Without proper immersion, a game of D&D turns into a collection of nerds sitting around a table writing notes and doing math. This scenario more closely resembles a nightmarish high school flashback than what most folks would think of as a good time. To avoid being stuck at a dead table, here are 7 ways to improve immersion in your RPG sessions.
General Tips for Better Immersion
Before we jump into the specific tips and tricks we recommend for improving immersion in D&D, we did want to run over a few honorable mentions/basic concepts that you’ll find in most articles like this. We still wanted to include them just in case someone out there hasn’t stumbled across them yet.
Be it cellphones, tablets, or even a shiny new sourcebook, it’s best to advise folks at the table to pay attention to what’s happening. Many people use technology to assist in gameplay, but some can’t be trusted not to also futz around on a mobile game whenever it’s not ‘their turn.’ Whatever it is that might draw your players’ focus, you need to come together as a group and agree that certain items or behaviors are best left alone until after the game.
Set Expectations for the Game
This sounds like a buzzkill, but you really need to get on the same page with your players about how immersive they want the game to be. Do they want a silly game that avoids heavy moral dilemmas and where consequences for ‘chaos’ are light? Or do they want a grim-dark setting full of grueling hardship? Any answer is the right answer so long as the entire group agrees at the outset on what vibe the campaign is supposed to aim for. By agreeing to expectations upfront, you know exactly what level of immersion your players are looking for. You can save yourself the time and frustration of sinking hours of your life into building scenes and scenarios that go unused or unappreciated and instead enjoy a fulfilling game experience with everyone.
With those basic tips done, let’s get on to our 7 ways to improve immersion in your D&D game!
#1: Encourage Players to Take Part in Running the Show
I have one player who loves having ambiance and music for the game. I used to spend hours upon hours building playlists to give atmosphere to games I ran, but as I’ve gotten older, I have less time (and patience) to commit to such things. Because it helps her with staying focused on the game, however, I let her play session DJ. I tell her what kinds of ambiance and vibes we need ahead of time and let her build a playlist. I review it before the session and give her the go-ahead to run it, letting her know during play when she needs to switch to a specific track or playlist.
I have another player who has an auditory processing disorder and listens best when she’s physically moving. She’s been tasked with illustrating session scenes, making character portraits, or otherwise being the note-taker for the game because the physical action of doing these things means she can pay better attention, and the dual benefit is that the players have notes and other cool things to share.
Roleplaying is a creative hobby and attracts creative people who want to participate in making the game. If you give them specific tasks that help facilitate play, you’re not only reducing the stress on yourself, but you’re getting folks to buy-in and giving them every reason to put their full focus on every session.
#2: Write Letters with NPCs
In Ye Olden Times, the primary source of news folks had was letters from family and friends abroad. While Dungeons & Dragons and other games have come up with spells and communication systems to speed up contact, the fact of the matter is that it’s still fun and engaging to maintain relationships with NPCs via post.
Encouraging players to maintain a list of NPCs that they keep in touch with can be helpful for making sure they keep track of allies and contacts, but it also presents opportunities for you as a DM to disseminate information to players about world events. For example, an old mentor can give news about developments from a hometown or insider information about a guild. Someone whom the adventurers helped on a previous quest can inform them that they have commissioned a song in their honor, letting the party know that their renown is growing. Players can even get secret information from spies or be lured into traps by turncoats who have been maintaining cordial contact.
This is something that can likely fit into “downtime activities” but can also surface as an active part of your games, depending on how you play and how interested your players are in using a letter-writing system.
While you can provide summaries of these letters to your players verbally, maintaining a written record in some form is better. You can either write physical letters for players to keep with their character sheets, handing them out to players to read at the table, or you can engage in the letter-writing between sessions. For my games, I keep a Discord server for my players, and we employ the “thread” feature to differentiate contact with specific NPCs. This way, there is a record of not only the NPC contact but the player’s responses as well.
Providing players with a way to cultivate personal relationships with individual NPCs can help with developing character voice and making the character experience more real for the player.
#3: Name Your Currency
From denarii, to ducats, to florins, coins of similar size, composition, and valuation have had different names depending on where the coins originated from. Why should your game world be any different?
Even if you’re running a game in an established setting, there’s no reason not to use either currency names recognized by the country the game is taking place in or even regional slang. Just as the US dollar is often referred to as a “buck,” or how the word “quid” is still in common usage in the UK to refer to the pound sterling, you can refer to gold coins as “dragons” or smaller denominations like silver or copper as “lings” (short for “wyrmlings”) or “bits.”
Whether it’s a formally recognized term for the coin or something everyday people use in conversation, deciding how to speak about money is a small, insanely easy way to make the game world feel more real.
#4: Track Party Reputation and Use It
There are a number of methods of systematizing reputation, but generally speaking, you as a DM should keep in mind what your players have accomplished and the circumstances under which they have accomplished them. Using the tier system as a guideline generally helps:
- Tier 1 (Levels 1 – 4): Local Heroes — The party has helped out farmers, merchants, shopowners, and so on with clearing out rat infestations or warding off thugs and criminals. Players can likely count on a free drink at the local tavern as thanks for their contributions and positive-to-neutral relationships with most folks in town.
- Tier 2 (Levels 5 – 10): Heroes of the Realm — The party has traveled throughout the city, province, or perhaps even state/country and has taken on everything from monsters to mobsters. Folks might not know the characters by image or name but know of the deeds they have accomplished and/or nicknames or titles they’ve gained as a result of their accomplishments.
- Tier 3 (Levels 11 – 16): Masters of the Realm — More than Heroes, your players’ characters have left a lasting impact on the world around them. They have vanquished evil forces of legend and have made history for their significant contributions to major events.
- Tier 4 (Levels 17 – 20): Masters of the World — The challenges of this tier are beyond the capabilities of mere mortal beings. The party members’ names may be forgotten in the annuls of history, but the fact there still exists history to forget them is a testament to their deeds.
While you can go through the trouble of implementing mechanical solutions for tracking celebrity status, such as a point system or charts, I find it far easier and less aggravating to keep a simple map of the area the game is taking place in and shade in areas where the characters have made an impact. Tier 1 accomplishments get a small radius, Tier 2 a larger radius, and so on. Where the radius of two or more accomplishments intersect, you can assume that the party is well known in those parts, and you can easily determine how they might be treated by locals.
With this system, you can see at a glance how everyday people will respond to the player characters no matter where they go — unless, of course, they jump to another plane. If that’s the case, however, then you should either start the party from square 1 or else keep in mind the types of foes players have encountered and how their reputation might proceed them even into the great beyond.
This goes for tracking catastrophes the party has been responsible for as well, mind you. I typically use different colors for “heroic accomplishments” and events I internally refer to as “I should have known this would happen.” If the party very publicly was responsible for the toppling of a religious icon or statue or else was engaged in a battle that leveled a city, you can assume that the folks who were responsible for the labor and expense of rebuilding the aforementioned city might not be their biggest fans. This also has the added bonus of providing consequences for actions and getting players to think about the impact of their behaviors on the world around them.
#5: Give Small Handouts
Players love physical representations of the game. While you can spend ages creating detailed props, oftentimes, a simple item will do the trick, and your players will get a thrill out of being able to hold something that ties them to what’s going on.
As mentioned in tip #2, you can write letters from NPCs, you can have rolled bits of aged paper as spell scrolls or important messages that the party is meant to deliver. You can create dirt simple wands from dollar store toy bits and chopsticks to hand out. A silly hat from a thrift store can be a magical item, or a small stuffed toy can be a companion or annoying pet.
My general rule is that whatever it is I hand out must be less than 6” big at its largest point and must take less than 30 minutes to make. Or, to save on time and frustration if you’re not a crafty type, you can provide beautifully illustrated item cards. Whatever the case, you can set rules that work for you so that you’re not putting too much time or resources into producing small extras for your game sessions.
#6: Use Volume & Word Choice
This may seem dirt simple, but it deserves to be on this list because it’s often undervalued. If you are running a game, you are responsible for setting the mood. The best way to do this is with your most powerful tool: your voice.
You don’t have to do character voices or accents like Matt Mercer (in point of fact, I know many of you find that kind of stuff annoying and cringe-worthy), but you do have to use volume and inflection to communicate the atmosphere. If the scene is dramatic, somber, or serious, then your voice should be an even, sober timbre, and your volume should be on the softer side (but not whispering). If there’s a celebration or event, or if you’re describing an action, raise your voice to create a sense of urgency and grab attention.
Learn how to mimic different ways emotions are communicated. Is the evil robber-baron the type to be loud and blustering? Have him yell in outrage! Pound the table! Or is he more of the cold rage type? Make him glare (or glower, even) before demanding in a low growl that the party leaves. Is there a character with a boisterous, loud laugh? Or do they express happiness through a softer smile? These are all similar emotions but different ways of expressing them. Giving a different “voice” (by which I mean how you speak, not doing a funny voice) to different characters helps players to differentiate between them and helps to make the NPCs feel more real.
To that end, find new ways to describe things. Stick a list of descriptive words to the inside of your DM screen or quickly use a thesaurus website to look up a synonym for a more common descriptor. Expand your vocabulary so that you have better ways of painting pictures with words alone. The characters can find themselves “in a dungeon,” or they can find themselves “entering an inky black cavern, the air heavy with moisture and the scent of rotting plant life.” This description is standard fare for D&D, but it gets the atmosphere for the environment across easily by describing what the characters see (“inky black cavern”), feel (“air heavy with moisture”), and smell (“rotting plant life”). You can also always describe the way air tastes, or how it feels to breathe (ever been somewhere where the air felt thick to breathe? Where it clung to the back of your throat?), or what the wind sounds like or the echo of condensation dripping from the cave ceiling. Engaging each of the senses in a description will always help ground players in the game and help them envision the challenges ahead.
#7: Include Festivals, Celebrations, Rituals, and Taboos
You don’t have to live in a particularly religious society to be able to celebrate holidays or be aware of social taboos. While you can absolutely develop a culture in your game that is based on strict adherence to a set of religious ideals, you can also make any town, city, or region feel more grounded by the inclusion of festival celebrations and holiday practices. Woven wreaths decorating doors, seasonal meals being served, gathering of flowers and foods to make offerings, etc. There are hundreds of ways folks participate in cultural celebrations and practices, which provide unique opportunities for you as a DM to build the game world into something interactive and immersive and also give opportunities to players to sink into their characters.
Suppose you have a character from a specific region or who is supposed to have a religious upbringing. In that case, you can provide excellent opportunities for that player to really develop by putting the character in contact with either a celebration of that religion or something that violates a taboo of the religion. Perhaps the character has a complicated history with their culture and is an outcast, but gets to feel a connection to community again as they take part in a blessing ceremony. Or perhaps the character discovers that they’re not as jaded as they believed themselves to be when they come across a cult conducting horrors that profane the name of a deity the character once followed.
Whatever the case, belief systems and ideals are huge parts of who people are and go a long way in creating a shared cultural identity. By implementing the existence of holidays, festivals, religious practices, and days of observance, you do a lot to ground your game and provide opportunities for rich character development for your players.
For more ways to include religion and the divine in your games, check out your upcoming sourcebook Heretic’s Guide to Devotion & Divinity.
At the end of the day, the key to immersion is whether your players feel like whatever is happening is authentic. Adhering to cause and effect is a good basic principle to follow, but expanding that to include everyday ways in which characters might ingratiate or infuriate strangers they meet gives players a reason to treat the session as more of a “role” than a “game.” Getting the chance to be someone other than yourself is fun, and the more options people have to get out of their own heads and into that of a character in a faraway land, the more they’re likely to buy in and play the game with gusto.
As a DM having concrete plans for how to make a game world feel more tangible can go a long way in simplifying your life because you’ll spend less time wishing folks were on task and more time taking advantage of the focus your players have so you can all play the game.
For even more ways to make your life as a DM easier, be sure to check out our YouTube channel for everything from tips to walkthrough series. We also offer resources for DMs who want to provide players with handout cards or include unique consequences in the form of hexes, curses, or other dark magics in our store. You can also support us via Patreon and receive premium access to our NPC, Store, and Item Card generator apps, as well as early access to upcoming content.