Big moments are important to RPGs and the stories we tell in them. Boss fights, epic betrayals, last stands, vindication of loyalty. They're the moments that people both want and crave. The stand out moments from books, movies, shows, and everything else we consume stories from. In essence they're easy to set up: a lone fortress against impossible odds, the final battle, a big boss encounter with a dragon, an ally turning traitor. Those few words used to describe them are more or less all you need to 'setup' in your game to have them. However, for as easy as they are to set up they're just as easy to have fall flat. Why? Because in focusing on big moments, in wanting to have those moments of shock, danger, tension, in wanting to have that highlight reel moment we forget that for a big moment to stand out it has to contrast against other moments and it needs to be setup for with myriad smaller moments.
Small moments, for as small as they are, can be infinitely harder to do well. They tend to be exactly as described: small. They're personal, and in a lot of ways they can feel meaningless. The kind of moments you feel comfortable glossing over at the table because they'll take time, they don't involve anyone, and 'nothing really important' is happening in this.
Yes, We're Going To Talk About Critical Role
Critical Role is very good at doing small moments and big moments. This works for their table because all the players are there to tell a story, and they know - it is their job after all - that there is a need for these small moments. Which is why you'll see them have small, personal conversations. Sometimes with each other. Sometimes with NPCs.
Some of these small conversations give insight into the characters emotional state. Sometimes they give revelations for plot. But a lot of times - even while bigger things are happening - they're doing something subtle: they're letting us get to know the characters (PCs and NPCs) as people. This in turn makes us have an emotional bond with the characters. And that emotional bond makes the bigger moments feel more real, and more tense.
Set Up For, And Allow Some Small Moments
Small moments is something I'm very much trying to have more of in my game. As I said above, it is hard. They're small and personal, and every minute I - the GM - am spending on one PC's small moment is a minute I am not interacting with the rest of the table. That in and of itself is not a problem, but it is a balancing act that you have to be aware of.
My hope is that in setting up some of these small moments, and encouraging my players to have some small moments with each other, that they'll become more invested not just in the game, and their personal story, but in the stories of the other PCs as well. Time will tell if it works. It could be it's not what they're coming for specifically, but we all want to tell stories in our gaming so it's worth giving the try. And even in the couple of sessions I've done it, I - on a personal level at least - have felt a better connection to my NPCs and been pleased with the game.
Big Moments and Small Moments. They work together. They define the other. Big Moments can lead to a myriad of small moments. Small moments can make the big moments feel so much more real.
Try to have both.