What is immersive storytelling?
Immersive storytelling is a way of describing a scene that feels so vivid it becomes real in the mind of the reader, viewer, or listener. As a Dungeon Master you want the players to be engaged as much as possible in your story. Here are five useful tricks and tips that will take your game to the next level, regardless if you are a veteran or new to Dungeons and Dragons.
1. How to describe a scene
To spark your players’ imagination and make them envision a location – or the hideous monster that they have stumbled upon! – you need to be able to describe it properly.
Some D&D adventures come with a short description of each room or new area that you can read out loud or paraphrase to the players. If you are writing your own adventure, you can write down your description, or at least jot down a couple of keywords.
Roleplaying adventures are commonly written in present and in second-person narrative, which is a little bit unusual. (Present and second-person mean that you describe something that’s happening right now and use the pronoun “you”.) For example:
“As you enter the dark cave, you hear a strange noise from further away.”
2. Choose your words carefully
When you describe a scene, avoid using clichés and instead use strong words which engage the players’ senses.
Instead of saying “The floor is very wet”, describe the sound of dripping water, how the torches are reflected in the water puddles on the cracked stone floor, and the smell of damp.
The more you are engaging the player’s senses by adding description that include sight, sound, smell, tactile sensations, and movement, the more it will involve their imagination.
Although elaborate descriptions are great for immersive storytelling, sometimes you might want to avoid them, for example when describing a fighting area. If you aren’t using battle maps and relying on Theatre of the Mind (see the previous article Five tips and tricks for preparing for your first D&D session), you can add a brief and practical description of the battle area. This could include the size and shape of the room, lighting, or other information that could be useful to know for casting spells, manoeuvring, or seeking cover.
3. Let the characters draw their own conclusion
A useful trick when it comes to engaging player’s imagination is to withhold information. This might sound counterintuitive, but it works incredibly well to get players to start investigating and roleplaying.
Instead of saying that there is a pentagram written in blood on the floor at the cultist’s cave, describe it like this:
“As you venture deeper into the cultist’s lair, you notice a rusty smell in the stagnant air. There is something written on the cracked floor in a dark, sticky fluid that gleams in the dim light.”
The players might start investigating the area and begin asking questions about the sticky fluid and what it is that has been written.
You can share basic information with the players or let them make a skill check to find out more obscure knowledge. A character who crunches down to investigate the fluid on the floor will realise that it is blood, while anyone who inspects the writing might realise that it is some sort of arcane symbol. However, only a successful Survival or an Arcane skill check will reveal that the blood is chicken blood and the symbol is some sort of ancient necromancy sign.
4. Add drama and intrigue
Describing a scene is all good and well, but a lot of creative storytelling relies on NPCs and the adventure’s plot. (NPC stands for Non-Player Characters, which are controlled by the DM .)
Instead of letting NPCs be kind and jovial characters, try making them more ambiguous and let them have their own agenda NPCs who are trying to lie or hide information are more interesting than a random, friendly cardboard-like innkeeper.
Adding tension between the NPCs is also a great way to instantly make them more interesting. It creates social interactions that the players might want to investigate, and it is easy to add plot hooks into the story.
For example: Although the friendly innkeeper is greeting all their customers warmly, he is snarling at the stablehand.
This behaviour could have a perfectly innocent explanation, such as that the stablehand and the innkeeper’s daughter have been found snogging behind the mill. But it could also be something else: perhaps the stablehand has recently been caught steeling and are involved in shady dealings, which could be connected to the main plot of the adventure.
5. Foreshadowing and raising the stakes
A good way to engage your players is to have a solid plot and storyline that drive the adventure forward. Foreshadowing the main event and dropping hints about the main villain that will lead up to a boss fight will keep your players interested.
Avoid spoon-feeding the players all the background information in one go. It is better to let the players work a little and let them get different pieces of information from various NPCs.
Finally, when the main event is getting closer, a way of heightening the tension and get your players more engaged is to raise the stakes.
Raising the stakes can be done by start a countdown, which will force the players to hurry up. For example, perhaps the main villain must be stopped before the full moon rises. This effectively stops the players from taking long rests, spending time to check for traps, or planning their course of actions.
You can also raise the stakes by increasing the risk of failure, so that the consequences are more severe. While the players initially accepted a quest in exchange for a reward, suddenly they have to stop the villain from releasing their evil spawn that would destroy the players’ favourite inn – and everyone in the entire village!