Society for Interactive Literature West

Game Design

Those Insignificant Details

Copyright (c) 1993 Stephen R. Balzac
Society for Interactive Literature

It's Friday night, and you're about to dive once more into the unknown: a brand new game written by completely new GMs. Some sort of murder mystery with lots of occultism and stuff. Eagerly, you open your character packet and start reading your character sheet. It begins something along the lines of "You were born in 1897. Ten years later, as you travelled through France, the Great War raged about you." Great War? In 1907? Which war is that? 1907, as you recall from your dimly-remembered history classes, was about the only time in the twentieth century when there wasn't a war. Certainly World War I, often referred to as the Great War, didn't start until around 1914 or so.

As you read on, you find that was, both literally and figuratively, only the beginning. Ranging from the trivial, such as Nazi characters running around saying "Hiel [sic] Hitler," to the not-so-trivial, such as you and the character playing your brother being completely unable to agree on such minor details as your father's name, where you lived, who beat up whom at the funeral the other day, and so forth. Enough, in fact, that you might reasonably wonder if this person playing your brother is, in fact, an impostor. Until, that is, you speak to the GMs, and they tell you that "Oh no! These are just insignificant details, you shouldn't take them so seriously."

Now, this story may seem pretty outrageous, but, sad to say, it's true. The details have been blurred slightly to protect the guilty. Worst of all, the GMs for this game never seemed to quite grasp why their players were unhappy. Instead, anyone who complained was thrown out of the game on the grounds that "If these insignificant details bother you so much, you clearly won't enjoy our game!" Certainly a unique solution to a problem every GM has faced at one time or another.

Because, let's face it, those details are not nearly so insignificant as some GMs often think they are. Little things, like putting WWI in 1907, or saying "Hiel" instead of "Heil," may seem unimportant, but they convey a definite aura of unprofessionalism to your players. In addition, hitting such an error breaks the illusion that the character sheet is creating: a Frenchman, whose every spoken French word in the character sheet is misspelled and incorrectly conjugated doesn't build up the image that you're playing a Frenchman; rather it builds up the image that you're reading a character sheet written by a klutz. Instead of contributing to the illusion you wish to create, these errors only detract from it. It's better to not have the character speak in French at all if you can't do it right. Ironically, it only takes a little proof-reading to spot slipups like that.

More serious are the factual errors between characters, or, to use a phrase common to many game writers, the sanity errors. Sanity checking is the vital process of making sure that, while different characters may have different perceptions of reality, they are in fact all observing the same reality. For instance, if two characters had a conversation which is recounted in their character sheets, one may feel that he was a scintillating conversationalist, while the other may feel that the first was a crashing bore but figured it was easier to smile and nod; however, both know that they were having a conversation about topic X at time Y, that it was raining at the time, and so forth. From a completely objective point of view, they were both referring to the same event, even if they walked away with different perceptions of that event.

Sanity is crucial. Otherwise, how can your mystery game work? Think about it... solving a mystery is a process of fitting together numerous facts and figuring out what does and does not fit. If you've written in so many errors that no one can tell what misinformation is intentional and what is accidental, there's no way for the players to know what they actually know.

For example, in one game we had a plot where several characters had been killed off pregame and were being impersonated by look-alikes. The key was that the doubles didn't know various minor tidbits about the originals' lives: favourite movies, food allergies, or the name of the bar they used to frequent, and so forth. It was these inconsistencies which made it possible for the rest of the players to figure out what was going on and take action. Had the game been filled with errors, the players could never have separated the signal from the noise.

Failure to provide critical detail can also derail your game in other ways. For example, you want a character, let's call him Sam, to have an unimpeachable alibi for the murder, so you tell him that he was "having dinner with your old friend, the Ambassador." Unfortunately, you've neglected to tell him which ambassador, or even the ambassador's name. Now, just imagine: it's late at night, and the players are trying to break each other's alibis. Eventually, they come around to Sam.

"And where were you on the night of the 17th?"

"Well, I was at dinner with my old friend the Ambassador."

"Really? Which ambassador?"


"You have known him for a long time, haven't you? It does seem odd that you can't remember his name, much less which country he represents..."

And so it goes. Poor Sam is rather up the proverbial creek. Eventually he is forced to resort to one of two things: either flat-out stating that the GMs didn't give him any more information, or finding a GM to "jog his memory." In either case, the lack of an "insignificant detail" has broken the mood of the scene for the players, and forced them to waste their time getting clarification on something that the player in question should have known. And, of course, a player trying to fake an alibi is now in the perfect position to give people the impression that he has a fine alibi, but the GMs just didn't tell him enough about it.

Perhaps the worst detail to omit from a character are those details which tell him why he is what he is. For example, our hypothetical Frenchman turns the page and finds out that it's now 1940 and he's been a Nazi collaborator for years. Huh? Once more digging into the musty depths of your high school history memories, and fifty viewings of Casablanca, you come away with the distinct impression that most Frenchmen during WWII didn't much like the Nazis. Sure, there were some collaborators. However, if you want someone to play a collaborator and have him feel that this is something his character would do, you need to lay it out. He needs to have some reason to turn against his homeland. Remember, you're not just writing to the hypothetical Frenchman of 1940, but to the reader of 1993 who may have a great deal of trouble understanding why anyone would ever be a Nazi sympathizer, much less actually work with them. If he does it because his wife and kids are being held hostage, so be it; tell him. If he works with the Nazis because he was disgraced by de Gaulle and seeks revenge, so be it; tell him. Make sure the player understands the motivations of his character; they may not be as clear to the player as those motivations are to you, the GM. You, after all, are deeply immersed in your game. The player is not... yet. Getting him there is your job and the written materials you hand out are the medium by which you do it.

On the flip side, filling a character sheet with details that have absolutely no bearing on the game or the character in any way is pointless. Unless it helps to somehow delineate the character better, telling him what he ate for breakfast five years ago is rather silly. That really is an insignificant detail. Unfortunately, the player doesn't know that. After all, not knowing anything about the game other than what he's reading in that character sheet, the player can't determine what is and what is not important. Remember, you're painting a picture for the reader; that picture may be beautiful, but if its been obscured by static, no one will care. And, of course, factual errors, even in the truly insignificant details, will do just as much harm as any other factual errors.

So remember, what you write is the only doorway the players have into your game. If you don't draw them in, they're not going to have much fun playing, and you may well find all your hard work producing that game going unappreciated. Don't sweat the small stuff, but don't ignore it either.

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