What’s the Crock Pot? Just a simmering bowl of lentils and herbs, with a dash of DMing observations. Don’t be afraid to dip in your ladle and stir, or throw in something from your own spice rack.
One way to help players feel like they are taking part in a dynamic setting is to always have things happening in the background.
(While mentioning that there’s a two lovebirds snuggling in the corner of the tavern is good color for description of a specific encounter, that’s not the kind of background I’m going to be talking about.)
I’m actually referring to news — events that transpire while the players are delving in a dungeon or away on a mission or even enjoying their downtime. Regardless of the players’ home base — be it a walled city, a frontier barony, or even a small village — other peoples’ lives are going on irrespective of the player character’s adventures.
So what’s the trick to giving the PCs a sense of their community? Sure, the players are making gather information checks, but who are their sources?
Consider informing the players through these avenues:
> Visiting merchants, wandering minstrels and pilgrims. If you need to convey a sense of the wider world, you can’t have better sources than people who are passing through. Small units of soldiers — infantry or calvary can also do — on official business for the crown are also great “informal” sources.
> Town crier and official pronouncements. The crier, of course, is for folk who can’t read. The crown’s declarations of new laws, judgments and such will certainly be posted in a central location, such as a town hall or a central square, but most folk depend on someone reading the proclamation aloud, such as a herald or crier. Remember, these are “official” declarations, and may not reflect the “real” story.
> Gossips. Player characters have been peppering bartenders with questions since D&D was invented. But are you going to trust your actions on a guy or gal who spends all day behind the bar — or someone who is out and about in the community? For my money, visit community gathering places — the laundry, the schoolyard, the backalley layabouts or at the baker’s, butcher’s or barber’s shops.
The absolute best place to find folks who are clued in, though, is church. The party’s cleric needs to attend worship service more often, really. No one gossips like church-goers. The local priest or acolyte might be more circumspect, but you can bet the folks in the pews are ready spread the juiciest news around.
> Broadsheets. If your fantasy community is large enough and the technology level is analogous to the Renaissance, then this forerunner of the weekly newspaper might circulate among the literate population. Broadsheets were a mish-mash of political essays, advertisements and reports of incidents of crime, but clever PCs with good gather info checks should be able to read between the lines, as it were.