Grounding Your Fantasy Role Playing Game

Vito Pandolfo

We play role-playing games for a variety of reasons. Certainly as players, all of us like to fantasize, imagining our actions in a world very different than our own. Sometimes, the crazier and more out-of-reality the game, the better! But sometimes, the gaming group style goes in a direction when they need a more visceral experience. As a Game Master we hope that the players will always be looking forward to the game session, lest the campaign ends up short-lived. I am sure that each person has his or her own separate motivation for playing, but in the end, we can all agree on one thing – we want players talking about a session, telling stories about it months later as if was an actual memory!

For those times when the player group is demanding a bit more play experience from the session, there is a key factor that gives players a notion of relatability. Grounding your fantasy realm with some elements that create a strong relationship of relatability can make the difference between a game that was ‘cool’ and a game that was ‘awesome’. Why? Because players can feel the game experience as they role play and roll the dice. And that is what we want!

So, regardless of the game system you working in (a very relevant but wholly separate subject), here is a host menu of ideas you can select from to use as grounding points for your game. Some or all may be used, depending on the game setting, your preferences and what makes sense in the context of your world. These are not presented in any particular order, though some may undoubtedly affect others.

The villain who isn’t wrong. It is easy to fight against a villain who is plainly and obviously evil. But as in the real world, except for rare instances, this isn’t always so clear. It is more often a case of whose perspective we see the “villain” from. The more real and more challenging angle on the villain is the one who speaks to the needs of certain people, attains followers who are voluntary because they believe in his or her cause, or one whose perspective is really a matter of – well, perspective. 

The terrors of traveling underground. I love low-level dungeon delves, hacking away at the baddies. But going underground is a very different experience than what we see on our fantasy maps. Caverns are uneven, crooked, can be blackened with darkness, constrained to the point of risk to those passing through a crevasse, wet and slick, and laced with a host of small organisms that can make you sick. It is also easy to lose track of direction, become disoriented, and in larger areas, possibly lost. Lighting fires for warmth or light can quickly make oxygen in short supply, choking those within unintentionally. Not so easy, cave spelunking.

Travel time, weather and the elements. Traveling across country can sometimes be best summed up with the following, “It was a 4-day journey that took us 7 days….”.  Weather hazards, cold, wind and wet conditions can slow a party. Natural barriers like rockslides, unmapped ravines or flooded areas can also be challenging, not to mention a bad rain season which washes away the clarity of already-established pathways. Travel in colder months lead to lack of running water in some areas, or more frustrating, frozen snow and ice; certainly fine for survival, but most of the time slowing things down. Sand storms, soft dunes, dry rocky hills or even swampy marches all create similar issues. Carrying baggage in these conditions certainly omits the use of wagons and many times the use of most beasts of burden (mules and oxen work best, but even they have limitations). Travel on seas can certainly present the obvious hazards of the storm, raging seas and even the occasion of having to avoid hostile ships.

Plague, famine, population. What about events that have been influencing social migration for thousands of years? Lack of food in an area, even with the help of magic, may be so great that populations will begin to move. Disease or malnutrition may also be helped with magic, but this is more a questions of measure and severity. Overpopulation can also be a factor which affects both of the aforementioned. While these events may not be at the forefront of the players’ adventure, they can certain create a backdrop which the characters will need to work around. It may also affect what the player group considers an immediate priority based on the adventure at hand.

Politics, economics, caste and factions. Similar to the paragraph just above, these can also be factors which give an adventure a rich setting. Will a character group’s actions portray them in a light as to be associated with a particular faction? Will a clash between two Dukes with different political views or interests interfere with a group’s intentions? Will some event which changes the course of commerce and trade suddenly make discretion an impossibility in an area? Will a great castle under siege for a year present a large geographic obstacle the players will need to avoid? All these again, may not affect the characters’ immediate interests, but may certainly affect their methods and game play.

Character relationships, possessions and mortality. Most characters had a life before adventuring. They had (or still have), mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, extended family. They have contacts, associations, friends, those they distrust, those they wish to be around or learn from. The use of these Campaign Characters (the formal name given to characters used by the GM in Metal, Magic and Lore, ‘NPCs’ in other games) and their motives is paramount to a player group’s experience. Do their advocates help them? Are their relatives under threat in some way, even by some of the natural events described prior? Has someone passed on, leaving the fate of their possessions in question? These are all devices which can deeply affect the play decisions of a group.

Magic, its abundance and its scarcity. Probably the most important factor to detail further in nearly any fantasy campaign from any system is the resource and use of magic. Magic can not only in effect replace some technologies – thus advancing tech development in some ways – it can distort how a would-be historical timeline of events might unfold. Economics can be changed based on the availability of precious metals, how wars are fought may be altered, castles may become far less an advantage than in our real history, plague may be omitted, landscapes may be changed. The general populace may be accustomed to magic or may be fearful of it. Magic may be a resource that the upper caste will try to monopolize, or it may be something that exists in the universe and may be manipulated, but not created. Fleshing out a bit more about the magic of a world than is usually presented in a game system is often a wise action for most GMs. It can make or break a series of game sessions. What are the laws of magic in your universe?

While these are not at all the ways we can ground our fantasy games, they are certainly options. Hopefully, when you introduce some of this, it will give your players just a bit more to think about, a bit more to consider, and a bit more to feel when weighing their options in play.