Image by aissatan and taken from www.DeviantArt.com
By Scott Bingham
“This is the place I told you to expect.
Here you shall pass among the fallen people,
Souls who have lost the good of intellect.”
So saying, he put forth his hand to me,
And with a gentle and encouraging smile
He led me through the gate of mystery.
Welcome back to the Flying Pincushion! This week’s theme of the poetic work of Dante, The Inferno, was altogether an enjoyable read and a conduit of inspiration in my own work as a DM. The topic for this piece is a discussion on the use of detail in our storytelling and the effect it can have on our players’ overall gaming experience.Details can be both a powerful point of interest in our storytelling and a mass of jumbled chaos that does little more than distract from what is truly important. In the instance of interest we take a close look at Dante’s The Inferno and the way in which the setting is presented in each of the Circles of Hell.
As Dante and Virgil travel together lower and lower through the depths of wailing and torment the most human response would be that of horror and fear. If any of my characters were to make such a journey (one has in fact) the overall play personality that I would bring to the table would be that of sheer terror and paralyzing revulsion. However because of the nature of detail used in describing the manner and method of each Circle’s tortured souls and their various punishments Dante feels wonder. He is impossibly pulled into the scenes of horrific and eternal damnation because of how brilliantly and beautifully these depictions are painted for him. Things that are so ugly, so grisly, so incredibly repulsive and yet Dante is drawn deeper and deeper into Hell as his curiosity and very interest is piqued.
This is a tool used graciously in the case of The Inferno to ensure that Dante involves himself in the story. Detail, when used properly, can turn the heads of our players and cause them to question and to investigate. Imagine for a moment what sort of difference that can make. Let us go the Third Circle of Hell, the one meant to punish those great Gluttons of the mortal life, for such an example. First, the version purposefully lacking any sort of hook.
As you awaken you find yourself on the floor of the Third Circle of Hell. Virgil explains that this plane is meant to punish the Gluttons. Off in the distance you see the three headed Cerberus torturing souls and Virgil calmly waves for you to follow him.
I am in the Third Circle of the torments.
Here to all time with neither pause nor change
The frozen rain of Hell descends in torrents.
Huge hailstones, dirty water, and black snow
Pour from the dismal air to putrefy
The putrid slush that waits for them below.
Here monstrous Cerberus, the ravening beast,
Howls through his triple throats like a mad dog
Over the spirits sunk in that foul paste.
Absolutely chilling. Already there has been a sense of dread established and an innate desire to avoid the creature Cerberus at all costs. A picture has been painted for us as to the nature of these souls eternal torment and we wish more than ever to tread carefully. When you as a Dungeon Master can help your players to see what you are describing it becomes that more real for them. Personally I find it easier to be involved, interested, and participating when in my mind’s eye I can envision the scene laid out before me. I’d take extra care on where I set my feet in such a scene and keep my eyes on the beast Cerberus.
Now to the other side of things. Details are a profound and strengthening factor in our storytelling particularly when used to describe something that before would appear so small and insignificant. However such a thing must be used in moderation. It’s easy when telling our tale to our players to get lost in the details and forget that there are more important things to be accomplished. Sometimes a thing can be simple because it holds no value in what we’re trying to accomplish with our players. Sometimes a room is simply that; a room. There is a table, a bookshelf, and a chair. No embellishment needed for this room means nothing. It’s simply a room.
When detailing something of importance however we must take special care. Our stories matter to us most of all above anyone else and so it’s easy for us to get excited and at times a bit carried away in our telling. A scene of greatness can be too much for in our episodic expression of an incredible scene we run the risk of forgetting where the spotlight should shine; on our players. They are the heroes and need to know that as their DM we are interested and invested in them. For any and all who have taken the time and pains to fill out a character sheet and to write a backstory it’s nice to know that our storyteller appreciates our small contribution to building a living, breathing character to explore their world.
Consider detail as you would a spice; don’t dump the entire shaker into the mixture. Add just enough to flavor the meal and make it that much more enjoyable. Use too much and one’s appetite quickly becomes lost in the overwhelming, overpowering tang of far too many words.
Dante’s The Inferno does a masterful job of using detail in such a way that Dante’s character (which is himself oddly enough) is interested and involved, two traits that we long for in our players. Such use of detail prompts Dante to ask questions and to make skill checks all the while venturing further and further into the story and the very bowels of Hell. He feels the necessary fear and disgust at the twisted and tangled mess that is eternal damnation but the sense of curiosity that he feels is the one that we love most. Why else would he stop to speak to the various tormented souls that he meets or turn to Virgil with questions and curiosity in his eyes?