Playing a Story in a Believable World 3

This story is a further continuation of “Playing a Story in a Believable World” and “Playing a Story in a Believable World 2”.  I highly recommend reading both of those articles before continuing.

Play on Assumptions

Adventures can be inspired from anything.  In the campaign I mentioned last article, one particularly nasty antagonist that the party set out to destroy was almost completely based on H.P. Lovecraft’s “Pickman’s Model”.  It’s a story that hardly lends itself to high combat, but with a little modification I was able to pay it homage while making something unique and fun that Lovecraft fans could make a few guesses about along the way.  Another adventure, to hunt a sewer dwelling urban legend called Croc-Man, led the party to call up thoughts and stories of Killer Croc from the Batman cartoon/comics.  The story hardly had anything to do with the DC character, but it allowed me to direct the investigation because I knew what assumptions the party had made.

As my campaign evolved, the story called for higher action and less intrigue.  Though I never stated that a genre change was impending, I did allude to it repeatedly.  A war was brewing in my plot, a battle to epitomize Good vs. Evil on a mass scale.  The players could feel the danger growing larger session by session, NPCs spoke of an end to the battles they faced, and prophecy warned of the final confrontation.  To prepare for the massive combat, I watched movies like 300, Gladiator, and other violent action flicks.  I noted their soundtracks and during my battles, played those coupled with other powerful songs; music that I knew (knowing my group’s tastes) would pump some adrenaline into the room.  I can’t say I recommend Metallica’s Battery covered by acoustic metal group Van Canto for every game, but with my group is was the perfect choice.  Battles truly felt like epic moments of intense rage directed at an irredeemable enemy, exactly what I hoped to convey.


Every group is different; I cannot tell you specifically how to lead every player to the assumptions you want from them.  However, I do feel that being aware of the mood you are crafting will help you figure out how to guide your particular group.  Here are a few starter ideas to help you establish a Continuity of Theme, Tone, and Mood.

  • Choose and communicate a genre style.  Every genre comes with its own set list of assumptions on the types of characters, adventures, and so much more.  Use this to quickly explain the feelings your story is trying to create.
  • Watch movies or read books that capture the chosen genre.  Anything that well illustrates the given tone you want to recreate can serve as inspiration.
  • Don’t be afraid to make references to the genre directly or indirectly in your campaign.  I don’t recommend taking your plot straight from Mass Effect for your Sci-Fi RPG, but if your group is familiar with the game and it has elements that blend well, use them.
  • Spend some time with (or a real thesaurus!  Advice I could use myself).  Look up descriptors for the mood you are establishing and find similar words, then use these in your descriptions for locations, artifacts, or characters.
  • Try to stay consistent from the outset.  This is probably the most difficult tip to master, if such a thing is possible.  In the event you are forced to change your mind about your genre due to disinterest or dramatic plot change, be sure to review this list of tips, choose a new genre, and communicate it to the players.

I think it is very important to mention here not place yourself in a box.  Your chosen genre should serve only as a baseline, a point from which assumptions can be made.  How you twist and direct those assumptions is entirely up to you as the writer and GM.  Lastly, crafting a believable world to tell your story in doesn’t end here, these are only steps along the path.  Experiment, read on game theory, and decide what works for you.  I’m working on more articles regarding NPC Relationships, Time Use, and Equipment that all tie your series of adventures into a story world your players can really get into.

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5 thoughts on “Playing a Story in a Believable World 3

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  1. Thesaurus really???? Great now the DM will describe stuff and I will have no idea what he is talking about. Thanks for making my brain hurt. I just want to roll dice and kill some stuff. Almost forgot I like loot lots of loot.


  2. I have found that the games where players understand the mood and tone of the source inspiration do make for smoother roleplay at the table, and also set up for great surprise one the genre, mood, or tone suddenly shifts to something atypical of the source. For instance, I started a stereotypical Star Wars game with Jedi, Stormtroopers, and Crime Lords that ran with the feel of SW for a good while. Then the players found themselves on an abandoned Republic refueling station and suddenly were surviving a horror scenario. And in a one shot, improvised Redwall game (in which my players were mostly diehard fans) I started with that typical Redwall mood, which is kind of a strange blend of peace and love and the grim weight of war or evil, and got the players going with the happy reward of a feast with scones… then I introduced this nasty plot of a giant camel spider that had been eating the children that wandered near its lair. I was pleased that my players were not only disgusted by the act, but some of them were genuinely disturbed by the giant spider.

    I definately think player expections and assumptions are a good way to help them feel connected to the game, but unease is a powerful tool to making a game feel more engaging. And, especially when the player builds a sense of familiarity with whatever the source inspiration for a campaign, a well timed tonal shift can be very fun to play with.


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