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Last time, I talked about introducing your players to the basics of D&D and character creation. In this installment of Behind the Screens, I want to focus on getting your players into roleplaying and creating the shared storytelling experience that is so integral to Dungeons & Dragons.
Create a Safe Space
The first step to fostering a creative environment is to make sure the players know that you are all there with the same goal. Sometimes it takes a while for players to get comfortable roleplaying, even if they are among friends. With new groups, it’s an even bigger hurdle. The trick is to make it clear that the table is a safe space. Be welcoming, reach outside your normal group of friends as necessary, and make it clear that you want to facilitate an environment that is free of judgment. Remember, gaming is for everyone. If you offer your players a safe space to be themselves, they’ll understand that they are free to create and craft their characters however they want.
Teach by Example
Use your nonplayer characters to highlight how differences in character voices can color your world. Insert some personalities that players might recognize from pop culture—a feisty and resourceful noble like Princess Leia, an egotistic villain like Loki, or even a roguish antihero like Firefly’s Malcolm Reynolds. As a new DM, you’ll find it easy to dive into those characters, and your players can quickly make the connection to something familiar. Don’t worry if it takes a while to start creating characters that really resonate. Like everything else in life, running memorable NPCs takes practice. But when you give the players some good examples, they’ll start to see the canvas they can use to adapt their own characters to a voice and play style that suits them.
This is something that’s still a challenge for me. Focus on describing the small details, not just the one thing in the room that the players should focus on. What does the tavern smell like? Ale and lost dreams? Or is the scent of pine smoke from the fireplace overwhelmingly sharp? When the characters dispatch an orc, how does it collapse to the ground based on the weapon that hit it? How do those around the characters react? Being descriptive in your interpretation and explanation of the characters’ actions and the world around them will help paint a picture for the players. And the more examples the players see of those storytelling tools, the more they’ll be able to help you create increasingly vivid details within your shared world.
Lean on the Backgrounds
One of the mechanics that I love the most from fifth edition is the personality and background system. When I sat down for one of our Wizards of the Coast livestream games, I read over my trait, ideal, bond, and flaw, and quickly realized that this character sounded a lot like Captain Hammer from Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Once you find a voice for a character, it’s easy to see the adventure developing around that character through a new lens. That insight lets you become an even bigger part of the shared storytelling experience.
You can easily reinforce character backgrounds to your players by collecting and reviewing their background info. Let them know that those details are important to you, and they’ll become important to the players as well. Lean on backgrounds and reward players for falling into a comfortable play style with the inspiration system, and you’ll find you’re no longer the one person the players look to for the creation of lasting images. Instead, you’ll be along for the ride with the players, rolling with the unique ways in which they interpret your world.
About the Author
The Lunchbox DM is Chris Dupuis, a board game designer at Wizards with RPG dreams. He's played in plenty of D&D games, but he's run only a few one-shot adventures as a Dungeon Master. You can find him on twitter as Gameguruchris.