Making Things Interesting for Tabletop Games

Today’s post is a bit more difficult. I know it might sound strange, given the general assertions of the last two posts, about creating interesting worlds and filling those worlds with interesting events (both of which are suggested reading for today’s post since I am using the same examples and techniques across all of them), but I can’t give you a sure-fire method of making something interesting. I do my best to make things interesting for my tabletop games, but I still fail with a frustrating degree of frequency. I’m good at pretending otherwise because I’m quick enough to cover for it by pivoting to what my players are indicating they’re actually interested in. There’s no real way to teach the ability to pivot on-the-fly other than experience and getting to know your audience, so all I can do is hope that the general rules and guiding principles I use for determining what is “interesting” will be enough to help you get started. Like most of the worldbuilding and GM prep I’ve talked about recently, if you keep your preparation focused on understanding things rather than knowing things, you can almost always find a place to recycle them if your original use doesn’t pan out.

The first principle is perhaps the most important of them all and I make sure to follow it every time I create something. I have to think it is interesting. No amount of work or effort is ever going to make up for me feeling bored when I’m running a game. If I can’t stay engaged, even if I’m doing everything else I can to fulfill every wish of every single player, no one will have a good time in the long run. If I’m going to run something, I have to be at least partially interested in it. Since I’m interested in seeing my players react to most situations I put in front of them, it is pretty easy to make sure this rule gets followed. There are still times when I forget myself and get so wrapped up in how much a player might enjoy a cool situation that I forget to put something in there for me as well. It never works out as well as I want, since even really cool moments are no replacement for having everyone focused and engaged, including the GM.

The second principle is about where my “knowing” ends and my “understanding” begins when preparing events. I always know who is involved, what resources are tied up in this event, what outside elements could be dragged in, and where the event will take place. I make sure I understand what everyone involved wants out of the event, what people are willing to lose to see their goals met, and what it will take to get outside elements involved in the event. I know my setup and I understand how people will respond in the moment. If I ever find myself planning specific outcomes, I know I have gone too far. No amount of planning for a list of outcomes will ever leave me feeling as prepared as I would if I understand the people evolved in the event and what their goals are because then, they can react to anything that happens. If I get too prescriptive, I might wind up accidentally thumbing the scales so a result I’ve prepared comes to pass. If I push things in a direction and my players realize that I’m aiming for a result, that’s usually a sure-fire way to start souring whatever interest they had built up. No one likes feeling like their choices don’t matter. It happens all the time in video games and most reviews STILL talk about feeling like their choices don’t matter.

The first rule I follow to make something interesting is to ensure that it is clear what is at stake. If you tell your players to go into the infernal wastelands to find the crystalline heart of the Fireclops, make sure they know that there’s someone who wants it so they can create a breed of fire apples that will thrive when the infernal wastelands expand. If they also know that the Fireclops is helping the infernal wastes to grow, that it is the unwitting agent of one of the rival cities fighting over the infernal wastes, and that it is the last Fireclops in the infernal wastes for reasons no one understands, then you’ve got all the stakes you need to make the “track down a Fireclops and either kill it or free it” mission an interesting event. And if you’ve done your preparation correctly, you understand what each result might mean for the world at large based on who wants which end and how the players acheive that end.

The second rule I do my best to follow when trying to increase how interesting something seems is that everything involved must have a reason for doing whatever it is doing. The Fireclops can’t just be some unknown being wandering the infernal wastelands, working to make them larger because it’s a type of creature with “fire” in its name. It has to have motivations, be they the simple motivations of sustenance and shelter common to all living beings or if there are greater machinations at play because the Fireclops is actually the grandfather of one the leaders of the neighboring cities who was cursed by his grandchild to direct the spread towards the rival city. Even the infernal wastelands have a reason for their presence in the event at hand. They wish to continue growing so that the flaming heart of a unholy godling buried at their center can eventually grow strong enough to reform the entire world into a new godrealm it can then rule. EVERYTHING has a reason to be there and EVERYTHING wants something, even if all it wants is to continue to exist or to cease to exist. Most of this never comes up in the game, but it is important for me to understand so I can react as anything’s goals and desires are threatened. I may not have planned that the land would rise up to land the finishing blow on the fleeing Fireclops so that the people stunting its growth will leave it alone, but knowing that it actively wants to grow lets me make that decision in the moment.

My third rule (this is the last one I’m going to write about today because all the other rules and principles are super specific rules that are a result of my specific experiences, predilictions, and audiences) is that no event, place, or NPC is complete without a connection to another event, place, NPC, or player. The world might seem cruel, random, and uncaring at times, but nothing happens in the universe that isn’t the result of some long chain of events. The more you learn and understand about the universe, the more you can see what connects seemingly random events, like the change in how long it takes a plane to fly from west to east across the US and the way that cold fronts can plunge almost all the way to the gulf of mexico these days (the answer is, in part, the changes to the jet stream as a result of climate change). If the Fireclops does indeed get struck down by the land, I need to connect that to something further down the line. The formation of Crystalline Infernal Godlings, emerging from the unholdy godling heart now that it is empowered by the crystalline heart of the Fireclops that was claimed by the land, might not happen for a while, but that connection will be important when the players arrive to find out why the steady growth of the infernal wastelands has changed from even expansion to weird spiking growth as the CIGs claim land outside of the original territory of their source. More connections isn’t always better, but most events can easily support three to ten connections. You’ll have to make a call as it happens, though, since putting in too many connections makes an otherwise interesting event feel contrived.

If you do your best to stick to those two principles and three rules, you shouldn’t have any trouble coming up with enough events that at least one or two of them are interesting to the players. And so long as you are an active listener and participant in your games, you should get better and better over time at making more of your stuff interesting.

If you’ve enjoyed this series, you can find the final post about making interesting characters here!

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