(Featured image is “Birth of Eden” by Noah Bradley. You should check out all his other work.)
I tend to DM for lots of newer players. I don’t have the time to play at the game store (though it’s always on my list to go and learn from the pros), so most of a groups are cobbled together from people who expressed interest in learning after they found out I play. As a result, many of these people don’t have a lot of background in the typical fantasy setting. Many times, they’re not aware of typical tropes that more seasoned players expect to encounter. Tropes such as knowing that when in doubt, head to the tavern; or the first town councilor-type who gives them a mission tends to be secretly evil. Over the time I’ve played, my view of this phenomenon has changed from negative to positive. I enjoy having players who don’t have preconceptions about how elves and dwarves interact, or how magic should or shouldn’t be. Rather than compare experiences, they interact, learn, and seek out new ones. But new players get nervous about the RP part of the RPG. This is where the DM steps in. It’s the Dungeon Master’s job not only to know the rules and how things play out, but also to prepare the storytelling element of the adventure. After all, no one is going to feel natural interacting with something that’s hard to visualize. If the DM hasn’t described the area effectively, then it becomes difficult to discern direction. (Our friend skunkenomics did a fantastic job in detailing how to detail your environments. Read all about it here.)
While descriptions are vital in engaging the player, too much of it might send them straight to their happy place. The way I like to provide quick snapshots is to give them one general piece (like the feel of the town, how many people are out and about, etc.) and one thing specific/atypical (the fountain in town is made of solid brass, all the villagers are wearing strange hats). From there, allow the players to interact to learn more. “Is the fountain actually brass?” “No! Upon closer inspection, it is actually a rare mineral found on the Plane of Fire.” Or: “I want to ask a villager about their hat (or steal a hat to look at)”. Curiosity can kill a cat, or it can drive the players to ask more about your lore. As a sidenote: I try my best to never introduce history or lore unless an in-game source is detailing it. Preferably an NPC, or something that can talk. Knowledge sticks best when the players ask for it.
Another obstacle in player interaction is character depth. If your barkeeper is portly, unkempt, and cleans mugs with a dirty rag, the players will all interact with him like he’s just another quest-giver from ‘genericMMO.net’. I’m not saying to throw out the stereotypes; they can be useful when it’s necessary to quickly convey a lot of information about a character (at the cost of specifics). But when every bartender in your universe has the same feel, don’t be surprised when your PCs have the same reactions for each one. By show of hands, how many of us have introduced an NPC by name and race alone? Can you imagine an author being allowed to do that? “You see Bart, the mayor of Shrekopolis. He’s white.” How far would that fly in a novel?
The freeing aspect of RPGs is the ability to run on the fly! Video-games pre-code personality; you can tweak it as you go. If you’re afraid of contradicting yourself, don’t be; properly handled, contradictions can serve as a point of depth. The nice mayor was rude and downright nasty the second time he met the PCs? Well, maybe he had a bad day; the farmer’s guild is acting up about the taxes recently imposed. While it has no bearing on the mission at hand, that is precisely why it creates depth; players who hear this might realize that a world exists beyond what they are tasked to save. It’s ok to make things up; more importantly, it’s ok to be wrong. Realizing that your storytelling will not always be perfect and well-thought out is one of the most freeing revelations. Trust me, you will only improve. It’s hard to BS at will initially, but practice improves everyone. And getting better is critical—improv is one of the most foundational abilities for a DM who is not bent on railroading their PCs. No group has ever stayed perfectly on the path of an adventure; the ability to flesh out the alleys they traverse is the difference between a good DM and a great DM. I personally have a secret that I use to do my best to help make the unexpected encounters smooth. If you’re not the DM of your group, I must implore you to stop reading. I am about to describe some cheap and dirty tactics that, when revealed, may cause you to lose all respect for the DM (or at least for me). On the other hand, I’m just a stranger on the Internet—can I really stop you from doing anything?
Bear with me, because I’ll take a while to get there.
The only reason things are the way they are is because you described them as such. The hero took 4 damage? That could an infinite number of things; club to the face, fall out a window, etc. The party has to fight 4 weak enemies? It could be four goblins, four orcs, four debilitated ogres with stomach aches. The bottom line is that a Stat Block is only that; a series of numbers that you bring to life by describing how it interacts with the players. What if the players decide to not fight into the warrens, and go after the thieves’ guild instead? Here’s my secret: use the same Stat Block. All you have to do is describe those Goblin stats as some rather puny humans (or halflings, if you want the size category to be the same). If you need to roll for a skill that a thief would have that a goblin would not, substitute the least relevant skill modifier (i.e. your “thief” need to sense motive, then replace the goblin’s +4 ride modifer with +4 sense motive). If the old monsters have an ability that the new one’s wouldn’t, find a simple but convincing way to incorporate it. Example: maybe the goblins were riding spiders. This means there would have been some poison, and maybe some wall-shenanigans. To compensate, give the new enemies poisoned daggers (conveniently using the Spider’s Poison provided) and a Potion of Spider-Climbing each to pop at the beginning of the fight. If the players note the Spider vibe, roll with it; throw some spider amulets and other ornaments on the corpses. At worst, it’s a one-off encounter that they remember because it was really odd. At best, they may decide to keep pursuing these spider thieves. If that’s the case, congratulations: your players have just created their own plot hook. And all because they decided to do the opposite of what you wanted. If you are afraid of losing an entire campaign that you planned, you can work on their new hook being in the larger scheme of things. Alternatively, let them go! As beautiful as your story is, it’s about the players. If they want to investigate spider thieves instead of fighting off a Goblin Uprising in the North, work with them to the best of your abilities.
The key here is to be convincing; players, much like wild beasts, can smell fear (and uncertainty). But they can also be very trusting. As long as you don’t give them any reason to doubt what is happening behind the screen, players tend to not question your methods. If you’re found out, some players might construe this tactic as railroading of it’s own. It could come off as “Oh, you don’t want the fight I made? Well I’ll make sure we do it my way regardless!” Which is not the case at all! A prepared DM is a happy party, so if I can keep part of my plans without them knowing, everyone wins. If we throw the expected plot out the window, then we can at least make the game smooth by keeping as much of the preplanned fight as possible. Much of the combat changes as well; the time of day could be affected, the terrain… You may keep the stats, but it won’t be the same fight.
These are all just bullet points in the grand scheme of DMing. But the big takeaway here is that you take away only as much as you put into the game, and PCs subconciously match that investment. Even the most dedicated Role-Player will lose steam in the face of a unresponsive, monotone DM. On the flip-side, all it takes is a little prep work and ability to roll with the players, and your new group will be in character in no time. Doing the voices is, however, optional.