How to Get PCs to Explore Your World (So You Think You Can GM Part IX)

(Featured Image: Tales From Earthsea – Studio Ghibli)

You spent weeks, maybe even months fleshing out a new, fantastical setting to cater to every fleeting interest that might spring up within a player’s mind. You giddily start the campaign in a normal fashion (read tavern, bulletin posting, naked in a prison, ya know, the usual). And… Your players show no interest in anything except the task at hand. Sure you have the campaign planned out and plenty of material and the ability to wing it, but what gives?

How do you get players to explore and care about the world you worked so hard to create? You need to change over to a new story formula: The Milieu.

So what is “The Milieu” and how do you use it? Well, The DM Doctor has you covered.

The Milieu

You might remember a previous post on using story formulas to make your adventures better.

In “How to Make a Good Story” we used the Hero’s Journey story formula. You might remember this circle graphic we used:

Well, a milieu story is an entirely different concept. A milieu story is actually about the world or setting. NOT the characters. I know

I generally talk about making the characters be the heroes and heroines, but milieu stories are focused on the environment surrounding the characters.

Many of the most famous stories you can think of (within the Sci-fi/Fantasy and similar works of fiction) are a milieu story. At least to some degree. Yes, you can mix formulas, but more on that later. Two of the biggest classics, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and The Lord of the Rings are milieu stories. I would even go so far as to argue that the overall Harry Potter story (the span of the seven books) is a milieu story. Let’s take a look.

To keep the idea of this formula simple, we will focus on the beginning of each story, including pieces of the middles, and then look at how the story is resolved at the end. Let us also include the master character so we can have a reference point.

We have Dorothy in boring Kansas, Frodo contently in The Shire, and Harry… under the stairs. Right? Not exactly. The Fellowship of the Ring opens with Bilbo Baggins and his oddities and getting ready for his birthday. We get more of a sense of the goings on in Hobbiton. We do get introduced to Frodo early on, but he seems overshadowed, almost like he is not even the master character. Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone begins with The Dursleys and their life of avoiding oddities. Okay, Dorothy is in boring Kansas, but we see that she is a bit out-of-place on that dreary farm known to take all your colors and turn them gray. In each of these beginnings, we look at the normal world and get a sense that if something doesn’t change, the story will be rather boring. Or there might not be any story at all.

This beginning phase is quite common in most stories, the author wants to lay a frame of reference for what is and is not normal for the main characters. It is what happens after this framework which becomes important. Just like with a Hero’s Journey, we go from this “Ordinary World” to something happening to push us toward (and eventually thrust us over) the threshold to the “Special World.” I know, this all sounds the same. In fact, many of these stories have these same two formulas, but each story will pick to focus on one formula more than the other.

Now, once your PCs cross the threshold to the special world, this should be where everything changes. Dorothy’s surroundings are full of color and whimsy. Harry met with a complete focus on magic in everything around him (including candy). Frodo, well, Frodo leaves all his comfort at the door as he is constantly met with a stranger, after stranger, and a bunch of people always after him. Frodo’s world changes more on the aspect of his life rather than the things he sees (but he does see plenty of new things).

This middle phase of what happens after the threshold is where you would want your players to interact with your world. IT is not about making everything seem different, but more about showing the PCs and players alike important differences that make this world unique both in-game and out-of-game. Don’t expect the players will guide their PCs to search for these differences. The PCs most likely have other motives, and so the players will be guiding their characters with their mission on their mind, not your world. Got it?

Now, the final part of a milieu story is quite important, but…

You have to bring the characters back to their world. Now when I’m talking about these different worlds, I’m not meaning transporting the PCs between planes or anything like that. But what is normal for the PCs and the players sets the stage for “their world” and what is different (such as an isolated village, a hard to reach continent, etc.) is the “special world.” And yes, I know, your players will want to keep adventuring. They may even want to keep exploring your new world. But…

You have to bring them back.


If you do not bring the characters back to their normal world, a new normal will be established. More importantly, there was a reason they needed to cross the threshold between the two worlds. That reason needs to be resolved and the PCs need to return changed so that they can conclude the conflict which started their journey.

If you need more help with a “milieu” story design, just reach me here or on Twitter, or all those other social media sites (like Facebook). Speaking of social media sites, you can also find my Instagram here (not all RPG related).

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