Subscribe to the Roleplaying Tips Weekly Newsletter - game master tips

Roleplaying Tips Weekly E-Zine Issue #91

Captivate Your Players With Better Descriptions: 10 Tips



Contents:
This Week's Tips Summarized

Captivate Your Players With Better Descriptions: 10 Tips

  1. Show, Don't Tell
  2. Visualize Before Speaking
  3. Use Your Map As A GM Aid
  4. Describe Things Differently To Each Player
  5. Save The Best For Last
  6. Have Players Close Their Eyes
  7. Describe In Layers, Like An Onion
  8. Use The Six Senses
  9. Describe Things Through NPCs & Local Descriptions
  10. Use Your Own Experiences And Travels
Readers' Tips Summarized

  1. Use Drawings & Highlighters For Magic Items
  2. Cool RPG Software For Macs?Have Players Write Their Character Stories
  3. Have Players Write Their Character Stories
  4. Introduce Your Sessions With A Short Story

Return to Contents


A Brief Word From Johnn

Game Hunters Forum Survey Results
In Issue #87 I asked if anyone was interested in a Player/GM finder forum at my About.com web site. Just to follow-up on that, I received 6 responses total, and all of them said yes.

Due to the few number of responses though, I'm going to put this project on the back burner for now, and focus on catching up on some different projects with the people who responded with offers of help this past summer. I'll keep you posted.

Have You Seen The Movie "Unbreakable"?
Just a quick note to say I saw this on video recently and think that GMs would benefit from watching it. I recommend it for getting some good campaign-level ideas from.


Have a great week, and try to fit some roleplaying in!

Cheers,

Johnn Four johnn@roleplayingtips.com

Return to Contents


Roleplaying Games Articles & Reviews Check out my other Roleplaying Games web site: http://www.roleplaygames.about.com

New This Week:
D20 Game Review: The Freeport Trilogy
http://www.roleplaygames.about.com/library/blfreeport.htm

Green Ronin's trilogy of Freeport adventures "Death in Freeport", "Terror in Freeport", "Madness in Freeport", is a well-written, rather Lovecraftian set of linked urban mysteries involving political intrigue, cults, and multiple levels of deceit....

Return to Contents


Captivate Your Players With Better Descriptions: 10 Tips
  1. Show, Don't Tell

    I feel that this could be _the_ most important tip on improving your descriptions during games. Unfortunately, it can be a tough sucker to master and I have a long way to go still. However, here are some things I've learned so far:
    • By "telling" I mean describing a situation and drawing your own conclusions for the players. "Showing" means providing clues and evidence and letting the players draw their own conclusions.

      For example:
      1. Tell: "An overly confident warrior approaches you and haughtily demands that you accompany him to meet his employer."

      2. Show: "A tall man bristling in weapons and armour swaggers through the crowd towards you, careless of who he bumps and whose drinks he upsets [GM lightly dips a couple of fingers in her glass and flicks water at the nearest players]. He pushes between your seats, sets his foaming mug down on the ancient map that you have just carefully spread over the table and glares at each one of you for a few moments in silent challenge. Then he says [GM pinches the bridge of her nose to create a nasal voice and uses an imperious tone] 'You will immediately stop whatever you are doing [GM looks around disdainfully] and follow me. There will be no argument lest I show you the sting of a true warrior's blade.'"

        It's always easy to do this while sitting at my desk, writing, and having time to think about the best words and actions. Doing this during a session is another matter.

        However, the point remains that the second description above would be more compelling to your players than the first, so make it your goal to constantly try and improve your descriptions by showing rather than telling. The effort alone will pay you dividends over time.

    • "Showing" is simply providing clues and evidence to support your point. Your job is to think of what those clues are and put them in the context of the scene or encounter for the PCs.

      In the example above, the context was a tavern. For clues and evidence, I tried to think of things that related to taverns: customers, spilled drinks, tables, crowded tap rooms, and I tried to think about clues that related to over-confident behaviour: doesn't think about others, challenging, not afraid of a fight. Then I tried to put the tavern clues and personality clues together into a description.

      This might sound like a complicated process, but during games I've found that I get better and faster at it the more I try. I call it the "clue game" in my notes and it seems to be just like one of those party games like Outburst, Pictionary, or Charades.

    • Sometimes I'll pretend I'm a lawyer. When I watch a TV show or movie with a good courtroom scene in it I always pay close attention to the lawyers and their lines of questioning.

      A lawyer's job is to create a crystal clear perception that the accused is guilty for the judge and jury without actually coming out and saying "he's guilty". He has to show, not tell. And he does that by asking questions and making statements in such a way that the audience knows the point he's making without actually hearing those exact words.

      So, it becomes a game for me at a session, and I'll pretend I'm a lawyer who can't say the warrior who just approached is over-confident and a jerk. I have to describe it and let the players draw their own conclusions.

      Next time you watch a court scene in a movie or TV show, listen closely and try to use the same techniques at the game table.

    • As you're speaking, listen to yourself and think about what you're saying. If you find you're drawing conclusions for the players or their characters then stop your current thread and start coming up with clues and evidence instead.

    Return to Contents



  2. Visualize Before Speaking

    You can describe things better and with much more flavour if you have a clear mental picture of it. For example, think about your first car, your old bedroom, or Darth Vader.

    Often, the problem is that you're describing things on the fly, making it up as you go, and you're not working from a clear mental picture. This means you can't concentrate well on coming up with the perfect description, adjectives, clues, and so on. Instead, you're too busy creating the thing that you're trying to describe!

    It can help a lot, especially for the important encounters and scenes, to pause briefly (i.e. 10 to 60 seconds) and mentally create a picture of things, fleshing them out as much as possible given the short timeframe, before launching into a description.

    Here's a couple of tips on doing this:
    • Close your eyes to reduce distraction.

    • Leave the game table, if necessary, to reduce distraction and get rid of the "pressure" you feel from players waiting to find out what's going to happen next.

    • Pretend you're flying through the scene and picture/create what you see as you move around. That's often easier than trying to visualize things from a fixed mental viewpoint.

    • If flying doesn't work, try a 3/4 view like a video game, or a sky view. That can at least help with gauging distances and deciding quickly on the basic contents of the area.

    • Focus on the most important element of the scene. If you describe nothing else well but the big villain, alien space ship, treacherous bridge, or wondrous item, then the description for the encounter is still a success. And, the players will get more enjoyment from a compelling description of what's most important to them rather than from peripheral details.

    Return to Contents



  3. Use Your Map As A GM Aid

    Before next session, make photocopies or scans/printouts of your map(s) and identify the areas that you think will be the most important in the upcoming game. Place a post-it note beside each area and dream up as many clues and descriptive elements as you can.

    Spend only a minute or two on each area so that you have time to work on them all. Then use your maps and notes to aid you during sessions.

    If you liked the "Show, Don't Tell" tip above, then consider writing just the clues down and letting your brain dynamically make the connections during play.

    Finally, by thinking about each map area or feature for a few moments a day or so before the game, you will find it much easier to present descriptions for those places and things when the time comes, even if you wrote very little down. The brain is pretty remarkable for getting stuff done in the "background" after you've set things in motion with a few moments of focused thought.

    Return to Contents



  4. Describe Things Differently To Each Player

    For each scene, NPC, item or what have you, provide a separate description to each player based on their character's perceptions, knowledge and current activity.

    For example, let's say the PCs are ambushed by bandits. Here are some sample descriptions:
    • Halfling mage: "Suddenly the forest erupts as a dozen humans wielding fearsome swords and deadly crossbows attack! The site of the ambush was clever for it hid the brigands well, however you also spot several potential places where you could safely cast spells from."

    • Human warrior: "Bandits surprise you by rapidly emerging from cunning hiding places. They are well armed though poorly armoured. Their strategy seems to be an attempt to surround the party and perhaps call for your surrender as they are quickly moving into position and not firing their loaded crossbows as of yet."

    • Human priest: "A dozen or more thieves suddenly burst forth from the forest, weapons drawn and ready. They look like they mean business. You also notice that one of them bears a holy symbol of some kind, possibly to Mercata the god of Truth, but you only get a glance before the battle begins."

    • Elven rogue: "Suddenly you are being attacked by a large number of men bearing swords and bows. Mentally, you note their clever hiding places and well-chosen ambush location. No doubt they've used this place before so there may be traps and other dangers around. The thick forest cover works both ways though, and you spot several shadowy places you could hide."

    Players love descriptions like these because they feel they're getting personal, individual treatment. And although descriptions like the ones above might seem overly detailed or too revealing for a first reaction, your players will appreciate the options and suggestions you present them.

    While individual descriptions might seem like they'd slow things down, they actually can speed play up because each PC has more information to make faster decisions with.

    Return to Contents



  5. Save The Best For Last

    Put the most important fact, element or information at the end of your descriptions. This has a number of benefits:
    • Builds suspense and tension.

    • Improves play. As mentioned in a previous Readers' Tip, the last thing a person hears is often what they remember the best. Hiding information that would move the story along or help the PCs in the middle of descriptions can slow play down or frustrate players.

    • Gives you time to think. You can stall a bit by going into trivial details first, while you mentally prepare the most important info.

    • Let's you control pacing better. If your players are bored, you can quickly gloss over the details and get to the main point. If you want to slow things down, or wait a bit until some players are ready, then flesh out the minor details some more first.

    Return to Contents



  6. Have Players Close Their Eyes

    Just as it helps you to have a clear vision of what's happening, it will greatly aid the players if they can mentally picture things well too. Not only will this help them make better and faster decisions, but it can encourage them to roleplay (because there will be more details to interact with) and enjoy the whole scene more.

    One trick for helping players visualize is to have them close their eyes while you provide your detailed description. That helps them focus in on what you're saying and reduces distractions.

    One time, while GMing the D&D module Temple of Elemental Evil, I was describing the swamp the PCs were in and was leading up to a surprise giant frog attack. I took a full minute to get the players settled down and quiet, resting comfortably in their chairs and with their eyes closed, before starting my description. To this day those players can still vividly picture that scene and ensuing combat, more than any other part of that campaign. The encounter itself ran very well because of the extra focus too.

    Return to Contents



  7. Describe In Layers, Like An Onion

    Think of an encounter or scene as an onion, with many layers of perception and description. When the PCs first enter the scene, start with the top layer, and then peel down to deeper layers as the scene goes on.

    Here's an example structure you could follow:
    • First glance: immediate threats, things of obvious importance, general assessment of area/situation. This is also the period when the fight or flight reaction begins.

    • Casual look-around: things of personal interest to the PC are noticed, items of interest to the player are described, more detailed version of the first glance description is provided.

    • Intuition: anything that's inconspicuously out-of-sorts is perceived, subtle things of interest are spotted. This layer can actually be put anywhere in the sequence and be used multiple times.

    • Close inspection: skills and specific knowledge are put to use to analyze fine details. Appraisal of materials, quality, condition, minute differences, etc. are measured.

    Return to Contents



  8. Use The Six Senses

    This is the classic tip and reminder of using sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, and intuition in your descriptions.

    Also, in the spirit of tip #1, "Show, Don't Tell", try to actually present (or assail ;) the players with those sounds, smells, etc. It's much more effective opening a small bottle of lavender oil and waft it around in the air than it is to simply say that "the smell of lavender fills the room".

    Return to Contents



  9. Describe Things Through NPCs & Local Descriptions

    People in communities will develop their own names, labels, and explanations for things. Use this to your advantage by describing things through local NPCs rather than GM-to- player.

    For example, as the PCs enter a village, instead of delivering a 3rd person narrative of what the village looks like and who's in it, have a villager walk up to the party and volunteer to be their tour guide. Then have the NPC describe the village to the characters through his eyes.

    And, when using NPCs to describe things, come up with a few local nuances to make things more interesting. For example, instead of pointing out a haunted graveyard as such, an NPC might describe it as the home of Antehp and his Children, with Antehp being an old necromancer of legend, and his Children being the skeletons, zombies, and ghouls that infest the place. This would make for a better adventure hook as the players will wonder who the heck Antehp and his kids are.

    Return to Contents



  10. Use Your Own Experiences And Travels

    This is also a past Readers' Tip. Take a journal with you wherever you go, and when you spot something interesting, such as an unusual or striking person, beautiful garden, mountain view, etc. immediately write down your thoughts, description, and perceptions. Then use these notes at the appropriate time during games.

    Return to Contents






RPGShop.com -- The Dice and D20 Superstore

Hi, it's Johnn here. I encourage you to check out this site if you're looking for mail-order RPG stuff. I know James, who runs the site, and I know you'll get great customer service, turn-around time and order security from him.

The site's got 7000+ products, ships fast, and prices are very competitive. So, if you're looking to buy some RPG stuff in the future, please check out http://www.rpgshop.com

[P.S. This is not a paid advertisement. Though James put some promo stuff about this ezine on his sites for me, I personally vouch for him and for RPGShop.com.]


Tips Request: "More Descriptions Tips"

Well, I certainly haven't provided all the descriptions tips that there possibly can be. :) I'd like to hear your tips and publish them in a Part II issue:
  • How to think up better descriptions
  • How to deliver better descriptions during play
  • How to plan for better descriptions
  • Any miscellaneous descriptions tips

Send your tips and thoughts to:

johnn@roleplayingtips.com

Thanks! :)

Return to Contents



Readers' Tips Of The Week:

  1. Use Drawings & Highlighters For Magic Items
    From: Travis W.

    Here's a neat tip that the PCs in my campaign liked.

    When the players get a new magic item, draw it, then make a copy of it for them. This saves time describing it. When the players cast detect magic, take the copy and use highlighters to highlight the edges, or, if it is a blade, runes on the blade, etc.

    Plus, if you use the same color for the same type of magic, like red for illusion, green for necromancy, it creates a more realistic view of the campaign by using repetition, and allows the characters to visualize what their wizards are actually seeing.

    My players like this tip and have started asking for all magic items done by drawing and highlighting, but I don't have the time. I stick just to weapons, though I have thought about doing magical runes or traps the PCs often find on the walls, books and scrolls.



  2. Cool RPG Software For Macs?Have Players Write Their Character Stories
    From: Roman G.

    Johnn, I love RolePlaying Tips Weekly and all the great content I've seen in the past months of being a subscriber. I particularly appreciate the slant toward GMing; As a good portion of my fun with RPGs is world-building, RolePlaying Tips really helps in that area.

    In RPTips #82, I saw your endorsement of the Dungeon Crafter software and went "Great! This is what I need!" So, I went to the site to download it and, of course, it's a PC only application with no Macintosh equivalent.

    I would greatly appreciate it if you'd put a "shout out" to folks who know of great links for shareware/freeware gamer utilities available cross-platform or for the Macintosh. I am particularly interested in software for D&D-3E, the LUG Star Trek RPG, and general game-related PIMs.

    Just to get the ball rolling, let me show you the Mac gamer utilities I found in my net search:
    • At the Adventurer's Guild Online ( http://65.4.246.200/GamingAids/ ), you'll find:
      • GURPS Character Sheet, a WYSIWYG PIM for GURPS Characters. It supports drag & drop, Navigation Services, rudimentary AppleScript as well as the whole of the GURPS Basic Set, Compendium I and Compendium II. This software is available in 2 versions: one for PowerPC machines running OS 8.5+ and a version for 68k machines running OS 7.5+
      • Call of Cthulhu Investigator Spawner - a character generator for CoC.
      • Holy Roller! & Stacked Roller! - dice rollers.

      These programs are Mac only.

    • For those into super-hero games, there's zan's Super Home! ( http://www.rabunda.com/~super/index.php ) The entire site is a great resource for any comic-book fan and super- hero RPG player and covers all games including Aberrant, DC Heroes (both versions), Villains & Vigilantes, Champions, and both versions of Marvel Super Heroes.

      In terms of software, zan's Super Home has an _excellent_ character generator for the TSR Marvel Super Heroes Game (Universal Table system) and a great dice-roller for the game as well. And, they're available in both Mac and Windows versions!

      And the best part about all these is that they're FREEWARE!

      Again, I'd appreciate it if you'd let your subscribers know that there _are_ gamers out there that prefer Macs and we would appreciate a few links to Mac software for gamers. Thanks.

      [Johnn: send your links to me at johnn@roleplayingtips.com ]

    Return to Contents



  3. Have Players Write Their Character Stories
    From: Dave S.

    Hi Johnn,

    Well, great magazine, thanks for all the work. One word I'd just like to mention about Kelly P. typing up all the character stories: don't! [ See http://www.roleplayingtips.com/issue90.asp#r7 ]

    My advice to all DMs is to let the players type these stories up themselves. The DM usually has more than enough work to do already.

    In my campaign I offered an experience reward: XP for the character upon delivery a back-story emailed to me. Those who like roleplaying cashed in real quick.

    Return to Contents



  4. Introduce Your Sessions With A Short Story
    From: Riina S.

    For an interesting way of starting games and getting everyone straight into the mood, try introducing the session with a short story about the game. You can tailor the style you use to the genre of your game - for example, in a 7th Sea game I play in, the GM introduces each game with a single page written like a Dumas (e.g. The Three Musketeers) novel, and dated to seven years after the campaign is currently set - as if they were excerpts from a novel about our exploits. In an Urban Fantasy game I ran I introduced each story with a tale I narrated as if I were a traditional storyteller telling the tale of the PCs as if they were mythological heroes. These introductions can be used in a number of different ways:
    • To set the scene and mood of the game, and to capture the players' attention. This is the perfect time to go into a detailed description of the surroundings, and build some mood for the game. Make sure you describe the PCs in the scene to help get the players into character as well.

    • To show the players that their characters' actions have an impact on the world which they might not see. e.g. you can mention an NPC whom they defeated drowning their sorrows in a tavern, or vowing revenge. Or you could show the small street urchin they helped snuggling into a warm bed with a full stomach.

    • To foreshadow coming events. e.g. describe someone following behind the PCs, or someone arranging a trap for them. The trick here is to keep the information vague but promising. Don't tell them exactly what is happening and where, just that _something_ is being set up.

    • To heighten the tension. e.g. in a recent episode of a game I play in, the GM (my partner Gareth) gave us an introduction sheet which contained the following passage:
      "Andre du Paix stood, defiant, in the mud of the narrow alley.

      Their questions made no sense, but the pistol against his temple was clear enough. "Messeurs, I do not know of what you speak! I am only here for the theatre!" Their cold gaze held his, and a horrible sensation crawled up his spine as realisation dawned; they didn't care. Eyes narrowing, Alexandre Jean-Marc Ventourne du Rogne came to a decision and, lest it flee before his fear, made a sudden grab for the pistol. Fast as he was, he could not match the mere tensing of a finger.

      The others watched for a moment, then turned as one and walked away."

      In the previous game, my character had found the body of a man, dressed much like himself in an alleyway which he had spent some time in only hours before the man would have been shot. He had discovered that the man was using the same "traveling name" as himself - Andre du Paix. Add to this the fact that the victim of the people in the alley way had reacted much like my character would have, and had a similar background, and you can imagine how creepy it was to read the story! It served to terrify the hell out of me, and _definitely_ captured my attention!

    • To cover the events of a brief down time. Instead of running through short down times, you can describe the highlights in a brief story. Make it as dramatic as possible, and throw in little things to characterise the PCs, and it will also help get them into character, whilst avoiding lengthy discussions about downtime activity.

      Obviously this technique is more useful in games with a heroic or cinematic feel, but it can be a real thrill for players to see stories about their characters written like heroic legends, or novels or scenes from movies. It can be an excellent way of giving your players information which they need, or for getting people into the mood, and into character at the start of the game.

    Return to Contents