Monday, May 7, 2012

Description: GM Techniques

One of the most important realizations for me as a GM was understanding that nearly everything the GM does at the table is description. Certainly meta-issues exist- table management, strategy, rules interpretation. But where the rubber hits the road is that contact between player and GM. This communication and exchange revolves around describing their world, their situation, their choices, and the rules. That can be more or less ornate, more or less clinical. Players create images, mental pictures, and maps of the game on many levels. The GM through description tries to provide a unified picture- or at least one the players can interact with collectively.

The topic of this week's Gamemaster University on RPGGeek was "Descriptions: When to be Verbose and When to be Sparse." Below are ten suggestions about description I've found useful as a GM.

You’ve probably heard this before, but it is important to use all the senses in describing. We generally focus on visual and auditory because they’re define the situation most clearly. Bringing in small details of smell, touch and taste deepens the experience and makes it seem more real. In a recent session, we had a underwater city rise from the depths. I talked about the smell of it, something all of us living near a river could related to. The feel of the mud underneath their feet as the marched through. The slimy spots where the algae and kelp had stuck and begun to dry. The way the smell of it got in their mouth so that could could taste the rot.

These kinds of senses have a strong relation to place. A big city smells different, and the subways and train stations of those places have a distinct aroma to them. Different cultures wear different clothing, with unusual tactile feel and appearance. Food offers a great gateway to establish a sense of place. The smell and taste of it- heavy, creamy, spicy, aromatic, sickly sweet- you can easily use those details. My players know that when they go someplace new, they’re likely to experience those kinds of details and scenes.

Related to the above, take some time to think about your personal experiences. When you imagine a scene, what sticks out for you? What details serve as anchors? Importantly when you’ve been in some place uncomfortable, strange or dangerous, what triggered your responses? I’ve been in a couple of burned out houses in my life and that’s etched in my memory. I lived in the Middle East and the smell of dry air combined with dense crowds remains with me. Think about little things- how metals and stone feel different depending on how it has been worked. There’s a visceral difference between running your fingers along marble or porous brick, between touching a smooth-surfaced mirror and a rough cut slab of steel with burrs along the edges.

This can vary from group to group, but I find it effective to break the fourth wall from time to time. Using the language of cinema- zoom ins, pans, close ups, wipe to X, the camera lingers, smash cut- can be effective. Some think points to the artifice of the moment. I’ve found it more useful than distracting. Players have seen enough movies and TV shows to appreciate these techniques. These can add motion and movement to your descriptions. I’d recommend Cinematic Storytelling by Jennifer Van Sijll as a good reference. Related but a littler trickier is explicitly referencing movies, TV shows or even real world places or things for sensory elements. Describing architecture or cuisine as being “like that of X” is an easy trick to offer. I’ve used pop culture references to give the players the sense of scales of explosions, the visceral sense of gore, and the quiet menace of a place. Don’t be afraid to use these devices, though sparingly. It may seem obvious, but I’ve heard some GMs dismiss this technique. I’ve had solid success with it.

Never read description text directly from a book. Never. Never ever. It will always sound forced. Extemporize, make a note of the most important details in the text and work with those. In my experience, there’s a switch in player’s heads that trips when they hear material read from a module. Suddenly they’re in irritation or parody mode.

We often focus on description as a means of creating atmosphere. Reluctance about descriptions comes, I believe, from worry about GMs spinning off into florid prose or engaging in pure storytelling exercises. The GM as a frustrated writer. This can be a problem: but a simple tactic to avoid this is to pay attention to your audience. Recognize disengagement and move to quickly wrap up your presentation if you’re beginning to lose them.

Besides atmosphere, the even more important arena for description comes when the players are about to engage with the environment in a significant way. The obvious example is PCs about to engage in combat. But it can also happen when they’re about to infiltrate of a castle, enter a grand ball, or escape from a deathtrap. Descriptions here need to be reasonably complete and precise. In this case, that precision ought to trump considerations of pacing or player interaction. Describe the situation cleanly, focusing on elements you would want to know about if you were a player. Set up the landscape, the kind of opposition, and the resources available.

Getting good at this is one way to really develop yourself as a GM. One of the traps I’ve fallen into when I’ve run has been speeding the game up so that the conflict feels tense. At that point I don’t want to break that flow by stopping to provide detailed descriptions. Inevitably if I rush forward, I lose the players. They end up confused about layout, positions, enemies, options and so on. Even with miniatures, unless you paint a coherent picture, players may only focus or understand a slice of the scene.

One approach is to raise the speed up and then make a clear break or gesture to signal you’re about to describe the tactical situation. You might even do this as people are rolling initiative or getting their dice and such in order. I’ve found it useful to go around and describe the scene quickly from each character’s interests or line of sight. A thief might see the scene differently from a mage for example. Once I’ve done that “loading screen” set up to the fight, then I return to faster pace and speed to restore the tempo and tension.

When I run a combat, I try to keep the speed up. Players know that when I come to them, they should know what they're going to do. But also they need to stop me and ask me if they're unsure about something important- I try to be good about shifting gears down if I see those kinds of requests. But my goal within a combat round is to construct a complete narrative of that scene, meaning that I’m constantly describing. When I come to a player, I try to give a quick statement of their situation and position: "OK, Kenny, you're on the conveyor belt, and can see that the mooks are trying to lift something out of the box in the corner. What are you going to do?" I've already described the scene, but I do a recap for each player. It’s a few seconds that reorients the player in the moment and also says: OK, you have the floor now, Mr. Player. When I come to the next player I do the same thing- except, I make sure I describe their position relative to the previous player and their action. "OK, Sherri, the machinery's going full tilt and you've seen Kenny leap off past you towards those Mooks with the box, what do you do?"

As the round goes on I compound this- adding a little more, rewinding and describing the turn- and making sure the active player sees what others have done and how they can play off of it. In a tight turn, but the time I get to the last player I'm providing a mini-story of the turn as a whole. Ideally I can take some time at the end of the turn to clarify results and signal the move to the next turn. We draft a dramatic narrative for the turn on the fly- in part by not seeing everything as simultaneous, just close to simultaneous. And I deploy repetition for effect, a classic storytelling technique which can get old in a visual feature. That repetition is a form of flashback, or rewinding. Especially when the environment is crucial, repeating yourself is a good thing.

Be objective with your detail. I mentioned above providing description from a character’s PoV: both physically and based on their role (i.e. the swashbuckler notes the chandelier, the dwarf notes the stonework, etc). However never describe that character’s reaction to the details. Describe something as repulsive, paint a picture of a revolting moment, but don’t tell a player that they pull back their hand in horror and revulsion. You might suggest something reminds them of something else, but leave connections, interpretations, and responses in the players’ hands.

That can be a difficult thing to avoid- especially when the description’s rolling out at a good tempo. But imposing reactions can create resentment- an immediate reaction of “oh NO I wouldn’t…” regardless of the legitimacy. That kind of irritation can be hard to articulate, and therefore hard to resolve. Give players room to respond to your descriptions.

The exception to this would be systems which use fear, sanity or response checks. Once you’ve gone to the dice, you have more room to describe reactions based on the player’s failure or success. It’s a good idea to still give players room to define those failures themselves, but randomization reduces the feeling that the GM’s imposing something on their character.

Perhaps the biggest problem a GM faces with description is player paranoia. The difficulty being that they’re not wrong. You want to give players a fair chance and offer them a response to details or events that don’t quite fit- give them a clue that there’s a trap or at least a thorn in the rose. If you’re trucking along and take time to describe something when you haven’t done that before- you raise a red flag. Suddenly the group can go into lock-down mode, not from the circumstances but from the meta-game. There’s no good way to rewind from that state.

The trap here is that you don’t want to describe everything, all the time. Instead you need to pick your battles. You can do this in two ways. The first is to make sure in each scene you give at least one set of significant descriptions, and throw in at least one odd detail. Get players used to the fact that there will be things that appear in scenes that are simply color. The first couple of times you do this, especially with a paranoid group, you will have players stopping to investigate…to check out the odd thing that you described. You have to play this completely straight. In one campaign, the group arrived in a cavern which could serve as a potential refuge. I described it generally, making mention in particular of water dripping from stalactites into a puddle on the floor. The Magician in the group couldn’t leave it alone- he investigated, made perception rolls, spent spells, and only detected that there were mosquitoes around the puddle. So he cast Deathcloud on it to be sure. Once the table stopped laughing at him, he approached those kinds of moments more evenhandedly.

One of the other ways to keep players from reading descriptions as pointing to sudden changes or hidden traps is to vary your delivery speed. If you find yourself slowing down or speeding up when you hit those moments, try to manage your speech. If you control and vary your delivery patterns whenever you offer description, it makes it harder for the players to immediately identify a moment as a giveaway. I try to monitor this to manage pacing. I slow down when we get to spooky moments, I try to speed up as the action heightens. When things become frenetic my descriptions will shorten- sharp, short sentences or even single words.

A couple of related presentation techniques can assist this. Certain kinds of words in the English language have a weightier, harder-edged sound. Writers suggest using Anglo Saxon words to create a directness and immediacy. You can find a number of articles about this on the web. It means paying attention to word choice and considering how they sound. If I know I’m going to be describing something like a swamp, I’ll look up words related to that and make a list. I’ll consult a thesaurus to see if I can find some with an evocative sound. By writing out perhaps a dozen of those in the margins of my notes, I put those ideas in my head before we play. I’d also suggest that you complement your descriptions with movement and gestures. They can add emphasis. And if you regularly use those, you’ve added another device that makes it harder for the players to read any description as “the important one.”

I’ve mentioned making up lists of keywords and details above. I don’t necessarily refer to these during the game, but by doing that quick exercise, I have that in mind when I run. When I’m running in a particular genre or setting, I try to think about the elements and description details fitting with that. Vincent Baker's Apocalypse World offers the following rule for the Master of Ceremonies,
Barf forth apocalyptica. Cultivate an imagination full of harsh landscapes, garish bloody images, and grotesque juxtapositions. In Apocalypse World, when the rain falls it’s full of fine black grit like toner, and all the plants’ leaves turn gray from absorbing it. Out among the wrecked cars, wild dogs fight for territory, with each other and with the rats, and one of the breeds is developing a protective inner eyelid of blank bone. If you get too close to them you can hear the click-click when they blink.
I’ve heard that advice restated as “Spam Fantastic.” Build up for yourself a set of images that come into your mind when you think about the game. Hit players with these from time to time. It isn’t that you need to smash the players with a block of narration, but be ready with an evocative detail for any scene. That helps keep you and your players in the moment you’re trying to create.

If you want to get good at solid, tight description, consider reading some of the masters. Tolkien’s great, but his style’s less useful at the table IMHO. You need to read Robert E. Howard or Fritz Leiber for amazing and economic approaches to combat. For general economy of words consider reading James Ellroy or Dashiell Hammett. I’d also suggest listening to some great storytellers to consider how they handle voice, pacing, tone and detail: Kevin Smith, Spalding Gray, or even stand-up storytelling comedians like Patton Oswalt.


  1. Absolutely excellent article, I'm agreed on all points.

    To play Devil's Advocate a bit, I have a good friend that seems to like to counter me on anything I say, but those little challenges he throws at me often get me evaluating myself in ways I think for the better. I once said at the table, when someone else was GMing a written module, "Nothing takes me out of the game like 'read-aloud' text, its never going to come out in your voice, I want your interpretation of the scene."

    To this my friend, another player, said, "I like the boxed text, someone worked hard to write it all and I like to appreciate their work".

    My point being, there are players that get a kick out of it, and there's probably a place for it. Typically though, I find it to be lacking.

  2. That's a fair point- and I'm glad to hear a contrary example. My experience when I've run, when I've been in games, and when I've watched GMs at conventions is that it most often causes problems or negative reactions. I usually see it used to negative describe GMs in con game after-action reports, "...and then he read from the module's text again."

    But I can imagine players who might get a kick out of it for nostalgia's sake. Even better I can imagine a GM who sets themselves the goal of being able to make the reading of such text compelling and interesting.

  3. I posted that first comment, but it made me "Unknown" until I fill out the name in my profile, and didn't retroactively grant me credit. I think that would be a fun angle to try, making the read aloud text work specifically. I'm always experimenting with my GM style to try to improve it, could be fun.

  4. Fantastic post, and great points to consider. What caught my attention in particular is the section on combat description:

    ...not seeing everything as simultaneous, just close to simultaneous.

    This point struck me most. I dig the idea of the quick "instant replay" to set the scene for the player whose action is next in rotation, and as a way to frame their points of reference and possible decisions. I know you've done this in the past but it's good to see it spelled out.