Game! Set! Story!

Ok, this one is coming at you a bit late, but real life is one of those things.

This week I’m talking about the importance of set dressing, the little touches and objects that give places and people character without you having to rub your player’s noses in it.

Unobtrusive set dressing is one of the best ways to convey information to players, and it gives your game a vibrancy it would otherwise lack. A player who walks through town to the mayors office and told “Times are hard because of the recent goblin attacks, and we need you to fix this” is going to be nowhere near as engrossed as the player who walked through a shantytown of refugees to the scorched walls of town hall, where the bedraggled mayor pleaded for their assistance. I should stress, though, that sets are not just a matter of applying adjectives until the right feeling is achieved. Seeing an object can generally be relied upon to get the player thinking about how it got there, which in turn helps fabricate their opinion of someone. For instance, the crusty old barman might have a hook for a hand, but it’s the well worn sword hanging on the mantle behind him that tells you how he got it. Objects speak volumes, and go a long way towards giving players the back story they need to hear, but could never possibly stay awake for. The town was saved by a mighty hero hundreds of years ago? There’s a statue of a burly man with a sword standing on a dragon’s head in town square. This kingdom has been at war with the dwarf mines for fifty years, and have settled into an uneasy truce? The tavern has a “No-Footstool” sign up and there’s still a couple of people with beards nailed up on their walls. The humans and weird blue skinned aliens have had an alliance for hundreds of years? The holonews has an alien and human anchor, and all signs and announcements are in human and crazy alien gobbledygook.

The rule is pretty simple. If you can show it or tell it, show it. A player who can visualize your world more clearly is a player who is more immersed. Same for visual media, don’t tell the player, put it there for them to see. Not in a cut-scene, but something they stumble across in their travels. Possibly the best use for set dressing is for defining characters. If you walk into a man’s office and he has a messy desk, newspaper clippings of his past triumphs on the wall, and a half empty bottle on a shelf in the corner, you can suddenly form a picture of them in your mind. This sort of thing is remarkably easy to do, and can be done fairly quickly. Generally, all it takes is to think about the person or situation you want to describe, and come up with three sentences about it. Simple things, like a dungeon being damp and musty, or an abandoned outpost having moss growing over it’s broken walls, or even the sides of a man’s computer being covered in layers of post-it notes will let the players delve deeper into your world and construct a more satisfying narrative.

Nowhere is this concept more important than in a video game wherein the player’s character is expected to have a certain personality. Giving the player a chance to visit some space that belongs entirely to them is by far the one of the best ways to tell the player who they are and why they act the way they do. A fussy character may have an extremely neat desk denoting his meticulous personality, a grizzled mercenary commander may have a little box of medals and a picture of the girl of his dreams hidden in his locker to show he is courageous but sensitive, and pretty much any character would have a box of machine parts shoved discretely out of the way because they are secretly a robot. The main thing is that you let the players see the environment their characters have created for themselves, so they know why they are expected to act they way they do.

Remember, use objects, not just adjectives, and try to make three sentences. It makes it long enough to be worth listening to, but not so long they tune out.


2 thoughts on “Game! Set! Story!

  1. Incidentally if you do this consistently, it helps create consistent texture, which is important so that the things that are important don’t stand out that way in a meta sense. Say there is one important object in a room, if your players are used to a number of notable but not necessarily key elements being described in some amount of detail, that object won’t stand out like a floodlight, lending to immersion.

  2. The subtle clues also helps those characters who emulate fictitious detectives and the like to work their deductive skills and practice their investigative abilities. It might also be a good idea to work in some behind-the-screen skill checks for the players to notice if they spot that the man with the post-it notes on the computer has a few referencing “street-value” and “scarcity,” perhaps roll the tech-thief character’s hacker-skill to see if he notices the design plans in the back of the android’s workshop strongly resemble top-secret war machine plans he noticed while snooping around the enemy’s LAN, maybe the barman’s sword at the back is designed for a left-handed wielder and he only has his right, maybe he also has a tattoo from whatever company he served with.

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