Monday, October 21, 2013

GMing Tips: Avoid Overselling the Description

This is one I'm guilty of. I could blame boxed text, Gary Gygax's use of $10 words when a $0.50 word would do, or delusions of being a fiction writer. But it's really just a bad habit. Sometimes I use too many words to describe things in my game when I just don't need to. I add noise and reduce comprehension.

My goal is to cut down on the amount useless detail I give, especially when it's getting in the way of tension and clarity instead of creating it.

These are tips for me, from me, but I think they might help others.

Don't Oversell It
Some Government Agent: "And for some time our astronomers have been noticing an unusual amount of atomic activity on the moon."
Tom Servo: "Isn't
any amount of atomic activity on the moon unusual?"
- MST3K, Ep. 102 "The Robot vs. The Aztec Mummy," from the Commando Cody short.

Yes, exactly. "For some time our astronomers have noted atomic activity on the moon." That's all you need. It's the "on steroids" syndrome. "They're like giant killer bees that eat your brain, but on steroids!" Uhm, really? Unlike regular giant killer brain-eating bees? Just go with that. It's sufficient for the job.

I do this too. Not "You see a strange two-headed man, one head beside the other on his shoulders." Right, not like the normal two-headed ones. "You see a man with two heads, one beside the other." Good enough. I want to do more of the latter than the former. "A strange sight" is fine, but the whole "surprising surprise!" thing has to go. I'll keep Tom Servo's comment in mind when I describe my dungeon.

Focus on What's Important First. - The joke in my game is, "You open the door and see a kind of office. There is a desk of some ancient wood, carefully carved with floral patterns, strewn with writing materials. Books like the walls, with titles picked out in gold lettering. The walls are colored a somber color blah blah blah. Also in the room are three orcs with crossbows! Roll for surprise!"

Yeah, don't do that. I do that sometimes. The description is better as "You open the door and see three orcs with crossbows! Roll for surprise!" And done. I bet you could have a whole fight in real life and not notice it was an office, see the desk, or notice the bookshelves until your world expanded past "there are crossbow quarrels coming right at me!"

You had me at "troll." - Another one I fall prey to sometimes - too much description for things the PCs (and players) already recognize. It's wasted verbage, because the players hear "blah blah blah ogre with a halberd blah blah." They're keying on the important words anyway, so just use those.

I have done this right, though - used description the first time, but not the next.

The first time trolls showed up in my game, I made sure to throw in some punchy description - tall but stooped, long arms dragging knuckles on the floor, the long nose, the green skin, the lopsided and toothy grin, the eyes like black pools, the "hloo, hloo" chuckle. Creepy stuff. Let them know there was danger, and because the players knew what trolls were, it was a pretty satisfying moment as they groaned. But that moment was a one-time thing; I couldn't (and didn't try to) repeat it.

The next time I mentioned them, it was just the "hloo, hloo" that gave them away before they were seen and that was it. "You see a troll." Why clutter it up with description? Everyone is waiting to tell me what they do to put this thing down before it kills them. They know what it is. Of course I'd answer questions or throw in detail as they mattered ("It tries to dodge, but fails - the fireball smacks right into its grinning green face.")

Don't Cut Too Far - Of course, you don't want to cut the description down so far you don't know what it is. At one end of the spectrum is "you are eaten by a grue." What does a grue look like? Uh . . . I don't know. At the other end there is a novella describing each and every monster as if you're trying to get the police sketch down perfectly every time they see it. You want to lean towards "grue" but not so far that you aren't communicating what's there.

Key Words - A good key word for a monster helps, though - if I say "smell of cinnamon" to a Tekumel player, they're thinking Ssu immediately. I don't need much else. Establish one if you can, and then cut down to that when the monster shows back up.

And for some things, I have a ritual-like set of phrases I use to describe them. I always use my spiel to start a game: "You head out of Stericksburg by the river gate, cross the Stone Bridge across the Silver River, pass Sterick's Landing and the statue of Baron Sterick on his charger, axe and sword upraised. You go through the slums and head up the mountain towards Felltower." It's a signal that things have started. I don't cut it because it's not extraneous.

Same with the rotating statues in my megadungeon. I always describe the statues fully, the first time they're seen in a given session. Same players or not.

You might wonder, doesn't that tell people they're important? Yes, it does. I'm not running a mystery. Knowing something is a puzzle doesn't necessarily make it less puzzling. Knowing a detail is important doesn't tell you why it's important. I don't need to describe everything in numbing detail in order to conceal what's an important detail, nor do I need to do that to make the game fun. Using description like it's Darth Vader's intro music isn't a bad thing - it tells people "here comes some tension!" - especially if you're going to later pare down that description into a few key words or phrases that tell them to feel that tension again. Like the troll or ssu above, once you know some of the key words, they're all you need to realize there is danger coming.

My goal, like I said above, is to cut down the useless verbage I'm using to describe things in game, while still getting across a good description of what you see. I need to provide just enough structure for your brain to hand the details on, and fill in the gaps with your own imagination.

Eloquence is my goal. If you read this blog, you know it's a long way off for me. But I'm shooting for it.


  1. I generally agree with these remarks, but I think you need to find a balance between focusing on what's important first and not leaving out useful details. There may be 3 orcs in the room, but there's also a desk with paper on it, and that could be a meaningful detail if the orcs have crossbows and want to take cover behind it, or the swashbuckler thinks he could jump on top of it and kick an orc in the face, or if the wizard wants to unleash Rain of Fire but would refrain if she knew she was about to set a library on fire.

    Terrain is important, to encourage tactics and also narrative. Players can't take advantage of terrain they don't know about, and in a dungeon, furniture and wall design is terrain. So while it might not be important to mention the details of the obscure elvish script on the books in the library, mentioning that it's a library is probably significant enough that you shouldn't just cut it it "there are 3 orcs!"

    Something like, "you see 3 orcs with ready crossbows standing behind a massive desk on the far side of the room. Every wall in the room is covered with bookshelves full of books," both gives the really important informations (3 orcs, ready crossbows) and the immediately useful tactical info (big desk, far away, highly inflammable environment).

    1. "I generally agree with these remarks, but I think you need to find a balance between focusing on what's important first and not leaving out useful details."

      You're right about that, but it's not stuff that needs to be in the first line of the description. Or even matter until after you determine who goes first. I'm not saying "Stop describing it entirely after that" but rather "Get out the important details first, get on with the game, and then go from there." I'd mention the desk, the bookshelves - after we're moving along and if they're important. Not while the players are champing at the bit waiting to roll initiative and see if their guys live or die.

      If the fight continues in that example office, sure, I'll mention the desk, the shelves. What if it doesn't? What if they win the initiative and slam the door? Would they even notice the desk, the flammable environment? Maybe. I'd give a Per check if someone asked for one. But it's after initiative that it's even useful. It's after dealing with the immediate issue. It's not important yet so it's not worth mentioning, yet.

  2. Well, as a rule, opening the door is going to alert the Orcs, who are going to start firing their crossbows at you, so . . .

    Just how much "description" of the room are the PCs going to "take in" before they're being pelted with bolts?

    "Danger Will Robinson!"

    Their attention was/is centered on the Orcs trying to kill them, not on the bookshelves. The room's complete description needs to wait for later.

    Sure, the Orcs are "taking cover behind a large desk," but do you think they're really going to notice the floral patterns? Or the gold writing upon the spines of the books?

    Not hardly.

    View any police report of an accident or crime; thirty witnesses? Thirty different versions of what happened. The ALL saw thirty different things.

    None of your PCs noticed those details. Not until the fighting was over.

    1. That's what I figure. Plus, like I said above (and in post), you describe what's necessary in order of importance. If the orcs are in cover behind the desk, yeah, you mention that right away. If not, mention it as soon as it's reasonable someone could see it, and after the other important things.

      I have no problems with:

      - open the door, see orcs.
      - roll for initiative, surprise, dodging bolts, whatever.
      - mention the highlights of the room beyond that can be seen.
      - go on to the next part of the fight.

      So it might go Orcs! Roll! They're in some kind of office with a big desk and bookcase-lined walls - what are you guys doing now?"

      It's just an example, of course, and like I said - important first doesn't mean only the critical details. Just in order of importance, only when important.

  3. "You open the door to the next room. Your first impression is that it's a study, or a . . . Orcs! Orcs are preparing to fire their crossbows at you! Roll for Initiative!"

    Works for me. LOL


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