A picture is worth 1000 words...

Author: Andrew /

But it's best to try to do it in less... Heh. So, the idea that's rolling around in my head at the moment is how DMs will (or sometimes won't) paint you a picture while you play a game. I think about this and I realize that there are usually two main categories of DMs who run games and usually you'll fall between them.

First, you have the theatrical. This is the guy (or gal) who is descriptive in every way and who will go on ad infinitum to describe the situation. Every rock, tree, bush, critter, scent, light ray, ruin, structure, native character, etc will get the royal literary treatment. To him, what's important, usually, is the story and even more, immersion. He wants his players to be bathed in the story, to feel like they're really walking through the world instead of observing it through a TV screen.

Second, at the other end of the spectrum, you have the utilitarian. This is the guy (or gal) who is no-nonsense. He tells you no more than you need to know so that the play can get back to the players. The pro to this guy is that there's no risk of sitting around waiting for descriptions. If you're up for a hack 'n' slash and you just want to roll some dice and aren't so much interested in a story, this is your guy.

Now, we all have our likes and dislikes and that's the beauty of the game but honestly, I prefer the former to the latter (and I also AM the former, versus the latter, so it makes sense, I suppose). To me, knowing what's around you is important. But that said, I understand the need for players to play and figure some stuff out for themselves. I think the trick is to find a happy medium.

Now, the idea of shutting up and letting the players play is pretty selfexplanitory so i'm not going to go into that, what I am going to go into are what it takes to paint a verbal picture; the senses.

Now, at first, one might say "Well, duh! But really, it takes more conscious consideration when thinking of the situation and translating that into the description. There's a bit of a priority or an order to when things reach your senses and which things you sense first, so I'll try to list them in that order (and this isn't a definate order, but one that just about gets close).

Sight: What you see is always what is percieved first (usually). When you walk into a room, your eys sweep across it, finding the details and little nuances about the room.

Sound: When you walk into a room or a new place, the second thing you do (without really helping it) is you start listening. You hear a firetruck far away; you hear a faucet dripping; you hear kids laughing; etc. That's usually the second thing.

Smell: The third thing you usually find yourself noticing is smell. You ever walk into a room, look around, check it out, think it's a nice room, nice and quiet and then, after a second, go "What's that smell??" That's the third sense kicking in. It usually seems to take a minute, doesn't it? Usually. Could be baking bread, could be a farm just down the road, could be mold, etc. Smell is a very strong provoker of attitudes. If something smells great, you generally want to get closer to it, you want to smell more. If something smells bad it can make you feel ill; it makes you want to get away from that place as fast as possible because it's almost impossible to make smell just "leave."

Touch and Taste: These ones come in last because they generally only come into play when used actively, or at least more so than the others. Touch, a little before because if you feel hot or cold, clammy or dry, etc, I attribute that to touch. You feel it. Taste is simply there when you put something in your mouth. Sometimes air can have a bit of a taste or something carried on the air but usually it's the last thing that comes into play.

Emotion: This is sort of cheating. It's not REALLY a sense but it deffinately seems to act like one. If you feel a sense of foreboding, what is that? A traditional sense? Not really. If you feel afraid or excited, does that fit into those categories up there? I wouldn't say so. But a place can give you feelings certainly. A graveyard at night can creep you right out! A kids playground can make you feel light hearted. A classroom at school can convey all sorts of messages.

The main point is this. Look at these statements:

"You walk into an old, abandoned cellar, with an open door in the back of the room."

"You walk into an old cellar behind the equally old house. You see two rotting wooden doors that look like they open down into the ground under the house. You lift one door and open it, creaking on its rusted hinges. As you step down into the cellar, your feet hit cold stone steps and your eyes fall on cold, dark stone walls. You hear water dripping off in the dark corners and you smell mold and mildew as this cellar seems to have been untouched for a long time. You feel a chill draft coming from a door that appears open at the back of the room..."

Which is more appealing? Which is more entertaining? Which do you enjoy more? I, personally, love the second one. It pulls me in, it allows me to paint the picture and really see where I am and most likely, has my group picturing something much closer to what I'm thinking than what the first description would have allowed for.

The point that we come to is this. Should you be descriptive? Yes. Absolutely. Should you ramble on for what would be pages and pages? No (although some of us will, lol) When it comes to it, you have to use judgment, as always, but you should always try to paint a picture and the more you practice the better you'll get and the more your players will be able to feel as if they're in this amazing world you're imagining!

Thanks for reading, all and as always, comments and ideas are ALWAYS welcomed, and not just welcomed but encouraged. If you have any ideas for topics you'd like me to tackle, throw them in a comment and I'll write an entry on it! And with that, I'll see you next time!



mechamonogatari said...

I agree that the second description of the cellar is far superior...but that level of detail is hard for me to sustain. Thus, I tend towards the utilitarian when it comes to descriptions, and even when I do take the effort to describe something in more detail, usually I focus on the emotions it evokes more than anything. If the players ask for more physical details, however, I'll readily fill it in to their hearts content.

The way to go is to keep your level of descriptive detail constant (preferably constantly high!) regardless of how important or trivial the scene is, to avoid tipping off your players. If you only break out the vivid descriptions when something important is going on, the players will hear your elaborate speech and know to be on their toes. I've been trying to work on this in my latest campaign, with a small level of success...old habits die hard, I suppose.

As far as the order goes, instead of working from first activated sense to the last, I tend to build up the details from most ordinary to most extraordinary...and the ginormous dragon in the room always, always gets mentioned last.

If you're looking for new topics for posts, how about one on the fine art of creating NPCs, especially ones that have a long-term presence in a campaign world? Long-term NPCs are my favorite part of the world building process, and I'm curious to hear your thoughts on the matter...

Andrew said...

That's a great point; I really like the idea of going ordinary to very very extraordinary and I bet that dragon is a nice shock every time!

I also like the idea of keeping detail relatively low until key moments and using detail as it's own sort of foreshadowing so that when the players hear more description, they go "Uh oh.... what's coming?"

Great thoughts! And thanks for the post idea, I'll roll that around in my noggin and see what I think about it. Thanks a ton and you had some great insights yourself! Keep the comments comin'!

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