Monthly Archives: October 2012

Interview Time: Rich Baker


Greetings, readers! Today I’m very pleased to present an interview with Rich Baker, a man with a long and legendary pedigree in the world of roleplaying games.
Rich’s career spans a multitude of game worlds, from Star*Drive to Dark Sun to the Forgotten Realms and beyond. I spoke a little about Rich back in my review of the Birthright campaign setting, and it is through Birthright that I personally first became aware of his work.
Rich Baker: Man. Myth. Legend.
Rich is also a novelist, and I will definitely recommend books like the Shadow Stone and City of Ravens for anyone who enjoys good fantasy fiction. However, my personal favorite is still The Falcon and the Wolf!
I’ve made a point of speaking to Rich every Gen Con if possible — mostly to geek out about Birthright — but also because I’m honestly a big fan of his work. I want to extend my gratitude to Rich for agreeing to this interview, and I heartily suggest that anyone who wants to know more about Mr. Baker should check his out his blog at Atomic Dragon Battleship.
And now, on to the interview! As always, my questions are in red.
(Click below the fold for the entire interview!)

 

General Questions

RW: Can you tell me a little about yourself as a gamer and as a game industry professional?
RB: I guess the easiest way to answer this is to tell you what I’m playing these days. I get together with a good group of guys on Thursday nights for D&D; I just agreed to step up and DM for a while, and we’re playing a multi-edition hybrid game set in the world of Birthright. (Believe it or not, I haven’t played a Birthright game in close to 15 years.) Before that, we played Saga Edition Star Wars, and before that, a long-running 4thEdition campaign. My Thursday night group includes noted WotC expatriates Steve Schubert and Dave Noonan—it’s a great table to play at.
Rich Baker and Bill Slaviscek aboard the D&D Party Bus. No, I am not making this up.
I also play a broad variety of boardgames when time permits. Some of the games we’ve played recently include Lords of Waterdeep, Mission Red Planet, Lords of Vegas, Axis & Allies (the anniversary edition), and Conquest of Nerath. Once in a blue moon I get a chance to dust off some of the old Avalon Hill or SPI titles—a few weeks ago I played Kingmaker, and a few months back I played Empires of the Middle Ages and Victory in the Pacific. I have a weakness for games with thousands of counters and huge hex maps, and I’ve been itching to play A World at War (the GMT update to Avalon Hill’s Third Reich and Rising Sun games). I had a small gang of co-conspirators at Wizards of the Coast who kept AWAW games going for years, but most of us are gone from the company now. Oh, and I play a lot of Civ 5, Eve, and Star Wars: The Old Republic.
As a game industry pro, well, I’ve been lucky enough to work on the sort of games I like to play: RPGs, strategy and historical boardgames, and historical miniatures games.
RW: How did you get your start in the RPG industry?
RB: I played D&D and wargames growing up, and loved ‘em all. In 1991, I finished up a 3-year stint as an officer on active duty in the Navy, and I started looking around for the next step in my career. I sent resumes off to dozens of companies… and as long as I was at it, I sent one to TSR Inc. for the pure hell of it. To my surprise, they responded by sending me a design test—a copy of the Complete Viking Handbook, and a request to provide a 2000-word writing sample based on that material. Well, I knocked out the sample encounter, and TSR liked it enough to bring me out to Lake Geneva for an interview. I started as a designer for TSR in October of 1991, and went on to spend twenty years with TSR and Wizards of the Coast.
RW: What is something great about working in the RPG industry?
RB: Working with people who share your passion for games. First of all, it meant that there was always a game group running after-hours that I could hook up with, or a gang of people ready to commit a couple of weeks of lunch breaks to setting up a big sprawling boardgame. I got a *lot* of gaming in with twenty years at TSR and WotC. But working with people who share your love for games means that you strike up a number of great friendships, too.
My vote for best 3.5 supplement of all time.
RW: What is something really bad about working in the RPG industry?
RB: Unless you’re fortunate enough to land at one of the very few top companies, there isn’t a whole lot of money in it. If you’re entertaining the idea of making this your career, make sure you’re okay with that. It’s also a very small field, with a very limited number of positions or freelancing opportunities available. If you’re an accountant, well, there are a thousand companies you might consider working for. RPG designer? Not so much.  
RW: How has your perception of working professionally in the RPG industry changed over the last 20 years?
RB: The business got more and more in the way of the creativity as time went on. After the initial success of 3rd Edition, the whole industry slowly contracted. Marginal companies went under, and bigger companies faced a never-ending spiral of trying to do more with less. Each individual release had more and more riding on it, and the business teams became less and less willing to take chances.  When I first started at TSR, we were publishing close to 100 RPG titles a year. You could do idiosyncratic, wildly creative things, understanding that if it tanked, you weren’t going to sink the whole line. Over the last few years, WotC has been publishing more like a dozen titles a year, and they’re subjected to a brutal evaluation process to ensure they’re only producing the titles that have the biggest possible upside. In retrospect we know that TSR’s business model was unsustainable, but  those were happier days.
RW: What do you believe is the most important aspect of professionalism in the RPG industry from the viewpoint of the freelancer? What about from the viewpoint of a publisher?
RB: From the publisher’s viewpoint: Hey, freelancer, do your work on time and write to the specs. Don’t run weeks and weeks over, and don’t give me 50,000 words when I wanted 20,000 (or vice versa). Nothing else happens until we get a manuscript in hand, and it’s more or less about the size we wanted. Almost as important, accept direction and don’t be difficult to work with. I dropped freelancers off my list every year because they’d argue with me about the direction I needed their manuscripts to go.
One of the best adventures for D&D 3.5, go check it out!
From the freelancer’s viewpoint: I have less experience being outside the ivory tower, so I’m a little less qualified to comment on this. But, based on conversations with my freelancer colleagues, I’d say it’s simple: Hey, publisher, pay me what you owe me in timely fashion. WotC was always pretty scrupulous about this, but that wasn’t necessarily the industry standard.
RW: If you could change one thing about the RPG industry, what would it be?
RB: A better online distribution, marketing, and delivery system. Realistically, the RPG market is never going to be a major moneymaker again; PC games, console games, and mobile games have been making pen-and-paper RPGs a niche product for years now. (A highly successful release of the next D&D edition may reverse or stabilize that trend to some extent, of course.) That sounds terrible, but really, a good niche is nothing to be ashamed of: high-end boardgames and RPGs deliver an experience that just can’t be replicated in the digital format. There’s always going to be a small but devoted audience for that experience.
So, rather than waiting and hoping that somehow people will suddenly get bored with technology and abandon their digital games, I think it would be more realistic and sustainable to figure out a way to make sure that your small but dedicated audience can *see* your products, *connect* with people who share their hobby, and *purchase your product* when they’re ready to buy. These days, that probably means creating a top-notch online retailer that is a community and a destination as well as a retail outlet. It’s technologically feasible, and there are several sites and companies out there that are close to providing that gaming Mecca I’m talking about. The smart brick-and-mortar stores would be plugged into that; they can offer face-to-face networking, play space, and café culture to supplement the online community.
RW: How do you engage with the fans of your work?
RB: These days, I’m publishing a blog with updates every ten days or so, and I’ve got quite a few friends on Facebook. I also attend the occasional con or local gaming get-together. Obviously, when I was with WotC, I was on the clock for maintaining articles like the Rule of Three, the Opening Salvo previews for A&A minis, and other regular postings. I probably ought to put together a Rich Baker website at some point, but I’m just a caveman game designer; your modern world frightens and confuses me.
Here’s a link to my blog: http://richard-baker.blogspot.com/
I encourage folks to subscribe. I do talk politics fairly regularly, but I segregate it off in its own header, so if you don’t like my opinions on that front, feel free to skip over that part.
RW: What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment as an RPG professional?
RB: I’d say the work I’m most proud of is the work I did in the design and development of 3rd Edition D&D and the 3rdEdition Forgotten Realms product line. Elements of my class, system, and spell design survived all the way through the 3e development process and became industry icons—the notion of super-proficiencies that became feats, the sorcerer,  the warlock, as well as elements like the paladin’s smite evil and the barbarian’s rage. There’s plenty of things I did that disappeared without  a splash, but when something you came up with sticks around and changes the landscape of D&D forever after, well, that’s a neat feeling. 
Definitely a fun read.
For the Forgotten Realms, I served as creative director for the first couple of years of the 3rd Edition line. Not only did I help to shepherd the 3rd Edition FRCS along (a very successful campaign setting book), I also had a lot to do behind the scenes with products such as Silver Marches, Unapproachable East, City of the Spider Queen, Lost Empires of Faerun, and Underdark. I felt that towards the tail end of 2nd Edition, Forgotten Realms had become a little, well, introverted. We were creating material that rewarded the initiated, and didn’t hold as much appeal for the uninitiated. I think those first dozen or so products in 3e Realms brought the setting to a lot of people and provided a great deal of gaming content that was good for both old hands and newcomers.
RW: What do you feel is your greatest setback as an RPG professional?
RB: I’d say, 4th Edition Forgotten Realms. It’s clear in retrospect that 4th Edition D&D created a very damaging split in the D&D audience, and we compounded that mistake by “taking away” the existing Realms in the process of providing a new Realms for the 4e fans to play. We would have been better off to produce a clean, comprehensive “current era” 4e, or even restarting the setting. I wish I could tell you that it wasn’t my idea, or that I resisted the change, but that wouldn’t be entirely true; while I had my reservations, I was persuaded that a reset was necessary and made plenty of my own contributions to the new Realms. (Most of my work was in the background and planning—I actually did very little writing in the 4e FR Campaign Setting or Player’s Guide to Faerun.)
I think Wizards of the Coast is taking some good steps now with the setting, but I’m afraid I can’t say much more than that—I have some insider knowledge that is still confidential. It’s not exactly what I would do, but it’s a much better and more sustainable long-term direction for the setting.
RW: How do you reconcile working on a game that, on the one hand, requires a set of rules… but on the other hand, encourages GMs and players to break the rules or come up with their own?
RB: To be honest, I never really got too hung up on this. I try to build material that is solid on a couple of levels, material that tells a good story with both the mechanics and the flavor. One of the things I really liked about the discussions we had about D&D Next (before I parted ways with Wizards) was the creation of a philosophy about things like searches and negotiations—if a player is engaged enough to narrate the exact right course of action, the game should tell the DM to let that character succeed. For example, if a player says, “I’m checking the desk drawers for hidden compartments,” and that’s where the hidden compartment is, well, maybe you ought to give it to him. If the player says, “I search the room,” with no more details, that’s where you ask for the roll. I’m using that idea in my current 3e hybrid campaign.
RW: If you were a fantasy adventurer, you’d be a…?
RB: A warlord or marshal. I’ve always liked playing smart fighters.
RW: What’s your favorite RPG (that you have not worked on)?
RB: It’s a little old-school, but I’m a big fan of the Champions system and universe. I’ve always loved superhero RPGs, and I loved thinking up character concepts for that game and making them work. Call of Cthulhu is a close second.
(Editor’s Note: I applaud your excellent taste, sir.)
 
You heard it here folks. Champions: the choice of veteran game designers.
RW: What do you look for… and what is a red flag… for a random freelancer submission?
RB: An article or pitch that explains how they would have done something different in the game—for example, “I want to create a system that makes weapons work much more historically,” or “Elves aren’t cool enough, here’s the way I think they should be,” or “Here’s my update to the Red Wizards of Thay that fixes all the continuity goofs and finally makes Product X and Product Y both correct.” A pitch that begins with the premise that some part of the game is horribly broken or flawed, and then promises to fix it, is a pitch from a guy with axe to grind. In my experience, a lot of those guys are not going to accept direction easily, and even if they’re right about something being not so good, it’s hard to patch a game that’s already been published. We don’t have an updater or automatic patch like an MMO does.
RW: If you could pick up the dice and play an RPG right this very instant, you’d play…?
RB: Champions. I can find D&D games pretty easily, but I don’t ever get to play superhero RPGs.
(Editor’s Note: Next time we chat, Rich, I’d love to bend your ear about Champions!)

Birthright Questions

RW: Birthright is a unique and distinct setting that I think has been greatly underappreciated (despite its Origins award). What were the main goals you wanted to accomplish with Birthright and how do you feel it succeeded (or perhaps did not quite succeed) at those goals?
RB: Birthright came out of a competition of sorts, in which upper management invited all of us editors and designers to submit proposals for “the next D&D world.” Many interesting ideas came out of that; I still remember Jeff Grubb’s sky-world and Jon Pickens’ patchwork-world proposals. Birthright per se wasn’t one of them, but notions of a “You are the king” theme were rattling around in several of the proposals, and that was extracted from the collected suggestions and seized upon. So, I was brought on board to be the lead designer with the basic mission statement already settled on: Design a world where the PCs are the kings and queens. That, clearly, was goal number one, and I think we hit that pretty solidly.
Birthright, my personal favorite D&D setting of all time.
At the time, we had Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, and Dragonlance game lines running simultaneously, so a secondary goal was to create a world that had a distinctly different feel that the high-fantasy D&D settings that already existed. We decided to create a lower-magic, more-historically grounded setting that would use a lot of familiar elements from our own world to make a moodier, darker, grittier world. Again, I think we succeeded for the most part.
In retrospect, I wish we’d left a little more wide-open wilderness to tame: Birthright could easily have addressed the classic D&D trope of building a stronghold, attracting followers, and clearing land for a settlement of your own. I think less emphasis on bloodlines and bloodline powers would have been a good idea, too – the “you are a king” bit was enough of a hook, we didn’t need to include special powers for your royal bloodline too. And I think that the awnsheghlien are pretty hit-or-miss; I like the idea of unique monsters, but we went to the well of tragic downfall a few too many times. Some of them could have just been unique monsters.
RW: You and Colin McComb designed the boxed set for Birthright and the setting of Anuire. If you could design Birthright (the core boxed set) again, what would you do differently?
RB: Ironically, I’ve just been looking at Birthright for the first time in many years. If I could do it over? Well, in terms of realm rules, I think I would give Sources and ley lines to primal casters like druids or shamans, not to wizards. I’ve been playing around with an idea that wizards use Artifacts as a time of holding, and that there are a very small number of Artifacts in the setting—there are temple and law holdings in just about every province, but an Artifact holding is more like one or two per realm. I think I would also try to emphasize more conventional adventuring in the setting; the Ruins of Empire book spends a great deal of time and space providing data about what regents are where, but it doesn’t say much about where the adventure is or how the DM is supposed to employ that information. Finally, I think I would try to move a lot of realm management into roleplaying—make it less about the numbers, more about the characterization and interaction.
RW: During the playtesting for Birthright, what were the most interesting outcomes? Were there any particularly noteworthy or amusing situations that occurred while testing the setting or the domain rules?
RB: Roger Moore played the wizard-king of Alamie. He discovered the realm spell for making undead legions and went berserk, hurling his bony hordes at every kingdom around him. It turns out that taking on three kingdoms at once is never a good idea even when you’re an arch-necromancer.
RW: Was Blood Enemies developed separately from the rest of the line? The tone and style of that book seem distinctly different from other Birthright books.
RB: In a word, yes. The author was Dale “Slade” Henson. Slade was assigned to work on the book more or less at the same time that Colin and I were finishing up the boxed set, and simply was less plugged in to what we were trying to do and the mood we were trying to set.
RW: To be honest, I’ve always felt that the Rjurik Highlands felt the most “odd man out” of the published regions. What are your thoughts about the Rjurik Highlands — what was your vision and goals for that region?
RB: The tricky thing about the Rjurik is that we were striving to create a society that was Viking-like, and at the same time had strong druidic or almost Native American elements. I wanted something that could draw from old Celtic culture, Picts, Saxons, and of course Danes and Vikings, and wind up somewhere around Cimmerians. It was a difficult combination and didn’t quite come together the way we would have liked. 
This book was released to read for free online. Go read it!
Ironically enough, 4th Edition D&D eventually nailed down the kind of idea we were groping toward when it examined the idea of various power sources and came up with the primal source, shared by druids, barbarians, shamans, and what-have-you. If I had had that tool in my design toolkit back in 1994, it would have been the exact right tool for describing why the Rjurik culture is fundamentally different from the other nationalities: It’s the part of Cerilia where people are tuned into primal power, not divine power. That would have been an interesting distinction—some semi-civilized Rjurik domains where the rulers and the big cities acknowledge temples, and some more barbaric ones that cleave to the old ways and stick to the forest spirits.
RW: If there was ever a way to bring Birthright back in some official form for any edition of Dungeons and Dragons, would you want to get involved?
RB: Sure! Time permitting, of course. I could build a pretty good 3e or 4e setting guide for Birthright. In fact, when D&D Next comes out, there are some tools in the toolkit that would probably work very well for describing the Birthright setting. Although to be honest I would have a hard time resisting the urge to tinker under the hood.

Setting the Scene

First, yes… late blog post is late. My apologies, this month has been quite full of stuff, like GDC Online and an upcoming Seattle trip.

I owe the inspiration for this week’s blog post to my friend Matthew Steen, who wanted to find out some of my thoughts about setting the scene in an RPG. Matt is a very creative person and very interested in the narrative aspects of RPGs, so I thought his suggestion was quite interesting.

My History With RPG Scenery

I’ve been playing RPGs for about 27 years now, and setting the scene was always something I found to be important. After all, the heart of an RPG is all about imagination—so I generally tried hard to make each game as immersive as possible. When I started out, this idea was mostly expressed as focusing on the “cool” parts of the game while relegating rules mechanics to a far secondary role. Thanks to another friend of mine, Brad Wilson, I did learn to let the story and the mechanics work together a lot more harmoniously during my high school years.

This, just the camera is in your mind.
When I got to college, I joined a Champions group that met very near to the University of Wyoming campus. In this group I learned a lot, but one of the most memorable things about the group was the way that describing the scene worked. I was actually co-GMing the campaign with another player, and I often found myself jumping in to help out by adding detail to the descriptions of various scenes—particularly the flashy superheroic battles that the group engaged in. During my time in the military, I discovered how powerful setting the scene can be when trying to evoke a particular genre or emotion in your players. This was further defined with my gaming group in Maryland where we reached some truly spectacular heights with a horror-themed game that relied heavily on the ambience and description of each scene.
My journey of discovery with setting the scene in RPGs has been quite instructive to me, and I’m glad to share my thoughts on the subject. Evocative roleplay is my favorite kind!
Note: the subject of this blog post is highly subjective and is unlikely to apply in equal measure across all groups. I’ve done my best to give broad advice here, but you should keep in mind that every group has their own approach to RPGs.

What is Setting the Scene?

Setting the scene is all about effective description; whenever an environment, character, action or event is being described, that is part of “setting the scene.” This kind of description can vary from extremely basic (“You see a 10’ by 10’ room. Inside is an Orc guarding a pie.”) to flowery and detailed. Switching from one style to the other is often considered a telltale sign that something is special about the upcoming action. One of my favorite quotes to this effect comes from Knights of the Dinner Table: “Anything with that much flavor text is obviously a trap.”
Basically, this. If the cheeseburger was flowery description.

Basic descriptions provide the bare minimum needed. I like to think that many Game Masters provide more than just the nuts and bolts—they try to make an impact with their descriptions. This is what I think about when I imagine “setting the scene.”

Here’s an example of setting the scene from one of my early Shadows Angelus games where the party was investigating a mysterious asylum:
“You are standing outside the darkened asylum as rain hisses down all around you. A light fog roils around your ankles and you sense a sharp, coppery scent of blood in the air. There’s a hushed, expectant atmosphere as if your arrival here was no coincidence. Suddenly, you can hear a thunderous roar erupt from the asylum’s depths – a primal sound of endless hate.”

Tools for Setting the Scene

If you’re looking for some methods to use to help craft immersive and interesting scenes in your RPG, here are some tools that I use to benefit this approach:

Excite the Senses

Often, describing the scene is purely visual (see the example of the Orc and the pie above). However, we all have many more senses than just our sight – describing what the scene sounds or smells like, providing details about the texture or subtle vibration in the floor, and adding some information about the gritty wind blowing across the plains can all help bring the action to life in the minds of your players. Sight, hearing and scent are the easiest cues to build into a scene, but also consider the other senses from time to time.

The accordion kings want to remind you that hearing is important.
In one of my Birthright games in Louisville, Kentucky, my good friend Bryant Smith was playing a fallen paladin who had succumbed to alcoholism. In a truly memorable scene, he found the only cure for a terrible disease ravaging his body involved drinking from a unique liquor known as the wine of dreams. Because this was a very important scene for his character, I went all-out describing the thick, honey-like substance, the sweet and spicy scent, and the riot of flavors across his tongue as he downed the bottle.

Relate to the Real

It is sometimes easy to forget that the players don’t always have the same context and memories as yourself. It’s not hard for me to remember, for example, the size and majesty of Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. However, it would be a mistake to assume that my players can all relate to that same image if I attempt to describe the monster as being “roughly the same size as Devil’s Tower.” On the other hand, I can generally assume that most players have seen a skyscraper building at some point in their lives—so describing the monster as being “several skyscrapers high” is much more effective.
Consider using measurements that are easily relatable… and the more easily memorable, the better. If you can use the dimensions of the room, for example, that is generally a good way to help people imagine the scene. You could also use nearby features, such as the parking lot across the street to establish the general dimensions of an abandoned keep, or point to a visible water tower out the window as an example of the wizard’s tower.
Similarly, don’t forget weather effects! Not every single adventure needs to take place during a sunny day – rain, snow, high winds, or fog can all enhance a typical scene and add extra drama to a confrontation in-game.
For my Shadows Angelus campaign, I had decided that the city experienced weather similar to London – high amounts of rain and fog. Consistently adding these details helped set the game experience apart and made certain moments in the game very memorable.

Find the Right Words

Vocabulary can make quite a difference in the description of a scene. Consider the following two examples:
Description 1: “The creature staggers towards you, covered in slime. Instead of a face, there is only a wriggling mass of tentacles.”
Description 2: “The creature lurched across the threshold, noxious slime dripping from every pore. Its face was merely a squamous mass of writhing tentacles.”
While these are both perfectly serviceable descriptions, the second has a particular flavor that is missing in the first. Choosing the right words to describe the scene can add or enhance the tone of the game. If you have a particularly heroic, high-fantasy game, for example, you could consider using words like “valorous,” “bastion,” or “sublime.” A gritty, street-focused modern or near-future game might instead benefit from terms such as “grimy,” “glaring,” or “suspicious.”

Antidisestablishmentarianism is a great word for nearly any RPG. Okay, maybe not.
Like much of the rest of this blog post, vocabulary choice is very subjective—thus, your mileage may vary, and you should always take into account your personal style and that of your group.

Props!

Don’t underestimate the power of physical props to get your players immersed in the game. Obviously, some games are going to find this easier than others – high fantasy rarely lends itself to common props that a game master can easily get his hands on, for example. However, even just some basic actions or objects can really enhance the experience.
During a very memorable Dungeons and Dragons game, my character encountered a disguised monster known as a Lamia. Taking the role of the Lamia, the GM moved in close and constantly made small touches to my leg while we were talking. (If this sounds vaguely uncomfortable, that’s okay… it was /meant/ to be!) The Lamia drains Wisdom as a touch attack, and my poor character had been reduced to a wreck without rolling a single die.
Another time, I was running a game of Dark Champions where the player characters were all street-level superheroes. During one of their investigations, they came across the wallet of a dead man containing vital clues. I had actually acquired a used wallet and mocked up various items found inside, such as business cards, ID, etc. Rather than describing what they found, I simply handed over the wallet and let the players go from there.

Building Atmosphere

Using evocative description is a great way to build a proper atmosphere for your game. This can be done over a single session or over an entire story arc, depending on the scope of the theme or mood you wish to highlight.
What I do when I want to build atmosphere is select a certain theme; “betrayal,” for instance, or “fairy kingdom.” Next, I use a set of key words that bring that theme to the forefront and scatter them throughout the descriptions I use for the game. If I am trying to build atmosphere during a single session, I like to a slow build—maybe two or three references at the beginning, moving up to about double that at the middle, and then hitting it really hard in the third act.
For a long-term campaign, building atmosphere relies on consistency—if you refer to the Swanwood as peaceful in one session, it shouldn’t suddenly feel threatening later on unless there’s a very good reason for that.
I’m currently part of a Birthright campaign where this concept has been used well; the Swanwood is a place of peace and serenity, and visitors to it always feel as if a weight had been lifted from their shoulders. Wisely, the GM makes small references to that whenever we visit the Swanwood after the first time, even if we’re just passing through.
Similarly, in Shadows Angelus, the extradimensional Entities always invoke feelings of nausea and illness (known as “Entity Sickness”) to any being nearby. Every time an Entity shows up, I tried to be inventive about how sick it made the player character’s feel just to be around them.
I recommend using an index card listing a specific theme and the vocabulary choices you want to use to reinforce that theme. Keeping a small set of these cards handy to review during breaks can be helpful.

Narrating the Action

One thing that I like to pay close attention to during any RPG I am playing in is how the narrative aspects of combat are handled. I’ve seen a lot of games (probably too many) that rely simply on “I hit, you miss,” and similar comments. Even more games have battles that (aside from spell effects or gunfire) are eerily silent.
For me, I like to imagine each game as a movie in my head, and that means I lean towards the cinematic as often as possible. This also means that I like to have my characters (and NPCs) talk during combat, exchanging quips or threats, or even just stating the obvious (as you do, especially in a superheroic game) such as “Our weapons are useless!” or “You’ll never get away with this!”
I recommend varying things up more than this, though.

I believe that the player characters are meant to be the protagonists of the story, and that means they should generally feel competent in what they do in combat. This means that when I am narrating the action, I try to do so in a way that empowers the character concept and furthers the story. Few things can affect a player as strongly as when he feels he or his character is being mocked—it is easy to chuckle over a critical failure now and then, but it can easily damage a player’s enjoyment of the game if he constantly feels like the narrative description of his actions casts him in a bad light.

Take a look at the following two examples of narrating the action, both occurring after a player has made a bad roll against an opponent during a combat scene:
Example 1: “You swing at the Orc and nearly drop your sword, fumbling the weapon and almost tripping over the scabbard.”
Example 2: “You swing at the Orc, but he brings his axe up to intercept it, snarling defiantly at you, ‘No one gets out of this dungeon alive.’”
The first example de-protagonizes the character and makes him seem foolish. This is occasionally fine (and more often acceptable in a lighthearted or comedy-styled campaign), but it often is harmful to the player’s overall enjoyment of the game. The second example empowers both the character and the story, giving the player something to riff off of should he choose to respond.

How Much is Too Much?

The pace of a game is very important, and it should be noted that descriptions can get overly flowery and detailed—thus slowing down the game for little benefit. Naturally, a game’s pace will vary based on the group and the GM, and every group has their own unique style. That having been said, I would recommend that most scene-setting descriptions should get the idea across as concisely as possible.
My recommendation is to write down what you would consider a typical description and time yourself – any descriptions that take more than twenty seconds or so is probably too long.
In combat, keep things short and snappy in order for the action to flow smoothly.

In Conclusion

Setting the scene, as you can probably tell by reading this, is important to me. I’m pleased to have the opportunity to talk about it, and I hope that you find this blog post helpful for setting the scene in your own RPG games. If you have any suggestions for other ways to help set the scene, please don’t hesitate to mention them in the comments section below.