene.. yes.. The Scene.. the one you always need in a session, the one without the whole game seems a bit unhappy.. a must 😛 I am sure that this will happen.. and i prefer to spend 10 extra minutes on this than 5 minutes on the session things..

    but i find that after 5-6 “The Scene Preparation” i collected a bunch of “Everywhere material”.. and i found it quite easy to implement during the session.. “rainstorm foley”, “footsteps” “Growls”, “the atmosphere music” and so on.. 😛

    So.. prepare for something special and in a few time you’ll get something general ;D

  2. Squirrel_Herder
    Squirrel_Herder says:

    Sensory details seem more important to me the more games I run. I often wish that published adventures contained more such details –what does the sword look like? what sort of bottle is the potion in? — There often is plenty of detail in the read-aloud text, but players won’t listen to read-aloud text, and often enough it’s so poorly written that I can’t blame them. They do pay attention if you describe the elements on your dungeon tiles and speak to them directly.

    Does anyone know of resources with lists or tables of flavor elements? Any other suggestions for improving the sensory detail in our games? I’m mainly interested in verbal descriptions, but there may be ways to do this that I haven’t thought of, and I love to hear about them.

  3. Squirrel_Herder
    Squirrel_Herder says:

    Thanks, Scott. The treasure pages are exactly the sort of thing I can use, and the rest of the site has WAY too many other generators that could probably come in handy too.

  4. John Arcadian
    John Arcadian says:

    That link is pretty great scott! I’m definitely going to have to keep that one bookmarked.

    You’re right Squirrel_Herder, most published adventures only have sensory detail in the read aloud parts. I would love to see more aside boxes for treasure or item descriptions. Paizo publishing generally released supplements with just their images and maps. Something like that for treasures would be great. I once had a random descriptor generator. You could choose from a list of objects (sword, town, horse, orc, etc.) and it would bring up a list of random descriptors for that item. It was a great jump starter for my brain. I can’t seem to find it anywhere though.

  5. Cole
    Cole says:

    As a GM, I always aim to focus the game on what I perceive are the most important aspects. The focus on my games are on accurately depicting combat, the interaction between Players and NPC’s, defeating whatever obstacle the party is faced with, keeping the fantasy world as consist as possible for the players, and allowing the players the freedom to try new ideas. All else is relegated to the background as not to interfere with the main elements.

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