26 Nov 2013

Need to Know, Want to Know or The Joy of Withholding

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UnknownLast week I talked about the white space or noise in dungeon delves. That discussion laid a few eggs in my brain. A few hatched and now we’re here, standing in the eggshells of my imagination. Or something like that.


Most Dungeon/Game/Games Masters/Referees simply give too much information about the imaginary world the players explore. This impulse might stem from a variety of things: an interest in fairness (well-informed players are successful players), a slavish insistence on reading aloud the boxed text (I’ve done this, usually to be ironic), or using the opportunity to demonstrate his or her genius to a captive audience. While shoveling information at the players might be the right thing to do in certain circumstances, the problem is that most players don’t care. Or if they do care, odds are, they don’t have the attention to hear your 5-minute dramatic reading about the interior of the Temple of Elemental Evil. Invariably, some clown, out of excitement or one of the family of attention deficit disorders, will ejaculate some commentary or whisper something to another player, so that you either have to start over or the group simply misses out on the important stuff in your description. Even the best players in the world have hard limits on how long they can pay attention to stuff told to them. You’ve got about two sentences before the eyes begin to glaze or the cell phone inch out of pockets to check on the hockey, football, rugby score.

Don’t be angry with them. They do recognize your genius. They trust you. They probably even like you. After all, they’ve come to your table to throw dice and tell stories about imaginary heroes and they do this with you rather than someone else or their computer. If you’re like me, it’s been a long time since you were 13 and sitting on the carpet, rolling dice with the numbers crayoned in. We’re all busy adults with adult things to do. That we can even do this sort of thing is either a testament to our immaturity (I kid!) or our persistent affection for the games we love.

While I’m not good about following my advice all the time, I do find sparse descriptions have more success at the table than do long-winded ones. And it makes sense. When you go somewhere for the first time, do you have blueprint of the room’s size and shape, an inventory of everything there, the perceptive ability to pick out all the colors of the gemstones encrusting macabre throne? No. Of course you don’t. You see the important stuff and your brain filters out all the unimportant stuff. Now that I think about it, I’ve been going to the same bar, once or twice a week, for years. (Don’t judge me.) I know what the place looks like. I know there are stools along the bar, though I have no idea how many. I know there’s a small table by the side window, and slightly bigger one in the front. I know there’s a row of tables against the wall, and three TVs over the beer cooler. I know the names of everyone working there and I know several other barflies who share in my hobby. I know the smell, the lighting, the mood, and the atmosphere, and I could sketch it out on a piece of paper. But I don’t how wide it is or the exact height of the high ceiling or the number of fans or even the exact number of seats the place has. And I’ve been there hundreds of times. Yikes! That’s damning.

Aside from the way we perceive our world and the way we remember what we’ve seen, there’s another dirty secret about us humans that plays into the whole description thing. This is purely from observation, so you psychologists out there can just keep your traps shut. I find people give a shit more when they ask for information than when they are just told information. No one like unsolicited advice. No one. We have names for people who delight in being helpful: busybodies, nags, know-it-alls, self-help “experts,” the O network (sorry, but it’s true). People tend to tune out when you disgorge information, but they pay extra close attention when they initiate the exchange of information. Rather than tell the players everything you think they should know about a place, give them enough to get a sense of it and then let them ask for more information. If they ask and you give them exactly what they ask for, they’ll remember it or write it down so they don’t forget. If you just throw up words at them, they’ll hear about half of what you say, likely fixating on a word you mispronounce or a turn of phrase that rings wrong.

Oh. One more thing before we get to the tofu of my argument. Players focus on oddities in your description. At the Geek Media Expo, I was talking with an acquaintance of mine and he was laughing about how whenever he mentions a minor detail, his players focus on that detail to the exclusion of all else. He only has to feed them a line and then they can waste an hour trying to figure out why it was important. He’s spot on. I drop all sorts of red herrings in my descriptions and may sometimes turn a red herring into something interesting, but that’s for another post.

So what unsolicited information should you give your players? Three things. That’s it. Three things about any location they visit in the game world and nothing more. Here they are in order of importance. Mix up the order of presentation, but every location should have three facts to make it worth mentioning. (As an aside, I loathe empty rooms. They are time-wasters and, often, result from lazy design. If you find an empty room in a published dungeon and the players don’t need a place for their character’s to rest, ink that space in or put something in it. For Belial’s sake, the only game that deserves to have empty rooms in it is Closets and Crawlspaces and no one likes that game.)

1. The Most Obvious Thing

When the characters open a door, look through a window, peer through a portal, what is the first thing they notice? The obvious thing could be something that’s clearly dangerous to the characters or something that defines the location’s purpose, function, or character. If there’s a dragon in a room and in plain sight, the first thing out of your mouth should be something like “You see a dragon.” You can embellish with an adjective or two. “You see a [scary], [red], [defecating] dragon.” For creatures, avoid anything that gives away their state of mind, emotion, or purpose, unless there’s no way that the creature can hide what it’s feeling, such as the dreaded Anger Elemental or unsettling Sex Demon.

If it’s a thing, just tell the players what that thing is. The thing could be an altar, an idol, a glittering jewel, a magic sword, emptiness, darkness, or whatever. You should state its general placement in the room too. “Opening the door, you see a glowing sword floating a few feet above the ground in the center of the room.” Avoid  needless description. Only mention the most prominent details. An altar can be just an altar, unless there’s a naked young man strapped to the top of it, in which case, you should mention the young man. In fact, you’d probably want to mention the young man rather than mentioning the altar since he’s obviously the most significant thing in the room. You could just say, “A naked young man lies strapped to some sort of table or block.”

Chunk obvious things, of course. The players open the door and see “several kobolds kneeling before an idol of the Defecating God.” Here we have a couple of prominent things but we’ve grouped them together to make them seem like one important thing. Hooray!

Finally, don’t feel moved to describe hidden things. If the room appears empty, but actually holds an invisible stalker, don’t mention the monster for Juiblex’s sake. Just say “The room is empty” or “You see a table and chairs in the center of the room” or “Someone has smeared excrement all over the walls of this empty room.” These are significant and obvious things.

2. Senses

Unless the characters are robots who have never learned to love, the characters have senses so you should use them. You’ve already covered sight with the one obvious thing, so what other sense should you describe? Well, sound’s obvious, but don’t overlook smell. Smell has a long memory and certain odors stick with us. When you describe a smell, you pinch your players’ brains and link the present location with one they have experience. This builds immersion. Don’t be afraid to throw out “modern” smells such as burning plastic or oil, “cool ranch” chips, or chemical odors. The more familiar your players are, the stronger the impression.

3. Space

Last, mention the general size of the space. I’m not talking about exact or even approximate measurements. Most people have a hard time visualizing spatial dimensions when you describe them with numbers. No, they need something to reference the room size. A person is more likely to understand “Small” or “Closet” than he or she is to understand 10 x 10 or 5 x 5. The actual physical dimensions only matter if A) you’re snapping the room to a grid or B) if a character measures the room. So don’t bother. Simply saying a room is small, large, or enormous or using real world examples for comparison is all you need to do.

Note 1: Numbers

One thing you might have noticed is that I said nothing about precise numbers. I recommend describing numbers of things using one of three words (or variants on them): one, some, or many. People don’t see numbers of things. They are “one thing, a small group of things, or a large group of things. Don’t tell the players they see 5 chairs. Tell the players they see lots of chairs.

Note 2: Exits

I also didn’t mention exits. You should only mention exits if they are the most obvious things in a location. It’s silly to say, “There’s an enormous red dragon and, by the way, three tunnels leading out of the room.” The only thing a glance will tell the players is that there’s a big ass red dragon in the room.

Note 3: Lighting

If the room lacks lighting and the player characters don’t have lighting, the most important thing they see is darkness. Characters with the ability to see in shadows or darkness would then see the second most important thing. Right?

Here’s an Example

“Through the archway you see several bodies hanging from chains that are affixed to the ceiling. This large room reeks of blood.” This description tells the players everything they should know if they move on without exploring it. You will note I did not mention exits or the shadows (creatures) lurking in the corners or the 5-foot diameter grate in the center of the floor. They players discover this information by asking questions.

Asking Questions

The  best take away from stripping down your descriptions is that you force your players to ask questions about the world around them. When a player asks a question, the player becomes invested in the scenario. The more questions, the more invested. The players feel like active participants in the story. Plus, discovery is fun. Players like to feel clever and they feel very clever indeed when they discover something important when they ask the right question.

So when a player asks, try to be brief, direct, and to the point. Avoid embellishing the description. “Just the facts, ma’am.” Only with intense scrutiny should the fiddly details come to light.

But what if your players don’t ask questions? Well. They might not discover the sword hidden behind the wardrobe or notice the door in the back of the idol room or realize those shadows were undead monsters that got the drop on them. Players learn. They learn to become involved and learn to pay attention to the important details and ignore the rest. When they miss something, they might back track, look a bit more closely, and actually get a good feel for the place they are in. And that’s good for your game.

Have a happy holiday folks. See you next time.

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2 Responses to “Need to Know, Want to Know or The Joy of Withholding”

  1. sjap says:

    thanks for stating the obvious! ..the obvious that everybody should have known about and totally forgot over the years.
    great DMing (and “read aloud text” -writing) tips .
    thank you.

  2. iserith says:

    Good read, and I’m with you on sharing minimal details at the outset. I, however, do not like the “20 Questions” aspect being advocated when I play RPGs. My preference is for players to add details on their own rather than ask, under the assumption that I’m just going to say “Yes, and…” to their ideas anyway. Under the rules of improvisation, they can’t block or contradict (and neither can the GM), but other than that, if I say that a torture chamber lay beyond the iron-bound door, they’re free to say there’s a rack inside. Or an iron maiden. Or a monstrous torturer with a cruelly-barbed whip and a butthole-sized hot poker, if they want. I establish the minimal details that I think are important to the scene at the outset and then we collaborate from there.

    I find this approach offers faster pacing and smoother establishment of details. Rather than play “20 Questions” with the GM, the players are moving forward on their assumptions and building on what other players are saying while remaining “in character.” (I submit that when you, Bob, are asking me, Ryan, about clarifying details, you’re not really Ragnar anymore.) It also creates a lot of context and depth to the environment and scene. What’s more, ideas being generated like this have a way of coming full circle in surprising ways, even for the GM, since he’s not the gatekeeper on what is true and what is not.

    I like your white space article as well. I’ve been advocating abstraction of dungeons for a while now. I’d like to read more about your pacing mechanic if you’ve had the time to flesh it out some more.

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