A new GM on reddit asked how to make his game world feel more alive. One of his players wanted the world to feel more like Skyrim, or other console RPGs, and not just "speak to NPC B, go to location C" type action like they had. Now, making your game world feel alive is hard. I've been GMing for near 20 years and am still figuring it out. However, there is one question you can ask yourself that makes it a lot easier. Today, I want to talk about that.
Game Focus vs. World Focus
The reason making your world feel alive is hard is partly due to focus. See, the real world, and other works of fiction, feel alive because they're not focused on a core group of people. Other things are going on, and no matter how great or messed up your life is other people could care less in their own story. However, in an RPG the game focus is on the PCs (as it should be) and since the game lens is the only one we have, it is quite easy for the world to also be focused on the PCs and their story.
With that said, the trick should be obvious. The more stuff going on in your world, the less other people are focused on the PC's story, the more alive the world will feel. So how do you do this? Well, going for full "living world" takes a lot of work, and a lot of that work is wasted unless the PCs are going to be stuck in one place for a prolonged period of time. So, instead we're going to cheat.
A Question Foor Prep
You know where your PCs are going during a session, at least most of the time. You should have an idea of key locations - like taverns, castles, etc - or bigger places like cities/towns/planets that the PCs are going to go to. You also should have an idea of the important NPCs needed for the session. So make a list of these things. Now, for each thing on the list ask yourself - and answer "what is going on that doesn't involve the PCs at all?"
Come up with a couple of answers. Maybe there is a garrison of the king's army in town going somewhere else for a war. Maybe another group of adventurers is here on their way north for another quest. Maybe there is a crime spree going on. Maybe the innkeeper who knows where the Trinket of Plot Advancia is smitten with his upcoming marriage to the money changer's sister.
The point is it doesn't matter what is going on, as long as something is.
Putting It In Play
Now, the fun part. Those things you made a list of? As the PCs interact with those parts of the world, drop comments about those things into the description. You don't just talk about the Town of Maiven, but also mention that there is a larger number of King's Soldiers present, along with wagons and supply personnel for wherever they're going. Mention the other groups of adventurers at the Felled Pony Inn & Tavern. When the PCs talk to the innkeeper, have him keep getting distracted about his marriage.
Keeping It In Play
Now, the trick is you need to keep track of these things while your PCs are in the area - and after they leave if they're ever coming back. These things need to progress and move. They need to be referenced. They need to keep going, or they'll just look shallow.
However, if you can do it, your world will feel just that bit more alive, and that can be an awesome thing.