How do you make a game world feel more organic, or less video-gamey?
Occasionally, I do things to shake up a game. Sometimes it’s a random call for a perception check that nobody passes (because there’s nothing there to perceive) or a peaceful orcish squatter collecting mushrooms from the forest; but every once in a great while it’s a useless item that has little or nothing to do with the game. It could be anything, and the only important quality about it is that it clearly is more important than other stuff to someone who cannot provide answers.
In one case, the characters fought a dragon to within an inch of it’s life. Deciding that discretion is the better part of valor, the dragon took it’s trove and left its lair in the characters lands. All, that is, except for a silver piece for each character. At the time, I figured the dragon did it to taunt the characters, a little jab about defeating a dragon in combat and getting only these few silver for their efforts. The characters, however, thought there was some significance to the coins, so they took them and kept the coins isolated for many, many levels. Then I set before them the task of reaching the outer plane of hell, and the terrible efforts that it would require. The mage of the group had the bright idea of paying Charon with the silver coins left by the dragon those many levels before.
As the GM, I couldn’t’ve agreed more that that seemed like a great idea. So, a couple of rolls and a tense few moments of RP later the seemingly innocuous coins bought the players safe passage into, but not through, the land of the dead. (Not to worry, the dragon developed a motivation for wanting the characters to go which the characters would discover at a future date.)
Another instance was a group of low level characters out in the towns far from the central capitol. They defeated an aged warlord, and were properly rewarded with XP, items, NPC accolades. They also got a weird rough wooden rod that bore striking similarity to the country’s staff of office. Non-magical and without value the warlord seemed to understand something about the item that magic could not discern. Many years later, both in game and out, the characters finally came face-to-face with the emperor, desperate for his support. Turns out, that the emperor and the characters came from the same sleepy back-water town. The aged warlord, it turns out, was the first major enemy of the emperors path to glory. The rough staff, a totem used to distract the warlord by the ambitious adventurer. So, the players turn the item over to him thereby garnering the staff the name ‘rosebud’ and securing his personal affection and political support.
These are success stories, of course. There are plenty of times that the characters get an item of seeming significance and nothing ever happens with it. That’s not a dud, however. It is, or was, important to ~someone~ and the players know it. The question is one of immersion and perhaps more important is the sense of continuity that players get when something they did at level three or four affects something they are doing at level thirteen or fourteen. Having seemingly trivial things occur all the time contributes to the feeling that there’s a world out there and it’s happening despite, or because of, the characters efforts. Having a large number of those random things happen gives the GM a good resource to tap when inspiration strikes and a game or subplot gets altered but requires the feel of having been woven into a game.