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.