IcebergTitanic had a question that will hopefully end more successfully than his handle’s history.

Similar to the questions on Metagaming, I would like to see an article on how a GM can give hints and clues for a story without the players immediately leaping upon it. You know, the old “if the GM mentioned it, it must be important!”

Example: The PC’s are meeting an important dignitary for dinner, and the noble goes, “Ouch!” as he apparently gets a nasty splinter from his chair. The PC’s immediately all jump up, start casting spells to locate bad guys, cast anti-poison in the NPC, etc, etc.

Is the answer to just litter your game with inconsequential incidents for NPCs? Is it to make them roll to have noticed the NPC getting the “splinter”?

Long story short, Iceberg–what you’re hoping for is actually difficult to accomplish.

Your suggestion–littering your game with inconsequential incidents for NPCs–strikes at the heart of the matter. The first solution to the problem is to litter your game with incidental details. What do I mean? Well, here are a few quick examples:

“The corridor continues straight for thirty feet, opening on a (GM draws a room) room 30′ wide by 20′ long. Three orcs stand, brandish their axes, and… roll for initiative!”
“The wainscotting continues down the corridor, a polished oak that must keep his staff endlessly busy with dusting. Ahead, the corridor passes through a rounded oak arch sculpted with angels and demons. You hear guttural voices suddenly still in the room ahead, and hear the scrape of furniture being pushed back. From Jayen’s angle, she sees two thickly muscled figures wrapped in grimy finery standing and raising battle axes from the floor…

Those could both be descriptions of the same developing scene. I know that I can get lazy when describing things, particularly when I’m looking forward to the next fun combat. Still, if you’re looking to include subtle surprises, you need to add a layer of subtlety to your game on a continuous basis. Otherwise, every detail that’s described is important, so of course your players are going to react to it–it’s important! In fact, if you want to subtly direct more attention to things, you should follow John’s advice in Defining Importance: Making sure the things you want to be remembered about your game are. (In fact, my article is just the complement to his key tip: Present the things you want to be remembered in a way that makes them stand out from the rest of the events going on.)

It does take more time to describe things in more detail, or to describe incidental events–but it’s less additional time than you think. For most traditional games, combats take something like 30 to 120 minutes. If you cut one round of one combat, you’ve probably saved enough time to add dozens of conversational asides and world-deepening (but plot inconsequential) flavor.

Switching modes (from “sufficient” to “verbose”) is better handled steadily, over time, than in an overwhelming blitz. If you suddenly take five sentences to describe a room that previously took one, you’ll overload your players–and probably struggle to come up with that much material consistently. Instead, slowly add more conversational asides, have NPCs talk about the weather, describe a few more terrain features. When more of those features are revealed to be interesting but not plot arrows, your players will come to appreciate the more detailed world… and never notice that you can slide in subtle hints more easily without raising red flags.

Here are some easily implemented flavor ideas to get you started:

  • Have someone praise a PC’s clothing, armor, or weapon.
  • Describe the texture of the wall in the next room.
  • Have someone ramble on about a missing sheep within earshot of the PCs. Have another NPC sigh tiredly, and mutter, “She’s always on about her sheep” to a PC.
  • Introduce a strong smell: sewage, oleanders in bloom, or ammonia.
  • Ask a PC where they learned [something]–then have their asker interrupt with his own story about learning smithing from old Davard.
  • Have an NPC complain that everything is going wrong; life was better when they were a child.

It’s not foolproof, but that’s the path I’d take to chivvy players away from reacting to every burp and bush flowering out of season as a plot hook.

Two Kinds of Comments

There are two things that I’d love to hear. First: If you have a different solution to IcebergTitanic’s problem, please share your approach. If there’s a fast, easy path, I wouldn’t mind adding that to my quiver of options. Second: My list of flavor ideas was pretty short. More bits of scenery that are easy to work into a game and conversations that add depth, but don’t point to a plot, would be handy to have ready the next time a GM wants a more detailed game-world.