My current campaign, Kjemmen, is drawing near completion. As such, I’ve been talking more and more with Stewart about the next one, which will be set in the Firefly universe. One of the players who’s slated to join us for that one has been pretty proactive in wanting to talk about his character, etc. We’d been talking over one detail of his character that just wasn’t fitting right. It has to do with a secret, so I’m going to have to be vague, for which I apologize.
Basically, we were working one angle of this idea over and over and none of us were happy with it at any stage. On a whim, I suggested something else, more as a way to jog us out of what I was worried had become a mental rut. But it turns out that the player had some personal experience related to my idea and felt he could bring that to the table in a creative way. Major win, there. The thing is… I had no idea ahead of time that that idea would be any good. I was just spouting off randomly.
It made me reflect on several things to do with Kjemmen and I realized that a lot of Stewart’s and my best ideas are actually totally accidental. On the one hand, I think it underscores the importance of brainstorming and not worrying if an idea is actually good before you say it (I have a really poor brain-mouth filter, so this is particularly easy for me, personally). On the other hand, I think it implies that there’s a skill to identifying those good ideas when you happen across them, which is something I think you can practice and intentionally improve.
I’ve written before about how your players will create awesome situations and that you should try to identify those and run with them. This recent thought is sort of a super-set of that. As another Kjemmen example, let me tell you about Parchak. When Stewart and I were making up NPCs, we had our work cut out for us: We have 15 noble houses each of which needed a minimum of a paragraph about the head, but 5 of which needed pretty robust NPC lists from advisor to scullery maid. So after getting the most important NPCs down, we got to the point where we just wanted to have one thing that set this NPC apart from any other person in their job.
For Parchak, the advisor of one of the city’s houses, we decided he should be from far away Chementol. Then we realized we’d already used that one. So… what if he were a spy from the church in Chementol (whose god killed the god of the Kjemmic churches)? It seemed reasonable to us and so we moved on entirely expecting that not to ever come up.
Almost a year later, some events occurred in the campaign and the PCs were going to need a Kjemmic priest to do them a favor, which, of course, means he wants them to do something for him first. Parchak came to mind; it seemed reasonable that he knew there was a Chementoli spy in Kjemmen, but not know who he was. He set the PCs on the spy’s trail and told them to kidnap him and bring him back. At this point the PCs were in a pretty rough spot (you know the part of the movie where it seems like everything’s falling apart and the protagonists are doomed) and were looking for pretty much any ally in their goal of stopping the evil Kjemmic god from coming back to life and “bringing death to the world”, but had managed to make enemies of pretty much every powerful person in the city.
When we set them on Parchak’s trail, we never expected that, instead of kidnapping him to curry favor with the priest, they would befriend him. They told him about how they’d been hired to kidnap him and warned him of a plot against him and told him about how his church’s ancient enemy was about to return. They had managed, much to our surprise, to find and befriend the one person in the entire city who had a moral impulse to help them out.
When we started talking through the implications, we realized that Parchak would probably get in touch with the home office and basically call in the cavalry from Chementol. It also made sense for him to put the PCs in touch with some of his local resources for acquiring useful equipment. This drastically changed the situation the PCs were in as well as the path of the campaign as a whole.
None of this would ever have happened if we hadn’t invented this no-one character, Parchak and his throw-away fact for differentiation when we were fleshing out NPCs for the various Houses. There are two key points I want to draw your attention to from this story: It’s okay to spend time on details that will probably not matter. That is only a probability, not a certainty. You never know how players’ actions will change the focus of things. Also, the campaign world feels much more real if apparently throw-away characters have some depth, or a least a seed you can build on if you have to make something up on the fly.
The second is that it’s important to remember you’ve got those characters in your pocket and to keep your eye out for an opportunity to use them. Or, rather, for when circumstances need exactly that thing. Identifying those moments when the current situation would be much more awesome (or even just feel more natural) if you pulled something flagged as “unimportant detail” into the spot light can be tricky, but it can have a significant impact on the feel of your game world and your players’ perception of it’s realness.