There’s a tendency, when GMing, to get stuck on aesthetic and complexity. We want our worlds to be lush and beautiful and filled with detail, we want our encounters to be novel and to have enough interlocking parts so as to interest our presumably jaded players.
It’s easy to over-commit in a world where the “square dungeon room” is mocked for being boring and when we have Matthew Mercer’s intricate descriptions of environments influencing the meta of the D&D game. But often, if we don’t catch this tendency to get stuck, it can make our campaigns worse.
How many of you have seen this specific habit? A GM wants to create a vivid world, they want to create a beautiful vista, they want to evoke as much imagery as possible…and so they go on and on about each scene, making sure to cover every NPC’s outfit, all quirks of architecture, all gradations in moss and lichen. If a sign is being blown about by a light wind, the PCs are sure to know. The first room of the dungeon smells of some kind of mix between a dusty library and an overheating laundry room, but the second room has notes of slaughterhouse blood and butcher shop gristle.
A worthwhile exercise is to try, every now and then, to shut all that down and go back to basics. Describe a room or space or what an NPC wants, give the details that the players need to make a decision about what to do next…and just give the players a few minutes to talk about it without your contribution. They know that there’s more if they ask for it, they know you’re itching to give them a hint. But just this once, they’d like to control that geyser of information for a bit. Occupy yourself with something else. Jot down some notes or something.
The next chamber over is a square room. There’s a kobold inside, angry as heck. They haven’t noticed you. What do you do?
I think you’ll be surprised at how much mileage you can get out of so little. Players will supply a lot more than you’d expect.
Mind you, this isn’t an exercise in improving your campaign, necessarily. Because it’s not a sure shot; your players may miss your florid descriptions. But it’s a worthwhile experiment to do once every few sessions – it lets you gauge if your players are more engaged when they are required to make a decision with more immediacy, or if they are less engaged now that there’s less to work with. Don’t commit to complexity and over-planning unless you are sure you’re getting a good return out of it…you can afford to be less mindful and celebrate mindlessness a bit sometimes.
It isn’t just freeing – it can improve your game.