Creating a compelling backdrop for your particular game de jour can be a daunting task if you’re unprepared. I know I have struggled from time to time to present a rich and vibrant narrative for the games I run. Creating a rich backdrop is like an artist painting a masterpiece. You either get it right or you don’t. There are many possible outcomes, but three are more common than the rest and these are the three that I run into.
Under-describing – failing to paint enough of a picture for your players to truly become immersed in the game, the scene or the setting.
Over-describing – Trying to overcompensate and give far too much descriptive prose that the players get lost in the description or lost in your verbose manner.
Just right – The point at which you have conveyed or painted a masterpiece that your players can connect with and feel immersed into the backdrop as if they are truly in the game.
The root cause of #1 and #2 are moderately easy to pinpoint. In the case of under-describing, it is reasonable to surmise that the GM failed to take the time necessary to establish, beforehand, the descriptive qualities of the environment or people. Many times this can also manifest itself when the GM does not read the module/adventure or setting information for a particular game. In the case of over describing, the GM is often trying to overcompensate for what he or she believes to be their inadequacies with their knowledge of the material. Each of these can be overcome with due diligence. Reading and understanding published material or detailing the setting if creating from scratch can go a long way in mitigating either situation.
For me, when I do fall outside of painting a masterpiece for my players, I tend to under-describe. The reason for this is easy, many times I am trying to juggle too many things at once and something tends to give, even if slightly. This manifests in the occasional lack of quality game preparations on my part. We’re all human and things do happen, but when we’re spot on, we’re painting beautiful backdrops that engross our players!
GMs should strive to find the balance in the preparation to the point where they feel comfortable with the information and details they need to convey. If this means taking a little longer before starting a game, so be it. Our job is to create great stories that engage our players and we must take our time and be prepared.
Often times my preparation includes reading and highlighting, along with some margin notes, the entire story or adventure that I am planning to run. If it will be a longer running campaign, such as my ongoing Call of Cthulhu games, I tend to immerse myself in fiction novels and in some cases historical books. This is just another way that I immerse myself in the details so I can paint a masterpiece.
What do your preparations consist of?