A little background here: Like is so often true, I spent a few hours today browsing the internet’s many treasures (and dire swamps), not exactly looking for something but letting my attention drift and flow wherever it may. It ended up taking me on a whitewater rafting escapade through youtube videos of various Dungeon Masters leading their own respective groups through whatever adventure they’d planned for that session.
As I was watching, and getting a little something I could learn from or use in (honestly) every video, I found my mind drawn to one item in particular. Let me give you a few DM quotes that will quickly reveal my train of thought:
- You’re stuck in an average dungeon…
- You’re sitting in an average tavern…
- Your room in the inn looks about what you’d expect: average furnishings, the usual wash basin and straw bed…
- The man behind the counter is your average innkeeper…
- You’re on your way through the forest again…
I think a lot of you already see where this is going. Those DMs, and their players, are “stuck in an average”. What does that mean?
- There are no readily apparent surprises here
- Nothing draws/captures attention
- The setting is immediately populated by the unvaried marks of repetitive things that are “always there”
What does that do to the players (including the DM)?
- Player energy begins to fall as their attention lacks an immediate anchor
- Creativity flounders as players fill the area with the mundane, populate a space with what’s expected, copy-paste “the usual” surroundings onto the current setting
- Those “always there” or “average” surroundings, in terms of gameplay, pretty much may as well be nothing for the effect it has on player imagination and their drive to explore and ask questions
Now there will be inevitably be someone who speaks up for the usefulness of the “average” - and that’s because they’re right: there are benefits to this approach. Some of them are:
- DMs put on the spot have a turn-to that they can deliver quickly and easily and yet players will be able to populate that space with “the usuals” without the DM having to set the same again, repeatedly over and over
- In low (rest) periods, the players feel as though they’ve entered a place of refuge; a safe “average” place where their minds can rest and they can let the stress of impending character death slip away and take care of the nitty gritty (for example, splitting treasures in relative safety)
- Like the above, except the “average” place is just an illusion/deception. Something horrible is really going to happen and it’s easier to do that if the players aren’t expecting it.
But that only works best if it’s the exception and not the norm. The DM should usually want to give their environments more “life” - flavored surroundings that invoke awe and draw your players in with excitement and a need to learn more. Those low times can still be interesting, and a rich description can still be unique and captivate your audience without putting them on edge. And tricking your players with deceptively safe areas too often will simply lead to players never feeling safe: they’ll check every wall and floor for traps, they’ll have servants testing their food, they’ll stab their own bedrolls before laying down for the night just to be safe it’s not going to eat them as they nod off.
But I hear you, can we bring this discussion back to recognizing that potential for weak description and talk about possible solutions? Yes we can. But I mean to START the discussion, drop a few ideas, some resources that could help, and then see what others contribute.
Miscellaneous Quick Ready-to-Use References
What if you don’t have time to do any of that?
Use what you know:
- Think of an area you’ve been to and describe it in a way befitting your campaign setting. A pub in your area becomes a tavern easily enough if you focus only on what translates well
- Call on a character, item, creature or location you’ve watched in a movie, read about in a book, or seen in art, and describe it to others. Sometimes you can even say “His mannerisms remind you of Jack Sparrow as he crosses the boat to get to you, but he’s definitely more orc than human, and closer in size to an overfed cow than a spindly Johnny Depp.” That’s especially useful if combined with the below…
Involve your players. Just imagine these scenarios, told from the point of view of a DM that was caught off guard:
- “The smarmy bard lazily drags a hand over the lute’s string as he eyes you, and though he wears a common tabard and his voice is nothing spectacular, something about him stands out above all else. *Points to a player* You, tell me what it is. *Player offers their own quirk, which may well become a permanent part of that character*
- “You open the door to the richly decorated guildhall and a smell hits you. It takes awhile for you to recognize it, but when you do, you seem certain that the smell is… *Points to a player*… You, tell me what the smell is… *Player does, DM rolls with it*… That’s definitely it. It’s thick in the air, filling your nostrils until it hangs on every breath you take. But that barely registers when you’re face to face with something that lays claim to your attention… *Points at a different player*… What is it that claims your attention?… *Player provides it, game moves on*… And so maybe you find yourself staring at it. But that’s fine. Because at least it takes your attention away from something far less enjoyable, letting you almost ignore it’s there entirely… *Points at another player*… And that is, what?
- These are just examples to demonstrate the exercise. The second example especially is just to showcase the different “gaps” that players can fill in. You may not want to leave quite that many gaps… or… maybe you do. Depends on your players and how often you do it, and to each their own.
So that’s a start. When I began writing I thought this would be much longer, have an introduction, a body (where I’d even list games that use some of what I’ve written to good effect), and a conclusion to bring it to a close. But I always prefer dialogue over monologue.
So what do you think? Reblog with your thoughts, comment with your suggestions, provide feedback and I’ll keep an eye on this to see what develops.
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