You know in old cartoons where the character is looking at a bookshelf, and there’s one book that’s drawn differently than the others, so you know that book is about to be chosen?
This is known as the Conspicuously Light Patch trope, and animators do it because if an object is going to move, it’s too much effort to make it as detailed as the static background images.
Every DM faces a similar struggle when describing their player’s surroundings, where if a specific detail or object is described, then players assume it must be important because it’s too much effort for a DM to describe every minute aspect of their players' surroundings if they don’t matter.
But how do you avoid this?
One option is to describe everything about every aspect of every scene, but this will soon overwhelm you and your players.
Instead, pick three to five categories of things to highlight repeatedly throughout your campaign. These can be any category of things, for instance, flowers, wines, birds, dreams, and shoes. Ideally, these things should fit within the theme of your campaign. Then, make a habit of describing each of these things in over-the-top detail every time they appear in your world, alongside your normal descriptions.
Describe how your druid notices the species of daffodils in the widow’s garden only grow naturally on a different continent. Describe how the mud on the worn leather boots the store clerk is wearing is red and chalky, how the priests are drinking from a bottle of wine stamped with the mark of a rising sun, how one of the pigeons in the city square is missing an eye, how the cleric has reoccurring dreams of a woman drowning in a flooded graveyard.
These descriptions should be meaningless in the moment, and completely improvised, but that doesn’t mean you can’t change that later.
By restricting your detailed descriptions to five specific areas throughout the campaign, you can:
Reduce the metagaming of even the best players
Reduce your mental load and keep you from being overwhelmed by feeling like you have to describe every detail of every scene.
Make your players feel powerful, knowledgeable, and observant, especially if you tie those details into skills the players have.
Strengthen the themes of your campaign by connecting far-flung scenes, people, and locations to each other. Maybe the wine the priests are drinking is from the same muddy vineyard that the shopkeeper trudged through? Does that matter plot-wise? No, but it does add flavor and depth to your world if one of the players inquires about the mud.
Retroactively make those details matter. Even if you didn’t have a plan for the one-eyed pigeon when you threw it out, maybe you realize you need to connect the BBEG to the party in a more meaningful way, so you retroactively make the pigeon a wildshaped druid who the BBEG paid to follow them.
Things to keep in mind with this approach:
- The importance of the details should remain in flux unless acted upon.
If you say there is a one-eyed pigeon following the party and one of the players does investigate by casting detect magic on it, and you tell them it’s just a normal pigeon, the pigeon becomes a fixed point and you can’t then change your mind later.
- Don’t punish your players for not noticing a “clue” that wasn’t actually a clue in the first place.
If you retroactively decide a random detail you threw out 5 months ago is in fact important, you must now give your players a fair chance of figuring that out. Follow the Rule of Three and make sure to tie any major plot developments only from that moment onward. (i.e. the druid didn’t learn anything useful until recently despite following them for a while). Think of the first “clue” as more of an easter egg the party will connect the dots to later. The, “Oh shit we’ve been followed for 5 months and we’re just now noticing” moment will be worth it.
- Don’t worry if you forget exactly what details you’ve given the party.
By keeping the details to 5 or less specific categories, you reduce the chances of that happening, but it’s natural to forget and you shouldn’t waste effort trying to track everything. Instead, just make sure you know for a fact that you did bring a specific detail up if you decide to make it important later, and keep notes on it moving forward.
- DMs, no one wants to read your bloated setting document, make a damn primer.
- PC wants redemption, but doesn’t want to work for it? Help!
- The ERC Method: A work-in-progress DMs tool to organize and execute
More about Dungeons & Dragons OnlinePost: "How to Avoid the Conspicuously Light Patch or (The Art of Detail)" specifically for the game Dungeons & Dragons Online. Other useful information about this game:
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