Avoid This Nasty Description Trap GMs Often Trigger

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1019

I saw this writing tip from @ShawnMerwin and it applies to GMing, as well:

Avoid “begin to” or “start to” unless those actions are interruptible. “You begin to hear a scream” is simpler as “You hear screaming.” Clearer and more concise is better.

So it is for GM descriptions. And that can be a nasty trap you trigger on yourself.

You can describe things as one-and-done or as real-time. Be strategic in which form you use to make your descriptions and games smoother.

One-And-Done Action Descriptions

One-and-done means something has happened and players can now react.

The event is history so don’t phrase it in present tense.

You can even frame it as such if you’re worried about players jumping in and messing with things.

“Ok, this just happened. I’m going to tell you what happened and then I’ll ask each of you what you’re doing after the event.”

Here’s an example one-and-done description:

“You were walking along the trail until it suddenly ends in a deep chasm. There’s a bridge. But it looks icy because of all the spray from a raging river below.

“Just as you sighted the bridge you realize a large band of orcs was also following the trail, but coming from the opposite direction.

“You’ve spotted each other.

“The chieftain raises his hand and his band of nasty orcs stop on the other side of the bridge. Archers quickly fan out, and spear wielders block the way. The chieftain then yells a challenge at you.”

This is a one-and-done description because you’ve made this event happen in the past. “You were walking….” “Just as you sighted…”

Because this recent event is in the past, players cannot interrupt it. It just happened.

The trick with one-and-done is to not take over player character actions or go too far along the timeline.

If you proscribe what characters did and take away player control, you’ll have an uprising on your hands.

Likewise, if your situation covers too much timeline and too many forks in the road, your group will want you to rewind because they don’t agree with how things went down.

So keep your one-and-done descriptions short.

Real-Time Action Descriptions

Real-time descriptions imply players can interrupt you.

I use this all the time to narrate impending dooms.

“Ok, the orc leader grabs his horn….. He puts it to his mouth…. He breathes a lung-full of air and purses his ugly purple lips…. He is about to blow the horn….”

In these situations you want the players to interrupt and seize the action. They can interrupt and take the spotlight back at the end of each ellipse.

Just make sure your group knows this is acceptable. Maybe they’re used to GMs not wanting any interruptions until descriptions end. Or maybe you always ask “What do you do?” as your traditional queue the dice has been tossed back to them.

It’s fantastic when players get caught up and let you go on, though. It’s like their characters were frozen in shock, disbelief, or indecision as crazy is about to shoot out the chaos cannon.

“….And the big brute blows the horn and fills the valley with its piercing long note. The forest shakes and writhes as dozens more of the stinking creatures pour forth, several riding massive, red-eyed wolves!”

As Shawn advises, if you are ok being interrupted during a description, use language that indicates such. “Is about to” or “tries to” or “looks like they will” and so on. Else, avoid such language when you have no intention of interactivity at this point.