But They’re Our Details and Fiddly Bits

More on detail in the world, this time from the creator’s side.

While the world is almost invariably for the audience, the details themselves often serve purposes that are more creator-oriented. I’ve seen three major reasons why people come up with these sorts of details. One is to demonstrate our artistry with said little details. Another is creating details to reward the players’ curiosity, in a sort of Easter egg hunt game-within-a-game. A third is to give the creator herself a better idea what the world is like, whether it’s things that might change how a character reacts or overall thematics that influence the field of the world itself.

The first way is, in my opinion, a bit of a trap. After all, if the point of creating details is to show them off, what happens when there’s never a good opportunity to do so? Or in a game, the players just plain don’t want to see them? Say you’ve got a sequence that you’ve been planning forever that will give you a chance to give further insight into a high-profile side character with an as-yet-unrevealed backstory, and the group chooses a path that makes it a lot more difficult for them to be present at such a scene. Isn’t it tempting to shove them back in that direction, to make sure that they see this piece that you worked so hard on so they can marvel at the “Ah, now that makes sense!”ness of it?

Bad GM. No cookie.

You do realize where this is going, right? That way lie Mary Sues, and paragraphs of unnecessary exposition that cause readers of novels to throw them against the wall in frustration (do you really think this is any less off-putting in a game?), and worst of all from the GM’s standpoint railroading. If you’re going to do details just for the artistry, remember that knowing when to use them and when not to use them is artistic in and of itself, and that for some people, there is such thing as too much. (Tolerances vary; this is one of the reasons why Lord of the Rings, despite being generally considered a fantasy classic, is not for everyone.) If you really want to show off, find someone who’s interested in all the little details and regale them; everyone will be a lot happier that way.

The second is my personal favorite, and the style I usually work in. Since the details are in and of themselves a meta-story reward, the audience tends to seek them out once they know they’re out there: readers by going over the story again with a fine-tooth comb looking for allusions and teasing hints, gamers by asking questions and prying into things. That’s the good news: you know the audience is going to want to hit up the little details, because why else are they looking for them? The bad news is that it can be frustrating when people aren’t seeking out the details, or can’t find your favorites. There are a lot of reasons for this: Some don’t know the details are out there to find, some just can’t think of new directions in which to look for said directions, some are interested in the kinds of details you hadn’t thought of because you work better with a different kind or you just haven’t gotten there yet. All of them can lead to frustration, though. “Why aren’t they looking into this? I worked so hard on it.”

For someone who works in this style, it’s important to know the audience; know if they’re likely to look for details and if so what sorts of details they’re going to look into, figure out what their strengths and weaknesses are in the hunt (this, unfortunately, requires experimentation), and plan the detail-sprinkling from there. Most importantly, remember that what’s dead obvious to someone who knows the world isn’t going to be near as easy to pick up for someone who doesn’t. Their minds are not yours. (Yes, I have trouble with this. A lot.)

The third reason to create seemingly extraneous detail is for a better personal understanding of the world. This might be how a given character will react to a given event—particularly useful for the GM with the interaction-obsessed PC. Or it could be local traditions and their reasons, or odd habits of nearby creatures; an antagonist’s motivation, an ally’s talents, even what (if anything) that predator on the other side of the hill had for lunch. The idea behind it is just to understand how the detail shapes the world, and to be able to have the environment work with these details in as convincing a manner as possible. It doesn’t, however, have to revolve entirely around trivialities; it can lead to the entire world-feel.

Tomorrow, an example of this effect from a surprise author. Stay tuned!

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