7 Ways to Make Your Tabletop Role-Playing Game More Immersive

Tabletop role-playing games had been around long before we were questing and slaying monsters in video games like World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy. Thankfully, pen-and-paper RPGs are still relevant today, due to their unique form of storytelling and interaction. However, when a game relies so heavily on imagination and oral storytelling, it can be hard to get really immersed in the game world. Especially if all you have to look at is a piece of paper with some character statistics on it.

The beauty of tabletop role-playing games – as opposed to video game RPGs – is the immense flexibility you have. Your group can play strictly by 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons rules, or kick it old-school and run a 3rd Edition game. Your Dungeon Master might make up an entirely homemade world, or start a quest based on a cool campaign you found in the Dragon Age tabletop game.

Regardless of how your role-playing group likes to play, there are a few easy things you can do to make your gaming experience more immersive. My own group has found success using these tips and tricks to take our gaming sessions to the next level, and make them much more enjoyable. So, without further ado, here are 7 ways to make your tabletop role-playing game more immersive. Take a look!

  1. Music and Sound Effects

    Adding music and sound effects to your RPG session will make the imagined world come alive! Music has been an integral part of my D&D group's game sessions, as it provides emotion and atmosphere to the setting. Before your next tabletop session, get a some speakers, a laptop, or something else you can use to play music in your gaming area. Heck, even go for surround sound if you want to go all-out. Find some appropriate tracks to play, such as a bard's lute tune for a tavern scene, or an ethereal string arrangement for ancient temple exploration, and enjoy the magic of aural immersion in your game.

    My group's Dungeon Master, Deanna, has a playlist of orchestral scores and themes from various games such as Dragon Age: Inquisition and Journey that she plays through a bluetooth speaker. She organizes the songs based on their uses. For example, when a swarm of enemies starts chasing our team down city streets, she will play a frantic upbeat orchestral track. And if we decide to engage the enemies in combat, a different piece of music will start. It's a small thing, but music really helps our group get immersed in the game, especially since we play without maps or mini-figures. It's always fun to hear the battle music start playing, because our group members will look at each other, collectively knowing that something is about to go down.

    Similarly, sound effects go a long way in a role-playing game where there are few visuals for scenes and characters. During one game session, my DM played creature howls to alert us of potential danger. It helped us stay alert and think about the choices we made in the game.

    There are many free resources for music and sound effects that can be used in your tabletop role-playing game session. One such resource is a website called Tabletop Audio, which lets you stream sounds ranging from a dungeon ambience to the sound of a sleeping dragon. Take some time to explore some sound options before your role-playing group meets up again. You'll be glad you did! 

  2. Atmospheric Lighting

    Having the right lighting in your gaming space can really add some nice ambience your tabletop RPG session. I'm not saying you have to install a fancy LED lighting rig or spend a lot of money, but there are a couple things you might want to try, if they apply to your game setting.

    Candles are fairly cheap way to go, and can transform your living room into a tavern or castle, with a bit of imagination of course. And if your group of adventurers needs to stop for a night and build a campfire, simply drop the room's lights and bathe in the luminous glow of your candles. Just a few candles dispersed among the clusters of character sheets and polyhedral dice can do a lot to augment the sense of immersion.

    Oil lanterns, while a little more expensive, are great to have as well. Lanterns can give your role-playing group another dimension of interaction beyond just acting out things your character says and does. For example, my group's Dungeon Master made an atmospheric horror side-quest, and brought oil lanterns for everyone. We had to dim our lanterns when we heard a wolf howl through the speaker, to avoid being seen by creatures. Small details like that really made the game session come alive, and I highly recommend it trying some of these things in your tabletop role-playing session. 

  3. Props

    Sometimes, imagining a scene or location in a tabletop RPG is difficult, but props can help you visualize the picture that the Dungeon Master is trying to paint. Especially for complicated things like puzzles or dungeon traps, having props can be a huge time-saver. Again, this doesn't mean you have to spend a lot of money.

    You can make convincing fantasy-like parchment by staining a piece of paper with coffee or tea, then charring the edges a bit with a candle. My group's DM has done this to write clues for solving puzzles, draw runes we found on a temple wall, and more. In one game session, half of our group was trapped in a room that was filling up with water. The other half of us had to decrypt a series of symbols on the wall to disarm the trap. Without the prop that gave us a visual clue for the correct order of the symbols, our companions would've drowned. And when you die in our game, like many of the tabletop RPGs out there, your character is gone for good.

    Finding creative uses for props can really help immerse you in the game. During the horror side-quest my group did, we encountered candles of various colors. In real life, we had to pull a candle out of a bag to see which one we found. If we drew a black candle, it meant someone was about to die. This induced a very real fear that transcended what we feel in video games when our character is about to die. In my group's D&D game, there are no respawns. 

  4. Pictures

    Pictures are a great way to visualize your character and game environment, and immerse yourself more in the story. For starters, look up pictures of what you imagine your character to look like, and share them with your group. I play a High Elf wizard named Baylan, who I imagine to be tall and slender, with shoulder-length blonde hair. By showing my group pictures of what my character looks like, they were better equipped to role-play when interacting with Baylan.

    When a Dungeon Master says, “You arrive at a cavernous chamber in the grotto,” you get a general picture in your head, but often nothing too specific. Reference pictures can help with that, whether they are found online or drawn by hand. I personally can't draw to save my life, but thankfully the internet is full of fantastic artwork. Use this resource to your advantage to help flesh out the game world! 

  5. Backstory

    Role-playing in games like Dungeons & Dragons is essentially improv acting, which is already hard. It's even harder if you jump into a character without the knowledge of where the character is from, what he or she does (or did) for a living, and other vital info like goals and motivations. Creating a compelling and interesting backstory can really help you emotionally invest in your character and play the role well.

    Dungeon Masters can certainly use backstory to their advantage in the quests that they cook up. A few days before one of my D&D sessions, my DM asked all of us what our characters' greatest sins were (which was definitely a red flag for us). In the proceeding game session, each of us had to confront those sins to get past a puzzle in a forest temple.

    Even if backstory isn't integral to the main story or quest, it can still be used to create a more immersive gaming experience. My friend Kevin plays a Half-Elf named Spar, who once acted out an emotional half-hour dialogue upon finally meeting the father that Spar never knew. This scene wasn't required for our team to do the quest, but everyone appreciated the sense of depth it gave to the characters. 

  6. Side-Quests

    Side-quests in tabletop role-playing games are awesome for many reasons. They can be a fun break from the main story line, can be used to explore new avenues of role-playing, and can teach your group more about the world your characters inhabit. Every once in a while, my group will create new characters for a single game session, and explore a region or continent that the heroes of the main story haven't been able to go to yet.

    Our group's DM constructs side-quests so that the decisions our characters make affect the main story. In fact, two of the story's main villains were created by the players in our group, not the Dungeon Master. In side-quests, we made hard decisions to survive at any cost, including siding with the bad guys. Admittedly, we regretted some of those choices, once those same characters with new dark powers emerged in the main story and tried to kill us.

    I highly recommend taking some time every now and then to embark on a side-quest with your group. It can definitely add a layer of immersion and sense of scale to the game world, especially if it's huge planet with multiple continents. 

  7. Details

    This one might seem like a no-brainer, but when a game takes place mostly in the imagination, details are incredibly important. If you're a DM, instead of saying, “You walk into a hallway,” you could say, “You emerge from the archway into a damp stone corridor, and you notice ancient glyphs etched into the walls.” Of course, some of these details are dependent on things like perception checks, where you'll have to roll a die to see if your character notices something. Still, adding details and description can really help the Dungeon Master translate his or her vision to the players.

    During combat, details can make the scene epic. There's not a one-size-fits-all way to run combat scenarios, but I personally think that a somewhat cinematic approach is awesome. Instead of simply saying “I go up to the monster and attack with my dagger,” my group will tell the DM what we want to do, and she'll say something like, “You flank the creature and rake the dagger down its side, causing black pus to swell around the wound.” See how just a few details can make combat come to life?

    Of course, details aren't just the DM's burden. Work with your Dungeon Master to come up with fun attacks that match your play style. During one game session, my group was facing a massive creature in an open room. I used a spell to climb on the walls, crawled to the ceiling, and launched myself at the head of the creature, with help from my wind elemental companion. I was able to strike the monster's head with my equipped morningstar in a dazzling display of Legolas-style acrobatics. Using moves like this (within reason) can really immerse you in what your character is doing in the game. And it's just plain fun!

    So there you have it: 7 ways to make your tabletop role-playing game more immersive. Whether it's music, atmospheric lighting, or fun side-quests, there are many things you can easily do to take your RPG sessions to the next level. Have another tip for your fellow tabletop gamers? Let us know in the comments below!

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