The best campaign I ever ran was using FATE, which is a system able to wrangle our group towards more roleplaying. One of the reasons it was so good, in my opinion as the GM of that show, was that each NPC was memorable. Okay, maybe not every single NPC that I threw under the bus (or that drove it), but I worked hard to make each situation memorable.
Coloring encounters will result in a stronger game as the table unifies in the vision of the encounter. Everybody is going to have some picture in their mind of what is going on, but it is so easy to gloss over the details and turn the encounter into a stark distillation. Players will also have different levels of imagination and stock in the game. It is part of the GM’s job to make sure encounters can be colorful.
My favorite NPC in the FATE game – 1933 “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”/Spirit of the Century spies – was one of the PC’s rivals. The rival was a Canadian version of Saxton Hale, and he was a mirror image of the PC, who was a bootlegger that did some hard time. He was a classic strongman pugilist, and the players got the Saxton Hale idea really quickly. Still I pressed harder with the fact that he was “Canadian”. I made sure each scene this guy was in was filled with him being “Canadian”, and I was overjoyed when one of the players said “you know, the Canadian”. That was when I knew I had them.
As soon as a player’s mind Names the encounter or NPC, it starts to make more connections. The world the group is trying to create becomes richer. It’s like the difference between looking at a pretty photo of Yellowstone Park at sunrise, or being the one to take it.
As a shameless plug, I built many of these encounters in the FATE campaign using UNE. It helps me to find that memorable thing. Other favorites from that campaign: a Romanian gypsy wandering around Scotland that hears someone speaking to her (except when a certain PC is around), a spy that seemed old school but was really fired, and a factory foreman married to a sheep farmer.
Being the GM can be awesome, but by far the biggest fear I have is that the players are not entertained. If they would rather get up from the table and chat, or if they start looking at their Magic decks, or the rulebooks, or even something as simple as not responding to an event aimed directly at their PC… it reflects poorly. When I am a player, I know I get this feeling when I’ve already passed off the encounter as being rote.
Combat can be an encounter crutch because all players are engaged. They might just be rolling initiative, but even if they aren’t interested in why they are fighting, or what, they are still part of things. One of my pet peeves in the old school Dungeons and Dragons mentality is random encounters. Were random encounters designed to keep players interested? I can’t imagine much further use for them beyond wasting time. I guess it works well for murder-hobos.
The best combats I’ve been part of have been very memorable because they went beyond players vs. stats. In combats I try and give each encounter a theme. It doesn’t matter what the GM plays up, but it is important that something does get played up so that it becomes a mnemonic to the player. Have their minds start building connections.
In the FATE campaign I remember two fights. We actually didn’t have many. The first was a gunfight in the streets of 1933 London. My theme was narrow street, crowded buildings, and cars. One player I was especially proud of was making great use of the cars (which I kept bringing up) by hiding in and shooting at them. It makes so much difference to say “his decapitated head goes rolling” versus “his decapitated head rolls under a car”, or “your shots miss” versus “you miss your target but the windows behind explode in a spray of broken glass”.
The final fight scene was very thematic since the players ‘went back in time’ and were fighting against a metal golem (in the Jewish sense). There were Templar knights aiding the PC’s. There was a storm brewing as the PC magic-user was casting a ritual. I made sure to play all the elements up. Did I mention the Big Bad was there too. In that campaign the Big Bad is basically Dr. Doofenschmirtz, and he had with him a “gluon gun”, which instead of firing a laser… well, it fired glue. So not only was the setting of the fight thematic, but I made sure to make the boss very thematic by narrating PC’s and Templars getting stuck, glue going flying, etc.
I thought it was great, even if the players don’t seem to remember the gluon gun as much as they do remember how the golem died. The PC actions at the end of the fight were so epic that it overshadowed everything I had created. That is fine with me though. If I can build the encounters and their themes in such a way that it amplifies the PC’s, I consider that a job well done.
I envy the groups where the narrative is so shared. My group seems to heavily rely on the GM. In either case it is all about engaging the table. Keeping the details in mind when having encounters or scenes can make all the difference.