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Painting in words


I am #426
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Description is a tricky thing, but it’s probably the most important thing for a GM to get right. Your description of the world is the only thing that allows your player to interact with it. Clarity is critical. RPGs are a story telling in a shared world, and they only run smoothly so long and there is a shared understanding between player and game master. Making sure that your players can reasonable predict the results of their characters’ actions is essential (a theme I will be returning to repeatedly) and it starts with a clear description.

A Character Centric Viewpoint

The worst way you can answer a question about a character’s immediate surroundings is “you can’t tell”. It’s frustrating. It’s impossible for a player to work with. And above all it’s not true. At least not entirely. The player isn’t there, but their character is. Even if they can’t perceive the answer the question they asked, they are aware of something.

How big is the cave?
The sunlight coming in from then entrance show you twenty feet clearly and you can dimly see another twenty beyond that. The furthest extent of the cave is lost in the shadows, however you can make out the vague suggestion of cavern walls to the left and right where the wall you entered from curves into the gloom – indicating an overall width of perhaps sixty or seventy feet.

Telling the player not just what his character knows, but what he doesn’t know (and why) leads into actions they can take to get the information they don’t have instead of shutting down that line of inquiry.

There is an understandable desire to avoid being too precise with descriptions. It’s impossible to count a group milling about at a glance, so telling the players there are seventeen orcs in the room lacks a sense of realism. That’s fine. But being too imprecise is more problematic. “There are a lot orcs” doesn’t say much. Is that five, twenty, on hundred, or one thousand. Round numbers are good: dozen, score, hundred. So are bounds: somewhere between ten and twenty. If your players ever do stop for an exact count, they shouldn’t totally be surprised by the result.

Something else to keep in mind is that people do have a reasonable intuitive sense of space. That gets lost when trying to express a scene in words. A swordsman might not know that a corridor is ten feet wide, but he’ll have a pretty good idea if he can has room to effectively fight in it. Precise measurements can be a way to restore some of that intuition without requiring a lot of tedious questions and answers. If you tell the players that the alley way is twenty feet wide they’ll know if they can drive their van up it, stretch a chain across it, or simply draw it on a map with one simple statement. When it doubt error on the side of more precision.

A Sense of Space
The most important thing about description is to lay out the environment so that you players can interact with it. In order to do cool things, they need to know what they have to work with. It’s not just about what, but where. Take a simple description for example:

The room is a large office. There is a desk, a table and chairs, a book case and a potted plant.
Two men and a woman are talking. A man with sunglasses and an earpiece stands watching on the other side of the room.

This covers the basic contents. And if your plan is for the PCs to talk to the people in the room, maybe there isn’t anything else you really need. But your players might have other ideas. The picture created is fuzzy and difficult to navigate. Compare:

The room is a large office. A man stands behind the desk in front of the wall to the left. He is talking to a woman sitting in a chair facing him. Another man stands near the facing a window on the far wall, occasionally interjecting comment in the conversation behind him. To the right is a small table surrounded by chairs. Behind that standing against the right hand wall between a book case and a potted plant a third man stands quietly watching. He’s wearing sunglasses and has an ear piece in his ear.

It’s all the same elements. And you’ll note that I haven’t described anything in the room in any more detail. But now there is a sense of space. If a player wants to do something unexpected – say try to grab the man behind the desk without giving the bodyguard a clear shot – they have some idea how they might do it, and how hard it would be. Or maybe they just want to make a grand entrance to impress the people present; they should at least have some ideas of how to position themselves to do it.

Even the more detailed description isn’t all encompassing, but it gives the players a starting point to ask about the things they want to know more about. They can do that any way but a clear description gives them more things they can ask about. And there is only so much energy players are going to spend asking questions and getting clarifications. If they spend all of that energy getting a clear picture of the room in their heads, they won’t spend it looking for cool things they can do. Lastly, if you get a clear picture in your head and describe it clearly, there will be fewer misconceptions when the action starts.

Something to note about the previous description of the office is the total lack of detail. What are the people wearing? Is it an antique wooden desk, a modern class one, or some worn cheap synthetic that looks like it was rejected by the seventies? That was intentionally done to demonstrate the minimum skeleton required for a scene you can interact with. But if atmospheric details aren’t quite critical, they are an important part of making a scene seem real. Finding the balance between giving your locations a lived in feel and being overly tedious is something of a matter of style and taste.

It can be useful to keep a checklist in your head for some things. I always forget about the weather. It’s rarely important, but when you don’t mention it there is a subtle sameness to things that’s just a little off. Things like the day length for the current time of year or altering your descriptions between day and night can also tend to make the world a bit more solid. Even details like whether or not the streets are crowded or empty. It doesn’t need to involve a ton of time or focus. Mostly you just need to remember to think about it.

When crafting descriptions it’s worth thinking a bit about your characters, who they are, and how they project themselves. A bookshelf full of well-thumbed reference books says something different that a gorgeous collection of leather bound tomes that were clearly purchased by the yard. Is the desk clean or cluttered? Is the art on the wall original, generic prints, or the framed doodling of a six year old? You can convey a lot of important information about somebody without them even being present.

Regardless of whether you tend towards lavish detail or a more spare style, being consistent is something to focus on. The reason is simple: at some point you are going to need to describe something without calling too much attention to it. If you’ve never once mention an animal in a modern game and then describe a cat crossing the street, the players are going to immediately find out everything there is to know about that cat going back to when its ancestors first crossed the ocean. If that’s the reaction you want, that’s fine, but usually you want to be more subtle. Don’t suddenly get lavish about something that’s important, or overly vague about something that should be hidden. Try to plan ahead – several sessions is best – if something is going to come up that you haven’t previously talked about. Drop a few mentions to stray dogs as background or the cat sitting on the porch of the house of the person they need to talk to and all of a sudden the cat crossing the street will slip by.

Another reason to establish consistency is deliberate inconsistencies will stand out. If you do want to focus attention on something, describe it more lavishly. If you’ve described an office of worn cheap furniture and a thread bare carpet then the original Monet on the wall attract attention. If you make every office feel lived in, then the one that is too clean stands out as a front. It’s a lot of fun when your players start picking up on little clues you drop here and there instead of having one big clue to follow.

Pulling it together
The most important takeaway is that it’s a matter of style. Find yours. Always think about what you want your description to accomplish. And clarity is key; if you’re players don’t understand what you are trying to convey, none of the rest matters.
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