There is always one thing that characters will interact with regardless of where they are in your world, and that is their environment. It is important for a GM to be aware of where the players are and be prepared to answer questions regarding their surroundings. Sounds obvious, I know.
For some of our younger audience they may have never heard of the show MacGyver. Heck, even I haven't watched much of it. However they may be aware of "MacGyvering" their way out of a situation. To quickly summarize MacGyver was a secret agent known for using the things around him to amazing effect to solve problems. He did this using his vast knowledge of various sciences, but I digress. Hopefully what you are catching onto is that he was observant of his environent and he used it to his advantage.
Its fairly easy for our games to fall into the trap of following the rules to the letter. Player 1 takes a turn moving and attacking, followed by player 2 and so on until it reaches player 1 again. This falls under the mentality that we have with several board games like chess and checkers. With board games there are a set of rules to make the game balanced. While rules exist in many of our roleplaying games we fail to understand that many of them are vague for a reason. They are meant to give leway to the various situations that our characters will encounter, allowing us to utilize them base on our environment.
I have noticed that in some of my encounters (social and combat) that many of them would be identical without the detail of what is around them. In my life I know I could not describe half of what I do without describing my environment. Some of this is due to lack of prep time. I have also had encounters that were impossible to describe without first describing the room they were in, and all of those encounters were memorable and player favorites. So how can we make these moments?
This should seem like a very obvious one but often is the biggest reason for lack of vivid environments. Take the time to figure out the key places your characters will be, write up descriptions of those places. The details do not need to be hyper details. Don't tell me what kind of stones are in the gravel, that is a one way ticket to snoozetown. Instead highlight the big pieces: the elegant chandelier that hangs over the massive oak dining table with a huge red velvet chair sitting at the head. With that one sentance I have already painted a picture of the room you are in and I didn't even mention what was handing on the walls or the people inside.
This will go hand in hand with your planning. Your planning will fill out all of the big pieces that exist in your environment and paint a general picture that you can then work with on the fly. When your players ask you about the little things, make it up! This is where the great GM's outshine the normal GM's. If player asks if they see a specific thing be more inclined to include it if it makes sense to the location as this will help cement the players current view of the room, thus increasing engagement. If the player is asking about something specific, they are most likely coming up with a plan to use it, and thats what will lead to memorable moments.
Now that the space you have created has come to life it is time to prompt your players to start interacting with it. There are some simple tricks a GM can use to trigger players into interacting with their environments and increase the chance that they will prompt for doing it in the future.
Show, Don't Tell
While in a vocal medium this sounds silly what this means is to lead by example. One of the best ways to do this is to have other characters in the same environment interact with features that the players are aware of or seem obvious to the setting. For instance the vampire the players have been hunting leaps off of his large red chair and lands on top of the chandelier taunting them with his victum in hand. This will assist in pushing the boundaries of what the players may have thought existed in this environment. It is advised that you use characters of similiar strengths as the players characters since this will improve the frame of reference.
Many times that players do not interact with their environment it is due to the lack of information they have about it. While improving when players ask questions is good, it is up to you to improv as events unfold. For instance, a character may be knocked backwards into a cabinent making silverware scatter as the cabinet breaks. This introduces new elements into the environment and may trigger players to either ask questions realizing that there is more information to be gathered from the space.
This is a common technique used in improv. The idea is that when a player asks a question you say "Yes, and..." including more information. A player may ask if they can see the rope holding up the chandelier. The ideal answer may be "Yes, and it is within your movement speed." Not only does this reward the player for asking information it encourages the use of the environment.
Sometimes it just doesn't make sense that something exists in a scene. The worst thing you can say in this situation is "No." That is a definitive statement and denies the player any further information. The ideal is to claim "No, but.." and include information that may be similar to what the player was asking for. This keeps your players grounded but rewards them for trying even if the additional information is not relavent to what they are looking for. It shows that you support them digging deeper. For example if the player asks if there is a horse in this example dining room you might say, "No, but there is a statue of a horse sitting next to the west wall."
With all this interacting with the environment it is bound that your players are going to try and get a benefit from this, otherwise the whole thing was pointless and they won't be trying to do this again. For example the player wants to cut the rope holding up the chanelier causing the vampire to fall with it. This brings up a bunch of questions for the GM. How does the vampire react? How much damage does he take if this happens? What about the vampire's victim? Won't the victim taking damage discourage them from this?
All of these questions are actually pretty easy to determine. Most RPG's have fairly loose systems in regards to how stuff reacts. I'm going to use D&D 5th Edition because that is what I use most often. For the vampire I would rule he gets a Dexterity saving throw or he will take damage, setting the DC appropriate to the relative level. As for damage there is a handy table that exists for improvised damage, if your system doesn't have this you can figure it out based on the relative damage your players have been doing this whole time. The result also doesn't have to be just damage, if the vampire does poorly enough maybe he gets pinned under the chandelier, be creative.
Sometimes your players forget information. Thats okay to punish them for forgetting things that have happened during your current play session, it is up to them after all to be paying attention. If this event is in two seperate sessions then it is okay to remind them as not everyone can remember what happened 3 weeks ago...or even yesterday. Sometimes the player does remember the information and its been taken into consideration for their decision.
There are times the player did not fully understand the situation, that is on you as the GM. Some things are obvious, if the player cuts the rope with the victim on the chandelier there is a level of logic they will have that says the victim will fall. Punishing the player for not having all of the facts their character would be aware of is an easy way to upset them, I would allow the player to change their action. However there is a distinction that should be made. A key difference is when the player was not fully aware of what the consequences might be, which is very different. Hearing a player say "Oh. I didn't know that would kill the victim," is not punishing. That is just events progressing and new information unfolding.
You don't need to create huge set pieces for every single moment in a game. It is important however to detail what you can, even if its very simple stuff, and improv you the rest. Learning these skills will improve your players experiences, even creating memorable moments just visiting a shopkeep! Over time your players will be jumping around your environments, excited to interact with the world you have set up for them.
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