Saturday, December 3, 2016

How Should We Be Describing Areas in Role-Playing Games

Last night I was reading reddit when ran across a novice Game Master (GM) asking for help in describing their game world. This particular GM had been running an adventure with lots of boxed text descriptions of each room which they had faithfully read as their players had explored. With experience, however, this GM had begun wondering if this was right or if they should be a bit more imaginative with the descriptions. The answers to this question left me feeling rather unfulfilled so I thought that I would explore the question more fully here.

When I first began running Dungeons and Dragons twelve years ago I ran games that came exclusively from my own imagination. I didn't pick up an official adventure from TSR or Wizards of the Coast for two years; and by that point I had already established my own style of describing the worlds my players were exploring which was heavily influenced by the pulp authors that I frequently read. As a result the boxed text felt heavy and unwieldy so I wouldn't run a published adventure because I arrogantly felt like running one would be akin to putting the training wheels back on my bike. 

The Lost Caverns of Tsojconth cover, by Erol Otus, 1981

It wasn't until I really started getting into the Greyhawk setting that my view on published adventures changed. I can remember reading The Lost Caverns of Tsojconth and it suddenly occurred to me that by ignoring the published adventures, and their ubiquitous boxed texts, that I was missing out on all of this really exciting stuff that other Dungeons and Dragons players had experienced. So I began to attempt running published modules. 

The first module that I attempted to run as it was written was David Cook's Dwellers of the Forbidden City. It was a challenging adventure for my players but as a GM I found it just as challenging to keep it interesting for them when it came time to read the boxed text. The problem was solidly my fault as instead of using the text as a starting point from which I would build the description I stubbornly stuck to reading it as it was written. 

Dwellers of the Forbidden City cover by Erol Otus, 1981

That was a mistake. 

One of my strengths as a GM has always been my ability to describe the locations that my players explore with a brevity that leaned heavy on mood and the big details. Without question my style is influenced by the Robert E. Howard novels I read and loved. A good example would be this passage from Son of the White Wolf:
". . . THE SUN WAS not long risen over the saw-edged mountains to the east, but already the heat was glazing the cloudless sky to the hue of white-hot steel. Along the dim road that split the immensity of the desert a single shape moved. The shape grew out of the heat-hazes of the south and resolved itself into a man on a camel . . ." (Howard)
In that short extract everything about the location is told in three sentences and as a GM, and storyteller, I'm always looking to emulate his style. I love the quickness of it and how a mood for the reader is so easily established. 

After my failure with Dwellers of the Forbidden City I decided to take a different approach with all future published modules I would run and try to bring a bit of Howard's style into the descriptions. Now I could do it on the fly but often it meant that I would end up missing things. The tone might get slightly off because I hadn't read far enough to know the location wasn't all that important or that the current non-player character (NPC) would be a pivotal character in the adventure. So I found myself doing a lot of prep work in order to make the published adventures work in a way that satisfied me. 

I would begin by making a copy of the adventure that I could write notes in without feeling guilty. I would then read the entire adventure before I began making notes I would need. I had to know what was happening; who the villains, throwaway characters, and heroes were. Then I would go back through a second time and make my notes. I would jot down a few quick thoughts on how I wanted this NPC to sound or the mood that this location needed to give the players. I highlighted things that I wanted them to discover and that I wanted to find quickly (like the villains' characteristics, weapons, and spells). And the night before I would read out loud the parts I thought we would touch in the session to my wife (when she wasn't playing), attempting to use all of my notes, to see what was working and failing.

All of that prep work I do has often paid off in ways that have taken my running of the adventures from cumbersome affairs into things that my players still talk about today - but it also made me incredibly hesitant to run the larger adventures. As you can imagine, published adventures end up being a lot more work for me and when I look at an adventure that's 250 pages long or more I have a hard time justifying spending that much time on it when my only reward may be my players looking at the start and saying, "Well, this is fucked. We're going the other direction away from the dragon and towards the bar." But Greyhawk has a way of rewarding my efforts. I consistently find myself enjoying the villains that I discover in these modules more than I did previously when I only knew their names and had read through their wiki descriptions. The locations I prepare for never go to waste as I can always find the time to let my players discover a crashed space ship or a hidden shrine to some foul demon princes looking to destroy the multiverse. 

In Greyhawk, there's always a hungry dragon.

Works Cited

Howard, Robert E. "Son of the White Wolf." Project Gutenberg Australia Accessed December 1, 2016.


  1. four scoudrels c'rpses did lie on the flo'r

    the cubiculo is twenty by twenty
    with a doth'r in each direction
    th're is a chest in the centre of the cubiculo
    the chamb'r is did light by candle

    1. I don't know what's happening but I'm a throwing a rock at each c'rpses.

  2. Bare bones, with what the PCs hear and see, in my opinion.

    And then let the players ask more questions for additional details.

  3. Big things first! Don't tell players about the floorboards of the study and the angelic detailing on the candlesticks when there's a necromancer standing in the center of the room summoning twin balors.

    1. Well, now there are occasions when holding back that detail until the end of the description might add to its impact . . .

  4. As players we were booking passage on a ship and the DM neglected to mention to us that the ship had black sails and was crewed by skeletons. We wondered why he failed to mention this, and he said we should have asked more questions.

  5. I think your experience with boxed text is typical. Pre-written material can feel disjunct at best and corny at worst. The same is true when your own voice suddenly becomes too canned. If I make notes at all, they're limited to just listing a few key words to work into otherwise improvised descriptions. If anything, what's critical is the quality of the text you leave behind after describing something on the fly.


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