Here’s a scenario for you.
Thraisken (a gnome with a swashbuckling air), Aleyx (a human rapscallion with a hardened disposition), Kelton (a one-eyed, one wooden legged dwarf with enough scars to make even Aragorn envious) and Wymrick (an elven wizard with extraordinary power) are battling a great big nasty evil bad guy named Darkholme (NPC necromancer) and his undead army. The battle progresses and somewhere near the climax, it doesn’t look good for our…ahem…heroes.
GM: Thraisken, a horde of twelve nasty undead ghasts push out from the fetid stinking charnel ground grasping at your legs, seeking to pull you into their terrible embrace. Wymrick and Darkholme are locked in mystical waves of energy as Darkholme continues to siphon what little remains of Wymrick’s soul. Aleyx, the blade of your now broken dagger is embedded in one of the leading blood sucking fiends, the silver searing away at its undead flesh, but now you are unarmed. Kelton is surrounded by an unknown number of undead, each pelting away at him, blocking his vision so that nothing else can be seen. Okay, guys, end of that round, give me an initiative role.
Marcus (playing Thraisken): Yes, 63!
Don (playing Wymrick): 54.
Chris (playing Aleyx): Damn, I rolled a 1. That gives me a 44.
Joe (playing Kelton): I got a 38.
GM: Marcus, what is Thraisken doing?
Marcus: I’ve gotta get some space, so I’m going step backwards a few feet and using my nimble legs and my best acrobatic stunts jump up to the nearest outcrop that I can reach.
DM (nods and thinks quickly): Okay, make you’re agility roll and apply an modifiers. Due to the close proximity of everything, the mass of distractions and you’re going to have a severe cramp to your attempt. -30%.
Marcus: You’re kidding?
DM (smiles): Not with what you’re trying to do, no, and I assume you’re trying to avoid attacks. If you want to fully ignore an attempts to hit you, you can knock that penalty in half. Otherwise, you need just under a 54%.
Joe: C’mon, Marcus, Thraisken can do that.
Marcus: Yes, all right, I’ll avoid the attacks. Here goes. (Rolls the dice and adjusts for his talents.) 23! Yes! At least two levels of success!
GM: Okay, what happens?
Marcus (grins): Thraisken takes three steps back, his head swivels to the left and right as he surveys with just a hint of fear the disappearing free space around him as the ghasts close in. He laughs, his short sword saluting with great panache, and calls out in a loud melodic voice, “Not today, you dogs, today Thaisken Gnimbleknees, Gentlegnome of the Highways, Goblin Slayer, Bane of Skeletons and Scourge of Ghouls bids you adieu.” With a great leap and tumble forward, he’s up in the air, lands on the shoulders of the closest ghoul, pushes off and flips onto the small outcrop of rocks that hang a few feet above the heads of the horrible undead. As he lands, his laugh resonates ones more. “This is truly a ghastly situation.”
Now how many of you DMs would have been tempted to simply say, “Okay, Thraisken succeeds and manages to flip his way up to the rocks?”
Player interaction is crucial. Not everyone is gifted at it, but it can be nurtured in everyone. It’s about imagination after all. DMs have so much to worry about; you’ve got to describe the setting, the surroundings, the actions of all the NPCs, etc. Why try to describe the players’ activities as well? Rope them in and let them help you tell the story. Even if they fudge things a little by putting an outcropping of rocks where it originally wasn’t, who cares? The story becomes that much more interactive and then players feel that much more involved.
Yes, this’ll take a little coaching, and you’ll have to occasionally reel in the over-zealous player who wants to spend fifteen minutes on the description of his combat move, but the rewards far out weight the disadvantages and it’ll allow you to focus better on making sure you’re playing that NPC villain with the attention it deserves.