Making the Dungeon World Real
I said earlier that making the world real is one of the fundamental jobs of the DM in the dungeon mastering approach that I’m trying to develop.*
Part of making the world real has to do with the consistency and believability of the dungeon and the imaginary world it inhabits. Part of this is about the immediate verisimilitude of what happens in the dungeon. Part of it is the bigger issue of a consistent believable world. I'm going to focus on the first of these.
Making the world real entails a host of immediately decisions on the dungeon master’s part concerning what happens. Consider a tactical situation:
The party has fled from a band of hungry ghouls and barricaded themselves in a room. What do the ghouls do next? Something ghoulish, obviously; could be any number of things. Maybe the start battering down the door for the food they can smell so close by; maybe in their mindlessness they wander off in search of other prey; maybe they go inform their wererat overlords in room #12.
Each of these options is tactically believable in some circumstances, but terribly different in how the PCs are impacted. In one case the ghouls directly threaten the characters, in another the characters get a lucky break, and in the third the reason for the ghoul’s behavior may be entirely hidden from the characters.
Choosing between these kinds of options is a big part of the dungeon master’s job, and the dungeon master might call upon any of a large number of tools to do this. There are books, blogs, and podcasts full of random tables and other techniques to help do this better. Making the dungeon real usually involves a mix of intuition, planning, and improvisation. It's an art, but it’s one you can improve at.
Making the world real has a really interesting relationship with being the eyes and ears of the characters. You’re often doing both at the same time, but with subtly different requirements. When you’re being the eyes and ears, you want to be very clear about the risks and challenges that the characters are investigating. But when you’re making the world real, you want to be disinterested about how it challenges the players.
Sometimes making the world real might mean visiting a really punishing challenge on the player characters. Maybe the demands of reality indicate that the player characters just blundered into an unfavorable encounter with an Ogre Magi who’s likely to kick their ass ten ways from Tuesday. As their eyes and ears you have the opportunity to make it clear to them what the parameters of this encounter are (i.e. they could very easily die). This opens up the floor for the players to look for options that don’t involve a drastically unfavorable fight (“is there an escape route? Maybe we can bribe him? Do we have a spell that would work here”). When the players ask one of these questions, that’s your cue to be their eyes and ears again. The idea here is NOT to remove the danger, it’s to make sure that it’s in the open and nobody’s surprised by it.
* I’m stealing this phrase almost directly from Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World, though as usual I’m adapting it a bit for my own purposes. Vincent's description of this job and how it works in his game is pretty brilliant.