The Little Details Make a Big Difference

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on January 4, 2011

One thing I learned from reading the works of the late, great Gary Gygax is that memorable encounters often include a lot of little details. These details aren’t necessarily important to the greater adventure, but are important to the scene. If you’ve ever read any of Gygax’s now-classic adventures like the Keep on the Borderlands, Tomb of Horrors or the Temple of Elemental Evil you know exactly what I’m talking about.

The danger of including these little details is that the players may place more importance and significance on them then you ever intended. How you choose to deal with that eventuality can make a huge difference to your game. In a game I recently DMed, adding a little detail almost changed the course of the entire adventure.

While trying to find a sheltered place to spend the night, the party discovered a group of orcs hiding in the ruins of an abandon tower in the mountains. Unwilling to share their hideout, the orcs attacked the party. The combat took over two hours of real time and significantly depleted the party’s resources. All in all, a great encounter.

While searching the bodies the party discovered that these orcs were in fact deserters from the nearby monstrous nation’s militia. They’d stolen a treasure-filled chest they were supposed to be delivering to an arms merchant. Instead they chose to steal the chest and use the treasure to begin a better life elsewhere. When the party searched the chest they found it filled with gold, silver, and a few personal items. But the detail that drew the most attention was a 500 year-old coin they found sewn into the jacket lining of one of the orcs.

Has this kind of thing happened in your game? You’ve set the scene, planted the bait and dangled it in front of the PCs, but when it come time to bite on the adventure hook they instead latch on to some inconsequential detail that you threw in at the last minute to give the scene more flavour. The 500 year-old coin could have just as easily been a 25 gp gem, and had it been, the party would have realized that this detail wasn’t important to the greater story. But because you took a minute to add something unusual, the players made it more important that it really was.

Some DMs hate it when this happens. All of that planning is suddenly in jeopardy. I expected the PCs would back-track the orc’s movements. They might see where the chest was supposed to be delivered or see where it was from in the first place. Perhaps one of the personal items inside the chest, or even the chest itself, is a clue to its background and ownership. But no, now the players are on a mission to learn more about this coin, why it was in the jacket lining, what it’s worth and where it’s from.

When I’m the DM I love it when the players jump on these little details. I may not have intended for this tidbit of flavour to be more than an attempt to change up the normal banality that accompanies describing the treasure, but if the players think it’s interesting then I’m all for following that train of thought. It means that I’m going to have to think quickly on my feet, but this kind of adventure often has the most lasting impression.

The real trick is to try and take the details and encounters you’d already created for the intended adventure and weave them back into the newly forming plot. Where the intended adventure had the PCs looking for the chest’s owner, now they’re looking for the coin’s owner. With a few very minor changes I can keep my original patron and just change the item of interest from sundry personal affects in the chest to a rare and extremely valuable coin.

By taking this kind of little detail and turning it into a significant part of the story the players get a tremendous sense of accomplishment. In the above example they even jokingly said “I wonder what would have happened if we hadn’t found that coin?” never realizing that the coin wasn’t intended to be anything special. Adding these little details to your game sparks the players’ imagination and when it does it’s your job as the DM to build on that. This is really just another aspect of the say yes philosophy that is so prevalent in 4e D&D.

So as you create new encounter for your game be sure to add those little details. They don’t always have to turn into something important or significant, but every once and a while if a player decides that one of the little details could be something big, I strongly encourage you to run with it. In the end you’ll realize that it’s the little details that make a big difference to your game.

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1 icecoldcelt January 4, 2011 at 12:03 pm

Sometimes the PCs go too far with details to easily rope them back in on the intended path.

This brings to my mind events from a campaign I was DMing. On one particular night at an up-scale(ish) inn one of the characters slept on an especially comfortable bed which happened to be stuffed with hair from a temple across the mountains. The PCs decided to abandon their quest to return to their home across the ocean in favor of a mountain crossing to visit this temple.

I made it interesting for the characters and rewarded their curiosity by dropping a few hints on the deeper adventure plot. Oh and the temple was a pilgrimage site for mages and intellectuals of this continent. Some PCs had their head shaved and gained a small intelligence bonus for a month.

Some details can go way in the wrong direction. They never made it home. TPK before the intelligence bonus wore off…

2 C'nor (Outermost_Toe) January 4, 2011 at 12:11 pm

Sounds cool. What would have happened if they hadn’t found the coin?

3 alton January 4, 2011 at 12:53 pm

Excellent article. I have been DMing for years, published adventures and the like and have recently(last 2 years) starting writing my own. I too, when DMing love when players take a small detail and change the way the adventure is played out.
The adventure in question, started with a little town. My players played things out well and with their roleplaying and their ideas, I was able to take what they were asking and develop a secret undermountain hideout, a well developped city and a port town that is now their base of operations for everything.
The players loved it!! The basic idea for the encounter was planned by me and with the small details thrown in by the players, a whole setting was planned out by the end of the adventure.
It is important for DMs to go with the flow. Improvising is the key to great success with your players at the table. Be ready to play or course, but if something goes awry, use it to spin something new and creative. As a DM you will enjoy this more and your players will certainly appreciate it a little more.
There is nothing I hate more than someone who railroads me into something I do not want to do.

4 gertrude January 4, 2011 at 12:57 pm

You did exactly as Gygax intended. Classic 1E AD&D was all about fiddling around with little details and letting the events evolve naturally from the players’ decisions. You mentioned Tomb of Horrors, a module that was impossible to complete unless you took time to consider and negotiate even the smallest detail.

The 1E DM was supposed to have a very well-defined world for PCs to run amok in, and interesting NPCs to engage. It was 2E that encouraged DMs to be much more structured and linear in their game design, in keeping with the ‘GM as Storyteller’ gaming paradigm of the early to mid 1990s.

5 gertrude January 4, 2011 at 1:09 pm

One thing I will add to this topic:

It is extremely important to take detailed notes once the game drifts into improvisation. This is where games often fall apart, because the DM working off-the-cuff may loose track of his game.

Imagine if the PCs said they wanted to take the coin to a sage, a historian or a collector. Of course, you haven’t planned or designed such a character, but you can’t appear to be making it up as you go along. So you toss out a name and you situate his shop in a part of the city. You need to be able to recall all that information on the fly if the players ever decide to return to that person. Worse still is when the DM forgets the name of the improvised NPC in the middle of the role-play.

DM: The Sage Callibos stares intently at the coin, the sides of his lips curl up excitedly as…

Player: I thought you said the sage’s name was Calliton?

DM: ahem.. oh yes… Calliton.

Player: I think this sage is lying to us. I draw my blade (as PC) “What’s you’re deal Calliton? Who are you really!?”

6 Liam Gallagher January 4, 2011 at 1:31 pm

Among other things, worlds are connected places. Ways of life, news, people and objects make their way around the world in their own time and there’s no reason why your D&D world should be any different.

If your players decide to go to Town A instead of Town B, there will still be all of the above mentioned things in town A that came from town B that you can have your players notice. Perhaps the guy who is selling arrows to the ranger was born in Town B and is worried about the goblin/orge/dragon infestation taking place there. Elaborate as you see fit…

With a good allowance for player driven story you can still give all the same information to the party and progress the story nearly as planned.

7 Ameron January 5, 2011 at 9:29 am

I know that players will often do the unexpected but you’re right that sometimes the littlest detail turn the game on its head. In those instances I say go with it and enjoy the ride. Trying to force things back to where you wanted them to go is likely to cause bigger problems.

“TPK before the intelligence bonus wore off…” Oh man, did that make me laugh.

@C’nor (Outermost_Toe)
If they hadn’t found the coin they would have found some interesting correspondence included in the non-coin treasures inside the chest. There was enough in there to bait them into investigating. Worse case scenario someone else would have followed the orcs trail, found the PCs with the treasure chest, accused them of ambushing the orcs (not realizing that the orcs had deserted), and now the PCs are REALLY involved.

The danger of letting the little details drive the game too much too often is that things can keep getting more and more off track. I like adding these little details and I encourage DMs to indeed go with the flow, but sometimes you have to just come out and say “this is nothing more than dressing, move on.” I don’t like to say it very often, but I have said it on occasion when things really go off the rails.

I’ve flubbed the names more often than I can remember when ad libbing. Never to the extent that you’ve described, but certainly to the point where the players realized that I’m trying to fly by the seat of my pants. Having a few points ready for this kind of eventuality (like a list of NPC names) is the mark of a great DM.

@Liam Gallagher
You’re exactly right. If the players were supposed to go to Town A but got sidetracked to Town B because that’s where they knew a sage specializing in rare coins resides then it’s up to the DM to just move things. If an encounter was going to work in Town A it will likely work just as effectively in Town B. You may have to tweak things, but you shouldn’t have to start fresh.

8 Soklemon January 5, 2011 at 9:49 am

Great article!
New Years resolution- to accept when players jump on these details, instead of pushing them aside.

9 Jeff Solomon January 7, 2011 at 12:08 am

Aw some, i love it. So after the adventure ends, do you tell them the truth or do you keep that stuff to yourself?

10 Thomas Keene January 7, 2011 at 3:19 pm

Keep it to yourself. Don’t brag or say how hard it is to be a GM.

11 Darrkrose January 11, 2011 at 10:36 pm

i’m starting up a campaign thats post apocoliptic nucler winter… in an ice age. surival is big and as DM i emphasize that alot but in the stomach of a white dragon our alchemist found a large black scale and a psuadodragon skull… i set them up to not match intentionaly tring to show the white dragons varity of dietary supplement but the alchemist figured it was a polymorphed black dragon and the spell went wrong and it ended up half and half.
i cant tell him no it isnt becase my char is a psonic paly and has no arcane knowledge and i dont encourage metagaming… do i go with the flow or do i bring out the leash for the party? send any ideas to please thanks

12 James S November 6, 2011 at 11:06 am

Hee hee – one of my mates decided to have a go at DMing, and so I (the usual DM) and another friend (who also DMs) agreed to do a practice session as players so he could try a few things out before being let loose on the rest of the group. We promised to be nice to him!

Anyway, he made everything up from scratch – kudos! We started out in a prison cell, with this really old man sat with us. The DM’s description evoked pictures of Disney’s Aladin to me and to my colleague. We spent the next hour trying to figure out what this old man was there for, how he could help us, where the treasure was etc. Finally the DM declared the old man was so old that he died. Apparently he was just fluff and we were wasting time!

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