Devil’s in the Details

Every now and then I get into a discussion about how much detail you put into your game as the Game Master. Luckily, it doesn’t happen all that often, because I generally don’t put too much work into my games and so I’m not taken very seriously by other GMs, but I had one such discussion the other day and I was inspired to talk about preparation and detail.

Like I said, I don’t put too much work into my games and that’s because I am a firm believer in this being a game and not a chore; no one, not even the GM, should be doing more work than what they enjoy doing. There are times when I get really excited and prepare handouts, NPCs’ personalities, and I generally put a lot of work into the story and the game, but more frequently, I just put together whatever the hell I feel like doing and have time to do, and call it a day.

For one game, I created several handouts, like pages from diaries and books and research logs. I enjoyed it and the players loved it. They even referenced the handouts several times. Some of it was useful and some of it wouldn’t be useful until later in the campaign, if we’d play for that long (and we didn’t get to use all the stuff I prepared). But it was a lot of fun.

In another game, I had no traits prepared for the NPCs, but I just estimated what they were capable of. The main point was the story and not whether or not that guard could best your swordsmanship. These are two examples of little preparation against a lot more.

At a small, local convention one time I played in a one-shot where the GM brought with him a large folder with notes and details and NPCs. It was a great game. In my game at the same convention, that GM was going to be one of the players. I admitted that I had not finished all the preparations, not finished all the maps and such, and the other GM walked away from our table to find another game. He later admitted to having looked down on me for not preparing more, although not in those words, and didn’t want to play in my game because of it. The three players who remained at my table said they had never had as exciting experience playing a role-playing game before, that they had been on the edge of their seats for nearly the whole game, which took 5-6 hours.

I may have told this story here before. It doesn’t matter because I think it very well illustrates my point. You can make a lot of preparations, or you can do only a little, and you can have a great game either way.

But preparations and details are not necessarily the same thing. You can leave out most of the details while still doing a lot of the preparations. You can prepare an encounter with the king. With him in his throne room are twelve of his greatest warriors, so you create generic stats for them. The room is so and so big, with this many entrances on this or that side, and a secret passage behind the throne. The king’s sword is a magical item, extra sharp and pulses with authority (granting bonuses to damage rolls and social commands). This is preparation.

The guards are named Jim, Steve, Bob, Gladys, Tom, Rick, etc. Jim’s sister is married to the town’s baker, who makes the best raspberry pie in the kingdom, and Gladys and Tom are married, although Tom is secretly having an affair with Rick. The king’s cloak is scarlet velvet with gold stitches and white fur on the edges, but his tunic is purple silk. The columns in the throne room each tell a different story from the kingdom’s myth. The king’s sword has been in the royal family since the beginning, and is known in history as the Sword of Kings. This is detail.

Detail can be good but it can also be a bit too much. If the players decide to talk to Jim, who cares what the other guards’ names are? And how do they know which one is Jim anyway? If you tell your players that the king is dressed in the standard royal clothes of this region, the players can and likely will fill in the blanks as to what those clothes are like.

But details can be good. The players are likely to want to know if the king’s sword has a name. The columns in the throne room can project a sort of national pride, if historical conquests and victories are written on them. Details can also serve you as hooks to draw your players to a different path in the story. The king wants them to go deal with a bandit problem out in the woods, but on their way out there they decide to stop by Jim’s brother-in-law, the baker, to try that famous raspberry pie, only to find out that the baker, and in fact the bandits, are part of a rebellion. They want the players to help them overthrow the king.

Sometimes, what the players believe is a pointless detail can actually be a subtle hook. The players in this case could have gone to the woods and taken care of those bandits, or they could check out the baker’s pies and by coincidence figure out that there is a deeper plot going on. Sometimes, the hook doesn’t need to be subtle. The players might see six doors, one of which is painted red. Which door will the check first? There’s good chance, although not guaranteed, that they will check out the painted door.

Details are good, unless they are pointless. Is there a reason that you need to tell your players the names of all the king’s personal guards? Is there a reason that you need to tell them that the elves have a friendly relationship with the dwarves? Unless those names are unusual or mean anything, or that a friendly relationship with the dwarves is somehow strange, these are details that you don’t need to tell your players.

When describing details to your players, it is more important to tell them about stuff that matters to the narrative. If the elves are at war with the dwarves, and there’s a dwarf in the party, that will affect how the elves interact with the group, and therefore it affects the narrative. The same goes with the guards’ names; you don’t need to know that one of them is called Tom if Tom never becomes important to the narrative.

Details that stick out however, that is something you’ll want to keep in your notes. For example, did you notice that I only mentioned one female name among the guards? If the king has twelve personal guards and only one of them is a woman, that person is the one that the players are most likely to want to interact with. The same would be if the king had twelve personal guards and only one of them was male. That person stands out, and they are therefore the most interesting.

And in the slight chance that they don’t want to speak to the only person who is different, you only need about two or three names for the rest. In fact, you could just grab your handy Name Generator, and prepare a list of 100 names that you can pick names from. Another trick, one that I’ve recently started using more, is to have the players come up with names for NPCs or other details that I haven’t really prepared for. I do this especially if they want to know if they recognize anyone that might be from their backstories, or if it is a place in their hometown. Some interesting stories have come from the ideas of the players.

I’ll leave you with the same advice as I began with: Don’t do more than what you enjoy. Do you really need to know what’s behind doors number 1 or 3 if only door number 2 matters to your story? And my final advice, is that you get your players to help you with the details. It is their characters that are experiencing it, so let them tell you a story as well. Entertain, and be entertained.

One thought on “Devil’s in the Details

  1. @Loraedor Reply

    I love this post. Games are supposed to be fun, and as soon as that stops, for anyone, then it’s a job instead of a game. There’s a balance to be struck between prep and improv, and there are tools that make both easier.
    But perhaps most importantly, there’s one thing I missed in this discussion: notes.
    Prep as long as it’s fun, make up the rest (or have your players do it), but be sure to take careful note of those small details that are created on the fly. And then be sure to incorporate them in later sessions.
    I keep a list of small details I’ve thrown in to review before each session’s prep. They serve as sparks for creativity, and bringing them back brings a sense of continuity and intentionality that, in my experience, makes memorable campaigns.

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