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26 January 2018

Submerged in Immersion


Friday night. Everyone’s gathered around our large, oak tabletop, prepared to play D&D. Last week, the party fell victim to a surprise mindflayer attack inside a dinky Olfen’s Port tavern, the Red Ribbon. However, instead of feasting upon their surely delicious brains, the mindflayers took them captive. Today’s session begins as the PCs are forcibly marched deep into the Underdark, toward the mindflayer’s sanctum. Every character is blindfolded, bound, and bewildered, terrified of what awaits them below. Before I begin my well-established opening narration, I reach inside a bag precariously poised beside my chair.

From within the bag, I pull out six washed pillowcases. “Darkness is all you see. You feel the sting of cold stone, hear the writhing of tentacles, but see only darkness.” I whisper as I stand, and pass out a pillowcase to each player. “Welcome to the Underdark, adventurers. Here, you’ll need to rely on more than your eyes…Put on your blindfolds.” My players all have different reactions: Some gasp, others laugh nervously, but all are entranced by my words, immersed in the moment.
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Immersing players in your game world is a difficult feat. Sometimes, mere words and descriptions suffice. Other times, physically submerging your players in immersion is what it takes. To achieve this, you need to think abstractly, or out of the box.

Today, we’re going to discuss how to immerse your players using aspects other than words and your voice.

These immersive techniques are attemptable by every dungeon master across the vast multiverse, and I expect you to try all of them after reading. Let’s begin!

Commence Movement!


A tactic I’ve oft experimented with is shifting my position and personifying an NPC’s movement.

Standing up from your grand throne (or plastic chair), leaving the safety of your screen, and carousing around the table is a fantastic way to put the players on edge, or add a bit of drama to the room. As you weave your way from seat to seat, I guarantee each of your players’ respective heartbeats will quicken the closer you move toward them.

Try doing this while portraying a menacing NPC, such as an intimidating captain of the guard, or a mindflayer arcanist.

As the captain, stand upright, walk at a slow, calculated pace, and speak clearly. As the mindflayer, slowly, strangely slither around the table, contorting your face in unimaginable ways.

Odds are, if you try and enjoy this, your players will as well. Now, if you make it silly, sure, your players may not be more immersed and interested, but at worst, they’re laughing and having a jolly time.

I first attempted this while my players were physically blindfolded while their characters were being held captive by mindflayers. The combination of them being blind, and me slowly moving around the room, switching between my normal voice and the raspy voice of their mindflayer captors drastically altered the mood. They were caught in the moment, and that’s exactly what I wanted.

Please try this, and don’t be afraid!

As I said before, at worst, you’ll look comical for a few moments, it’ll be over, and you’ll never attempt it again. At best, you have an interesting new technique to immerse your players in moments of roleplay and your world.


A Pleasant or Unpleasant Earful


Over the past year, music has accompanied my D&D sessions. I’ve discovered that using soundtracks can both enhance and hinder the atmosphere around the table. When it comes to music and D&D, everything breaks down into two aspects: Appropriateness and control.

Let’s start with appropriateness.

During my party’s forced-march into the Underdark, playing an upbeat piece of music filled with fiddles, bagpipes, and lyrics would be extremely jarring. In fact, it would take away any semblance of immersion my players were experiencing. Forget the blindfolds and alien voice, forget anything else you’re doing to immerse your players; with inappropriate music, any immersion they were experiencing will instantly shatter. However, utilizing music with a slow pace, foreboding drums, and chilling, near inaudible background singers heightens the mood the players are already experiencing: Fear.

Before you use music, you must ensure that it is appropriate for the encounter it will be a part of. Else, you risk not submerging your players in immersion but reminding them that this is a game.

Next, let’s talk control. This goes hand in hand with the previous point.

The party has finally reached the end of the march. Now, they’re being loaded onto large rafts by the mindflayers. They need to continue down a dark, underground river that runs straight through a busy Underdark crossing. While they’re slowly drifting down the river, passing by the crossing, darts begin to fly from the darkness. Once they hit the mindflayers, they go unconscious. However, the assailants, drow, aren’t only aiming for the mindflayers, they’re going for the party as well! The party convinces the single still-conscious illithid to free them from their constraints, causing a battle between the party and the drow to break out.

Venom-tipped darts continue to fly from the darkness.

The boat rocks as armored drow leap onto it, mounted on giant, black-skinned lizards.

A drow body hits the water after being knocked off the boat by the party’s ranger and is instantly grabbed by a huge tentacle. The battle continues.

But, in the background, foreboding, slow music continues to play. Oops! I forgot to switch the music; a rookie mistake.

If you’re going to use music, you must learn how to manage it as well. I advise one of these two approaches:
  1. Organize all your music beforehand using YouTube playlists, Spotify, or Itunes and know what you’ll be using during the session. This gives you ultimate control over what is played.
  2. Assign one of your players to be the music manager. It’s their job to change the track from travel to combat, from city to tavern. However, using this approach doesn’t give you complete creative freedom.
Of course, you could mix the two above suggestions, taking over the role of music manager during planned out scenes.

As a bonus tip, try making sound effects. I know this may sound a tad silly, but mimicking the sounds of common noises can be awesome. Did one of the characters just fail a stealth check while opening a trap-door? Make the fear-inducing “Eeeeeeee” sound, as the trap-door hinge squeaks. Is a ferocious lion charging one of the characters, prepared to tear them apart? Roar.

Using both music and sound effects can greatly accentuate your player’s immersion, or they can completely shatter it. To avoid this from happening, ensure your music choice is accurate, you have a way to control your tracks, and practice making lion roars.

Props Galore


The third and final technique to immerse players in your D&D world that we’ll be discussing today is the use of props.

Over my few years of proper dungeon mastering, I’ve learned how to properly use props during my campaigns. Generally, the goal is to allow your players to physically touch, feel, read, or move an object that their characters are interacting with. Props make up a wide array of items, such as:

  • Journals. Take a piece of paper, look up how to make it appear to be parchment (coffee, an oven, and some crackling), and then write some interesting stuff on it. Perhaps it’s the lost journal of a mad halfling wizard, written in draconic, or maybe it’s something akin to the book the fellowship finds in Moria.
  • Maps. You don’t need to be a cartographer, draw a map for your game! Whether it’s a quick sketch of the general region or a fully-colored layout of the continent, a map on the table is a must. I always have a map on the table for players to look at, with a tiny mini representing where they are.
  • Miscellaneous. There’s plenty of room to be creative here; use pillowcases to blind your players. Bring out your old guitar while portraying a washed up half-orc bard. Present your players with an interesting looking ring as a magic item. The possibilities are endless!
  • Puzzles. Either make your own puzzles of arcane runes or renovate bought puzzles to fit your game world.
This technique takes a bit more work on the part of the dungeon master, but the player’s reaction when you take out whatever prop you’re using makes the extra preparation worth it. 

Players, Join In!


Though I merely discussed dungeon masters applying these techniques to their games, players can easily use each of them as well.

Dear players,

I encourage you to stand up and act out your character's actions.

I encourage you to suggest soundtracks to play during your adventures and campaigns.

I encourage you to build props for your character. One of my players, Anthony, created a personalized spellbook for his elf wizard, Mithdartis, and it’s absolutely fantastic!

If you attempt to immerse yourself in the game world, you’ll make your dungeon master’s job far easier, and they’ll definitely appreciate the help.

In Summary


There are a plethora of different tips and techniques on how to submerge your players in immersion. Today, we looked at three, plus an extra tip:
  1. Get up and move around. Embody the NPCs you portray.
  2. Use music and sound effects, but learn how to utilize them correctly. They need to fit the mood, and you must be able to control them easily.
  3. Make props, and allow your players to touch and shift them around.
  4. Players can follow try any of these techniques as well.
If you utilize any of these techniques, I assure you that your players will be more immersed in your D&D games, and therefore more drawn into your world.

Thanks for reading. Please like, share, or comment. I love discussion, and I want my column to reach as many folks as possible.

As an aside / announcement, I've decided to create a video series alongside my columns, called RJD20 TL;DR. These videos will be condensed versions of my columns, to go up on YouTube a few weeks after their respective column drops. Check the first one out here: https://youtu.be/rD8SRWKPs1o

Next week, we’ll be talking about how to create unique monsters from scratch or by using existing monsters from all editions of Dungeons and Dragons. Beware of the marilith-gnoll and the death seal!

Farewell, fellow adventurers. Until next time!

Eager for more RJD20? Begin here, subscribe to the RJD20 newsletter, and explore RJD20 videos on YouTube.

Check out Villain Backgrounds Volume I, a supplement that crafts compelling villains.

Please send inquiries to rjd20writes@gmail.com.

19 January 2018

A Tome of Creation


Thursday night. I’m wide awake at 11:45PM, unable to corral my thoughts for tomorrow’s D&D session. The group has finally reached the apex of this act: They’re about to do battle with Chieftain Legrogg of the Gorecrown tribe. The corrupted frost giant heads a horde of goblins, ogres, and hill giant that has been rampaging across the snowy landscape of Bassel’s Vale, alongside a cult of lycanthropes. Once they slay Legrogg, the lycan cult will lose their most valuable and powerful local ally. 

Tomorrow night’s session is going to be grand and intense. Yet, I’m having trouble coming up with a few aspects of it. Where should the battle take place? How will Legrogg act? Should the tribe’s name, ‘Gorecrown’ have any significance? Aaagh!

With all these thoughts stampeding through my mind, I turn to my bookshelf and pull out a binder. Scribbled on a white piece of printer paper slipped under the binder’s sleeve are four words: The Tome of Creation. All of my questions, I know, will soon be answered.
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At some point, everyone experiences a creative stampede, during which there are so many different thoughts and ideas charging through their brain that they’re unable to properly think. This phenomenon happens quite often to me during school, but it also occurs when I’m preparing for a Dungeons and Dragons session or campaign. When my brain refuses to cooperate, and my time is limited, I pull out a special binder I’ve deemed a tome of creation.

You might be asking, what is a tome of creation?

Today, we’ll be discussing exactly what a tome of creation is, how to make one, and why everyone who plays D&D should have this inspirational item.

A Tome of Your Own


With the influx of new D&D players, some of them thrust into the fray, others slowly immersing themselves in the wonderful world of roleplaying, I’ve seen questions about how people get their inspiration, particularly dungeon masters.

That question is easy to answer. Inspiration is everywhere, you just have to pay attention. Need a unique accent for an NPC you’re creating? Listen to the accent of your friendly local grocery store clerk for ideas. Looking for encounters to fill up your next game session? Pull a book off the shelf and start reading, fantasy, history, informational, anything. Oftentimes, I’m inspired by real-world events, such as the dominant personality of Genghis Khan for an orc warlord, or the absolute brutality of trenches of the Great War for a battle in the mud pits of a jungle.

However, I’ve come to understand you need a place where you absolutely know you can look to get inspired. Sometimes, you don’t have the time to stroll through the gritty villages of the Witcher III to prepare for your party’s trek through a war-torn grassland. You don’t have time to generate the personality of the victim of a foul lycanthrope using the Dungeon Master’s Guide.

Players new and old, dungeons masters experienced and green, I have a solution. I have a time-saver. I have flint and steel that is guaranteed to make a spark, and perhaps a flame.

I present to you: The tome of creation.

A tome of creation, in short, is an amalgamation of all of your favorite pieces of inspiration. Roll tables, artwork, advice, absolutely anything and everything you get inspired by. Instead of condensing information people need and enjoy inside a single binder, I often see players scrambling through their wide array of sourcebooks, journals, and partially-crumpled sticky notes. Once, I was a part of that group.

That’s no longer the case, my friends.

To give everyone an example of what the binder can hold, I’ll list the tabs of my tome of creation. My binder contains the following sections:

  • Tips and Tricks: Various pieces of advice from people I admire, such as Matt Click, Christopher Perkins, and Matt Colville.
  • Personal Notes: Information about my homegrown world, Aelonis, that can be inserted into a story to give it more depth.
  • Names: Dwarf names, kobold names, dragon names, thri-kreen names, halfling names, temple names, you give me an NPC, I’ll provide you with a name.. When I end up using one, I cross it off, and make a note of where he or she appears.
  • Random Scribings: Unrelated paragraphs of lore and adventure concepts usually written when I wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night, or during class.
  • Awesome Concepts: Locations, monsters or encounters found in the core D&D rulebooks and adventures that I love and am inspired by. For example, the absolutely amazing river-den of the hill giants from Storm King’s Thunder, and almost every single NPC blurb from Curse of Strahd.
  • Maps: For when I’m drawing and need inspiration.
  • Roll Tables: Almost everything can be found in this section, ranging from random encounters to magical side effects to drinking a potion.
Spending an hour or two to create the binder is all it takes! Pick up a decent binder of your favorite color, a few tabs (sticky notes will do, my friends), and create a cover that says, “Tome of Creation. Then, print off or copy everything and anything you like into the binder. Print off roll tables and adventure ideas. Photocopy NPC tables from D&D adventure books, such as the dramatis personae page of Storm King’s Thunder. Drop in a few maps as well. Finally, organize the material with your tabs.

Now, you have a source of material that you’re fond of, material that is special and pertinent to your interests. I understand this sounds simple, even silly, but having a tome of information you personally care about amounts to more inspiration than poring through random books (most of the time).

As an aside: If you're not fond of carrying around a binder, then you can make a tome of creation using Google Docs or a flash drive. Personally, I love feeling the binder in my hands and being able to quickly edit or flip through pages during a session. To each their own!

I’m telling you: Just try it.

When your mind is running amuck, your inspiration dead, or you simply need some quick ideas, your tome of creation will be there, ready and filled with inspiration.

Unlimited Utility


Generally, I use my tome of creation while preparing for a D&D session.

If I’m struggling to figure out an enemy’s motivations, I flip to the vast collection of NPCs I’ve written myself or photocopied from another D&D adventure. In my aforementioned game session, the corrupted frost giant Legrogg ended up being mind-controlled by a faraway beholder because of the magical Gorecrown attached to his head. This added mystery and tension to the battle because the party finally discovered that the crown atop his head was some sort of conduit from yet another faction, which they ended up allying with and attuning the Gorecrown to one of their own heads. This crown, in addition to allowing a crazed beholder to control its wielder, also allows the beholder to see through the wielder's eyes. 


When I opened my tome, I had zero clue what the climactic battle would look like, if the name "Gorecrown" had any significance, and that another faction would be added to the campaign. By the time I was finished, I had added another layer of depth that would have never been disposed to me. The battle took place overtop a canyon with a bridge of bone and skulls. The Gorecrown was now a mystical artifact created by an eye tyrant to partially control Legrogg and spy on the lycanthropic cult's activities. Now, I knew I had an amazing session prepared.

The tome is also useful during live play.

If you’re like me, sometimes you’ll have trouble coming up with evocative NPC names on the spot. Nearly every time a PC asks an improv’d character what their name is, and I don’t have my tome handy, I stutter out something like Gitro Stormshone (rambly human researcher), and Boarhead (a goblin who was previously afflicted with wereboar lycanthropy). Fortunately, I now have the tome with me at all times, so, if needed, I can quickly pull it out and pick an NPC name from the vast array within. At other times, you might need an entire NPC. If you do, simply choose one from the pages copied from D&D adventures of yore, and reskin it to your liking.

Other ways to use it during live play include:
  • Creating encounters out of thin air with roll tables or previous adventure notes. For instance, I've pulled an amazing airship battle encounter from Storm King's Thunder on the fly, and it worked incredibly well! If you need to generate an encounter quickly, using one previously created works far better than rolling on the random encounter table.
  • Generating interesting items on the fly. You can do this with roll tables made specifically for items, or you can keep a list of self-made artifacts and those found in other adventures. I've done this, and had Blackrazor suddenly appear in my campaign. Crazy stuff.
  • Whipping out already made maps. They don't have to be made by you, simply print some off the internet, or photocopy them for modules such as Rise of Tiamat and Princes of the Apocalypse.
  • Giving your campaign a bit more depth using unique bits and pieces of your world located within the tome. For example, my world has two moons, one blue, one red. I often use this piece of information to immerse my players in nighttime battles or journies.

In Summary


I recommend everyone who plays D&D should spend a few hours to build a tome of creation: A binder full of your favorite pieces of inspiration. If you’re stuck preparing for a session, simply grab the tome and pore through, and you’ll assuredly find that one of your preferred ideas latches onto you. Plus, it can be used during play to do a plethora of acts, such as quickly inserting a new character or encounter into your world.

The tome is easy to make! Simply grab a binder, a few tabs, and printed or photocopied pieces of paper and voila, you have a book of your favorite sources of inspiration.

What's your opinion on this, folks? Leave a comment below, and we'll discuss if this item is a boon or a curse!

Next week, we’ll be discussing ways to physically immerse your players in your game.

Until then, farewell!

Eager for more RJD20? Begin here, subscribe to the RJD20 newsletter, and explore RJD20 videos on YouTube.

Check out Villain Backgrounds Volume I, a supplement that crafts compelling villains.

Please send inquiries to rjd20writes@gmail.com.

12 January 2018

Charming Beginners


Welcome to 2018. A new year is upon us, and I’ve set a goal for myself: I’d like to introduce as many people as possible to Dungeons and Dragons. Whether they’re people who attend my gym, or friends of friends, I’m dedicated to spreading knowledge about the world’s best pastime: D&D.

We all know D&D is thriving. With the advent of online play, people are able to play whenever they’d like, with whomever they’d like, and they’re far more likely to hear about it. People are no longer required to sit down and play at a table (although many still do) and can either spectate, play, or create adventures online.

As a consequence, it’s easier to expose people to D&D. However, I often hear a question asked: How do I introduce someone to Dungeons and Dragons?

Today, I’d like to clearly answer this question.

Over the years, I have developed three methods to charm new players: the slow burn, into the fire, and a modest mix.

The Slow Burn



I’ll start with a somewhat strange approach I’ve utilized multiple times throughout my D&D career. Let’s say someone desperately wants to play D&D, but they’re too afraid to leap into the action, they’d rather just watch. So, that’s what you allow them to do. You set up the table (or video hang out) as normal, and give them a front row seat to the game. Fully immerse them in the story, look at them while you speak, and show them the essence of D&D. If you use this approach, be sure to recap the events surrounding the campaign or adventure before you begin so they’re not lost.

As an addendum, if you know you’ll have a first-time spectator before you plan the session out, try to include all the core elements of D&D. Start the session with an epic fight scene, designed to show off the unlimited possibilities of combat. Sprinkle in a roleplaying encounter with a flamboyant nonplayer character who entertains both the players and their characters. Toss in a dungeon, and allow them to see the party plan their expedition and eventual delve. This approach will give a new player an overview of what makes a D&D game, without them feeling like they need to contribute much their first time being at the table.

I call this method ‘the slow burn’ because you’re steadily luring potential players into the glory that is D&D. Plenty of people have asked me to do this for them and it’s worked. Sometimes, new players aren’t comfortable playing D&D before viewing how your group plays the game in the flesh. Instead, they’d prefer to witness the sheer awesomeness of D&D firsthand. It should be noted that if they ask to join mid-session, I’d allow them to do so in the form of a nonplayer character or creature. They’re hooked, and you should have no issue helping them create a character for the next time your group plays.

Into the Fire


Onto the next approach, called ‘into the fire.’ The most common method of teaching new people D&D is completely immersing them in the game immediately. This is for people who don’t need to know what they’re getting into, for people who are ready to try anything. 

Before actually playing with a new player, I talk with them beforehand, and ask them two questions:

  1. Would they like to make their own character, or do they prefer a premade character?
  2. Would they like to try a one-off adventure, start a new campaign, or join a pre-existing campaign? 
It is important to be flexible with the character question. Some people love to create their own characters, which is my go-to for new players, but I’ve encountered people who prefer to play premade characters. Creating a character is a daunting task, and could be something this person has never done before. D&D players sometimes forget that what we do is inherently weird, and that’s perfectly fine! If they would prefer to use a premade, provide them with one. Else, dive into the character creation process with them, and create an interesting character using the Player’s Handbook and Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. With those two books in their hands, they’re bound to have a fantastic time building their own character.

Once you’ve helped them pick or create a character, you need to figure out how you’ll actually begin to play.

Though some new players are perfectly fine with jumping into an ongoing campaign, I’d recommend that they get their start with something completely new. This can be in the form of a brand new campaign, where you plan out a short story and allow it to grow naturally from the character’s actions and your new and grand ideas, or you can take my preferred route and run a oneshot for the new player.

Oneshots are adventures that span a single session. There is a clear beginning, middle, and end, but how the characters traverse this path is variable. This is the ideal method to introduce a new player to D&D. Let them make their own character or give them a pregenerated one, and then thrust them into an adventure! Introduce them to all the pillars of our beloved game, but don’t drag out the session. Keep it short, about four hours, and hook them. Make them say, “That was AWESOME! When can we play next?” Even end it on a cliffhanger, which, if their reaction to playing was positive (as it should be), allows you to continue adventuring with their first character.

Here are a few examples of oneshot adventures:
  1. The party is hired to protect a mouthy merchant who is suspected to be the target of a dragonborn assassin. The merchant is leaving the city soon, by boat, and time is running out for the assassin. He will strike soon.
  2. The party is trapped in an ancient, abandoned dwarven stronghold. There is only one way out and only one person knows the way.
  3. Hauntingly eerie noises have been rising from the temple’s catacombs after the death of their long-time high priest. Knowing what must lie below and stricken with grief, the temple’s acolytes hire the party to investigate and deal with the disturbance. 

A Modest Mix


A model I’ve convinced quite a few people to try is a mixture of the two above methods. Usually, the person comes to the D&D session, and instead of simply spectating or leaping into the action, I have them play a specific NPC or monster that interacts with the party in an interesting way. I give them enough to play with: a name, an agenda, and interesting items. This isn’t my preferred method, but I’ve found it’s a modest mix of the two above pieces of advice.

In Summary


D&D is thriving. However, we can achieve even greater heights if we continue to introduce new people to this wonderful game. Though the task can seem daunting at times, I’ve found that the discussed methods work well and should provide anyone unsure about how to show their friends, coworkers, or peers D&D with a solid framework of how to do so. Again, the three methods:
  1. The Slow Burn. This is for someone who’s shy and unwilling to leap into the fray. Allow them to spectate a session live, and show them all the core aspects of the game.
  2. Into the Fire. My favorite approach. Help the new player create or choose a character, and then run a oneshot adventure for them. This need not be long, but try to show them how amazing D&D can be.
  3. A Modest Mix. Mix the two above methods. Have the new player take control of a nonplayer character for a session, or play a monster during a combat. Give them a role that’s not set in stone and integral to the campaign. This gives them a taste of what D&D without having a stake in the game.
I hope this helps you spread Dungeons and Dragons far and wide this year, and for years to come!

As my favorite dungeon master used to say:

Until the next encounter, farewell!

Eager for more RJD20? Begin here, subscribe to the RJD20 newsletter, and explore RJD20 videos on YouTube.

Check out Villain Backgrounds Volume I, a supplement that crafts compelling villains.

Please send inquiries to rjd20writes@gmail.com.

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