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Controlling How Much Detail is Needed for the Game


I have such a love/hate relationship with details as a GM. Adding details to your game is like cooking with a powerful spice. If you add too little it is a waste, and if you add too much it overpowers the dish. You need to get the amount of the spice right for not just the dish as a whole, but for every single bite.

It gets even worse though, because you have to get the amount of spice right for every single bite for different people with different tastes and expectations. How do you manage to satisy every diner’s unique palette?

A cooking tip that I picked up years ago was to “Let the diner decide.”, which means that you prepare the dish and put the component with the spices on the side. The person eating the meal then decides just how much spice he wants in each bite, and this works very well as long as the cook explains how her dish is meant to be eaten (i.e. – telling the diner “It is recommend that you taste a small sample of the sauce before adding it to your meal.”).

Guess what? You can do the exact same thing when GMing!

Prepare your scenes with the minimal amount of detail needed for you to launch the scene with. Not the minimal amount of details that you need to feel comfortable with, because that will lead to either under or over preparing. Just add enough details to get the scene rolling with (I suggest one to set the mood with and one for each of the five senses), and then tell the players:

“I have not shared all of the details with you in order to keep the game moving along. If you need more details in order to decide on an action please ask for them from me as the need arises.”

Giving the players this information is critical to applying this advice to your game! Skip that step of requesting questions and this tactic will not work. You have been warned.

Now when the players ask for those details do not respond with “Why do you need to know that?” Not only does it negate the instruction you gave that the players should ask for details as the need arises, but it creates tension between you and the players. Your response should be either to provide the details that were requested by the player, or to ask “I do not understand what details you are asking for. Would you please describe what it is that you want your character to attempt or learn in this scene?”

These two responses will empower both you and the players without challenging anyone directly. The players will be given either an answer or an opportunity to rephrase their inquiry, and you will be retaining control of the setting without negating player input. It is a win-win scenario.

The final phase of this tactic is to actually provide the details without adding too little or too much. All you need to do is give the player some rough ideas and let his imagination fill in the rest, and then ask if he needs more information or if he is ready to have his character take some sort of action. Get a read off of the player, and think of what he has had his character do in the past. Make up details on the spot that will provoke this particular player to commit to his character taking an action.

There is also the “cutoff” response of “There is nothing else of significance that I can think of to share with you.” Use this with caution though, and I suggest that it only be used when a player is holding up the game with too many questions. This is another reason to ask for the player to describe what it is that she wants her character to accomplish, because it allows you as a GM to keep the game moving along.

This tactic works because you are allowing each player to get the right amount of detail that he needs for his character to take action at that moment. The level of detail is right for that player with each “bite” of the game. You avoid reading text that the players will be bored by, as well as prepping details that never actually come into play. You do have to use your improvisation skills, but because you started with just enough details to launch the scene with and are asking for the players input you have a good amount of material to build upon. The tactic is designed so that the improvising part is easy for the GM to do.

What about your experiences as a GM and creating scenarios with just the right amount of detail? How do you ensure that enough detail is present but not overwhelming? Leave a comment below and let the rest of us know how you handle the creation of details for your game!

6 Comments (Open | Close)

6 Comments To "Controlling How Much Detail is Needed for the Game"

#1 Comment By Rickard Elimää On June 11, 2012 @ 12:01 am

A dialogue is sentences trading back and forth between several people. I use this when I’m describing the environment.

I start off by telling the players where they are and it’s up to them to add people, smells, sounds, things or whatever they want to the environment. It’s then up to anyone to take up what one of the other players are adding to the scene and give it one more detail.

Doing this, I never have to prepare any details. We just roll with it and building the scene together as we move along.

Wanna try this? Well, first of all, experienced roleplayers aren’t used to this, so explain how this is done in the beginning of the session, perhaps with a little exercise as an example. During the game session, if the players ask you about the surrounding, ask back “Yes, are there a [nnnn]?” ’til they get the point: they are allowed to make up things in the scene.

I got one rule and three tools when it comes to playing roleplaying games with this dialogue structure. First, no one are allowed to describe anything in detail. The game master are just allowed to describe the places as “The library” and the players are just allowed to say “There are people in there” or something like that. That’s the rule.

The tools are as following:
× Start your sentence with “…and” to add something to another person’s description: “…and the people in the library are members of a guild”.
× Start your sentence with “…but” to limit someone’s description. “…but the people there seem really busy.”
× Ask leading questions to the players so they can describe more in detail. “Are there any specific features about those people?”, “Are they all humans?”, “Do you know anyone of them?” Even if they say no, you still got some more details from them.

#2 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On June 11, 2012 @ 7:04 am

Good article!

In the good ole’ days back when a tablet was spiral-bound, we used to refer to over-described rooms as “neon signs.” If the GM was taking time to describe it, then there had to be something worth finding if we rummaged through the room. Rooms with nothing in them simply got some variation of “you enter an empty room with a door on the other end.”

Back then descriptions were important, because it was SOP that the players would actually describe how their PCs were searching the room. If something was missed, it was because the player forgot to spot something. Find/Remove traps rolls were targeted for specific areas of the room (e.g. “I want to open the chest. Black Dougal, can you see if it’s trapped first?”).

Ever since the Search skill (most modern RPGs have some form of it) became king, I’ve noticed a resulting drop in room descriptions, as the GM provides anything of note after a successful Search roll.

#3 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On June 11, 2012 @ 9:06 am

I have mixed feelings about, what Walt called, “neon sign” room description vs. the modern Search/Perception style mechanics.
Certainly, the new style of play cuts down on “that guy” impulsive searcher — you know, the one who ISN’T a rogue but who calls out seconds after a combat that he’s searching every corner of the room before anyone even has chance to catch their breath. (Even springing a slew of traps on him can’t dissuade him.)
The old style also seemed to spin down into an inarticulate game of “warmer/colder” as the PCs turned a room upside down for every last copper. The parable of the Lost Coin serves even in D&D world.

But the new style mechanics, while fairer in a game sense — certainly don’t “feel” like searching, and as Patrick points out, diminishes the role of room description considerably.

Striking a balance is really difficult. Eventually, going through an abandoned palace and describing every ornate lampshade — or scouring the dungeon and turning up every patch of black mold — becomes tiresome for everyone involved.

I think I’d strive to provide just one detailed description per hour of game play to emphasize immersion and set the mood/environment/setting. Beyond that, though, I’d trust the players themselves to fill in the gaps with their own imaginations.

#4 Comment By BryanB On June 11, 2012 @ 2:23 pm

I used to write down a painstaking amount of detail for each scene. I grew increasingly frustrated with over half of that work never seeing the table. I was clearly writing too much down – And not all of it was even important for meeting the needs of the scene.

Scott Martin helped me to see that less can actually be more. A scene needs nothing more than an index card with some key bullet points written down on it. Perhaps along with a key note on what the objective of the scene is. This was a valuable time saving lesson for me.

One can always add lib more details for flavor as they wish, but one only needs to give enough detail to meet the requirements for attaining the goals of a scene. Everything else is just like extra decorations on a well-frosted cake.

#5 Comment By Scott Martin On June 11, 2012 @ 5:11 pm

It’s a worthy experiment. With players who buy in, it seems like a great way to calibrate detail levels and cut back on extensive block text.

It sounds very artificial feeling as presented–drawing lots of attention to description, and not ideal as a long term plan. [Similar to the obvious nature of player and GM turns in Mouse Guard.] But it sounds like a great calibration tool, to get your group on a better page–or even just to illustrate the range of required description among players, coordinating tolerances.

#6 Comment By Patrick Benson On June 11, 2012 @ 6:21 pm

Thanks all for the great comments! I’m exhausted from a flight today, so I’m just going to respond to one comment in particular:

[1] – “It sounds very artificial feeling as presented…”

Good point, but I would say that every tactic for dealing with people is artificial until practiced enough that it becomes natural. Even saying “Hello.” is artificial for people who do not greet others regularly (I can think of several persons who are very shy and quiet even with people whom they know). The exception to this is the emotional interactions that we have with each other since they do not have a cultural structure put on top of them.

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