I have such a love/hate relationship with details as a GM. Adding details to your game is like cooking with a powerful spice. If you add too little it is a waste, and if you add too much it overpowers the dish. You need to get the amount of the spice right for not just the dish as a whole, but for every single bite.
It gets even worse though, because you have to get the amount of spice right for every single bite for different people with different tastes and expectations. How do you manage to satisy every diner’s unique palette?
A cooking tip that I picked up years ago was to “Let the diner decide.”, which means that you prepare the dish and put the component with the spices on the side. The person eating the meal then decides just how much spice he wants in each bite, and this works very well as long as the cook explains how her dish is meant to be eaten (i.e. — telling the diner “It is recommend that you taste a small sample of the sauce before adding it to your meal.”).
Guess what? You can do the exact same thing when GMing!
Prepare your scenes with the minimal amount of detail needed for you to launch the scene with. Not the minimal amount of details that you need to feel comfortable with, because that will lead to either under or over preparing. Just add enough details to get the scene rolling with (I suggest one to set the mood with and one for each of the five senses), and then tell the players:
“I have not shared all of the details with you in order to keep the game moving along. If you need more details in order to decide on an action please ask for them from me as the need arises.”
Giving the players this information is critical to applying this advice to your game! Skip that step of requesting questions and this tactic will not work. You have been warned.
Now when the players ask for those details do not respond with “Why do you need to know that?” Not only does it negate the instruction you gave that the players should ask for details as the need arises, but it creates tension between you and the players. Your response should be either to provide the details that were requested by the player, or to ask “I do not understand what details you are asking for. Would you please describe what it is that you want your character to attempt or learn in this scene?”
These two responses will empower both you and the players without challenging anyone directly. The players will be given either an answer or an opportunity to rephrase their inquiry, and you will be retaining control of the setting without negating player input. It is a win-win scenario.
The final phase of this tactic is to actually provide the details without adding too little or too much. All you need to do is give the player some rough ideas and let his imagination fill in the rest, and then ask if he needs more information or if he is ready to have his character take some sort of action. Get a read off of the player, and think of what he has had his character do in the past. Make up details on the spot that will provoke this particular player to commit to his character taking an action.
There is also the “cutoff” response of “There is nothing else of significance that I can think of to share with you.” Use this with caution though, and I suggest that it only be used when a player is holding up the game with too many questions. This is another reason to ask for the player to describe what it is that she wants her character to accomplish, because it allows you as a GM to keep the game moving along.
This tactic works because you are allowing each player to get the right amount of detail that he needs for his character to take action at that moment. The level of detail is right for that player with each “bite” of the game. You avoid reading text that the players will be bored by, as well as prepping details that never actually come into play. You do have to use your improvisation skills, but because you started with just enough details to launch the scene with and are asking for the players input you have a good amount of material to build upon. The tactic is designed so that the improvising part is easy for the GM to do.
What about your experiences as a GM and creating scenarios with just the right amount of detail? How do you ensure that enough detail is present but not overwhelming? Leave a comment below and let the rest of us know how you handle the creation of details for your game!