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.
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.
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.
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.