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.
GameMastery Face Cards: Urban NPCs. I recently started researching/making decks for several reasons that directly apply to this topic: (1) Cards are a fast way to give a player quick information that feels tangible and even a little personal which feels exciting; (2) I can make a whole deck when creativity strikes (or select one if you want to use premade) and then weed through the decks before play for those that I’m fine with using should an unplanned need arise; (3) Cards are a neat way of making sure you keep your creations to the point, emphasizing what’s unique, and updating details based on the occurrences specific to your game. I actually recommend getting the PDFs instead of printed versions if you want to be able to keep them updated as you play (and not worry about handing them to players who tend to be a little less careful with physical property than you’d prefer). This specific deck seems to currently only available with a subscription, but a lot more I’ll include below aren’t, and they’re still worth looking into.
‘‘The Cozy Hearth Inn’
From The Forge Studios or similar products (Keep pre-made locations like this handy, or use them as templates to
prep areas, for quick use if you need to drop one in or just want to
pull inspiration from a single entry in it)
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 doorto the richly decorated guildhalland 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.