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Simplicity vs. Detail

©2008 - Randal Snyder

A common trend in Role Playing Games is to give as much detail as possible. While this is extremely helpful for a busy GM who simply doesn't have the time or ability to flesh out every minute detail about a situation, details can get in the way of the story.

The details I am referring to are not story driven or based on plots, instead I am talking about how a nameless thug might have thirty different items, a physical description, history, and detailed personalities that rivals anything the players have written for their own characters. Likewise I am talking about each room of a building, complete with descriptions, purposes, and items. In most cases, these details are lost on the players who may not even be interested in this "fluff". Likewise it can slow down the game to the point that no one is interested in playing or is simply overwhelmed by the amount of information.

Likewise, having to come up with these details is time consuming, particularly if you have several villains or rooms to fill. And if you stop the game in the middle of a session to try and flesh out these details, it can kill an otherwise great session.

On the other hand, being overly simplistic with details makes everything seem bland and flavorless. What should be a climactic ending becomes uninteresting. But on the other hand it can seriously increase the speed of play. For example, if you present a group of thugs as simply faceless opponents that are nothing more than mirror images of the next guy, there is no personality to relate to.

As a Game Master, your job is to find a balance between detailed descriptions to help paint the mental picture of the scene and keeping things fun and engaging. To do this, you need to observe your players. How much detail do they list on their character sheets? If there is a lot of information on the sheet, then detail is important to the players. Otherwise if the sheet is mostly blank then they donít care about details.

Ultimately there are pros and cons to being too detailed or too simplistic. One tactic I use is the ďillusionĒ of detail. I treat each NPC as a container that can hold things, but the players have no idea what those things are and neither do I. But my players donít know that.

There are obvious things that need to be described. For example, a goblin carrying a spear is pretty hard to miss. Itís not like the spear just appears out of nowhere. But did they know about his dagger, or the magic pendant? Not likely.


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