In stories today, shock value has in many cases replaced the simple beauty of being in awe. That sense of amazement – of wonder – is both an underrated and crucial component of tabletop role-playing game stories as well.
This week’s GM/DM advice aims to help the worldbuilder invest in these moments so that the players add yet another layer to their connection and affection for the story world!
Instant Gratification vs. Cultivated Build Up
Like most stories, in tabletop RPGs, worldbuilders should be cultivating build ups to big payoff moment(s). And it’s paramount that those scenes come with a strong sense of wonder/amazement tied to them. Take Sherlock and Holmes for example. Would the players see and experience Moriarty’s secret underground laboratory in the first few scenes of the story? Probably not; at least, not without good reason.
Instead, you should be seeding clues as to what’s in the lab, how it’s empowering Moriarty to commit his crimes, where it might be, and how it could have came to exist etc. So that by the time the players have earned their way into the villain’s secret lair, they’re primed with expectations and a famished curiosity.
That way, when they do get a feel for Moriarty’s secret lab – and whatever epic event the players are about to experience there – you can take full advantage of the momentum you’ve been seeding along the way. These payoff scenes – with all of the effort you put into cultivation – yield these wonderful moments full of a genuine sense of wonder for the players.
Shock Value vs. Evolving Their Understanding Of What’s Possible
Shock value on its own isn’t typically the ideal worldbuilding tactic. Sure, shock yields surprise. And of course helps facilitate twists and turns within a great story. But most oftentimes, those moments are less about “shock” and more about the player confronting a change of mindset. In those scenes, the player is being forced to confront the juxtaposition between what they had understood was likely or possible vs. what’s actually happening.
Instead, the worldbuilder should be focused on understanding what the players are expecting in various situations. And then investing their time into using what’s actually there to create those moments of awe. Continuing the Sherlock Holmes example, if the players finally make it to Moriarty’s lab, “shock” value would just have dozens of experimented-on corpses everywhere to fill the players’ minds with horror and dread. And sure, that’s a potential route to go.
But instead, if you’ve interpreted Moriarty to be the experimenter-type, consider instead getting the players’ attention with the results of the experiment – i.e. super soldier, giant steampunk robot, zombie slaves etc. etc. – and then hitting them with its horrors. Their mindset, instead of being initially overwhelmed with the ghastly scene would shift tp be the more curious/amazed. “How the hell did he pull this off?” which transitions nicely to “ah, the horrors of evil human experimentation.”
The Art of Challenging the Imagination
Above all, the worldbuilder should find peace with the expectation that they’re responsible for challenging the players’ collective imaginations. A crucial part to filling players’ minds with “whoa!,” “oh my God,” “how is that possible!?,” and other feelings of being momentarily lost, is finding ways to force the players’ imagination into places/circumstances/images/sounds they haven’t confronted before. Or certainly not often.
Pay attention to how the table reacts to the various plot beats of the story. Engage with your players and find out what their favorite stories, TTRPGs and otherwise, have been. And force yourself down the rabbit hole and challenge yourself to go to places in your imagination you never thought you could go. Don’t skip that process – it may seem like work on the surface but I promise you, the more you flex that muscle, the more and more fun and engaging it is to perform!