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Obsessing Over Details, or “It Is All In Your Head”

Posted By Patrick Benson On July 11, 2012 @ 12:00 am In GMing Advice | 11 Comments

Sometimes we fail to see the forest for the trees.

I have found myself so caught up in trying to perfect one particular aspect of my game that I blinded myself to the whole of the game itself. It is easy to become focused and obsessed on a few details that seem oh so important the night before the game, but that really are not deserving of so much attention.

A few of the monumental wastes of my time in the pursuit of perfection have been centered upon:

  • Props
  • Maps
  • Terrain
  • Miniatures
  • Online Resources
  • Pictures
  • Descriptions
  • Stats
  • Accents

This is just a short list. The complete list probably rivals the United States Federal tax code.

I take pride in my games. I want every single detail to be a contributing factor to an amazing experience for the players. If you are going to be a GM, then be the best GM that you can possibly be, right?

Unfortunately that desire to be the best can sometimes steer us down the path to failure. If I spend an hour in a dollar store debating internally with myself about which of two different types of plastic skulls will be the better prop (yes, I can get that ridiculously obsessed about this stuff) I am hurting my game and not helping it.

Hell, I am just hurting myself in general when I become that narrowly focused!

Why do I occasionally develop this OCD intense fixation for a relatively minor aspect of my games? Because I fool myself into thinking that this one tiny detail is going to be the magic ingredient that puts the game over the top and make the session legendary! That is why I will become completely oblivious to the idea that I can simply buy both of those stupid plastic props for $2 and obsess back in the comfort of my own home as to which one I will use for the game. Instead I tend to stand in the store aisle looking like a moron who cannot comprehend what a Halloween decoration is.

In my head choosing the right prop, or piece of terrain, or miniature, or what color the BBEG’s cloak is, or <insert trivial detail here> is the most important decision I have to make so that my next game is pure awesome bottled in excellence and sealed with amazing.

Thus I can easily waste an hour of my life on such frivolous details in preparing for my game. An hour that I can spend preparing other materials for the game. An hour I can spend with my kids. An hour I can spend with my wife.

What kind of idiot spends an hour deciding on what cheap trinket would be best to buy for their game instead of going home and spending a lovely, and probably much more enjoyable, hour with the love of their life?

Me. I am that idiot.

Or at least I used to be that idiot. I am probably still an idiot in regards to other aspects of my life (okay, “probably” is being kind to myself), but I no longer allow myself to get hooked up on these types of details with my games.

See, I realized that what I was really doing was procrastinating. I was focusing on something trivial instead of tackling the more difficult parts of my game prep work, or as Gnome-In-Chief Martin puts it “letting the perfect be the enemy of the done”. Once I understood why I was taking so long to make such minor decisions, I created a little rule for myself to follow:

I cannot spend any more time on a detail that is greater than the amount of spotlight time that detail will receive at the table.

Note that I specifically said “spotlight time.” It does not matter if that miniature is on the table for the entire night’s worth of gaming. If that miniature is only going to receive five minutes worth of reaction time from my players, then I should not spend more than five minutes of time deciding on which miniature to use in order to get that reaction.

This simple guideline helps me to keep focused on what is really important for the game. It helps me to catch myself avoiding the real work of the game. It helps me to keep my hobby from taking over my life. This rule keeps my game “profitable” because it prevents me from spending more effort than is needed in pursuit of the potential rewards.

Time I can instead spend with my wife. Hubba-hubba.

Some of you might not have this problem, and thus this article is not of great use to you. Hopefully you found it amusing in some way, but I understand if you would have preferred 1,000 words on NPC creation instead.

But to those of you who can relate, and I know that you are out there from many a gaming convention dealer room visit, I hope that you will adopt my “prep time < spotlight time” formula. It will keep you on track with your preparations if you stick to it, and it will help you to discover what game prep work really matters to your group.

If you are brave enough, please feel free to share your stories about your own Game Preparation Obsession Syndrome (or GPOS for short) Ask your physician how Gnome Stew may be right for you in the treatment of GPOS. Side effects include numbness to edition wars and a preference for wearing kilts.

 

About  Patrick Benson

Patrick was born in 1975, and is more or less your typical American male for someone of his age. Except he is a tabletop RPG gamer and a damn fine game master! What else matters?




11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "Obsessing Over Details, or “It Is All In Your Head”"

#1 Comment By Gamerprinter On July 11, 2012 @ 1:56 am

In my youth I was lazy, overtime have fought to avoid that state of mind, such that in any endeavor I tackle the hard things first. In game prep I’m no different. I build my NPCs from scratch as fairly complete character builds. The same with my monsters, traps, haunts, hazards, planned social encounters.

I love detail and layers of it, and in some ways I too obsess over them, but it’s my job and my passion, Still I don’t let it get over my head.

The details are there for options, and adventure hooks, not predefined actions that require PC interaction. I prepare the week’s session, and have ready as much detail to achieve a level of immersion from all participants. I will always have to wing something to cover the unexpected, but having options available can redirect the intentions of the players.

#2 Comment By shortymonster On July 11, 2012 @ 2:25 am

Currently penning the first of what will certainly several blogs about how to cut corners in running a game but maintaining a high level of quality. Or kind of high at least. My reasons for doing this are based on the huge amount of effort so many bloggers seem to put into stuff for running their games, and the realization that I’m very lazy indeed by comparison.

#3 Comment By Michael Shea On July 11, 2012 @ 5:37 am

@Gamerprinter
I am guilty of fulling building out an NPC that only interacts with the party long enough for them to kill it.

#4 Comment By Redcrow On July 11, 2012 @ 7:43 am

I used to obsess about every little detail, but over the years I’ve learned to be a little more frugal with my details. Now I just consider how much actual ‘screen time’ a specific place or NPC is likely to get and add details accordingly.

Also I’ve become fairly good at adding details on-the-fly if my players should decide to check out something or someone more closely than I had expected.

I also recycle details shamelessly from one campaign to the next and as far as I’m aware none of my players has ever caught on to that fact.

#5 Comment By Gamerprinter On July 11, 2012 @ 9:07 am

@Michael Shea

While that’s also true in my games, I do have two players who sometimes attempt some diplomacy, bluffing or some other kind of non-combat situations. So I still plan for that in my NPC builds, even if I don’t always get to use their full potential.

#6 Comment By randite On July 11, 2012 @ 10:50 am

I’ve often found that I obsess primarily over world-building/cultural details. I recently spent several hours researching acid mine drainage, extremophile bacteria, and the ph of swamp water. The whole thing concluded with a somewhat desperate search for a copper ore that contained the chemical components necessary to create sulphuric acid. I enjoyed the research but my time could certainly be better spent. If I’d been willing to let go of one minor detail (that the slime mold based monster I was designing attacked specifically with sulphuric acid) I could certainly have certainly have saved myself a lot of time and trouble.

#7 Comment By Roxysteve On July 11, 2012 @ 11:03 am

Some idiot put me onto a product called Scrivener and took away the only major barrier to making my Delta Green game a plot-pretzel of OTT clue-age. Now I prep for thirty hours a game that runs for four.

I just about get myself ready to go cold turkey on the next session and someone picks up a carefully photoshopped photograph of a message left in blood by a maniac (printed on quality photo paper of course) or has a carefully baked and singed “antique” paper document crumble in their hands an says “sweet!” and it’s like a crack hit and there goes the plan.

We now use a 3x4ft whiteboard so the players can synthesize my OTT infodumps into a somewhat coherent timeline of whatever outrage they are investigating.

The worst I’ve gotten? A shoebox of badly Chaucerized loose leaves from the diaries of half a dozen busybodies, written in various scripts from which the poor buggers had to figure out WTF was going on in 1642. “Myftreff Anne yf lookyng moft affuredly peaked todaye, methynkf“.

That I haven’t been lynched at a game after this sort of nonsense is a thing of mystery.

#8 Comment By Roxysteve On July 11, 2012 @ 11:06 am

I should point out that when I’m playing I absolutely suck at the kinds of games I run. Irony. I does it.

#9 Comment By randite On July 11, 2012 @ 6:08 pm

One important thing to remind yourself of is that all the stunning minutia of details you may be torturing yourself over will quickly add up to more than you’ll ever be able to keep up with during actual play. Whether these details are the dining peculiarities, honorifics, and heraldry of a given culture or the shopping habits, food preferences, and maternal lineage of an NPC, it’s difficult to keep more than say… a dozen or so concepts firmly established in your brainbox at once.
Don’t bog down the game to search for that lost index card which specifically laid out the number, type, and order of courses during a Baron of Latveria’s formal banquet. Rather bullet-point out a couple of highlights you wanted to include in the feast (the impractical and uncomfortable garments, the flowery and meaningless conversation, the unsubtle way that everyone brags about their # of servants, etc.) and consider more abstractly the themes or leitmotifs you wanted to present (the chokingly overpowering formality, the superficiality of Latverian Nobility, the forced servitude and unhappiness of the lower classes, etc.). When the time comes to lay out the scene the rest of the details will roll out organically.

#10 Comment By Patrick Benson On July 12, 2012 @ 3:30 pm

Thanks everyone for your comments! I was swamped at work yesterday, so responding was just no possible. I did enjoy reading them today though.

#11 Comment By shortymonster On July 17, 2012 @ 10:02 am

And here it is, a way to streamline making a bunch of NPCs.

http://shortymonster.wordpress.com/2012/07/16/cutting-corners-not-quality/

I know I linked it in a previous thread, but it seems more at home here ;)


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