Making Use of Detail
First published 7/19/2001; last edited 1/7/2005
We use detail all the time as game masters (GMs) - to convey the sense of a world or scene, and to give vital information to the party. Without detail the party doesn't know what they can or can't do. They don't know what they're going up against.
Detail can sometimes be problematic, though. How much detail should you go into? What if some of your details contradict each other? What if you leave out something important?
If you go into too much detail your players might not remember it all. If you go into too little detail they won't have a good sense of what's going on and what they can or can't do. Either one can result in frustration. If you're inconsistent about how much detail you go into, then you might give away too much information simply by detailing a scene. How many of you have had the experience of listening to a GM launch into a big long description, and knowing just because of the length of the description that something very important was happening?
Use bold strokes of detail
Instead of detailing lots of small things, concentrate mainly on the bold, meaningful details. Pick details that really say something about the situation. Make sure your details are doing their work, in other words - if a detail doesn't somehow further the party's understanding of a situation, then get rid of it. It isn't necessary.
Try an exercise that most writing teachers put their students through eventually: write a description of a scene, and then go through it crossing out all of the unnecessary words. Cross out anything that's redundant with other details. Cross out anything that's strongly implied by other details. Cross out any detail that doesn't have something meaningful or useful to say about the scene. One way to really make the point to yourself the first time you do the exercise is to cross out every word that doesn't pull full weight, including words like a, and, the. Not that you want to do this when describing a room in a roleplaying game, of course! But as an exercise it helps to force you to uncover which of your words are useful and meaningful by not allowing them to hide in a forest of other words.
Use representative details
Try to pick details that imply other details. Pick details that say a lot about a scene in a few words. Sometimes this depends on knowing your players well. For instance, you might know that all you have to do is throw in a single detail about a mis-matched paint job on a wall when describing a room in order to get them to search desperately for an entrance to a secret passage. You can describe a room as "sparse" or "ascetic" and in one word you've conveyed the idea that there isn't much furniture, there aren't many pictures on the wall, and there aren't a whole lot of creature comforts to be found there.
If you're running a game set in a modern world this is all much easier. All you have to do is say that there's a computer on a desk, and you've implied a world of detail. Your party will assume that there's a monitor. They'll probably assume a disk drive of some sort, and an input device of the keyboard and/or mouse variety. There's no need to describe all of that, because you can imply it with one larger, all-encompassing detail.
If you're preparing for a night of gaming and you know you're going to take the party to a new location (or introduce them to a new non-player character), make a note of the representative details in bullet-list form. They lend themselves easily to that style, and it'll help to force you to keep things simple. When you describe the room to the players during the game, start with those items and perhaps embellish a little - if you've successfully picked representative details then they should imply plenty of other details that you can use.
Another advantage to picking out your representative details ahead of time is that they encourage consistency. Without having to go back through an entire page of description you can pretty much recreate what a room looks like. Just like your party, you can get a lot of information about a room out of those few details.
Balancing this with the need for concrete details
The only problem with the use of representative details is that they might encourage a lack of concrete, physical details, and it's the concrete details that really make a world come alive. Any time that you find yourself picking a representative detail that is an abstract concept, come up with one concrete detail that represents that abstract concept.
For instance if you wrote "sparse" down on your list, then you might describe the room as sparse and go on to note that the only piece of furniture is a mattress on the floor.
If you're confident in the ability of your concrete detail to convey the abstract concept, then you might leave the abstract concept out of the description altogether. You might want to wait until you have a little experience, however, and can be more certain that you know what your players will assume from the details you give them.
Details that are out of place
Another way to say a lot in a few words is to mention details that are out of place. If you have a strong, consistent idea of what a place is like, and you communicate it well, then it should be fairly obvious when a detail is out of place. For instance, that ascetic room of yours might have a luxurious, thick, leather-covered chair in the corner - that should catch the party's attention.
Use it often!
Assigning a few representative details to a place or person is much faster than writing out a paragraph of detail, particularly once you have some practice at it. It also isn't as much for your players to sit through, so they aren't as likely to get bored by it or to forget details. Because of this you can afford to detail more items, places and people. Every time the party visits someone, slip in a physical detail somehow, even if it's something as simple as the person looking a little tired or having a bruise. Details make a world come alive!
Most of these suggestions can be applied to descriptions of people, places, items - anything you care to apply them to. If you're consistent about picking a few strong, representative details to describe each place and person, your players will have an easier time visualizing their characters' surroundings. There will be less confusion. You won't have such a stark contrast between things you detail and things you don't - so you won't give away quite so much simply by what you choose to detail. Your game world will seem more real to your players.
I hope you find this useful!