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.
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!
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 EarfulOver 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:
- 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.
- 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.
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 GaloreThe 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.
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.
- Get up and move around. Embody the NPCs you portray.
- 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.
- Make props, and allow your players to touch and shift them around.
- Players can follow try any of these techniques as well.
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!
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