A formidable challenge can come in the form of keeping players involved in your campaign. It’s one thing to be able to keep an audience as you tell your story, it is quite another to have your players actively involved in the telling of that story. Finding ways for your players to contribute directly to an adventure is a good way to increase their involvement, and investment, in the gaming experience.
To start, when your players create their characters, have them connect their backstories to your world. This could be as simple as a few sentences describing the character’s homeland or relation to the region, or as elaborate or complex as you and your party care to be. By making a players character a real part of the world, and not a mere generic Fighter that has magically teleported into the game, you add the first layer of investment for your party to experience.
Now, as your players explore the world, allow them to aid in the descriptions of the region. While your role as storyteller and referee means you will be setting the stage for major and important locations, let your players aid in describing areas of less impact to your plot. When the party arrives at the inn, have each PC take a sentence to describe the building or the patrons. This allows the players to help create a part of the world that fits their imagination, and lets them contribute to the world building in a noninvasive way.
Note, however, that this is never meant to be an exploit. A player should never be able to say, “I enter the bar and see the King sitting along on a chest of gold, unguarded! How convenient!” Rather, let them describe the meals, the atmosphere, the quirks of the place. It’s okay to let these descriptions impact your story, so long as the main plot is not derailed in the process. For example, a player may describe the odor of a particular variety of tobacco in the inn, and you can choose to allow that to be a hook, or just a unique descriptor. The important point is player involvement.
Taking this a step further, if your party is encountering a generic NPC, have the players name and describe the character. For your purposes the party has met a traveling merchant; For your party, it is irrelevant to the plot who the merchant is beyond his existence as a vendor, so let them have some fun! Let your layers give him a short description and even story for why he’s a merchant here. Then, take a few notes, and have that same merchant return later! Players will care immensely more about a region if they know the NPCs, even more so if they have an investment from having aided in their creation.
Lastly, allow your players to do some Extra Credit. This can take many forms, so let your players tailor their extra work to their personal talents. Perhaps one player is artistic and sketches or paints his character, reward that! Perhaps one is a writer and delved into a side story his character went on. Reward it! Perhaps your player is a musician and wrote a baric ballad, or is a businessman and designed the guilds of a city, or a math wiz and came up with the economy for a region. Encourage this, and give small kickbacks in the form of gold and experience points, or even items, based on the amount of work done. Now, you should not unbalance a game when rewarding Extra Credit, but you should encourage and reward a player’s work. A good rule of thumb is to reward an encounter’s worth of wealth or experience for an amount of work that an encounter’s worth of time to complete.
What are some ways you have contributed to a DM’s world? In what ways have you gotten players invested, or invested in a world yourself? How much work have you put into developing a character’s backstory? Let us know in the comments below!