It can be a lot of fun to game master (GM) a roleplaying game (RPG) in which the world feels real. There are a number of ways to bring that feel of reality (and thus, usually, intensity) to a game, and one of those is to give the players the sense that even when they aren’t looking, the game world continues to exist and move on. You don’t want them to get the sense that the scenes and non-player-characters (NPCs) are wind-up toys, that sit around waiting for the player characters (PCs) to show up, come to life briefly to interact with the party, and then wind down again. So how can you go about giving your world movement independent of the party?
Note that many of these suggestions can also, if you wish, double as plot hooks or plot details.
Presumably your world has some sort of way to get messages back and forth between people. This could be phone calls, letters, runners, mystical spells, telepathy, or something else entirely.
- NPCs should not be available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to take calls. If they aren’t always home it adds to the impression that they have lives of their own. Maybe they’ve gone out for a movie or dinner. Maybe they’re just tired and don’t want to pick up the phone. Perhaps they’ve gone on vacation or been called away on an emergency.
- NPCs should not always wait for the PCs to call them, or call only when expected to. Have NPCs call party members every once in a while. Why? Well, to invite them to a party that’s happening. Or to ask them for information about something. Or maybe just to chat about something amazing (or terrible) that’s happened in their lives. It all depends on how much of a character-intensive game you’re running.
- NPCs aren’t always home or eager to see the party when they show up. Perhaps the NPC was wining and dining a date, or went out to do his laundry. Maybe he was in the shower when they rang the doorbell.
- Have NPCs visit party members now and then without being asked. Maybe they want to hang out and have dinner, or pump the party for information about something. Perhaps they just felt like dropping by while they were in the neighborhood.
- Have NPCs bump into the party in unexpected places. The party goes out to a nightclub and runs into an NPC they haven’t seen in a few weeks. Or they go to visit someone, and run into someone else leaving – the party had no idea these two people knew each other. It gives the impression of relationships and actions going on behind-the-scenes.
The state of an NPC
- Allow NPCs to change while the party isn’t looking. Maybe someone gets a hair cut or dyes his hair. Someone else gets a scar or a limp from getting into a fight with someone. Someone else decides to totally change the type of clothing he wears, or starts learning a new language. There are any number of possibilities.
- Allow an NPC’s surroundings to change when the party isn’t looking. An NPC could move to a new apartment or redecorate his home. Maybe he has his car painted a new color or trades in his old junker for a new sports car. Even something as small as a new piece of artwork on the wall can make a difference.
- Allow NPCs to have their highs and lows. Let things happen to the NPCs at least partially while the party isn’t looking. Someone gets engaged or married. Someone else has a child. Someone gets into a fight and is left crippled. Someone else loses his job and home. Another friend angers a wizard and is cursed.
- Let the NPCs have feelings while the party isn’t looking. Someone might slowly develop an obsession about a party member. Someone else is frustrated because their PC friend doesn’t visit them often enough. The party, if they’re tacitly assuming that nothing really happens when they aren’t looking, will probably be surprised by these emotions that seem to come out of the blue.
The state of the party’s surroundings
You can also muck with what the party sees every day. Think about the things that change in your world as you go about your business every day. Here are a few ideas
Road construction – watching it come and go and move up and down the roads is one of the ways to chart the passing of the seasons in some areas.
People – street performers, food vendors, homeless people, and so on. These are things that change with the seasons, or that change as things happen to people. If the party is used to seeing one certain guitarist by the subway every morning, they’ll notice that things are changing when he’s gone and replaced by a violinist or a juggler.
Trees and plants – seeing trees bud, flower, leaf, and then turn yellow, gold and brown lends a sense of the passage of time.
Animals – if the party is used to hearing the neighbors’ dog bark at the postman every morning, then they’re likely to notice when the dog is gone.
Repairs – Items in the party members’ houses or apartments could break down. A porch step could break when the postman steps on it, for instance – the PC just comes home to find the hole and a little bit of blood, and maybe an angry note.
Newspapers and news programs
Arranging for the party to catch bits of news here and there is also a great way to show that the world moves on. You could have them catch a bit of news as someone with a radio passes them on the street. Or they could catch site of a TV in a store. They could see a news article plastered on a bulletin board. Some GMs like to frame things with news stories, starting out each gaming run or in-game day with a brief reading from an in-game newspaper. If the party gets used to this then it can be an interesting place to hide clues and other information now and then.
A few important tips
Note that all of this will seem pretty odd to your party if you don’t normally describe things well in your game. As good physical descriptions are another facet to making a game world seem real, it’s a good idea to get into the habit of describing the world before you start mucking with changing those descriptions.
Don’t change and muck with everything at once. Stick to a small detail here and there rather than overwhelming the party with extraneous information. It doesn’t really take all that much to give the players the sense that the world moves on.
If you aren’t used to doing this, it may take some practice to be able to introduce changes without accidentally intimating to your players that every little change is something ominous and plot-relevant. (Unless that’s what you’re going for, of course.) Once you’ve been doing it for a little while, they’ll get used to the idea that it’s a part of the description. This is aided by liberal use of tip #1, in other words, starting out with basic description. If they get used to normal description first, then changes will be easier for them to handle.
Also, you might try introducing changes through conversation: an NPC could ask a PC what she thinks of his new haircut or car. This tends to make things sound less ominous.