Beat the Uncanny Valley With A Deft Detail

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0945

Got a couple concepts to run by you this warm Monday for world-building.

The Uncanny Valley

First concept comes from a chat I had with a co-worker last week about uncanny valleys. We humans are incredible pattern matching machines. When a pattern comes close to a match but contains subtle differences, our spidey senses tingle.

I sometimes get this feeling reading location write-ups in published adventures. The author tries hard to give you a realistic, believable place, but some detail nags at you and ruins the attempt.

A simple example: NPC dialogue with modern slang. When a bugbear says, “Cool!” I’m yanked out of the game and into the Valley of Awkward.

Simplicity Over Complexity

Second concept comes from an awesome book by Scott McCloud called Understanding Comics. He also talks about the uncanny valley and how simple comic art actually draws the reader in better than detailed art, pun intended.

How can simple line drawings capture the reader’s imagination more than photo-realistic comics?

Our brains grab concepts and fill in the details using our wicked pattern-matching fu.

For example, a face drawn as a circle with two dots for eyes and line for mouth.

As simple as you can get to depict a person. Yet, everyone will know it represents a person. And everyone can picture themselves as that person because our imaginations fill in the details.

The cartoon face does not contain strands of hair, pores in the skin, teeth, and lips. It’s not realistic at all. Yet it can represent any character in any story, worldwide.

Too Much Detail Drags The Game Down

So too it is with our games where we defy the power of simplicity and try to add too much detail or the wrong detail where none was needed.

When your players encounter Hommlet, you could bring out the map and start detailing every building, each NPC in the streets, the climate, and the terrain.

Or you could say, “A waking village yawns before you. People are going about their daily business. You hear kids playing and dogs barking. A pike adorned with the head of some creature greets inn patrons at village centre.”

With that simple description, the hot potato is tossed back to the PCs. They have enough detail to start getting curious. Their questions will tell you what’s important to them. And the game progresses well, without uncanny valleys.

Keep things simple. Avoid uncanny valleys and complicated details. Simplicity will draw your players in and get them engaged better than a column of boxed text every time!