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The Devil In The Details

Posted By John Arcadian On October 27, 2009 @ 2:47 am In Gaming Trends | 19 Comments

image I often find myself walking a fine line when it comes to the level of detail in a game. As both a Game Master and a player, I sometimes enjoy and sometimes hate the level of detail that a game setting provides. Sometimes I loathe being told the exact rights and duties of a particular cleric to a particular god and sometimes I love knowing how the rules for “Zliargo Darts” work, even if I never use them.

Details I Loathe

  • Character attitude details. One line that always bugged me in D&D 3e was about Druid attitudes. “Druids, in keeping with nature’s ultimate indifference, must maintain at least some measure of dispassion.” Really? Why? I love the idea of a loud and boisterous happy-go-lucky druid who lives off of nature’s bounty. Nature is malleable and ever changing. Why must my druid be dispassionate?
  • Weapon description details. Weapons are weapons. Broadswords and shotguns have to adhere to a certain form to be a broadsword or a shotgun. However, knowing the exact hilt style and jewel placement in “Baneslayer” annoys me, unless it is story relevant. My characters tend to be vain. If their red and black clothing meshes with the green sword, I might not take it. These are just the details I would rather have in my hands. My character might pick up baneslayer because it draws his eye and fits his idiom. He doesn’t want just a +2 sword. He wants one that is personal to him.
  • Details about the attitudes of members of a faction. I’m looking at you Old School World Of Darkness. I truly love playing Old School WoD. I hate playing in the setting. Every clan, tribe, sept, or faction had a book devoted to the details about the faction. That was awesome. Not awesome was how many of those details were about the attitudes of the members of the faction. I fully realize that a group of individuals under the same banner is going to have a shared ideology. However, so many of these details seemed incredibly limiting. I always felt like I was breaking the rules, even though every WoD book says change whatever you want, by playing off-faction. This is due, in part, to the people I play with knowing the Old School WoD inside and out. It is also due to White Wolf filing in so much space within their factions as absolutes.

 Details I Like

  • Maps. Any time a map, even for something mundane like a train station, is placed in front of me I like it. Maps give me something to work off of and fill in details I may not think of on the fly. Even as a player I love to see maps in a book. It makes me want to go there and have an adventure.
  • Travel Details. I love having times and distances mapped out for me in an established setting. If I can open a book and know that it is 850 miles from one area to the next, then I can calculate the time it takes to travel there. Even better is when they say it takes 8 days by coach, 15 by horse, and 20 by walking. Sure, these are things I tend to hand wave as a Game Master. They don’t generally add to the enjoyment. They are sometimes important, and when I feel they are I love to see the work already done for me.
  • Mundane place details. One of the biggest things I love about Eberron is the inclusion of stupid details about places that the PCs might encounter. Knowing that Morgrave university sold packs with its logo, my character picked one up to adventure with. Seeing the picture of the lightning rail made my mind jump with thousands of small thoughts about how things work in Eberron. These are details I, as a Game Master or Player, can always include, or not.

The Distinction In Details
Looking over my lists, I find that I am sometimes very extreme in my opinions. I also find that details that dictate things about my character tend to bug me most. Pretty much any detail that dictates the form of my play experience, or is something that limits me, tends to bug me. Details for background items, or things that I can pick up or not, tend to draw my eye more.

So here is my big question, and the main crux of this article. I fully realize that opinions on detail level will vary. What are the details you like in your published game settings? What details do you think are important to include when you are writing your own settings? Do you pick up and play with details provided, or eschew them and make your own?

About  John Arcadian

John Arcadian is the head of Silvervine Games, a freelance writer and art director, a website developer, a builder of sonic screwdrivers, and a purveyor of kilted mayhem. When he isn't out causing trouble in his kilt... Well, no, that is pretty much what he does when he isn't running RPGs or or trying to take over the world.




19 Comments (Open | Close)

19 Comments To "The Devil In The Details"

#1 Comment By Nifelhein On October 27, 2009 @ 3:54 am

I like the details when they spark imagination without limiting it, saying a masked assassin has been stalking the nights of a town for a year, always striking on a full moon brings me ideas, saying that Mrs. Shyweave from the tavern wears a mask and stalks at the nights of full moon to take revenge against those that kidnapped and sold her away oh so many years ago gives me nothing.

I appreciate any detail that give me a quick image of the setting, city, scenario and character without giving him a single detailed description, this is precisely one of the things that first impressed me about Midnight, every section is filled with such clues and sparks, all waiting to be further developed to truly come alive, waiting for my own touch.

In the end designers should take more from old books giving design ideas, one such things is:

“Don’t overplan, prepare”

#2 Comment By theEmrys On October 27, 2009 @ 5:40 am

Well, I understand your points, but for me I like a lot of the details that bug you. The one that really stands out for me is the Weapon Description Details. Although I understand your point of wanting something that meshes with your character for me a lot of the fun of the game is finding things that are a bit different or that don’t mesh perfectly with my concept, and deciding if and how to integrate them. Now, that’s not to say that everything should clash or have that level of detail, but some of the most fun I’ve had gaming is the “twists” that happen due to adapting to something that came out in the details. For example, if I was playing a “vain” character, then perhaps he might adapt his style around the new weapon… which could lead to all sorts of interesting issues/fun as people wonder if he’s “turned to the dark side” or something like that. I do agree that I’ve never liked a “generic +1 sword” idea either and in my games even minor magic tends to be unique, but I run a “rare magic” setting where magic isn’t common but isn’t necessarily weak either.

#3 Comment By ChattyDM On October 27, 2009 @ 5:44 am

Hey John, long time no comment :)

This was really interesting to read such a post about setting/character details because it gives me an insight in what some players may or may not like.

My personal challenge is that I’m a big picture guy. I don’t like details so I tend to evacuate them in favour of a story. While the story may be complex (sometimes excruciatingly so) I don’t spend much time on details… sometimes to the detriment of my players’ need for details.

So I’ll try to keep in mind that details that enrich an object or a place/scene is generally welcomed by people who are more detail-oriented than me.

In parallel, I agree 100% about being annoyed by guidelines that restrict how we play a PC. In fact I’ll apply this to GMing and say that books that tell me how to play my own games are annoying. The Planescape Campaign Setting comes to mind.

#4 Comment By theeo123 On October 27, 2009 @ 7:56 am

one point on old WoD The reason for the details was simple though, remember, Vampires are chosen, Not born. A Vampire, Simply wouldn’t choose to spend eternity with a childe that had drastically opposing viewpoints.
Imagine, even if you had some overly rebellious Ventrue who wanted to embrace some street bum, Your own creator is probably still around, and probably still very active in your affairs, and your actions reflect upon him…. forever…. wouldn’t he interfere?

I agree it could sometimes feel restrictive, but I also understand the designers thought process when doing it. I tried to give my players a lot of Leeway when I ran, and usually used it as plot-fodder, their sire trying to “get them to fall in line” etc.

#5 Comment By LordVreeg On October 27, 2009 @ 8:08 am

I tend to like to place details everywhere. I’m the idiot who bothers to describe a few details about every journey, in every little boring room, etc. I think I notated early that players started equating level of detail with importance, so I upped the descriptive level in general of my GMing as a GM defence mechanism/piece of sadistic cruelty (take your pick.)

However, the thing about the faction/class attitude thing I am very sensitive about. My Setting was given the subtitle “World of Factions” by a colleague at the CBG, and in a place where pc and npcs are expecte to be members of a number of political, mercantile, religious and social groups, it ismportant to avoid overgeneralizing or creating caricature.

Interesting thread and a good viewpoint to look through.

#6 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On October 27, 2009 @ 8:35 am

A good description is evocative; it draws the details out of the players’ imaginations.

I like maps and pictures, especially of critters. I like that every dragon in D&D looks different. I like that the minis look like the pictures. I like pictures of gadgets.

I don’t like campaigns where every last detail is laid out (looking at you, Forgotten Realms). I want a lot of grey area in my campaign, where I can either make it up, of ask the players to chip in.

And saying that “you can change this” is a cop-out. I really don’t want to rewrite the details of an established book, especially when they may be referenced in another book, or used by one of my players.

#7 Comment By Scott Martin On October 27, 2009 @ 9:52 am

I like having most of the details, even the ones you loathe, written down. My actual preference aligns with yours– maps and other inspiring bits to free associate from– but I don’t mind skimming and tossing details overboard when they don’t work. (I am similar in reading; I enjoy Zelazny’s Amber novels, but don’t think I’ve ever made it through a two page description of shadow shifting without shifting to skimming in the middle. Yes evocative… but I’d rather skip to the plot.)

A big reason why I don’t mind the extra detail is that even if I don’t accept what’s written, the act of tossing something overboard required that I think about and reject it. Do you know how many +1 swords I’ve handed out without description due to the lack of a prompt?

#8 Comment By Tyson J. Hayes On October 27, 2009 @ 9:58 am

@LordVreeg – I fail to see how describing mundane details is idiotic, personally it’s something I fail at as a DM even giving a good enough descriptions of rooms.

However I do like a bit of extra descriptions to things like weapons gives me a feel of what this weapon was going for. If I don’t like where it was going I ignore the description and make it my own.

Maps however are awesome and I wish there were more pictures and maps for settings it’s helpful in getting an idea of what the world looks like an sparks my imagination in new ways.

#9 Comment By Nojo On October 27, 2009 @ 12:10 pm

Nice article. Your Weapon Preference dislike lost me.

Your character doesn’t just want a (+2) sword. But he doesn’t want a description of the sword. So how can he know if he likes it or not?

Are you saying you want the GM to know your sword vanity preferences, and never offer you a sword that doesn’t fit with your color scheme?

Or are you saying you actually want a +2 sword with no description, and for the GM to bless whatever description you come up with? If so, I think any good GM would let you change the cosmetic description of any item as long its about the same size, shape, and craftsmanship.

GM: “When you search what remains of the body, you see the dark black fusion rifle he fried your cleric with. It’s still cooling down.”

Player: “I shine a bright light on it, secretly hoping it’s really red, to go with my armor.”

GM: “Huh?” Blinks a few times. “Oh, yes, once the light shines on it you can see it’s a red fusion rifle that is covered with black dust. It’s a perfect match to your armor.”

#10 Comment By Rechan On October 27, 2009 @ 12:47 pm

I pretty much ignore any fluff text I don’t like. And if the DM is so insistent that ‘that’s what the book says you act like’, then that’s not hte DM for me.

I like details about religions. A blurb is not good enough. I like to know rituals and ceremonies and tenents and factions/sects within the religion. Because that is stuff that I don’t want to fool with. It also provides flesh, and gives a much better idea of the religion. Even if I don’t like the stuff it presents, I can use it for another God.

#11 Comment By HVL On October 27, 2009 @ 2:40 pm

I’m a details freak, I like to take them in, so many that I can really feel the world, live with it in my head awhile so that when someone asks a question, what I have is backed up by hard (if made up) fact.
With the vampire thing, I always loved the attitudes thing. I think I used them as a Dm’s guide to how each faction would react to PCs, generally. Half of my players generally played agianst faction on a regular basis. We even had a giovanni working for the sabbat at one point. The rest of his clan didn’t trust him, but it was cool nontheless.
One thing I really loathe is when details are really half-details. Ina game like OWOD or Rifts this means when they’re really specific but then transfer the final GM detail into another book. In NWOD, it’s the fact they can’t seem to make up their minds weather there’s a setting or not and that it’s vague detials at best.

#12 Comment By Patrick Benson On October 27, 2009 @ 2:56 pm

I find more than 3 key details to be annoying. I would much rather have a barebones framework, a few important details, and then interpret the work as I see fit to apply it to my game world. The problem is that my preference doesn’t work when it comes to things like RPGA events, WoD LARPs, or any number of activities where large groups agreeing on exact details matter.

This one of the paradoxes of our hobby IMO. We say “Do whatever you want! Imagine it as you see fit!” and then we gather into groups the tone changes to “Whoa! We’re going to have to agree on some details here!”

This is not really a bad thing, but somethignt aht GMs should be aware of. If you are running Forgotten Realms keep the details and stay up to date on what is added to the world. If you prefer a looser setting than encourage your players to come up with their own details that matter to their characters. There is a potential to abuse that sort of world building (i.e. – “My character’s class comes with a ton of treasure because of these details…”), but a GM can always trump those sorts of things (“And all of that treasure goes into maintaining the elaborate guild that you described, so your character can’t spend it.”). :)

#13 Comment By xero On October 27, 2009 @ 3:11 pm

I like that describing a pair of magical boots as orange suddenly makes PC appearance an issue. I love that throwing color, shape, pattern, and texture into the mix suddenly brings more factors into item selection than just “which item has the bigger plus”. I try to encourage these kinds of player choices and considerations, and I would happily reward a player who took such things into account when making his selections, for better or for ill. It’s a form of role playing.

#14 Comment By xero On October 27, 2009 @ 3:13 pm

To that end, I try to throw brief descriptions in with my magic items wherever possible and practical. That +3 leather suit of sneaking is going to be dark purple, and that +1 cloak of charming is going to be shiny and bright.

#15 Comment By Jeff Carlsen On October 27, 2009 @ 6:11 pm

Funny how your most hated are my most loved details. Maybe I’m more of the Actor player type, but I want to be part of a faction, or religion, or culture with a standard baseline of character beliefs, attitudes, motivations, and the like. This is, of course, assuming that I build my character to this standard in the first place. I don’t want these attitudes imposed on my character after generation.

In my mind, one of the things that defines a character isn’t just the culture he is a part of, but what parts of that culture he embraces or rejects. As such, I feel like there is more room to build a character when some baseline is given.

Whereas, specific location details are boring to me. It is a place. There are things there. It doesn’t matter unless it is important to a character’s attitudes or motivations, or it adds a sense of tone to a scene.

#16 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On October 27, 2009 @ 9:18 pm

My thought on faction attitude issues is that much like the real world, people are brought into groups for multitudes of different reasons. I’ve worked next to incredibly nice but incompetant people and viciously competant people that I got into shouting matches with every day. I’ve seen people who are allowed into organizations for skillsets that are desperately needed, despite lacking otherwise essential skillsets and having the personality of a doorknob. I’ve seen people get preferential treatment despite historically poor performance because of seniority, and people get hired because of previous relationships.
Yes, a lot of organizations have “hiring policies” but most of them throw them out in a moment if doing so produces a tangible benefit, and RPG organizations are no different.

#17 Comment By sinewav On October 27, 2009 @ 11:52 pm

I’m so glad to see that I’m not the only one who feels this way about Old WoD. The clans and clan stereotypes are fun to play with the first few times, but they get old quick, especially when they are rigidly enforced like most GMs I’ve played with have done. It’s almost as if the character has already been made for you… Premade characters are okay if you wanna jump right into things, but it kinda sucks when there’s only 13 of them (and with the way clans get along, you’re even more limited based on what the rest of the part chooses.)

#18 Comment By John Arcadian On October 28, 2009 @ 6:31 pm

Hey Guys. Apologies for the very very late response to any comments here. I’ve been struck down with G1N1-M, Gnome Flu. It is the Swine Flu that Gnomes get.

I’ve only got the energy to respond to one thing, so I’ll make that the weapons thing. In retrospect, the weapons thing isn’t actually all that annoying of a detail, but it can be if used incorrectly.

Hypothetical situation: You fight goblins and take their items. They have some fun magical items. They will, of course, most likely be goblin themed. They will be birds skulls or crude swords, etc. I can’t see my bard or paladin character strapping on a goblin sword, even though it is better. That is where my mind went with the aesthetic example. It is, however, a valid reason for why the weapons look the way they look. I have many memories of pouring through the 2nd ed. D&D books and reading these descriptions of the type of wood in a wand, or placement of gems, etc. that had nothing to do with the actual item. The wand of magic missle (a very generic item) always seemed to be described the same way, verbatim from the book, by every DM I ever played under. The details provided didn’t seem to be something that any of them could overcome and describe differently. This isn’t really a fault of the details themselves, but the people who couldn’t get past them.

So my beef is really this: Details given on generic items can provide a barrier to building that description into something more interesting, appropriate, and immersive to the group.

And that is about all I have energy for. Back into bed.

#19 Comment By xero On October 28, 2009 @ 7:07 pm

@John Arcadian – See, I like to make up my own descriptions. With the 4E campaign I’m about to DM, I’m making up item cards for all the magic items I’m handing out, with a brief history, physical description, and trigger word. The description will be based on the item’s properties and the characteristics of the item’s creator or most famous user. Of course, that opens up the possibility for the players to reskin an item once they’ve carried it for a while, but that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish.


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