One of the best ways to convey the theme of your campaign, the tone of your game, and the flavor of the game world is to use reinforcement — specifically, reinforcement of small things. This technique is based on two principles:
- Choose elements that represent what you want to convey, and repeat them. As part of your game prep, consciously choose a few things you can reinforce. They don’t all need to get crammed into one session, and they should come up organically — but you have to actively make them come up for them to be valuable.
- One or two simple details, reinforced, can be powerful. A while back, I wrote about corners in Battlestar Galactica, a small detail (the corners of every piece of paper, form, and photo in BSG are cut off, making rectangles into octagons with four very short sides) that reminds you you’re watching a sci-fi show set in a different place and time. What makes it clever is a) how simple it is, and b) how easy it is to reinforce. This is the basic guideline for choosing elements to repeat and reinforce: keep them simple and easy to implement.
Here are three specific examples that put these two principles into practice:
When the PCs travel somewhere new, pick a cultural detail — a style of architecture (every building has a round door, like a hobbit hole), a form of greeting (“Well met” in the Forgotten Realms), a broad trait (in a desert culture, everyone cares about water) — and use it repeatedly throughout each session.
Don’t repeat it to the point of irritation, but don’t stint on it, either; a couple of times an hour is a good rule of thumb.
If orcs are all evil, let them all be evil
One of the best ways to convey broad traits and stereotypes about organizations, monstrous species, and other groups is to show those traits in action across the whole group. If the PCs get attacked by orcs, that doesn’t show your players anything — in a fantasy game like D&D, they probably get attacked by all sorts of things.
But if the PCs happen upon an orc camp where cute little human babies are being served up for dinner, and then the orcs attack, you’ve made it very clear that orcs are Not Nice People — and something similar can be added to every encounter with orcs to reinforce this.
Fine folk known for their hospitality
If the people of a particular region are known for welcoming strangers, go out of your way to show this to your players. Innkeeps give them a discount, shopkeeps cut them a break, and everyone’s just that little bit nicer when the PCs interact with them.
They’ll have fond memories of the place after even a single session, and done right you could turn this into a great motivator for the party to do good in the region.
For some reason, I generally think about this topic in the context of fantasy RPGs, but as a technique this type of small, subtle (but not too subtle) reinforcement can be applied to just about any game, system, genre, or campaign type.