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too much information?

Started by Jack Spencer Jr, March 09, 2003, 12:31:46 AM

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Jack Spencer Jr

This is an extension of the Is meaningless detail really meaningless?
thread and sort of where I'm going with my own thoughts on RPG theory. I'll try to explain.

First of all, RPGs are really, really new. 30 years since they were published proper with the first edition of D&D. That's really not a very long time for an art form. Painting, sculpture, theatre, music have had centuries of artists and critics to get them to their present state. RPGs have a lot of growing to do yet. This doesn't bother me so much. If our RPG theory remains unchanged or unchallenged after 100 years, I'll be disappointed with the next couple generations of roleplayers, wouldn't you be?

So we are dealing with an art form that is still basically in its infancy. Keeping this in mind, I am hypothising a great deal about the nature of roleplaying culture. The main thing I am assuming is that most roleplayers have no idea what they're doing. That is, they don't know A) what they're trying to do and B) how to do it.

This bit is going to create some heat, I suspect. I am not talking about everyone here. GNS and related theories is at least an attempt to understand. This is a good thing.

This lack of knowing what to do and how to do it is pretty evident in Original D&D where, for example, the Attributes had little effect on gameplay. They offered a couple bonuses, but it wasn't until the first suppliment, Greyhawk, that some standard bonuses came into play, like the bonus/penalty to hit from Strength or the bonus/penalty to Armor Class from Dexterity. It is very much like the authors understood that a character could be numerically rated for various abilities: Strength, Dexterity, etc.; but had no idea of how to apply it. At least until later and later editions of D&D refined these core ideas with each edition.

Now, this uncertainty of "doing it right", for lack of a better way to express it, can be seen most often in what I would call unnecessary detail. By this I mean that there is an art to it, as there is an art to most things.

Here's Ted. He is average height and weight. with sandy blond hair parted on the side and an uneven goatee because he is unskilled at keeping it trimmed properly


Here's Ted. He is 5'7", approximately 200 lbs. He has sandy blond hair cut short and parted on the left side. He wears a sandy blond goatee which is uneven because he cannot keep it properly trimmed. He is wearing a Ghost in the Shell t-shirt, faded blue jeans, and sneakers.

OK, herein lies the art. Obviously, I am trying to demonstate the difference between enough and too much information and very valid arguements could be made for either one or the other example as being "just right" r if somewhere in between would be better. That is, the second example does go over the line with the height & weight (BTW I guessed at what "average" ht & wt would be) but it could be argued that the information on what he was wearing is important to the image of Ted. But is it really? True enough that saying that he's wearing a Ghost in the Shell t-shirt is the only way to be certain of what sort of shirt he's wearing. But was it necessary to imagine the style of dress Ted was wearing? I'm going to go out on a limb and say probably not because his goatee was described as being uneven. This had put into the mind of the reader the idea of someone with fairly sloppy appearance. It is not unreasonable that many people imagined a t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers. They may not've but without direct information, they only have an idea of what Ted is wearing.

Stange as it seems to me, this was described in the movie Dogma, the difference between beliefs and ideas. Ideas are great because they can change. Beliefs are a little more difficult to alter. The first example says Ted parts his hair on the side but it doesn't say which side. The reader then has an idea, an image of a hairstyle. If their idea is hair parted on the right and later parted on the left, this change change quickly in the reader's mind because it's just an idea. The second example state clearly that his hair is parted on the left so to switch to the other side is inconsistency.

But inconsistency on which side a person parts their hair is not as important the time it takes to impart this information. Granted, in this instance we're talking about one word but it is one unnecessary word, as is the statement that his hair is short. This all has to do with people's ability fill in the blanks. When reading, we do not read every single word on the page. Rather we read a word and anticipate the next word. If you don't believe me, go back and notice where I left out the "to" and be truthful with yourself if you didn't catch it. Likewise when receiving a description of a person, we anticipate many, many things. We do not need to be told that Ted's hair is short because the cultural default for men's hair is to be cut short. It is wasn't short, we can assume we would be told so. The poorly trimmed beard infers a sort of personal appearance and style of dress. these are all things the mind does automatically to fill in the blanks.

I have only read a couple books on writing but the ones I have read warn heavily against overdoing description, pretty much for all of the reasons given above.

This ties back into RPGs because many roleplayers don't quite understand what they're doing or even trying to do and, as such, overcompensate. I don't think this is a GNS matter, but it can be misconstrued as such. It is amazing how defensive people can get about such things as if someone is attacking their personal play preference. But I'm not talking about play preference so much as making what you do during play count and so unnecessary information doesn't get piled on.

PIXAR animation studios has a great term for this: "Sanding the underside of the drawers." It means doing unnecessary work on unseen or unnoticed items in one of their productions. Things like the scream board in Monsters Inc. They actually spent a lot of time figuring out how much scream would be produced, how much Sully should have because he was close to the scare record. All of that. They weren't just randomly arrived at numbers. They spent time figuring out exactly how much should be on the board. Sanding the underside of the drawers.

This is a YMMV issue, of course, knowing how much is too much. There is an art to it. For some groups, "seedy bar" will suffice. others will require more detail like what furniture is present, descriptions of some of the patrons, sounds, smells, lighting, fixtures, decor, etc. The art lies in knowing when "seedy bar" is all you need or when more is necessary and trusting the power of ideas to fill in the blanks.

At this point I'm rambling, I think, or that my point has been made in any case. Pity. I had a nice Chess example all set, but it seems redundant now.



I'm not quite sure where you want others to jump in here.  Granted that there must be some range of legitimate description levels, and that in every game or genre there is some point which would amount to sanding the underside of drawers, what's the question?  How to identify the latter?

This really depends an awful lot on the particular game and its goals, as you know.  How much is too much?  It depends.  If you're running a Sherlock Holmes game (somehow), really detailed description is going to matter a great deal.  You have to be able to size up any person you meet in great detail, and to do that you have to have a lot of detail to work with.  If you're running a classic pulp game, a lot of description may not be necessary at all.

I think you've got some interesting points, but I'm not sure what it is you want to discuss from this point on.
Chris Lehrich

Jack Spencer Jr


I don't think I had a question, really, but I was making a series of statements for people to either argee or disagree with or to otherwise discuss. So discuss what you want and daughter threads are always a great gift idea.

For example, I do not think that a mystery game would require that much more detail.


Actually, I'm going to stop there because I've noticed a couple things about where that line of conversation would be going and had a revelation of sorts.

Picking apart the Sherlock Holmes thing was going to go nowhere fast because we wouldn't be talking about a specific game and it would be mostly a matter of playing style preference when it was all said and done. So that wouldn't get us anywhere.

But my revelation has to do with the nature of this too much information thing I'm talking about because i realized an interesting parallel, namely the fairly recent thread on PBM games.

In that thread I noted that many play-by-mail or play-by-email games work to overcome the fact that they are played via mail rather than using that to their advantage. This whole too much information (TMI) thing is also, in my mind, a form of fighjting an unhill battle to overcome something rather than using it to an advantage.

Quite a few of the TMI's I had encountered are trying to be,...for lack of a better way to describe it-- EverQuest. That is, a kind of virtual environment that the players can run around in.. or maybe it's not even that but what the players who do this would really like is to just be able to show a picture, or build the scene on the tabletop using miniatures or something similar. In any case, trying like mad to make sure that the exact same visual image is in everyone's head. Whatever such person's style preference it strikes me that they're treating radio like television, if you follow me, and here is where I see a problem.


Couple points come to mind here.

1. Radio vs. television.  I quite like this analogy.  If what you mean by "too much detail" is the attempt to provide a complete visual image in a radio-play, then I totally agree -- that is too much.  But I also think that classic radio drama has lots of tricks which are underutilized in RPGs that create visual-like effects.  Sound effects are one obvious thing here, and would be somewhat difficult to achieve without a lot of mechanics.  Another thing, though, is deliberate and conscious manipulation of the lack of vision.  

The Shadow is a great example: it's impossible without pretty advanced tech to do the Shadow on film, but on radio it's a walk in the park.  Everything is conjured by atmosphere, leaning on the fact that the audience cannot see and creating an analogy to the characters.  If you've ever listened to the old Shadow radio plays, you remember this classic exchange:

Shadow: Heh heh heh.
Johnson: Who's there?  Who's that?
S: It's the Shadow, Johnson.
J: Where are you?  I - I didn't hear the door open.
S: You never see the Shadow, Johnson.  Heh heh.
J: Wh - wh- what do you want? [sound of gulping a drink]
S: I know you killed old man Withers, Johnson.
J: Yeah?  Well, I was right here!  I was!
S: Heh heh heh.  The Shadow saw you pull the trigger, Johnson.
J: No!  You didn't see me!  You couldn't have!  There wasn't anybody there!
S: The Shadow saw you.  The Shadow knows.... heh heh heh.

Notice that there's minimal description here.  We know very little, and we have to imagine the terror of this disembodied voice.

2. When I referred to Sherlock Holmes, I was talking about those stories in particular, not all mysteries.  Holmes works by having a vast amount of minutia, and he draws conclusions on that basis.  Unless you as GM provide the kind of detail he has, or the players pepper you with questions about cuffs and pants and shoes and whatnot, either they have to make it up (in which case they're constructing the clues, not deciphering them) or you can't run a Holmes game.  And I think really providing enough detail is pretty much impossible.  Note that Doyle doesn't give this detail: Holmes tells us the facts (edited to the meaningful details), but Watson (as narrator) does not.  Again, no Holmes film or TV program ever goes into all this detail, because to make it work either you'd have to assume that the viewers are as smart as Holmes, or you'd have to slow down every single shot into a series of compacted details.  In an RPG, this would be deadly.  But debating the Sherlock Holmes RPG is a subject for another thread.
Chris Lehrich

M. J. Young

I don't know, Jack. I find myself agreeing in the concept and disagreeing in the particulars.

As soon as you said it was an uneven goatee, I immediately conjured an image of a 1950s beatnik; I'm old enough to remember them, I guess, at least as being major characters in reruns of shows when I was a kid. In fact, when anyone says that someone has a goatee now, I immediatly think of it as being something like a "neo-goatee", an imitation of the style of that era. Now, I'm nearly clueless regarding who Ghost in the Shell is, but I do know it's not a 50's era jazz combo, and that means your character just shifted several decades, probably got a lot younger, too, at least in feeling--it may be peculiar, but I think of someone who was about 20 in the fifties as being older than someone who is about 20 in the nineties, even if we're talking about the time when they were about 20, because one is older and the other younger than I.

Also, I know you just made a stab at height and weight, but to me that sounds like short and fat. But hey, I was 6' 135# when I was 20, and I think most people think of themselves as "average" unless they're really pretty far from the median. Here perhaps you've got to ask some questions. Is it going to matter at all that this guy is shorter and heavier than I might imagine--or indeed, taller and lighter than someone else might imagine? And here you've got something that's really about style and color, I think. After all, there's a big difference between trying to give me your image of this character and trying to have me conjure an image that has a specific flavor in my mind. We all know what Harry Potter looks like objectively; the description in the book was sufficient even without the drawings on the covers, and the actor who plays the role looks enough like that to carry it. But I would wager that subjectively Harry Potter looks very different to my now eleven-year-old who's been reading the books for at least two years. Harry is, to him, an older kid; to me, Harry is about the age of one of my younger sons (in fact, Evan is close to the right age and has the right look). That means that the description of Harry Potter has conveyed the same objective information but different subjective information to different readers.

It's the same with your descriptions. Telling me that someone is "average height and weight" allows me to create an objective image in my mind that has the subjective feeling to me of "average height and weight". That's probably 5' 10" and 170#. To someone else, it's going to be 5' 7" 200#, and others will have different values. If what matters to you is that each of us have the same feeling about the character, you want to give us that feeling and let us create the objective details. If the objective details are going to matter, you need to state them.

In any event, you need to state something somewhere. One of the problems I had with the first draft of my novel was that I didn't describe the main characters well until they were able to look at each other toward the end of the book. One of my draft readers was absolutely shocked. The character described was a complete stranger to her--wrong hair, wrong build, wrong eyes, everything wrong. I had to go back and find ways to convey a specific character description earlier in the story, so that people would have the same image, within the parameters necessary for telling the story. In fact, I've got a bit of a problem with the continuing books because I've brought supporting characters back from the first book whom I did not expect would be part of later stories, and although I've got a clear image in my own mind regarding their appearance, I can't use it--my readers will remember these people from the first book, and will call up the images they've used for them already, and if I change that image I'm going to jar their realities.

It's not so easy to decide where the line is; certainly you need to describe things well enough that the audience has an image that serves the purpose. At the same time, you also have to remember that what serves the purpose for you might not do so for them. If I say that a character looks like a Norse god, do you automatically give him blonde hair? Some would go for red. Now, if it's more important to me that you see "character looks like Norse god" then I'm not going to mess with your view of the hair, because it might just be that a blonde god doesn't work for you. On the other hand, if blonde hair is likely to be mentioned, I'm going to have to mention it now, before you form a conflicting image of some red-head who doesn't work for me at all.

Having said all of that, I'm constantly saying that settings need to contain exactly what they need, and no more. I've done entire worlds in six page, when that was all it needed. I've filled an entire file cabinet drawer with material on a world, because the detail became increasingly important as play continued. Most of them come out to between a dozen and a score of pages, and that's usually enough. So I'm probably in the "light detail setting" camp overall. I figure if I can get across enough information for someone else to run it, I've done my job. There are some things that are nice to have, maybe important--stats on major characters, for instance--but you can't provide everything and you shouldn't try to do so.

Aside: Chris, the Sherlock Holmes thing is an important point, I think. Yet you really can't set up such a world and have the players "be Holmes", because they can't have the knowledge base. Maybe there are three ways to do it:[list=1][*]Set up Encyclopedia Brown or Ellery Queen type mysteries in which the secret to solving the mystery is to identify the false information (such as the guy whose phone number begins with Q).[*]Create mysteries in which the evidence is all very specifically within the players' areas of expertise, so that they can recognize the significance of clues. There was a short-lived series called Pulaski: The TV Detective that sort of illustrates this. The central character was a debaucherous drunk actor who played a Catholic priest from Chicago who solved mysteries in a popular television series, and viewers were always confusing the actor for the character and so getting him involved in real mysteries--which he generally solved because of what he knew about the entertainment industry (such as when he realized that the "girl" who was leading them to the place where they would find the answer suddenly "stepped out of character" and wasn't a girl at all).[*]Set it up so that when the player characters examine the scene properly, they will be given the clues Holmes would notice and the information base which would make this significant.[/list:o]Unfortunately, one of the other problems is for all his raving about deductive reasoning, most of his solutions are inductive: he does not actually reason from the facts to the answer, but provides the outside information which can make sense of the facts. Still, the idea of doing a Holmes game is popular, and exploring solutions should get some ideas.

--M. J. Young



These days, Holmes's reasoning is considered abductive, in the Peircean sense thereof.  If you'd like to debate this, let's take it to another thread.  I think it's not relevant to the current thread about detail per se, on which you have posted eloquently.
Chris Lehrich

Jack Spencer Jr

Quote from: M. J. YoungOn the other hand, if blonde hair is likely to be mentioned, I'm going to have to mention it now, before you form a conflicting image of some red-head who doesn't work for me at all
Interesting. I found myself composing a reply but I realized that my point was going toward something better illustrated this way.

This quote illustrates the big "why" for the TMI the fear of, or just vigilance against contridiction. I mean lord knows they if someone images red hair instead of blond the game will come to a screeching halt and everyone will go home dissatisfied and refuse to play ever again.

I'm poking fun at the example here, not MJ personally.

Actually MJ and I have been over this idea of consistency and contridiction not being a necessary element of play in an old thread where I likened it to feedback in rock music.

I see the patern for TMI emerging like this: the GM preps the norse god character. He doesn't care what color the god's hair is, but he figures that it might be important so he decides on it out of fear of contridiction. As he GMs for a while, he starts preping and tracking such detail with confidence because it works. This goes back to my opening of not knowing what their doing or how to do it. Sure it works. Someone asks what color the god's hair is and the GM tells him. No problem. My beef is that it's more or less wasted effort.

"..the blond god..."



"I pictured him with red hair."

"Strawberry blond then?"

"No, blond works. Let's keep going."

For the life of me I can't see why this sort of editing can't work just as well. In fact, it probably does, especially for such trivial details as hair color, but probably also for more important details.


Quote from: Jack Spencer Jr
This quote illustrates the big "why" for the TMI the fear of, or just vigilance against contridiction. I mean lord knows they if someone images red hair instead of blond the game will come to a screeching halt and everyone will go home dissatisfied and refuse to play ever again.

I think its a good example, and in fact a common one.  After it, it is THE common danger of turning books into film, as I mentioned not so long ago.

For the life of me I can't see why this sort of editing can't work just as well. In fact, it probably does, especially for such trivial details as hair color, but probably also for more important details.

Because it grossly undermines the credibility and value of the piece.  The author looks as if they don't know what they are doing or as if just plain lazy.  It is a continuity ERROR.  IMO.
Impeach the bomber boys:

"He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast."
- Leonardo da Vinci

Jack Spencer Jr

Quote from: contracycleBecause it grossly undermines the credibility and value of the piece.  The author looks as if they don't know what they are doing or as if just plain lazy.  It is a continuity ERROR.  IMO.
Hey, Gareth.

But this is what I had talked about in that other thread, hell if I can find it BTW, and what I'm still saying now. In nearly every constructed narrative: stage, screen, or print; you will find some kind of continuity error be it great or small for any number of reasons from Chris Rock suddenly disappearing from the train scene in Dogma to the author mistaking the driver compartment on a NYC subway train for the public rest room (!). My point is these other media have the benefeit of the editorial process to try to fix gaffs like this or worse. RPGs do not have the benefeit of editing before going to press, so gaffs are going to be a fact of life and that's it. The common remedy seems to be infodumping to make sure there are not contrdicting details, but I say that contridictions will happen anyway sooner or later, so infodumping hits a point of diminishing returns and mostly just bogs things down.

Actually this is fairly interesting. The lumpley principle says that the system is the method by which things are agreed upon in the shared imaginary space that the game takes place IIRC. What we're seeing here is  that each player has their own imaginary space and they overlap on the shared space. Using the norse god example again, if the GM says "a norse god with long hair" two players will have the same general feel for the god in the shared space but in their personal imagined space, one may imagine red hair while the other imagines blond. Now, lets say that later the GM mentions this god's long black hair. (Black because the GM is ignorant of norse races and, therefore, their gods would have either red or blond hair) So what happened? This particular detail now has to leave the personal imagined space and enter the shared imagined space.


Yeah; from my perspective, the dice or whatever functions as gatekeeper is validating on of the options in the shared space.  But we disagree on the signifcance of the point, perhaps.  Either way, no harm no foul.
Impeach the bomber boys:

"He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast."
- Leonardo da Vinci