Any GM out there can run a guild, tavern, or simple government in their game with just the basic game rules (DMG 17-19, 21-22). While the rules and mechanics for any institution are fairly straightforward, making these things feel like a living, breathing part of the game is a whole different story. To make an institution feel like it’s tied into your world you need to focus on improving description, interaction, dialogue, and the meta game.
Why Improve Game Feel for Institutions
Institutions in your game act as settings, backdrops, plot points, and quest givers. While a guild can act as an in game location, it is also populated by a group of people with their own goals and ambitions, and also has mechanics-driven activities for your party. Similarly, a tavern is a location, an area to convey tone, a quest delivery system, and certainly where your players can get into trouble.
In a lot of cases these institutions can operate just fine in your game without being too complex. But the better you nail these items down, the better your whole game will feel.
Lackluster taverns have no life to them. In these shoddily constructed facades your in game patron dialogue is bland and it lacks useful information. The area descriptions are dull, and the mechanical interactions feel mechanical.
While not every tavern you create is going to be a masterpiece of design, some players want more life in their institutional settings and they want a rich experience that goes along with them. GMs can struggle to breathe life into a scene that they desperately want their players to connect with only to be met with blank stares and confusion from their players. This is heartbreaking for a lot of GMs, and we’ve been there ourselves.
So let’s fix it.
Step 1. Improve Descriptions
Descriptions give your players purchase on the rock wall that is your story. Descriptions can often be either too bland or too involved, so you’ll need to find balance when you are creating them. It can be hard to make something informative for the game while also giving a description personality. While walking this metaphorical tightrope you have to remember that the point of these descriptions is to serve your players and give them something to interact with, but not give them so much detail that they don’t know exactly what to do with the information you’ve given them.
A guild, for example, has a plethora of items you can describe, but how do you choose what to talk about?
Let’s say it’s your party’s first time in a guild hall. The most important things to describe will be split into two groups that you can catalog in your mind.
Group one will be relevant informational items. These are items like the guild’s symbol and motto, or if the hall is crowded or empty. You’ll want to highlight notes about how proper or informal the setting seems and if it’s welcoming or not. These details are all things your players can use. They let them know how they should feel about where they are and also provide identifiable information later.
Items like the building’s stonework, while a nice thing to comment on, are not as important to your players who are working feverishly to absorb every bit of detail they can to figure out what they are doing next. With that in mind, narrow your informational items down to important things; the more important the information, the more description it should get.
Group two will be all of your interactable items. These descriptions are for NPCs your players can talk to, things they can inspect more closely (like a job board) and any other items that your players may want to interact with in some way.
If you describe things that appear interactable but you had no intention for your players to interact with it, they will. Players are almost always looking for the next thing they can do, so if you give them a lever they’re going to pull it. If your players aren’t like that then that is a different issue to deal with. Players who don’t interact with the world are one of the great struggles of being a GM. You need to know how obvious or obtuse you need to be for your specific group of players.
Thinking in these two groups of descriptions, it is best to sort both sets of information you are going to give your players by importance, as you will likely not finish all your descriptions in one go. Typically you will pepper this information in as your players look around and take actions, all in an effort to avoid overloading them with too much information at once.
Our main improvement for descriptions is not actually recommending you buff up your descriptions in terms of how you describe things, but instead we are suggesting that you improve the way you dish those descriptions out. Start with what is important and use them gradually throughout the time spent in that area.
Pacing your descriptions and focusing in on important elements helps your players more than having longer descriptions does. Clarity and brevity can not be overstated, while organization and logic cannot be forgotten. The whole collection of ideas works together to create the space your player’s characters are in.
- Split relevant location descriptions into groups of informational and interactable items.
- Dole out description and narration in small, clear chunks.
- Give important information priority in your descriptions to keep players on track.
- Keep descriptions brief to allow your players to interject with questions and actions.
In any scenario the easiest way to improve feel through descriptions is by making them things your players can interact with quickly and provide information they can use right away. What makes the game feel better is the players actually interacting with the game rather than waiting for descriptions to be over to take action. If you weave your descriptions through their actions as they move about in the setting then your institution will feel more real because the descriptions can sink in through use in the game and over time.
Step 2. Improve Mechanical Interactions
Interactions are one of the components that you use to play the game. These can be fully roleplay, fully dice based, or some blend of the two. Typically interactions can feel flat if they lack feedback and impact. So how do we improve those two areas?
Since a game interaction is essentially any action your players try to carry out, you need to provide them with the appropriate feedback for the action they are performing. If a player states their character looks at something, you should give more weight to its visual description and provide more details that appeal to imagining the scene visually. If someone hits something, you should describe the action’s feeling and build up the sensation of doing the action itself.
If someone says “I go and press the button” your description back should not be “You press the button,” but instead something like “The button resists slightly, but slides into place with a satisfying click that echoes through the room, and while you don’t notice anything change before you, you hear the distant sound of sliding metal from the corridor ahead.”
These are description improvements that touch on the senses, but they give the player feedback as well. The player performed an action, you told them how it felt, and you gave them information about the outcome of that action. It sounds simple, but it can be easy to forget this when you’re focused on other parts of the game.
Impact describes the outcome and next steps a player can take from an action. In the previous example the action was to press a button, but the impact was the sound of sliding metal in another corridor. This gives your players something to do that is a result of their actions. If you just told them they pressed the button, even if you describe the feeling of the button, without a statement for impact you’ve left them with nothing to further interact with.
The real important bit is that the next thing they do is a result of their actions. You need to make the players feel that their interactions are driving the story and that they have agency over their own characters’ lives. We hear tons of horror stories of GMs who remove player agency and just have the story wash over their players no matter how hard they resist. This takes impact out and punishes players for trying things. Avoid that at all costs!
So how does this relate back to institutions? Good question.
When adding interactions to an institution you are codifying the mechanics of the institution into a descriptive narrative. When someone visits an Adventurers’ Guild and wants to look at the job board, you should describe them looking at the job board – evoke their senses! Tell them what they see and hint at important items that might catch their eye with your descriptions. Leave clear signs as to what actions to follow to take the jobs they want.
When they go to get a room at an inn, have your players carry out those interactions too. Ring the bell on the table, talk to the innkeeper, give visual clues to information they might need, like describing if there are keys on the board even when the innkeeper says they have no rooms. These are ways to make your interactions add a bit more life to your world.
There are a lot of different interactions someone could attempt in DnD and you’re never going to be prepared for all of them. Remember, players are crazy, and everyone plays differently. The important things to think about when a player tries an interaction, no matter what it is, are the interaction’s feedback and impact. What kind of feedback information did the player get from performing that action? What was the impact and how are they going to use that to decide on their next action?
If you keep this in mind when running just about anything, you can really improve the feel of the game.
Step 3. Improve Dialog
Players engaging in dialogs are a type of interaction, so the rules above apply here in that they need to have feedback and impact. But dialogs are not like the rest of the world in that they should always have a purpose behind them.
Flat dialogs really break a place down. If you’re running a guild and the characters lack personality then the place will feel bland and won’t be memorable for your players. If you are in a royal court and every character reads the same, players won’t know what to do or who is important.
Improved dialogue comes from giving your NPCs a few things: personality, goals, and complexity.
Personality is hard to sum up, but we use the Myers-Briggs type indicator personality chart. This gives 16 distinct character personalities that you can pick from at random and apply to a character. You can hand select these, but if you are not ready for a character to be interacted with, grabbing one of these at random adds a ton of personality to an NPC instantly.
As an example, a character with ISFP personality is an introverted, sensitive, feeling, and receptive character. They are going to be gentle, but also helpful and focus on creating a positive relationship with the people they talk to. As an NPC this character might want to be liked by the party and will attempt to impress upon them that they would like to help them.
This NPC type will probably not initiate the conversation, so putting them behind a desk in a guild might make them look slightly nervous or apprehensive as they wait for someone to need their assistance. This isn’t a super complex system when you boil it down for storytelling and NPC dialog, but it gives you more than enough framework to play with when you come up with talking points on the spot.
Next up you need to give that NPC goals that align with the institution they are in. If we take our example desk attendant, they might be working at the guild to earn a living that doesn’t involve a lot of physical labor. They might also want to get better at talking with people as an introvert, so they’ve chosen a job that goes against their nature to help them be more outgoing and meet new people. Working at a guild might be busy and stressful, but they get to hear about adventures from guild members they meet and these adventures are ones that they would never go on.
None of these goals are complex. They don’t need to be long term goals, but they do need to align to the location, the institution, and the character’s personality. Even if you are creating these on the spot, you should be able to get a sense of what this character is like and develop a mental image that makes them more interesting for your players to interact with. These details seep into your dialogue.
From here you’re going to want to add some complexity to your NPCs. Complexities are not actually complex, but they are things that make the character stand out as an individual. It could be how they speak, a quirk about their appearance, or a mannerism that is memorable. Any NPC that your characters are going to interact with should be somewhere between a normal person and an anime protagonist. You should be able to pick them out in a crowd via a descriptive element, but not to the degree that they are unrealistic to the setting.
Continuing our example, let’s make our desk attendant a fidgeter with glasses and platinum blonde hair and make them nervous when talking to new people for the first time. These are small complexities that work in the world and help your players pick out the character when they see them again.
You may have noticed that these complexities exist outside of the dialogue, but HA! We’ve fooled you. Your dialogue needs descriptions about the NPC’s appearance and mannerisms as you talk. The desk attendant will fidget during conversations and they may push up their glasses after a while. These details make the scene and discussion between your player character and the NPC feel more memorable and relatable.
While all of those details help develop your NPC as a character, they do nothing if you don’t know what they are going to talk about. A lot of new GMs force the story along by providing information that an NPC would never say unprompted. This feels forced because it is and that’s almost always obvious to the players.
To solve this issue you need to have a rough working outline of what your NPC is going to talk about. Our desk attendant has a job they are going to perform and they will provide information along those lines. Beyond their job an NPC might have personal details that are surface level and shareable, or they might have feelings about their job they will express. But most NPCs are not always going to give great feedback to the first player character interaction they have and they will not blindly answer any question.
You really have to work to separate what you know as a GM from what the NPC knows as a character and make decisions about what story relevant information leaks out from behind the mask of the NPC. Things are not always straightforward, but they also shouldn’t be so obtuse as to confuse your players on what they need to do next. The dialogue between your players and your NPCs is a give and take, and either party might ask and answer questions or could even be unable to speak to a given topic. While we’d like to say this is easy, it’s not, and is probably the hardest part about roleplaying an NPC.
Step 4. Improve Meta
The meta game is all the stuff that happens around the table but not within the game world itself. Meta gaming can be bad when players use knowledge their characters don’t have to change the actions of their characters in game. Meta gaming is fine in a lot of cases, such as interpreting dice rolls, referencing rules, and making some out of character decisions that lead to great in character ones. For the GM though, meta gaming is something that happens all the time in the form of information upkeep.
While running an institution, be it a guild hall or a kingdom, there are pieces of information that you need to keep track of to enable the game to move forward. A lot of this information is in stasis until your players interact with it or do something in the world that causes that information to change. For a guild it might be the players’ reputation levels. For a tavern it could be secrets and rumors the patrons know. At the kingdom level it can be the progression of noteworthy events that happen outside of the characters in game view.
All of these pieces of meta information need to be moved about and kept track of when running an institution-sized part of your game.
If you aren’t moving things around when your players are not there, the world might seem stationary and your players can get a sense that when they aren’t around the world isn’t moving forward at all. To solve this, you need to be ready to have things update when your players return to an area after some time. These are not always huge plot critical changes, but having different people working a counter over the course of the day and being ready to play multiple NPCs for what could be a single role is a small way to show the world moving independent of the players.
Keeping track of things like time, NPC objectives, and quest boards all adds up. If any GM were to try and do this real time it would destroy their game, as you can’t simulate the whole game world at once, no matter how hard you try. This is the key though: you aren’t simulating things. For almost every piece of meta information that is essential to running the game and giving an institution a real world feel, you can just skip ahead.
You shouldn’t roll outcomes for NPCs doing stuff in the background. You shouldn’t work out a bunch of combinations of outcomes for a particular non-player story line either. For anything that you need to keep track of for story or gameplay sake when your players are not around and not driving that story directly, you should choose the outcome you want to use. Simple as that.
Over-simulating a game world is clunky, and you can avoid it by just narrating the outcome you like. Be sure that not all of your outcomes are the same. NPCs can have both good and bad luck. You may have to do this on the fly sometimes, but for an institution it is often best to be a little more prepared and linearize meta information for your ease of use.
Let’s look back at our guild hall example and our counter attendant. The character has modest hopes and dreams that we’ve noted as their goal. In the arc of our characters’ story they may never get involved in their life, so we make a guess about what that would look like and note that down. With this NPC, it could be saving money and looking for a relaxing life in the area they’re in. Ultimately our players might see this NPC quit working at the guild once they’ve saved up enough money to do something less stressful that aligns with their personality better. In our case we’re going to say open a bookstore.
The neat thing about stuff like this is you’re simply moving that character though their own little story line, but from a gameplay standpoint the characters might come to know that NPC, rely on them, and work with them often. Maybe your party hates the night clerk at the guild, another simple addition to note down as meta information: time of day affects who is working. When your party shows up and notices that there is a different person working the day shift at that counter, it could have an emotional impact. Or it might not, your players may not care. The point is that they will notice a difference. They’ll notice the NPC’s course of life moving independent of them and thus the setting will feel more real.
All of these little game changing moments are details. They don’t make the game easier to run and they certainly don’t always have an impact on the game or story, they’re asides. Little notes. A statue disappearing one day is curious, but when it’s replaced with a new one because the head of the guild changed, your players have an opportunity to see a change in the world without it being directly explained to them.
So how do we make these kinds of details manageable?
We simply work to describe them in our notes. When you create an institution and do all the things you need to do to prepare it, you’ll end up with a list of services, NPCs, settings, quests, and story plot points. To add details that make the whole collection seem alive you simply need to shake things up based on time.
A busy tavern at night might be dead quiet during the day. This is simply noting when that tavern is busy. Changes in staff or NPCs that players can bump into can similarly be graphed on a time scale. For longer term events that happen with or without the players’ involvement, you just need to map them out arbitrarily in a straight line with each event being something that you plan on happening at some point in the future. They don’t need to go lock step with each other either. You have full control over when the world moves around your players.
With all these time based notes layered on top of your game world, you’re creating the illusion of a moving world that continues when your players are not there without the work of actually simulating one.
Putting it all Together
So how do these 4 principals work in tandem? When well organized, descriptions that are presented piece by piece in a logical order will guide your players through your institutions. Each one of these descriptions highlights interactions they can take to unlock further descriptions, more details, and more NPC interactions. The NPC interactions help to get your players invested in the setting through the creation of more memorable and lifelike characters. And your management of the changes that take place outside of your player interactions give the players a sense that this institution is a real part of the world.
No matter if you’re running a guild, a tavern, a kingdom, or a shop, these 4 improvements will tie the whole thing together and really amp up your game feel. With all that being said, this is a lot of work. Creating an institution is hard and takes a lot of thinking about things beforehand. Notes are often necessary and very few of these types of settings can be pulled off in an improvised manner if you don’t have a lot of practice. We tend to run more improvised sessions ourselves, not because we don’t want these types of genuinely amazing worlds, but because we often don’t have the time to build something like this for a short campaign or one shot. It certainly can be done, but to do this properly takes a lot of thought and effort.
If you’re ready to apply yourself to better DMing, these are great tips for you, but don’t expect to get things perfect on the first go. DMing is about practice. It’s about honing your craft. It’s about thinking through a scenario and adapting to your players’ interactions. It’s all of these things combined and more. We hope this will help you breathe some life into your in-game institutions.