A common post in the tabletop role-playing game blog multiverse has a title that goes something like, “Make Outhouses In Your Campaign More Interesting.”
There is a tendency (especially among new game masters) to spend a lot of time making every part of an adventure scenario compelling in some way. Magic items, rooms, passages, NPCs, and weapons, are lavished with beguiling features to draw players and keep them hooked.
There are some pitfalls if you put too much interesting stuff in your campaign.
Interestingness is not the point.
Interestingness is a tool or technique for the referee to use. It is not the point of playing the game.
The game master is providing an engaging series of problems for the players to deal with. Some elements of that need to be interesting and in a way that serves the purposes of the game.
Not everything needs to be interesting.
Most things should be mundane.
We don’t need everything to be interesting. Nor do we want everything to be interesting.
Making interesting stuff takes a lot of time and effort.
Interesting is not easy and it takes time.
To make something interesting, you have to think about. It takes some brain sweat. It also takes time. The more interest you add to a treasure, a room, an NPC, the greater the level of difficulty and time you are imposing on yourself.
Interestingness ad absurdum can slow down the game pace.
Interesting = Curiosity.
If a room is interesting then players will often assume it is important and has a significant secret, clue, hook, item, weapon, or NPC in it that needs to be investigated.
If you are making every dungeon room, every NPC, every treasure item “interesting” then your players are going to slow the pace of the game to explore and interact with all this interestingness.
Interestingness ad absurdum confuses players.
If players have too many “interesting” things to explore and interact with, then they can’t suss out which ones are useful or necessary.
Without some contrast between mundane and interesting, the players get confused about what they need to interact with in order to learn something, avoid danger, or advance their objectives.
Why is this interesting?
There are good reasons to enhance a thing with some compelling details to draw the players’ attention.
- To communicate some important information.
- To draw attention to the person/place/thing.
- To stimulate a response to the person/place/thing.
Make it interesting to communicate its importance.
To players, interesting means important.
The players don’t know as much about the adventure scenario they are playing as you the game master does. While this is obvious, it can be easy to forget. Players are experiencing the adventure for the first time. They are getting oriented to the environment. Until they’ve spent a little time interacting with the location/NPC/objects, they don’t know what it is they have in front of them. They don’t know what is important and requires attention.
Players can have a hard time differentiating between interesting and important and interesting and unimportant.
If lots of things are interesting then the players will assume they are important until they prove otherwise. They have to assume that any of these interesting things might be useful, valuable, or dangerous.
Interesting is a tool for micro-exposition.
Another way to use interesting items is micro-exposition. Because the game world is not our real world, we have to provide some explanations for the unfamiliar elements of the game world. Providing that information in small packages rather than big lumps keeps the game moving and players focused.
Rather than giving you a 2,000 word essay on the religious practices of the rustics living in the borderlands, I’ve given you some interesting details that allow you to develop your own conclusions about the people who live in that hovel.
Interesting things can instigate an emotional response.
The response I’m trying get from players is an emotional one. This is hard to do. By being focused about what I give the most interesting detail to, I have a better chance of creating the emotion I’m going for.
At the end of the Fellowship of the Ring the fellowship is paddling on stretch of the Anduin that is pleasant but boring. All the trees and the banks are much the same. And then, two enormous statues of ancient Numenorean kings in all their might warn travellers of the falls ahead.
The intended effect is wonder or perhaps amazement. Certainly curiosity will be stirred. Who built these things? How did they build them? What vibrant civilization fell before the wilderness took back the land?
If I’m going to the trouble of making something interesting, I want the players to get a kick out of it.
What must be interesting?
Locations and encounters that lead to other encounters, scenario objectives, hooks for adventures, and other key elements of a campaign need to be interesting. The interesting parts of those encounters are information the players can then use to make decisions about their next move.
If the thing you want them to look at, mess with, fight, break, or set on fire is interesting then they are more likely to do that. If everything in the room is interesting, they’ll have a harder time figuring out which thing to pay attention too. Conversely, if the thing you want them to mess with is mundane then they may overlook it.
Making things interesting is a valuable skill for game masters to learn. Don’t make things interesting just to make them interesting.
Make them interesting because they provide important information players need to avoid danger or progress toward their objectives, will tell the players something about the game world, or tap into an emotion you want them to feel about your game scenario.