by Mike Shea on 28 May 2013
There's an old joke about the key to running away from an angry bear. You don't have to be fast, you just have to be faster than the other guy. As dungeon masters, we always have to be one step ahead of the players. This isn't the same sort of contest as running away from a bear. We're all chasing the same goal: fun and entertainment. As DMs, however, is it we who must generally answer the eternal question in any great D&D game:
What happens next?
Many DMs answer that question by preparing the answers ahead of time. If you've been reading this site over the past six months, though, you likely have heard that I believe there is another way.
We don't have to know all the answers. We only need to know one more answer than the players have questions.
Ed Greenwood wrote about this in his article, Ends Better Left Loose. Here's the relevant quote:
"For every mystery, conflict, or other 'loose end' that gets explained or resolved, make sure you build in three more."
If you think about the mathematical side of this theory, you'll realize you will always be adding more threads than your players can handle. This keeps you ahead of the curve and it makes the world feel real to your players. They need to know there's more to the world just outside of their view. Just like the real world, they'll never reach the end of their to-do list.
Ed Greenwood touches on this subject again in How Many Cults are Too Many?:
"You only need to have more hidden cults than your players can pin down, unravel, and understand. That way, there's always confusion, mystery, and intrigue — the root material of any urban, heavy-roleplaying campaign, and useful in all forms of ongoing D&D play."
This same idea works just as well for the details of your world. You don't have to explain exactly how a trap works. You just need to provide enough detail to convince your players that it could work. The world needs to feel like it follows some sort of system, even if that system is outside the view (or interest) of your players. Things need to feel like they could really work. That's not the same thing as saying they can really work. They just need to feel like they can.
We could get philosophical and start discussing whether or not perception is just as important as reality or start talking about cats in boxes and shit, but you get the idea.
You don't have to think fast. You just have to think one step ahead of your players.