Details and Fiddly Bits

After last week’s run on ways to come up with animals and sample ways in which they might relate to humanity and to the world, I got a lot of responses to the level of detail I was putting in, some more positive than others.

This got me to thinking about the role of fine detail in worldbuilding and how it pertains to both the creator and the audience. Most of us, particularly in the gaming world, tend to think of it from the audience’s side; we worry about what our players are going to care about and what detail the piece serves within the narrative, and particularly worry about whether we’re putting too much effort in or forcing our players and characters too much in certain directions for the sake of the details. Now, these concerns aren’t unfounded: Limyaael writes about the writer falling into that trap here, while Questing GM discusses how the GM might fall prey to it here.

So let’s start by looking at it from the audience’s side. Some people just plain don’t care about these details, and that’s their prerogative. (I personally think they’re missing out.) Many are rather neutral towards them. Some welcome them; some of those will even go out of their way to seek them out. (As a player, I fall into the latter category.)

The advantage to details is that anything that is known can be used. Consider the murder mystery; isn’t the whole point of such things stringing together a bunch of random details to create a coherent picture of whodunit and why? But that’s not the only question that such details can answer. Little details can do a lot to inform a PC’s relationship with an NPC; sometimes just one can be the difference between friendship and enmity.

You know the best player-side use for little details, though? Combat evasion. Against intelligent or speech-capable opponents, this can includes figuring out why they’re fighting, what could convince them to stop, or how to scare the living daylights out of them so they don’t start. When dealing with animals or magical beasts, there are other factors; including, scarily enough, mating habits and biology. I’m reminded of our basilisk example of a few days ago; if you see it coming before it’s on top of you, and you know what it eats, or what might attract it, you might be able to lure or at least divert it away from you. As an added bonus for people with metagaming-prone groups, this gives you ways to answer a high Knowledge or equivalent thereof check without just pointing the players to the official stat-block for the creature in question.

The difficulty, of course, is figuring out which details are which, and how to get across the ones that are relevant or useful as opposed to the ones that are just interesting. In a book, this can be done by repetition, or occasionally by internal monologue, or just by making sure it’s treated as being somewhat important when it’s first presented. Not too important, though; that tends to give the plot away. In a game, on the other hand, we have a trick we can use. We all know that people value what they work for. So if we want a detail to be considered particularly important or relevant, and we’re the type who like that sort of thing, we attach it to a dice roll. (This doesn’t mean we can’t bring it up beforehand, of course, but that the roll drills the point home. It also has the added bonus of making knowledge botches that much more amusing, particularly when only the one who made the botch knows that that’s what he did. (My record for longest time between a botch and the realization that that was what it was was six months. I honestly expected the group to ask the right questions earlier.)

Then there’s the issue of presenting what they need to know in a way that doesn’t bore them to tears. For pre-campaign information, I recommend figuring out their reading styles. Some people are going to prefer a more academic tone, carefully organized so they know what’s what. Others would prefer more of a travelogue; something with a clear and possibly slightly biased narrator, preferably with a little extra humor to go with it. Yet others are going to want to absorb things by observing the cultures at work, and would prefer a story that just happens to cover most of the important details. But do be concise; you don’t need to give them a full in-depth sociological evaluation of each culture (unless they’re all either soc majors or really interested in the nitty-gritty) when a couple pages of important general information and a page or so of narrative actually set in the culture in question (to highlight the little details in context where they make more sense) will do so much better.

So that’s what they’re getting out of it. Next time, I’ll look at what we’re getting out of it.

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