If you’ve ever read Tolkien’s work, you’re probably familiar with the old complaint that he’ll spend half a page on how green the grass is, or provide the history for a dozen generations of trees as the Fellowship walks past them on the road. A lot of game masters will attempt to duplicate that style and feeling, believing it will make their games more immersive.
I can tell you this right now… it won’t.
All you’re going to do is run out of breath describing the scene, and annoy your players who wish they had a “skip text” button so they could actually get to the game play.
Quality Versus Quantity in Background Detail
Brevity is the soul of wit, according to E. E. Cummings. If you’re looking for a writer to emulate as a game master, you’d get far more out of following that example.
When you’re describing a scenario, you want to convey what’s going on clearly without bogging your table down in unnecessary details or making it feel like a lecture. You want to give them the main thrust, and then hand the reins back over to them so they can start making decisions.
Examples work best, so I’ll provide a snippet to let you see what I’m talking about.
The Raven’s Roost is crowded this evening. Wine and spirits are flowing, the fire is roaring, and the band onstage is leading a raucous chorus in full throat. Everyone seems to be trying to forget their own troubles, but there’s a tension in the air. Something that could easily erupt if someone asked the wrong question.
From this short description we know the party has just walked into a tavern. We know there’s a big crowd, and that the tavern has a house band that’s playing. Things are boisterous, but there’s a feeling of tension just below the surface. Whether the party understands why would depend on the events leading up to that point.
You could add more detail to this little opener if you wanted to. You could talk about how servers are scrambling to keep up with orders, or mention how there seems to be card games going on against the back wall. You could mention the hulking bouncer leaning against the far end of the bar, or the smells of mutton and spiced stew filling the air… but at what point does it just become too much?
Ask What It Adds To The Scene
An easy way to decide what should go in and what shouldn’t is to ask yourself what a particular detail adds to the scene. For example, if a location is lit only by flickering candlelight, or is in pitch darkness, it’s worth mentioning that (and probably filling in details of sound, smell, etc. for the characters who don’t have darkvision). If there’s an immediate threat, like a snarling bugbear, or a pack of goblins rushing toward them, that’s something else that should get mentioned.
Most details don’t actually add to the scene. Capture the character of the place by mentioning the rough wood of the tavern’s bar and the stained tables; no need to lay out every bit of melted wax and knife groove. In much the same way, if your party is moving through a densely packed, old growth forest, you don’t have to mention every type of tree, bush, vine, and spring they’re passing; you get far more out of focusing on how dense, how old, and how quiet everything is.When it comes to needless detail, the biggest sin I see game masters commit is giving exact counts or measurements. Telling your players that a room is fifty feet by thirty feet is not going to give them a better visualization of what they’re looking at. Describing how many cavalry, line troops, etc. are in an opposing army does nothing to make it seem more intimidating. If anything, specific measurements reduce what could have been a vivid description to a boring list of numbers. It’s already hard enough to stop an RPG from devolving into lists of numbers, so don’t start tearing holes in the story and letting the math behind the scenes take center stage.