Eberron - Scarred Elf Campaign

Descriptive Text: Deconstruction

I was thinking about the post I wrote yesterday about descriptive text, and I thought I might post an example using Alexis Smolensk’s descriptive text as a starting point.

I should start by saying, I don’t actually think that Smolensk runs his narratives like the example on his blog. In the single, short video I have seen of him running a game, he did not. I know he doesn’t use the first person “we” in his narratives, because I asked him. He said the intention was to write the narrative as though the player was thinking it.

The blog is a written medium, and he obviously enjoys written language and is good at it. In fact, if he had written the description in effective oral language, it might have undermined the overall point of the article.

However, I see examples of this sort of descriptive text all the time, from GMs with influence, and I suspect it leads to the impression this this is appropriate to oral narration in your game. I would like to defray that impression.

I think the important information Smolensk is trying to convey is this:

  • It is night.
  • You need to find somewhere to rest.
  • It is raining, which makes you cold, wet, and miserable, and you do not want to sleep in the open.
  • The shantytown outside of the city walls does not have any obvious inns.
  • There is a gate to the inner city ahead of you.
  • The gate is open, with a raised portcullis, but it is guarded.
  • There are people travelling ahead of you, who take a turn immediately before they get to the gate. (Note he does not say what direction they turn, which, given the position of the gallery, may be important. He should probably also make it clear whether those people are the same as the people who are travelling in the gallery. I think not, but I could see players being confused.)
  • The guards have noticed the party

In addition, he is trying to convey the following additional information, which may or may not be important:

  • There is a gallery to the left of you. He did not say it was raised, so I am assuming it is at or near street level, like it is in the accompanying picture.
  • There are some people travelling along the gallery in the same direction as you.
  • The guards are carrying a yellowish-green light.

Note this is quite a bit of information for players to absorb all at once, particularly if it is conveyed orally. I would probably break it into chunks. Start with the need for shelter, and the ramshackle outer city; when they are having trouble finding an inn, then have them stumble on the gate.

If any of the information above is a red herring, I would leave it out. It is hard enough for players to catch all of the relevant information a GM is providing, without also providing irrelevant information. Irrelevant information is a barrier to communication.

Another thing I want to suggest, is that every object or feature, or group of objects or features, should have its own sentence. The pause that follows a period (and make sure you do pause) gives the players an opportunity to absorb the information and fix the feature in their mental map of the area.

If I was to set the scene that Smolensk is describing, and I had the time to plan it prior to the game, it might look something like this:

Step 1: Setting the Mood

At this stage you can effectively ignore everything I have said so far, because here you are conveying mood and need, as opposed to locating objects in space. So, to start, I would plagiarise Smolensk in part:

  • Night has fallen, and you are tired. It’s been raining for the last two hours, and that has put a hard finish on the day. It would have been hard enough to travel in the dark without the rain, but now the clouds have blotted out the stars and heavy mud clings to your boots. You do not want to sleep in this.
Step 2: Describe the Outer City

Now we start describing the physical space:

  • The road you have been travelling on becomes a dark lane in a strange city.

Note this is still really mood setting.

Also note that if your players are like mine, they might object to you immediately placing them in the city, paranoid creatures that they are (I am still trying to cure them of the paranoia taught to them by past GMs, but that is another story). They might not want to take the main road, and instead scout through the shantytown, or stay out of the city entirely and try to find a farmhouse. I am less likely to invoke their paranoia if I let them know when the buildings first become visible, and avoid triggering their fear of being railroaded into an unwinnable situation.

So if you choose to skip ahead like this, be prepared to back up and let them make another choice.

Now let’s transition between mood and physical space:

  • The buildings are cluttered and ill-kempt.
  • From what you can see the side streets are narrow, twisted and dark.

The last point was added so the players know a bit about the environment if they choose to get off the main road. It could be left for player questions, but if you make something look unpalatable after they ask, it can look like there are rails even where there are not.

Note those two statements would probably count as a single sentence using the Angry GM’s method.

Now we underline the need:

  • You see no signs of an inn.
  • But there must be some in a city this size.
  • You think you may have better luck if you go deeper into the city.

Now, pause, and let your players decide to go deeper into the city. Or not, as the case may be. If they do follow the road, go on to describe a new scene.

Step 3: Describe the Gate

Start general, and move to more specific or urgent elements. Let’s start with a reminder of the darkness and the rain, because they are related to mood, and because they have an impact on visibility, and combat conditions if it comes to that.

  • It is still raining.

Then move on to the most prominent feature, the gate:

  • You see a gate ahead of you.
  • The gate is open, with a raised portcullis.
  • Three guards stand in front of it.
  • Each guard carries a yellow-greenish light.

Again, this would count as two Angry sentences. Note that while “before” is more elegant than “in front of”, I chose the latter as being easier to process.

Then move to the gallery:

  • To your left, there is a gallery, running parallel to the street
  • You can see several figures travelling along the gallery, in the same direction as you

Many players will assume the figures are malevolent. Placing them early in the description lessens their importance from likely assassins to likely witnesses.

Now move to the possible alternative entrance:

  • A pair of figures are walking on the road between you and the gate.
  • They turn [left/right] before they get to the gate and disappear.

Since these figures appear later in the description, they take on a greater importance. Note I added a direction that they are turning, because if they turn towards the gallery, the players will assume they are interacting with the people in the gallery. I would probably not comment that there is another way in: I leave it to the players to come to that conclusion, or not. For the same reason, I would not include the comment that they “might be citizens”. .

Finally, the most urgent issue:

  • The guards spot you, and wait for you to approach.

This is still longer than the certified Angry Gm™ method would suggest it ought to be. I don’t know that I would actually have all of that going on at once; I might break it up by giving the players an opportunity to react before the figures disappear around a corner, or the guards notice them. But if I did it all at once, it becomes even more important to convey it in short, easy to digest pieces.

So let’s try this instead:

  • It is still raining.
  • You see a gate ahead of you.
  • The gate is open, with a raised portcullis.
  • Three guards stand in front of it.
  • Each guard carries a yellow-greenish light.
  • To your left, there is a gallery, running parallel to the street
  • You can see several figures travelling along the gallery, in the same direction as you
  • A pair of figures are walking on the road in front of you, heading in the direction of the gate.

Which is plenty of information. Maybe too much; I’m tempted to leave out the reminder about the weather, but I feel weather is ignored all too often. Pause for player action, if any (Smolensk’s players apparently stop their horses), then:

  • The figures in the gallery continue to move in the direction of the gate.
  • The figures ahead of you turn to the right and disappear before they reach the gate.
  • The guards turn and spot you.
  • They wait for you to approach.

You have ended with the most immediate potential obstacle (the guards’ attention), while giving a rough sketch of what is going on around the characters. The description may not be beautiful, but hopefully it is at least clear, providing the players with enough information to make decisions, or at least ask relevant questions. If you can pull that off, you have done your job in setting the scene.

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Beoric

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