Everything That Happens Is Important
I was walking down the hall at work the other day and entered a room. Someone entered right after me, but I didn’t remember seeing him in the hall or hearing him behind me (it’s a very echoey hall). I realized that I hadn’t been paying attention at all. The other guy was probably walking down the hall toward me and I just didn’t see him. Somewhat randomly, I reflected that this never occurs in a video game. If you’re walking down a hallways in an FPS, you will see the person walking towards you. If you don’t pay attention to things, you get eaten by zombies.
But it’s not like you’re straining your abilities of attention. The world of a video game is crafted around the player; you are its center. So everything that you see matters in some way (otherwise it was a “waste” of art assets and programming time before release) and, for the most part, you see everything that matters. As with all things, this got me started thinking about roleplaying.
It Was There The Whole Time
There are tons of good stories out there that include elements early in a subtle way which, later, are revealed to be a big deal. In video media, this is especially easy, since you can put something in a scene, but not draw attention to it merely by ignoring it. For instance, two characters are discussing up-coming events while one does maintenance on a firearm at the kitchen table. Later, when the presence of that gun saves the protagonist’s life, it doesn’t surprise the viewers.
This is something that doesn’t seem possible in roleplaying. If you mention that there’s a shopping cart, then the players see it as a Shopping Cart. Suddenly they’re in this room with greyish, blurry details and there’s this gleaming, technicolor, high-definition shopping cart sitting there. It’s like a 3 second shot in a movie of nothing but a shopping cart. The importance imbued into anything explicitly mentioned by the GM is immense. However, if you don’t mention the shopping cart because when they walk in it’s not important, then they can’t use it to awesome effect on the spur of the moment later.
It Happened While You Were Out
You sort of run into the Circular 4th Wall, here, too. In a movie, the viewer sees everything that’s important, but the protagonists don’t have to. So it’s possible to show the audience that something exists in some subtle way, or that something happened, etc. and have the protagonists learn it later and react quickly to the information in some cool way. However, because players are both audience and actors, if they didn’t see something happen, then it sort of didn’t.
There’s a thing that a lot of inexperienced story-tellers use (or stumble into accidentally) frequently that I find really annoying: They lie to me. Often, they’re trying to show off how clever the protagonist is. But if the protagonist’s clever solution relies on information that I didn’t have to begin with, I can’t be impressed at how clever they are. There isn’t that moment of, “Oh man! I didn’t think of that. That’s brilliant!” It wasn’t possible for me to think of it because I was missing the necessary information. The world of the story that the work of fiction was creating in my head didn’t include those facts until, suddenly, there they were.
Anything important that you don’t manage to get in front of the players is a bit like that. If they learn about something right as it becomes useful (or, crushingly, right after), then they don’t have time to mull it over and really digest it. If you’re looking to surprise them, that’s one thing, but the surprises have to be entirely believable and fit snugly into their mental model of the campaign world. I spend not inconsiderable effort to make sure that news of major events going on in the campaign reaches the PCs’ ears, especially if they weren’t there when it happened. It can be a struggle to make sure it doesn’t become contrived, but it’s worth the effort. You know you’re doing it right if your players can tell the difference when they go to ground in some way and stop hearing about stuff that was going on before they went into hiding.
It Doesn’t Really Matter
This is a big one I learned from Stewart (though maybe he doesn’t know it) and it’s the other side of “they see everything that’s important”. Often, when we’re brainstorming ideas for what’s coming up in a campaign, especially when we’re just filling in details for stuff that’s been decided for quite some time, I’ll pitch some idea and he’ll say, “That’s cool, but I feel like if we do something like that, it should matter in some way.” The point is, he’s always trying to make sure that if the players invest time in something (or, more precisely, if we invent something that they’re likely to invest time in), then it shouldn’t just be filler material. This isn’t an MMO and they shouldn’t be grinding mobs just so they can get enough Magic Rat Pelts for what’s-his-name back in Startington for no reason.
This isn’t hard to do at least a decent job of. If you come up with a cool idea, but can’t figure out what it has to do with the main plot, cut it out. I’ve seen over and over that many of the things in this world that rock most are the things that don’t try to do too much or include material just to lengthen the experience. So write down your awesome idea and build your next campaign around it. The real trick with this is keeping it in mind at all times (which has apparently been Stewart’s job between the two of us). If you make up some detail about an NPC that will come up, it’s way better if the fact that the PCs learn that details is at least potentially useful to them later on.
I don’t, I think, really have a thesis, here. Mostly, I just wanted to muse on this idea of the importance of events and how you present them to your players. When I was discussing it some days ago with Stewart, he made some observation that was really astute. However, I’ve forgotten what it was. Maybe he’ll say it again in the comments, or maybe one of you will and make him look slow and foolish.