Wonder is hard to come by-we’ve explored most of our land mass, been to space, and answered more questions than most people ask in their lives. One of the challenges of running a tabletop game in the modern day is the need to compete with the extreme stimulation of mass media; it is crucial from an entertainment perspective to build upon the storytelling and setting of other media and bring them together into a conglomeration of all the elements that will go into your setting and descriptions.
The Romantic concepts of beauty and the sublime are important to consider when writing for a game; Romanticism as a movement may not really sit well with a modern audience, but Burke’s study of aesthetics can be carried over into the modern day. In short, beauty is something well-formed and pleasing, and the sublime is something that holds menace and intrigue (don’t use this to study for your midterm, but they’re working definitions). Wonder occurs when someone is exposed to more beauty or sublimity than they are accustomed to; again, mass-media immediately has shot the GM in the foot here. Fortunately, there are a few tricks we can use that they can’t (at least yet).
Tailored experiences are crucial to a tabletop game. Figure out what really makes your players jump, cry, laugh, and get fired up. Don’t be mean about it-if they have a phobia you don’t need to constantly confront them with it, and you don’t need to rip into their psyche and rub salt in their mental wounds. However, think about what your players will be moved by; if your players are idealistic, presenting opportunities to be the knight in shining armor or a Robin Hood type will work well, while more cynical players will buy into a dystopian and broken world more easily; by realizing what your players need to invest in your storytelling you can create a world that has all the elements that will appeal to them; Shadowrun is a good example of this-it’s grim and change for the better will never come from above, but the players may be in a place to make a little difference to help those they care about. This also is why certain games work well; if nobody’s a cynic, you can run them through a generic good versus evil swords and sorcery campaign, but if someone’s cynical you may choose to include a character who appears to fit in but is subtly scheming and taking advantage of the less paranoid inhabitants of the world.
Another challenge awaiting the GM wishing to create a meaningful experience is the fact that the human imagination has very few ways to surprise itself. Without meaningful input, the brain cannot create something. Just as teaching requires a level of comprehensible input and new input, you must consider what will be comprehensible to your players, and what will push the boundaries of their understanding and lead them to have an experience of “seeing something new”. If you’ve ever read a book with truly imaginative elements, like Alice in Wonderland or the Chronicles of Narnia, you’ll see how easily their elements are created within the minds of their reader, despite the fact that these things would have been perhaps beyond the wildest dreams of the reader beforehand; as a GM your goal is to do this with an audience that is much more well-versed in the world and (probably) in the tropes and conventions of preexisting fantasy and science fiction.
The best thing you can offer as a GM is a unique experience. In order to do this I suggest going back to Burke’s the concepts of beauty and the sublime. Give players something that has never been seen (by them) before; this is something that I try to do in all my settings, whether it’s Aduelle, Orchestra, or Dust Watch; and whenever possible in other games I run. There’s something about walking into the two-hundred foot tall cathedral and listening to your footsteps echo that adds to any Dark Heresy campaign, especially when one considers how quiet it must be for their footsteps to resonate through such a large space. Similarly, you can paint wonderful images using the concepts of beauty; while Burke’s concept of beauty likely rules out several things that are beautiful, epitomizing more perhaps the modern opinion of things that would be aesthetically pleasing, you can consider the sort of things that bring images to peoples’ mind. One caution about this, however, is that beauty is highly devalued in some audiences; I can’t say the last time I stopped to look at something because it was perfectly crafted and beautiful, but I’ve got gigabytes worth of screenshots and pictures of things that looked magnificent, and wonderful; like Burke hints at, beauty is subjective but the sublime is objective, and if you try too hard to write “beautifully” you can easily fall into verbose and flowery language that really just sounds absurd rather than getting the point across. When describing a scene for the maximum value, highlight the things that your players are least likely to fill in for themselves; a grassy field needs little description. However, smoke plumes from the chimneys of a Victorian town or the blue crops grown on an alien planet can create a magnificent image with very little additional impact, because your players know what a Victorian town or alien planet looks like and you have not only drawn them into imagining the town and the fields but also filling in new things.
Of course, not all games are about wonder-some fall into political intrigue or gritty realism, but remember that part of the goal of many genres of storytelling is to provide a sense of awe and wonder, and if you work them into your storytelling you’ll create a more interesting experience.