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Stay in the Fiction

by Mike on 17 May 2021

I had a wonderful chat with Johnn Four of Roleplaying Tips recently and he said something that crystalized a thought swimming around my head for a while.

The world is the game.

More and more, when I look at various aspects of D&D, I come back to the same general advice: stay in the fiction. Instead, of asking how the game mechanics work for something, ask how that thing works in the world and then let the mechanics represent that. What monsters should you use in a given scene? What monsters make sense for the situation.

We sometimes forget that the mechanics represent what's happening in the world. They don't stand alone. When a DM is asked to judge a given situation, they can start by trying to understand what makes sense in the game world first and then judging the situation based on that understanding.

When you're thinking about an NPC, ask yourself how that NPC would act in the world. What do they want? Where did they come from? Do that before you start assigning DCs.

When you're trying to figure out how to fill up a dungeon, ask yourself what the dungeon used to be and what monsters or traps make sense. Think about the ecology.

When you pick up the monster manual, read the story of a monster before reading the stat block. Before you choose a monster of a given challenge rating because it fits the level of the characters, first look for monsters that make sense for the environment.

Want to keep combat interseting? Start and end with the fiction. Describe the situation based on what the characters see, ask for their actions, and then describe what happens. Did they get a killing blow? Ask them to describe what it looks like in the world.

Afraid every ogre looks or runs like every other ogre? Change up their in-world details before worrying about changing their mechanics. Maybe one has tattoos all up one half of his body while the other carries a club made out of the femur of a dragon.

Do you want a big complicated set of ability checks in a final battle? First, think about the ritual taking place in that final battle and how it works in the world. Let the choices of the players drive which mechanics you need to arbitrate the situation.

When it's time to wrap a situation in the world with mechanics, most of the time we can do so by assigning a DC and choosing an appropriate ability score and skill to attempt it. The simple ability check answers most of what we need most of the time.

Stay in the fiction. Bathe in the world. Think about what's happening in the story before choosing the mechanics to represent it.

The world is the game.

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Check out Mike's books including Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, the Lazy DM's Workbook, Fantastic Lairs, Fantastic Adventures, and Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot.

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