Eberron - Scarred Elf Campaign

Descriptive Text

I was reading a recent post by Alexis Smolensk of the Tao of D&D, which was talking about describing scenes.

It begins with a description which is really quite elegant, and then proceeds to discuss how it is difficult to know how the players are reacting to the description, and not to get upset if you can’t see their reactions. If it sounds trite, it is because I am not doing it justice; I am paraphrasing in the most general way, because that is not, in fact, what I took from the article, and it is not the issue that I would like to discuss.

What occurred to me when reading the descriptive passage was, first of all, how good the choice of language was at setting the mood, and second, how poor the choice of language was for describing a space, or the physical actions taking place within it.

I think this is a common mistake GMs make. We tend to have a bit of a literary bent, and we often love language. We want our descriptions to be pretty. But the problem is that, by and large, the techniques for accurately conveying the physical are quite different from the techniques for conveying the emotional, or the abstract, and the better you convey one, the more poorly you are likely to convey the other. Put another way, the mood obscures the action.

The problem is exacerbated because western culture is, at this stage in out history, a written culture, and descriptions in D&D are delivered orally. GMs, I suspect, usually prepare their descriptions using written language, and effective written language differs from effective oral language. Moreover, players are used to absorbing information either through the written word, or through video, which is only partially oral. Absorbing information from oral language is its own skill, and one that has atrophied in western culture.

The Angry GM has an excellent article called How to Talk to Players: The Art of Narration, which creates a nice template for descriptive text, as well as explaining why less can be more when it comes to adjectives. He breaks these rules in examples elsewhere in his website, but then, the website is a written medium, so the same rules don’t apply, do they?

This is the addition I would make to Angry’s article (and if you do any GMing, you really should read it). When you prepare your description, always keep in mind that it will be spoken, not read. If you have developed the skill to speak from bullet points, use those instead of writing it out. If you have difficulty speaking from bulleted points, write out the text, but make sure you write it as though it is to be spoken. Read it out loud to be sure you have it right. It is, in a sense, the dialogue of the narrator.



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