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Author Topic: Handling Detail and What it Means  (Read 1096 times)
John Kim
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« on: August 14, 2003, 05:59:46 PM »

In the thread on escalation, Gordon thought that the stuff on detail escalation should be split into a separate thread.  So here it is...  Going back to the comment that started this:

Quote from: Gordon C. Landis
  One of the things that Sim play reifies (I use a fancy word for "really, really values" because all modes value this, Sim is just unique in seeing it as a goal in and of itself) is consistency with events, issues and/or details previously established through play (assuming those things were "true" to the Sim to begin with, of course).  That is, there can be a moment of pure joy (that is sufficient justification for play in and of itself) simply in identifying the action that feels "just right" given all that has been established so far, and making that thing real in the imagined game world.

The problem is, as play continues, you accumulate more and more details.  The simple act of keeping it all straight can get really . . . exhausting.  

As I said before, this seems like a fairly broad issue.  In my favorite campaigns, I often try to keep track of expanding detail by keeping session logs and often a list of NPCs -- making them available on the web.  Examples include the http://www.darkshire.org/~jhkim/rpg/ripper/">Ripper game GMed by Chris Lehrich, and my current http://www.darkshire.org/~jhkim/rpg/vinland/">Vinland game.  For my Vinland game, I've been averaging about a thousand words per session.  I'm curious how this compares with other peoples approaches.  

Certainly there are those who don't do any sort of detail tracking of this sort.  I ask if this signifies anything in terms of goals.   Something I've noticed here is that detail and realism tend to be associated with Simulationism rather than Narrativism.  I have been assured at times that this isn't essential to the definitions, but the association seems to be pretty endemic.  

In literature, extensive detail is often associated with the traditional novel as a form and the goal of "social realism".  The contrast to this are the forms of myth and romance, along with other narrative styles.  There may be a similar split in RPGs, which might explain some style clashes.  As hypothetical cases (albeit rather extreme):
1) Some people playing a nautical game spend half of every session with no action at all going on -- just talking about seagoing life in general.  A new player finds this incredibly frustrating and says that he wants to get on with the story.
2) A GM of a campaign is obsessively working out the complete language for some of his world's culture.  A player thinks he is nuts and that he should instead spend his time working on stuff important to the story.  

It may be that in these cases, the root of the problem is really over what type of story is being told, and what the goal of that story is.  So I guess my question is, to what extent does detail play a role in your games?  How does the amount of detail help or hinder what you are aiming for?
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Alan
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« Reply #1 on: August 14, 2003, 07:42:00 PM »

Hi John,

Interesting topic, especially the observation about detail in sim vs. narr.

To any game, each player brings their own personal GNS preference, plus their expectations, however acquired.  Once play starts, player learnes what details are important to the resolution mechanic and the reward system.  All these things form what kind of detail play focuses on.

In most sim games, the resolution mechanics take details of environment and equipment into account, so attention to these will be encouraged in play.  Likewise, many sim adventures are guided by careful attention to setting details - the clues that advance the story.

In the narrativist-supporting games I've played, the resolution mechanics focus largely on thematic elements, and the details of action are given over to players.  Hence the detail level is deterimined by how important the player thinks an event is.  Narr adventures evolve in response to details of theme or relationships.  So the kind of detail that shows up in narrativist play is qualitatively different from the kind usually seen in sim play.  I'm not sure if it's less, just diffeent.

The interesting case is The Riddle of Steel, a hybrid sim/narr game.  Environement detail is important to the combat system, but spiritual attributes can make a greater difference.  TROS produces a nice balance both in "realistic" background detail and in detail of thematic and emotional elements.  To acheive this, TROS moderates the use of mechanics in both the narr and sim areas.  

For example, the resolution system is task oriented, combat is particularly detailed, and skill improvement is based on use - all of these tend to support sim play.  However, the sim element is not extended rigorously through all the rules - see the armor and encumbrance rules for example.

On the narrativist hand, Spiritual attributes give good bonuses to combat and provide the advancement for combat skills.  These are enough to drive the game in the narrativist direction, but aren't anywhere as radical as the authorial and directorial power players get in other narrativist games.

It just occured to me - maybe detail is function of how directorial power is distributed, rather than GNS preference.  What do you all think?
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- Alan

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Jack Spencer Jr
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« Reply #2 on: August 14, 2003, 10:11:39 PM »

Detail is an annoying-ass hobgoblin that has been living under my writing desk for decades.

I thought the sort of detail that Gordon was talking about was the sort that happen of a period of time, like a RPG or a comic book.

Ever watch a comic book super hero movie and try to explain the events as they happened in the comic book to someone unfamiliar with comic books? Their eyes glaze over like a deer in headlights.

This sort of detail is kind of difficult to get a grip on because detail like yakking about the sea-faring life, it's pretty obvious when the detail is bogging down. This other kind of detail creeps up on you. When the only way you can sum up a relationship is "it's ... complicated" the weight of detail is being felt.

Neither sort of detail is indicitive of any GNS mode. The bogging detail may be more a matter of mistaking versimilitude for entertainment, but this does not mean Simulationism.
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Windthin
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« Reply #3 on: August 14, 2003, 10:47:26 PM »

As I see things... there are four kinds of detail:

1) Vital: these are the details you MUST have to make a world viable.  Now, in stories these can come out over time.  In RP, they can a little as well, but often you need to make certain things known from the start.  These are the base concepts from which everything else extends.  Note that calling them vital does not make other details less important... but vital details are your foundation.

2) Basic: basic details are the little bits and pieces that help flesh out a world.  They are the necessary touches that make it live, that make characters breathe, that make cultures real.  Basic details cover a wide range, and can be considered the flesh upon the bones of the vital details.  Basic details are easier to develop over time; while some are necessary to begin with, basic details grow with time, and new ones are added to them steadily.

3) Storyline: storyline details are historical details, really, the events before and during the game that matter to it, that make the plot.  Storyline details also include the future, naturally: goals, looming threats, story arcs, and so on.  If basic details are the flesh, storyline details are the muscles, what drives a game.

4) Color: anything beyond the basic that is necessary is color, flavor.  There is nothing wrong with this kind of detail, but the others should be attended to first, with color details worked on in one's spare time.  Color details can be fun: private languages and bestiaries and so on, but they're rarely truly NECESSARY, and they are the details that can be most damaging when overdone.  Color details are the aesthetics; the skin and hair and clothes and so on.  Some color detail should always be added in, but going overboard can quickly subsume other details and weigh down a game, its players, and those running it.
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M. J. Young
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« Reply #4 on: August 14, 2003, 11:21:00 PM »

Quote from: John Kim
I often try to keep track of expanding detail by keeping session logs and often a list of NPCs -- making them available on the web....I'm curious how this compares with other peoples approaches.

I tend to log during play, and to keep those logs (I have some from 1980); but I don't use them, really. Rather, after I've finished the game I try to find time to write some sort of historical record of what happened. I use a lot of different formats--journals of characters, histories written after the fact, letters to family or superiors, I've even done gimmicky things like newspaper articles and ship's logs. In live games (as opposed to Internet play) I will read the latest entry aloud at the beginning of a session to bring everyone back into the present sense of things; I'll also go back and read it myself periodically, sometimes from the beginning, sometimes from a natural break. I pack a lot of detail into some of these.

If a scenario has a certain kind of detail that's important to it, it will have maps. I'll mark the maps or map keys with any changes or significant events that might come up later.

In Internet games, I generally only keep character sheets and scenario descriptions; but forum games flow well with that, usually, as there's an automatic record of the games to date. Still, I've more than once regretted not keeping better records, as I've found myself either looking for some detail I can't find, or inventing something without realizing I'd already covered it a different way.
Quote from: Then he
Something I've noticed here is that detail and realism tend to be associated with Simulationism rather than Narrativism.  I have been assured at times that this isn't essential to the definitions, but the association seems to be pretty endemic.

Oddly, I tend to be a lot less concerned with detail running Multiverser today (said to be a simulationist game) than I ever was when I regularly ran OAD&D (genuinely considered gamist). Perhaps I consider it more important for detail to be fixed when it's the foundation for competition, but don't mind inventing it on the fly when it's more purely explorative. Perhaps when I was running gamist I wanted a solid sim foundation, but now that I'm running sim I want to open narrativist possibilities. Perhaps it's just that I'm older and can't find the time or bother to prepare sufficiently to run things that way anymore.

The Alyria game I've been running is loose with detail, but not that much more so than the Multiverser games I run.

I think that in running Multiverser with a lower threshold on detail, I enable players to take things in more directions. Detail does tend to inform the players what the game is about, and in Multiverser it's frequently supposed to be about whatever the players want to make it.
Quote from: Finally, he
I guess my question is, to what extent does detail play a role in your games?  How does the amount of detail help or hinder what you are aiming for?

I think that if my objective involves something tightly set--like a mystery for which I actually do know the solution, or a quest with very narrow parameters (module-style dungeons), I need to have the details nailed down. If my objective is more to provide a place for an adventure to happen, I'm a lot looser with it. That's not universally true; but I think there's enough truth to it that other gamers feel it.

I'm running a scenario right now in which the player character is one of the key people in a medieval war (against undead armies, but that's not really relevant here). I didn't have a map. I just had a description--mott and bailey castle on slight rise of ground, village to the east, mountains beyond that; enemy coming from a dozen miles west, the road runs due west, with two north-south cross roads, one a hundred yards from the front of the castle, the other at the edge of the enemy starting point. That, and the statement that small help could be gained by sending emmissaries to five other castles generally north, east, and south, between half a day and three days distant, was all I had. What is interesting is that from this, the player produced a map, filling in many details of the terrain (including topography), so that he could plan his strategies against the enemy and recognize theirs against him. The scenario needed detail; when I didn't offer it, the player provided it.

I'm always aiming for different things. Some of those things require detail, some do not. Multiverser: The First Book of Worlds had what amounted to nine completely different worlds, but only two maps, one a recurring piece for an endless dungeon, the other an island for a very challenging contest of hunter and hunted. Multiverser: The Second Book of Worlds had no maps, despite having the same number of scenarios, because maps were not needed by any of them. I'm currently working on Multiverser: The Third Book of Worlds, and I see between twenty and thirty maps (depending in part on what you count as "map" and in part on how some unfinished sections are handled), because the worlds in this book need that kind of detail.

I tell my world designers, figure out what a world needs, and include that; don't include things it doesn't need. No one can publish a fully detailed world--there will always be the question of what's in the King's top right-hand bureau drawer, or whether Mook Number Seven is carrying an unused clip that will fit my gun. Figure out what details need to be in place in advance, and then as referees add to that what works as necessary. Record the details that have a good chance of mattering later, trust the players to remind you of any that struck them as important that you forgot, and let the unimportant once slip through the cracks.

I've got a good analogy here. All the time in my games there will be characters no PC has ever seen before, nor likely will see again--stable boys and desk clerks in distant cities, travelers on the road. Players will frequently ask the character, "What's your name?" This used to fluster me. How am I supposed to invent and remember names for all of the hundreds of bit part characters that cross their paths? Now I know a lot of fixes to this. E. R. Jones uses stock names--every innkeeper is Rich, every thief is Henry, every stablehand Bob, and so on, and everyone accepts that. But before I knew that, I came up with my own answer. I would say, "He tells you his name." I don't care what the name is, you don't care what the name is, and next time we return no one is going to remember it or want to shuffle back to look it up. We'll all assume that you now know his name and can use it when you address him. If somehow he becomes important, we'll give him a name we can all remember, and we'll all know that this was the name he told you at that first meeting.

And that's become a large part of my approach to detail. I try to make clear what matters and let everyone else imagine what doesn't matter.

I'm not sure how much of this was on point, but maybe it was helpful.

--M. J. Young
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John Kim
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« Reply #5 on: August 14, 2003, 11:25:16 PM »

Quote from: Jack Spencer Jr
  Ever watch a comic book super hero movie and try to explain the events as they happened in the comic book to someone unfamiliar with comic books? Their eyes glaze over like a deer in headlights.  

This sort of detail is kind of difficult to get a grip on because detail like yakking about the sea-faring life, it's pretty obvious when the detail is bogging down.  

Well, I'm familiar with deer-in-headlights boredom in general, though not the particular case (comic-book-expert in superhero movie).  I'm not sure how it relates to RPGs, however.  I would think that the parallel to the comic-book-explainer would be the RPG player.  RPGs are more like comic books or perhaps soap operas than they are like Hollywood movies.  Comic book or soap opera fans are the sort who are interested in such explanations, at least if they are well told.  

My point is that what some people find boring, others find interesting.  For example, the yakking about seafaring life was a reference to Moby Dick, in which the story is interspersed with long chapters which are pure description of the whaling life.  OK, so Moby Dick bores a lot of readers, but there is at least a small set who think it is good.  

I don't think there is any objective distinction of what is bogging down versus what is engaging.  It depends on what your goals and interests are.   Thus, I would be curious what you do for your campaigns by comparison.  How much detail do you have?  What techniques do you use for keeping track of it, vs how readily do you let it drop?
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Mike Holmes
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« Reply #6 on: August 15, 2003, 08:12:11 AM »

John's right. I'm the sort who can soak up detail by the bucketload. It seems that no amount is boring to me. I get a kick out of the most minute facts about the game world. I can play whole sessions that amount to just walks through a village.

This assumes a talented GM, of course. If the detail doesn't somehow gel with the setting as a whole, well, that's just bad Sim.

I realize that I have a greater tolerance for this sort of thing than most, however, and keep the detail to that which has an effect on the plot, in most games. Or, rather, enough detail that the plot doesn't seem to rest on nothing. That is, it's a sim principle that if all the detail is presented in terms of the plot, then it begins to feel that there's no "objective" reality behind what's going on. Occasionally you have to throw in a random note about somthing that doesn't seem pertinent to remind the character that the detail as a whole has that "objectiveness" to it that Sim demands.

Keeping this to the minimum required seems to be an important element of functional hybrid play, IMO. Too much of it annoys the more Narrativist minded player. Too little of it, and the Sim player doesn't get his feel.

Mike
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Jack Spencer Jr
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« Reply #7 on: August 15, 2003, 08:16:46 AM »

Quote from: John Kim
I don't think there is any objective distinction of what is bogging down versus what is engaging.

The difference is between boggin' detail and acculuted detail, IMO, is that the boggin' detail may or may not be enjoyable at the moment. Either someone enjoy talk about whaling life or one doesn't. The accumulated detail usually is fine at the time. It's over a long period of time that the sheer volume weighs it down.

Consider this which is two people talking about a soap opera. One guy has watched it. the other is the expert who hasn't missed an episode since the 70's.

"Boy, she's nasty. What does she have against that guy?"

"They have a son together."

"Really? So they used to be lovers?"

"No. She was just using him. She was really in love with his brother."

"I see. Which one is the brother?"

"Oh he married her sister and they both left the show a few years ago."

"Ah. OK."

"Then she was also going to marry someone else but he killed the guy and she was blamed for it and spent time on death row."

....

"This show makes no damned sense, man."

Sad thing, this is from an actual soap. Worse thing, I did this from memory.

Quote
RPGs are more like comic books or perhaps soap operas than they are like Hollywood movies. Comic book or soap opera fans are the sort who are interested in such explanations, at least if they are well told.

Problem is, they are well told as they happen. For comic books, you can read old back issues. For a soap opera, you can watch old episodes. For an RPG, you are stuck with retelling. And if it's not done well ("I rolled and got a Mod Fin Crit on the dragon which did 4 x damage") it's dull, whether the listener would be interested or not.
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Mike Holmes
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« Reply #8 on: August 15, 2003, 08:23:13 AM »

Who cares if the recounting is interesting. It's the actual play that counts. So, you watched the Soap in the first place to know the plot. So it must have been engaging at the time.

Bad play is bad play. How does that have anything to do with whether detail is bad in general? I mean, you're creating a circular definition. Bad detail is that which isn't entertaining. Hard to disagree. How do we know when it's bad, however? Other that to look at our own tolerance for it?

Sounds like a preference to me.

Mike
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Gordon C. Landis
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« Reply #9 on: August 15, 2003, 12:41:53 PM »

You know - there are folks who watch soap operas for whom the whole POINT of watching is to be able to recount the endless details about what's happened, to who, when, why, and etc.  They can be either interesting or annoying (or somewhere between) in doing so.

So, question one: are the details in some important way the whole point of your RPG play (Sim), or are they really mostly used in service to some other goal (Nar/Game)?

Question two - which applies no matter how you answer question one - in what way, to what degree, and to what level of precision do you like your details?

And (moving away from theory and GNS and all that general stuff) question three - what actual, concrete things do you do to maintain and understand details about your game "world" and the play that occurs in it?

Most of my play of late (last few years) has done very little concrete to establish/maintain details - we run primarily off of memory and out-of-game communication via email and phone conversation.  Email will occassionally yield "artifacts of play" - IC journal entries, short descriptive passages about "what happened,"  some transitional/bookeeping/prepatory discussions . . . recently, I had one PC where I imagined his in-game experiences as inspiring him to write poems, and sent those poems out to the other players.  But nothing steady and systematic, not recently.

In the past as GM I've written up *extensive* world and session-play descriptions, and would have expected that any GM I played with to do the same.  I'm not sure how/why/when that changed, but - I just don't do it anymore.  Partly that may be because I don't as GM much anymore . . .

Gordon
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M. J. Young
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« Reply #10 on: August 15, 2003, 05:31:11 PM »

I'm not sure whether this is just a "me too" post or whether I am actually clarifying something. John has said you can't distinguish boring detail from interesting detail by the detail, and Mike has echoed that bad detail is bad detail, and you really can't define it. I think that's pretty much all she wrote.

The first time I read Perelandra (C. S. Lewis, second book in his space trilogy) it was for a lit class. I'd just read the first book (Out of the Silent Planet), which has a lot of action in it, and I was waiting for the action. The second takes a long time to paint a picture of the world of Perelandra, and I was bored for uncounted chapters. So were a lot of other students, and moreso than I.

When I came back to it years later, I found the descriptions fascinating. This is a world where the islands are mats of interconnected vegetation with light trees growing from them, and as the water swells beneath them they form to the surface. The trees and animals are all fascinatingly different, and the ideas explored are challenging to the mind. I was reading to relax, and I enjoyed it tremendously.

The difference between the two readings lay, I think, in my expectations. I wanted a book that would grab me and move me through the story quickly the first time, not merely because I needed to read it in a specified time period and had other work to do. On returning, I knew that I was going to a world whose images I would be exploring for a few chapters, and I was actually surprised and disappointed when it ran out and turned to the action. So it has everything to do with what you want out of the book.

The same would be said of a game.

I'm running one of our worlds, Orc Rising (the one currently offered for download from the website), for a new player. When it was suggested that she might find answers to her questions if she visited the elves, she became rather excited at the idea. "I've always wanted to see elves," she wrote. Now she's there, living with the elves. I'm expanding my vision of what elf society is like from the seeds provided in the scenario (which isn't really supposed to be about elves, but about orcs), and she seems to be enjoying the discoveries. There are many things she could do here, but exploring the elves and their culture has so captivated her that she's not interested in going further at the moment.

I think if I'd thrown one of my other players in that situation, they'd have looked around quickly, asked what they wanted to know, gotten directions toward the next stop, and left.

The question about detail is whether it's something the player wants to explore now. If it is, it's hard to have too much. If it isn't, it's easy to become boring quickly.

Of course, it still has to be interesting detail; but that's obvious.

--M. J. Young
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Jack Spencer Jr
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« Reply #11 on: August 15, 2003, 09:43:38 PM »

Quote from: Mike Holmes
Bad play is bad play. How does that have anything to do with whether detail is bad in general?

Nothing. Gordon's quoted original post had to do with weight of detail which is accumulated in play over time. This is neither good nor bad but can be problematic. It can be exhausting to the players who have to cart around and keep track of all that detail. It can be rough on anyone joining or re-joining the game as they have to get "up to speed"

I wasn't talking so much about the quality as the quantity.
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