RPT#261 – 6 More Description Tips
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In many game systems, such as D&D 3.x and Rolemaster, combat is a detailed and rules-oriented endeavour. Often, it moves from a thrilling fight to a lengthy period of gameplay filled with numbers and rules talk. This is fine as long as you and your group are enjoying yourselves.
However, you might consider adding at least one mid-combat descriptive summary per fight to enhance the game. These involve pausing to colourfully describe the action to date in a storytelling type of format, with minimal use of rules and numbers lingo.
“So, my friends, let me briefly recount what’s happened so far. While scouting, Arry stumbles onto a hive of aggressive giant bees. Shouting for help, he draws his dual weapons and charges in, managing to slay one of the creatures instantly. The rest of you quickly charge in as well. While Ember casts a protective shield around all of you, Broghan, Arry, and Krug close ranks and slay two more of the angry insects. However, one of the bees lands a solid blow on Krug, revealing that the insects have poisonous stingers!
As Krug begins to suffer from the venom’s effects, Vander rushes over with some magical healing, invoking the name of his god to lend him strength. The battle has raged on for nearly a minute and you have now defeated almost half of the hive’s population. Krug seems to have fully recovered from his wound, but the rest of you are suffering from several bites and stings. The battle is far from over!”
Mid-combat descriptions offer several benefits:
- Add a cinematic feel to long combats. By telling the _story_ of the action and removing the rules and numbers talk, you can bring the situation to life and snap players out of wargame mode for a few moments to help them enjoy the experience more.
- Appeal to story-oriented players and help draw them into the game. Some players “put up” with combats as they know they’ll get future enjoyment from the story or character development side of things. A descriptive summary will appeal to this need and playing style, and make players cut from this cloth feel less like outsiders during combats.
- Slow the pace. A mid-combat description forces a pause in the action. You can use this to delay the game while waiting for an absent player to return or while rules research is underway.
- Increase the pace and energy. Long and complicated combats can suck the energy from the game table, especially if the time between each player’s turn is more than a couple of minutes. An entertaining summary can help renew flagging energy levels, which can result in faster player decision- making and a more attentive group.
Some mid-combat description tips:
- Be sure to include each player and their character in your summary. This prevents anyone from feeling excluded. If one or more characters aren’t present in the scene, then you have a choice of whether to include them with whatever activity they’re currently involved with or not – but try to include them if you can.
An easy way to remember to include every character is to go around the table, one round at a time and in order of player seating, and add each character’s contributions for the round into your mid-combat summary.
- Structure your description to follow the timeline of combat rounds. This will help you organize your thoughts and summarize with greater accuracy. For example, avoid skipping out of round order or following the timeline of one particular PC and getting ahead in time from the rest of the group.
- Focus on the positive contributions of each player. Avoid being critical of players and their characters or your summary could backfire. If a character fumbles or does something counter-productive, do include that in your summary, but not in terms of blame or finger-pointing. Try to make light of it or describe the plain facts followed by some words of encouragement.
- Issue a challenge at the end. Try to spur the players on and inspire them with a dare or challenge. For example, describe how the battle’s outcome is still unknown or how the foes are defiantly fighting on. Leave your description on an active note to keep up the energy you’ve created.
- Factor in setting and location. Remind the group about what environs their PCs are fighting in to bring the scene alive for them.
- Add clues, hints, and subtle suggestions. Sometimes, you can see which way the wind is blowing in combat, and if it’s going against the PCs you can use mid-combat descriptions to add in clues or advice to help the group.
Things to consider when providing clues:
- Describe how the PCs are being clearly outmatched
- Remind the group about exits and the option to flee
- Point out props and furnishings that could be used to tactical advantage
- Point out observable weaknesses in the PCs’ foes
Feel free to add multiple mid-combat descriptions if the fight is taking a long time. You might consider paying attention to a clock and adding a description every 5-10 minutes depending on how the action is proceeding.
Describing the final blows of the PCs is a great combat description enhancement. However, after awhile it can be tough not to get repetitive. The answer is to involve your players. Ask them to describe the death throes of their foes, the final blows, and the results of their attacks.
This works especially good for critical hits and fumbles. If you don’t have a specific results chart or criticals system, then it’s up to description to add flavour to these special events. Coming up with unique or interesting fumbles and killer death blows over and over is tricky though, so turn the descriptions over to your players.
Feel free to alternate these kinds of descriptions between you and your group as well. If you feel inspired then go ahead and describe things yourself. When you’re busy or blocked, ask a player to describe the critical blow or fumble, perhaps providing some information as to the severity as well.
Be warned that asking players to describe final blows is somewhat anti-climatic because you’ll need to tell them if their foe has perished up front. For special foes and important battles, you might want to deliver the description yourself, building your tale up, leaving the outcome unknown until the very end. Doing this also gives you an opportunity for false alarms — you can slant your description so it seems the foe is dead, and then you reveal at the very end of your description that he lives on!
“You land a thunderous blow, doing a stomach-churning amount of damage to your foe. He staggers back and gazes down at his wounds, a look of shock and horror painting his face. Feebly, he tries to speak. ‘I….I…I will slay you!’ With a sudden burst of energy, he attacks with renewed vigour!”
I remember a sorcerer character I was playing years ago who was readying to cast a spell. He needed some dust as a spell component, and when it was my turn I said my action was to grab some dust from the floor and cast my spell. The GM said ok, but there’s probably no dust where I was standing because the marble floor was swept daily by servants. Hmmm, I’ll check out the nearest corner then, I replied, and look for dust there.
Another player chimed in and said, enough of this foolishness, you automatically get components worth 1 gold piece or less, so just cast your damn spell.
Hmmmph. It seemed we had a definite clash of styles. I was letting description and flavour modify my PC’s actions, which ended up having rules-based effects (I would have had to use up one of my actions to look for dust when the rules said I didn’t really need to).
When GMing, I often let descriptions have effects that then involve specific rules of the game. It’s one possible GMing style of many, and there’s no right or wrong as long as your players are fine with things being done this way. The tip here is to seek out a balance between your description and rules so that everyone at the game table is satisfied with the way things are refereed.
Here’s another example of how I might run things: “Krug, you deliver a powerful blow to your opponent’s arm, and a look of fierce pain crosses the thug’s face. He lowers his weapon but then summons new energy through sheer willpower and counter-attacks!”
My players (hopefully 🙂 enjoy these types of descriptions, and they know that, in these cases, they’re for flavour and usually not for rules. Technically, a player could challenge the description above in D&D, saying that his PC might get an attack of opportunity because his foe let his guard drop, or ask if the arm-blow might cause his foe to drop his weapon.
Your style might or might not allow this. You might GM in such a way that every part of your narrative is to be mirrored by the rules, and players can appeal to have rules applied at any time. Most likely, your style falls in the middle of this spectrum where reasonable requests are considered.
The point is that, because of your descriptions, you might open yourself up to a rules-based request, consequence, or appeal. It’s up to you how to deal with the marriage of rules and narrative, but where possible, it’s best to tread gently:
- Avoid getting angry. Respectfully consider your player’s request with objectivity. If it’s reasonable and you think it would enhance the game, then side with your player and modify your future descriptions with this precedent in mind.
- Communicate openly with your group about this between games or during a break. Provide your point of view, ask for others’, make a decision, check if your decision is acceptable to everyone, and then return to this agreement in the future to help civilly settle any disputes.
- Consider turning this into a mini-game. Purposefully craft descriptions that let smart or imaginative players gain advantage or opportunity.
- Master the rules of your game so that your descriptions are informed and accurate. That way, there will be few unexpected rules-based requests or situations thrown at you.
For example, you have a tough nighttime encounter planned for the PCs. A player asks what the weather is like, and you randomly roll heavy rain. Another player asks if the clouds blot out the moon and stars. Without thinking you reply, “Yes, it’s a dark and rainy night.” Now, unexpectedly, the encounter is even more difficult because your impromptu description has created poor lighting conditions that will add penalties to the group.
- Consider having an out-of-character conversation about this issue if it’s creating in-game problems. Ask for opinions and then make a fair ruling, thus setting everyone’s expectations at the same level.
Ultimately, I feel good description shouldn’t be hampered – it’s too important a GMing tool to be hijacked by mis- communication. Aim to find a style or middleground that lets you continue to describe things with flavour that satisfies your players’ needs to act, react, and consistently apply the rules.
If your game rules use an initiative system, then you have a couple of interesting options to consider.
- Best Initiative Declares First
In this scenario, you provide your group a description of the scene and then initiative order is calculated. Next, the fastest character gets first chance to react and declare their actions (and possibly resolve their actions if that’s how your game works), followed by the second-fastest PC, and so on.
This method gives faster PCs an unprejudiced first-crack at figuring out what to do. This approach is good for groups where players are competitive or they don’t always get along. It helps avoid situations such as, “Hey! You’re just doing that because you know that’s what I’m doing. No fair!”
It also provides a bit of balance in systems where higher initiative provides great benefits (such as having first shot in a deadly combat system). The person with initiative doesn’t know what everybody after them is going to do, so they’re “acting blind.”
First to act, first to declare also feels realistic to many gamers, and is another reason to opt with this approach.
- Best Initiative Declares Last
Unless your game rules forbid this approach, you might consider allowing the fastest player to hear what everybody else is doing first before deciding what to do themselves. You go in reverse order, slowest to fastest, and have the players announce their intentions.
This approach gives the PC with the best initiative the most information to work with and react to. It could be argued that initiative involves more than twitch reflexes, and that it also relates to how fast one can observe and process sensory information. Knowing who’s gearing up to do what arms faster PCs with a decent tactical advantage.
Introduction descriptions are for when a new game element is brought into play, such as an NPC, item, or location. They’re also for re-introducing a game element that has changed enough in nature that previous descriptions are invalid or out-of-date.
Introduction description examples:
- Each new dungeon room the PCs explore
- Strangers seen in a bar
- A sword whose magical power manifests for the first time
- The spectacular site as the PCs top the valley hill
- A friend returning from war
Here are a few introduction tips:
- Provide a high-level description first
For introduction descriptions, focus on what’s important and interesting about the thing you’re describing. Give a bird’s eye view and avoid over-detail as the players can only remember so much.
- Give at least one hook
Present at least one hook in your description to encourage the group to interact with the game element. By hook, I mean you expose and point out something interesting about the game element. An NPC might have a quirk, a dungeon room might contain a threat, a piece of equipment might have controls.
- Include ‘intuition’ to describe hidden elements
When you have trouble describing something intangible, feel free to appeal to the characters’ intuitions, sixth senses, and feelings.
- Avoid over-description during an introduction
Avoid overwhelming the players with details, especially if the information is not important. An intro description should be designed to help the players conceptualize, categorize, and understand what’s happening. Too many details can confuse and ruin overall first impressions.
- Avoid tunnel vision
Try to describe, in relatively few words, the whole picture for the players. Avoid focusing on one particular aspect and ignoring others, unless you have a specific reason for doing so.
- Only draw obvious conclusions for the players
It’s important that the players understand what their characters are experiencing, but that doesn’t mean you have to reveal everything to them, such as creature names, hidden motives, concealed items, and so on.
On the other hand, if something is obvious, it’s probably best to just reveal it to the players to speed the game along. For example, if the characters have encountered numerous githyanki creatures in the past, feel free to name them as such (or whatever you have called them in your universe) instead of making the players jump through hoops to figure this fact out each time.
When you introduce something, you want to describe it so that the group knows and understands what it is – limited by the extent of what their characters would know. For important game elements, you also want to hook the PCs into exploring the thing further. With introduction descriptions, you want to focus on first impressions and overall assumptions to quickly communicate to the players what their characters are experiencing. Avoid over-detail and let future search actions reveal the nitty gritty.
A cool technique is to have the players re-describe their characters from time to time. This helps players get into character and react to their fellow PCs better, with more imagination and verisimilitude. It also helps prevent the party members from taking each other for granted!
- After long session breaks. If you’ve missed a session or two, asking the players to re-introduce their PCs to the group can help everyone get back into character quickly.
- At the beginning of each session. This can become a nice habit that helps the group quiet down and get focused on the game.
- When reemerging into civilization. Dungeon crawls, long trips, and bloody combats won’t leave the PCs unscathed. Unless the PCs take time to clean themselves up, town and city folk might give the group a wide berth. A description by each player of what they imagine their PC’s condition to be should help you and them roleplay better.
- When new players join the group.
- When new characters join the party.
- When NPCs join the party.
- When important NPCs are encountered.
Some additional character description tips:
- Ask for physiological descriptions as well. PCs often face numerous brushes with death, violent foes bent on their destruction, strange magical or esoteric events, uncomfortable and painful situations, isolation, and great danger. These will leave some kind of footprint on the characters’ psyche, even if only temporarily.
- Ask your players to envisage this kind of change in their characters, and to describe its effects on their PCs to add more dimensionality to the game.
- Remind the players about their options. Sometimes, players just put their heads down and charge into a problem and they forget about options that their characters’ abilities and equipment provides. Asking for a round of character descriptions can help players examine their PCs with fresh eyes and remind them about options at their disposal.
- Ask for themed descriptions. To help players roleplay, solve a current challenge, or enjoy the campaign better, feel free to guide their character descriptions by asking for specific information in their descriptions. For example, mid-session you might ask that the players describe one or more goals their PCs are pursuing.
Other theme examples:
- Equipment overview
- Physical appearance
- General demeanor
- First impressions (what would an NPC think upon first greeting them?)
- Race, class, and abilities (ask for in-character descriptions)
- Use PC descriptions to stall for time. If you’re stuck or need some time to think, ask for character re-descriptions. Because this activity has several benefits, it’s not a waste of game time, and it gives you a couple of minutes to organize or think.
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I find history makes for great inspiration in character development. There are normally enough facts known about a historical figure to give you some guidelines to inspire you, yet enough gaps to give you the freedom to create what you’d like.
I’ve used Casanova (a roaming hanger-on to assorted nobles) as the inspiration for a rogue/sorcerer/bard. The early lives of Ghenghis Khan, Queen Boadicea, Tamerlane, Emperor Babur, Julius Cesar, Rasputin, Martin Luther, Mozart, Daniel Boone, and so on, all provide ample inspiration. This provides an easy way to spice up yet another standard warrior or priest.
For instance, Googling ‘Martin Luther early life’ turns up:
Luther, like Hus, was born a peasant. His forefathers had been peasants for generations. Hans and Margarethe Luther were genuine Christians. In the home they taught their son many of the evangelical truths that he would later thunder from the pulpit at Wittenberg.
Before the age of five, Luther began his education at a nearby school with the “three R’s” and a little Latin, the latter being Europe’s international language for the study of theology, law, medicine, and diplomacy. The schoolmasters were a poor set of creatures, and their scholars experienced more of the pains than of the pleasures of learning. Luther said that his master treated the boys as the public executioner did thieves; he himself was flogged fifteen times one morning because he could not repeat declensions which he had never been taught.
At the age of fourteen Luther, for a short time, went to Magdeburg to attend the school of the Brethren of the Common Life. He later recalled this as a positive experience, but little is known of what occurred there.
In Eisenach, Luther continued his schooling, but in a state of poverty. Here he was forced to beg in order to maintain himself. Many years later he said: “I myself have been such a beggar pupil, and have sung for bread before houses”. So Luther sang for donations of money and food until Frau Cotta, a lady of noble birth, and her husband took him in as one of their family.
By the time he had finished school, a certain degree of prosperity had come through the hard labors of Luther’s parents. Hence, his father was able to send him to the University of Erfurt, and Luther was able to give his full attention to his studies.
(In response to ‘A Brief Word’ in Roleplaying Tips #256 )
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The program comes complete with dice, a tabletop, miniatures and a smidgen of d20 information. (That is what is allowed by the OGL)
The best part of this program is the ability to play with your friends online like it was a real PnP session. You connect together by the DM’s IP address. (This eliminates interruption at the table, like inviting only your friends to play.) You can create a map, save it in PNG or JPEG format and use it as a battle map for the online play. You can even lock the tokens as the DM so that you have ultimate control over who moves where.
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You can check out the program at http://www.fantasygrounds.com and see for yourself. There is a demonstration program that shows the basic functionality of the interface, and the full version is peanuts. (About the cost of a source book.)
Below are 20 encounters a party of adventurers could have while traveling on a road.
When fleshing them out, try to come up with answers to questions like:
- Where are they coming from?
- Where are they going?
- Why are they traveling?
- What is their initial reaction to the party?
Any one of these encounters could easily turn into a larger adventure. Have fun!
On the road, the characters meet:
- A polymorphed dragon
- A peddler
- A courier being pursued
- A ranger
- A pilgrimage
- A monk
- An army
- A crazy man/woman
- A dog
- An eccentric botanist
- A wizard/sorcerer with bodyguards
- A hunting party
- A polymorphed demon/devil
- Tracks that mysteriously vanish in mid-stride
- Someone who is invisible
- A treant
- A wizard’s apprentice trying to reach his master’s tower
- A wounded soldier
- A slaver’s caravan
- A solitary pilgrim who has taken a vow of silence
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