GMing 101: The Art of Description

One of the most important features of the roleplaying game is the descriptions by which the GM brings the adventures and the gameworld itself to life for the players.  For the gameworld to be believable to the players, the GM must be able to paint a vivid picture of it in words across their minds, their imaginations. The quality of the GM’s descriptions generally depend on the GM’s grasp of the language, to start with, but can easily be improved  (as desired) by the application of method. It is too easy to lose control over the language and let what was supposed to have been a clear verbal illustration of a setting or situation devolve into confusion in the heat of the moment.  The more the GM gets caught up in the excitement of the moment, the more likely this is to happen, even if he is a college English professor. It can be difficult to keep descriptions concise and accurate and still make use of the adjectives and details that provide them with richness and color, that bring them to life in the players’ minds.

Many people, especially those new to the office of GM, have difficulty painting the images of the scenes they see in their minds’ eyes in words to which the players can all relate, especially when the GM is very excited. This phenomenon becomes even more acute when the GM is working with an original adventure of his own crafting. He is commonly much more attached to it, and thus feels more strongly about it, because it is his creation. Obviously, the goal is to bring the image in the players’ own minds as close to that in the GM’s mind as he may with mere words, to get them as excited and involved in the dramatic medieval fantasy he is trying to create for them.

With practice, anyone can learn the art of colorful and concise description. It need not be an onerous task, but it take a conscious effort. A pocket thesaurus can help the GM find new words while jotting down notes for the various scenes he anticipates running, while he is preparing, and a pocket dictionary is always handy just to be sure the words mean what they appear to mean in the thesaurus, when unsure. A regular method for approaching and composing descriptions during play can also be a great help.

In providing the descriptions of the characters’ settings, mood and  NPC’s in the gameworld, word choice will be very important. Some people think that using a wide variety of synonyms is the best way to spice up their descriptions to provide the color mentioned in this passage. This is true, and a worthy tool for the purpose, BUT only to a point. There are other tools which will help at least as much. When the GM starts using a string of synonyms all in reference to the same specific place or item, it can actually lead to utter disaster – indescribable confusion of the “@&*!%∂Î!!#@**!!!” sort. Whatever word the GM chooses to use a noun to indicate a particular place or item, he should stick with it. He can use a synonym for it in the next instance when another of the same kind of place or item occurs, but again will need to stick with that particular noun when referring to it. In making decisions regarding word choice in this way, the GM must be aware of the subtle shades of meaning in each when he uses them. The GM can inadvertently imply that something is either greater than or less than he intends in the perceptions of the players, or he may use a word which means something entirely different than the players think it does. The worst of the words that can be misunderstood in this fashion are door, gate, doorway, gateway, portal, valve, or the group consisting of antechamber, room, closet, chamber, bower, hall, vault, cyst, passage, hallway and tunnel. The GM must make it his business to acquaint himself with the subtle (and some not so subtle) differences between these.

A door can be any old door, anywhere, made for nearly any purpose, but generally just of a size to be comfortable for the passage of the average or slightly larger than average members of the race of which the builder was, or the one for whom the door way built (c. 7ft. tall x 3ft. wide). A gate implies some sort of guard or bulwark, something thick and heavy which should be closed at sundown with the beginning of the curfew against knaves and brigands, hung in the passage of a gatehouse fortification, or as part of a curtain wall. they can be split in the middle to open either one or both as a pair, or they can be a single panel pulled upwards in one piece or open via a side hinge like a conventional door. If the GM intends an ornate door composed of wrought-iron, or even one of plain bars, he will have to give a more complete description of the “gate”. Doorway and gateway imply spaces cut through a wall or fortification to allow traffic to pass through, but in which the door or gate is currently open or in which the door or gate was never intended to be hung to impede or limit that traffic. A portal can be any one of these – door or doorway, gate or gateway, but should be reserved for those of particularly grand size or ornamentation, and should especially be applied to the grand main entrances of cathedrals with their carven murals and enormous doors. Valves only come in pairs, and together they fill gateways or portals of truly awesome dimensions. They are generally very heavy, made of stone, metal, or are at least metal-clad, and are of such great weight that they are difficult, if not impossible, for a man to move even one valve of a pair alone, without mechanical assistance.

A room can be just any old room, anywhere, but if you call a room a closet, the players will no doubt assume it is a) rather small, and b) used for some sort of storage, regardless of the GM’s intent merely to emphasize its small size. An ante chamber can be virtually any small to medium-sized room, but must have another door letting on to a larger, grander chamber of some sort, whether it stands between a chamber and the hallway, or between two such chambers. There, it seems impossible to even discuss the topic of shaded meanings without using some of them. A chamber implies a larger, grander space than just the average room, in breadth and depth, at least, if not in height. A hall or Great Hall is grander still, and generally implies an oblong space generally larger than the average modern house, usually two to three storeys high, but open from floor to rafters. Vaults, on the other hand, tend to be rather low-ceilinged and made of stone, and found on the cellar level of a house, manor, hall, or castle, not always buried as basements are in modern times in northern climes. Vault can also refer to the assemblage of cut stones that form the ribs of arches supporting the ceiling of such a place, “vaulting” indicating a whole system of arches supported by regularly spaced structural pillars supporting the ceiling of some place like parts of the catacombs of Rome or a great edifice such as a cathedral. A vice is a terrible personal habit, yes, but a Vice is a sort of behavior which can imperil one’s soul if not guarded against, and lead to Shadows and thence to becoming lost in Darkness, BUT a vice is also a spiral staircase, generally narrow and buried in the wall of a building or tower, and usually winding upwards in a clockwise direction to make it easier to defend for the majority of (right-handed) Warriors. Cysts are generally relatively small room-like spaces dug in the ground, usually circular, and used for the purposes of burial, usually reached via a small hole in the center of the (sometimes domed or vaulted) ceiling or in a wall, reached by a narrow well or tunnel.

In addition, tunnels are generally passageways driven through the ground or under some hill or mountain in order to make the route between A and B as close to a straight line as may be. They can be rough-hewn, like a mine or faced with finely cut and fitted, or even polished, stones. They are NOT found in the interiors of buildings, though they may run underground between or beneath them. Corridor, passageway, and hallway are all much more forgiving than any of the previous terms., although the last should generally be avoided because of the likelihood of its being shortened in the fashion of its modern usage. On a ship these should be referred to as gangways.

Many gamers have become used to the idea of adventurers running about in subterranean labyrinths which, for the sake of convenience over the years of having played medieval fantasy games, have been named “dungeons”. The word “dungeon” comes directly into the English language from the French word “donjon”, brought over the Channel by the Normans. It properly refers only to the main stone tower or “keep” of a castle, and then only to the strong cellar or basement level with its thick stone walls where captives and hostages were held prisoner. The cellar or dungeon level of the keep is properly at least partially buried under the surrounding topography, or cut into the bedrock when the castle is built on a rugged mountain peak or rocky crest or escarpment, and was historically used for a number of purposes, chief among these being storage. These cellar chambers, or cells, may or may not have window embrasures cut in their walls to let in air and light, depending on how deep in the earth they are buried, and whether or not they face the castle’s approach. Curtain walls and batters (the outward angled bases of walls) facing the approach and thus open to enemy attack will not have any windows cut in them for the simple sake of security.

In some castles, the cellars will sometimes be divided to provide space for the kitchens closest to the food stores, that they would not have to be hauled so far  to be put to use. The heavy doors with locks were originally intended to protect the very valuable goods stored within, but this also made them perfect for locking away malefactors following sentencing, or suspected miscreants awaiting trial, convenient to the castle lord’s hall where his court baron would render judgement over him. Of course such dire accommodations for imprisonment were only for the common folk and the poor. Those with the money to pay the bribes could be provided with better accommodations, perhaps in a tower chamber where a few simple furnishings and a proper bed or cot, as opposed to the moldering, vermin-ridden pile of straw the less well-to-do suffered with. If the prisoner’s social class and station warranted it, he or she might be allowed a valet or maid, and certainly a more satisfactory quality of food and drink than the gruel and water served the common rabble, and fuel and blankets with which to keep warm.

While the cellar levels of the lord’s hall and mural towers of the castle were commonly connected to one another via a system of underground tunnels, this doesn’t exactly make for a labyrinth of the style commonly depicted in the maps used by those who publish adventures for medieval roleplaying games. Some would argue that the subterranean labyrinth has an ancient and venerable heritage in the great maze inhabited by the Minotaur, the Bull of Minos, reputed to have lain beneath the palace of Minos on the island of Crete, but this was deep beneath the palace and NOT a part of the cellars of the palace themselves, and as such is NOT properly called a “dungeon”, as some would insist.

As discussed in Chapter 1. (Part II?), it is recommended that the GM say what he means, if only for the ease of good quality communication and to ease the potential for frustration among any novice players. The GM should only call an adventure setting a dungeon when the PC’s have entered some palace or castle or other similar stone towered and walled citadel and descended into the dark cellar regions and also wants to evoke a sense of dark, dank, and musty smells, and images of stocks, pillories, and even torture devices to accompany the pitiable moans and pathetic cries of sick and malnourished prisoners drifting out from behind locked doors.

While they certainly can become the lair of a foe and a really neat place to explore in the ruins of an old tumble-down castle, the value of an actual dungeon in and of itself, apart from the castle, is strictly limited. The cellars and dungeon of an occupied castle, on the other hand, would provide space for a foe to hide and make his lair unbeknownst to his host, with ample stores to raid close at hand, especially considering the storage aspect of that level of the building. Due to the maze-like ambience it can acquire with great boxes and bales and pots and stacks of goods piled up everywhere with only meandering paths threading along between and around them, the cellars moreso than the actual dungeon area of a castle will lend itself better to this use. All that would be needed is a tunnel to provide secret access and escape from it.

The trackless pillared halls, cisterns, cysts, tunnels and chambers beneath Rome are called catacombs, not dungeons, and the convoluted network of drainage tunnels that connect with the catacombs here and there and the crypts and cellars of the churches  and great houses of the city really are little more than just sewers, while the 270 miles of tunnels running under the city of Paris are the remains of an ancient mine.

All of these are amazing places one might go adventuring, and not a dungeon in the lot.

Regardless of the fact that these places are all found underground, beneath castle, town, cathedral and church, reducing the word “dungeon” to a generic term does nothing to remind the players of the actual nature of the place in which the characters find themselves or how they came to be there. If they are in a crypt, call it that, remind them of the bones and tattered remnants of ancient winding sheets under their feet which they are scattering with every step, of the niches bearing the bones of the dead in the walls all about them, festooned with cobwebs and covered in dust. If they are in a sewer, the GM needs to say so, remind the players of the fact that the characters are ankle or knee-deep (or deeper) in a noisome slurry of gook that does not bear close examination if one wishes to keep one’s lunch down.

When it comes to providing descriptions, words are not the only tool in the GM’s toolbox. By using visual aids in play, the GM has another means of adding a great deal of color and more of a sense of reality to the medieval fantasy gameworld. If the GM is an artist, he can draw pictures, otherwise he can collect postcards and photographs from his own and other peoples’ trips, off the internet, from history books and travel magazines for settings that fit his needs, and also to find pictures of people that fit his ideas of what the NPC’s look like. This can be a real step-saver, but the GM should guard against it becoming a crutch. regardless of the fact that a “picture is worth a thousand words”, it is be a very short step from saving time to short-changing the players by denying them the impact of the GM’s verbal descriptions. Visual and verbal descriptions should be used side by side. How are the players supposed to know which words the pictures are worth. They are just pictures. The GM’s words are still necessary to breathe vitality into those dead two-dimensional images, providing the players with their meaning in the context of his gameworld.

In addition to the physical settings, the GM must set the mood for every significant situation and setting as the PC’s approach it. Scents and odors, environmental noises like the intermittent “plick-plock” of dripping water, or the gradually increasing rush and roar of rough waters as rapids or waterfalls are approached, the ancient of ancient trees in the forest as the wind moves among them, or of lake-top sheets of ice under stress, the rustling of dry autumn leaves or the soughing of a gentle breeze through trees in leaf , the soft moan of the wind through bleak and lonely places, ghostly strains of music just on the edge of hearing (when appropriate), phantom whispers, ghostly caresses in the mist or fog, and all sorts of other pieces of atmosphere must be considered. Lighting, like a cloud suddenly passing before the sun and casting all in shadow momentarily when the name of the Darkness is invoked by the fearful followers of the Light, even out of an otherwise cloudless sky, makes for great drama, as do sudden shafts of sunlight spearing down through the shadows to illuminate important sites as the PC’s approach them. This is important to mood, and marks the place in play where the players should really quiet down and start to pay close attention. The soft susurrus of a gentle rain fall should dampen the mood so they can imagine themselves trudging through it, with marked grimness if it is  also chilly. After “setting the stage” in this way, as it were, the GM should give only a brief visual description as the characters approach, carefully revealing only what the characters can see. If the weather is poor, the GM might be justified in describing for them only what the players say they are specifically inspecting, otherwise it might be pretty safe to assume they are hunkered down in the saddle with their hoods up against the weather, looking down at the road in front of them. Looking up or out is just going to get them wetter. The players will have to weigh the value of more in-depth description.

Once the characters arrive at a location, particularly after they have just opened the door to a room, the GM should only give a cursory run down of the general nature and major contents of the space beyond, and that only to the character opening the door, and perhaps the next character behind him, who can look over his shoulder (relative heights permitting). The GM should always be very aware of the limitations of the ambient light, or the light source carried by the PC’s when providing a visual description of the surroundings, especially when they are wandering around in the dark, outside at the dark of the moon or before or after moonrise or moonset, in some dark, dank cellar or donjon, or in some lightless subterranean labyrinth.

The GM should always start with the area closest to the character and immediately in front of them as far as contents, then move on to the area beyond that, then the right wall, and then the left, always being brief, touching on the high points, listing features in their most basic terms, i.e., major pieces of furniture, doors, windows, archways, alcoves – but only those that are readily visible – also any significant wall coverings like tapestries, wainscot paneling, frescoes, or the like.

The reaction(s) of any living creatures or beings occupying a location just opened or entered, whether great hall, service passage (hallway), courtyard, bower or broom closet, should take priority over any further description of the setting, especially when they pose a threat or known danger to the PC’s. The description should be reduced down to the fact that it is either a large room, cave or chamber with either a high or low ceiling when it is occupied by an object, creature, or being readily identifiable as an immediate threat or danger to the characters, unless the area entered is rather large and the threat or danger is far enough away for the PC’s to react should it decide suddenly to attack. This will give the characters enough time to absorb some additional information about the setting, as discussed on first arrival, above. Of course, drawing weapons and readying shields, etc. would probably be the wiser course of action as the foe launches itself down the length of the area at them.

In tactical situations and moments before incipient battles, when danger looms immediate, are the only times the GM can get away with “less”. All the players need to know in order to respond to these situations by way of description is the nature of the threat, its position relative to their own, and the general nature and rough configuration of the setting lying between them and immediately around that (if anything significant is there). Details should only be divulged as the situation progresses and the PC’s have a chance to take a closer look, here and there.

Engagement in battle should eliminate any further description of the location for the PC’s benefit except for providing specific details of the characters’ locations as they move about the setting, those things falling within an (AWA)-ft. radius of each character, so long as they are not located within the arc described by the Rt. Rear Flank, Rear, and Lt. Rear Flank, where the character cannot see unless he turns around.

Conversations with the occupant(s) of an area the PC’s enter will allow a more detailed description of major features, especially as the PC’s proceed into the space. The PC’s may have to enter and approach to a more comfortable proximity for conversation if the space is large enough. Still, studying the surroundings while trying to carry on a conversation may make it hard to follow. Each character will have to decide which he will be more intent on, the surroundings or the NPC with which the party is conversing. If the PC’s are paying more attention to the environment than their conversation, it is likely he will get annoyed at being treated so rudely, bringing any conversation to a screeching halt. The conversation might be passed off from one character to the next while the others study the area, if the players have the presence of mind to try such a tactic. On the other hand, the NPC might be interested only in talking to one or two of the PC’s leaving the rest free to wander around and look. In the case of sleeping guards or guardian beast(s), the characters will be free to roam about and inspect the setting, BUT Padfoot skills or an extraordinary AGL score will likely be required in order to do so without waking them.

Of course, if bound in sleep by magick or rendered unconscious rather than sleeping, no such precautions will be necessary.

The GM should avoid giving any details of the design motifs or materials until the players state they are taking the time to look more closely and carefully (especially in the case of those with good vision – high AWA  scores), or that they are actually moving into the chamber or area to take a closer look. This is the initial examination phase. At this point things “seem” to be or “appear” to be as described, as only their most obvious attributes are discernable. Being somewhat vague is perfectly acceptable, but the GM must avoid misleading the players, especially when the PC’s move in for closer examination. The GM may start out by mentioning that there “appear to be two doors in this room aside from the one on whose threshold you are standing …”, when in fact, one of those doors is a fake, nailed to its frame and laid flush against the masonry wall running behind it, to draw attention away from any number of other doors which have been hidden from sight by being made to conform to the architectural details of the chamber’s design and décor, awaiting a much closer and more careful examination of the walls to discover. Doors, windows, archways or alcoves, perhaps allowing access to a “vice” or staircase, and other similar features can just as easily lie hidden behind some large arras hanging from the ceiling as a decorative piece of deception, only evident once a curious character has pulled it away from the wall to see what is behind it.

When the characters are alone and/or otherwise left to their own devices to poke around and explore will be the time the GM should encourage the players to ask questions about their surroundings and take the time to answer them fully. During this phase of play, the GM must make sure that the players understand that detailed descriptions and any probing tenor of their questions indicate a physical probing and searching actions on the part of the characters, by implication. Whenever the divulging of certain specific information in response to a particular PC question cannot have been obtained in any other way except through an action on the part of the character which remains implied but has not been verbally allowed, usually involving contact with the thing examined, it will be the GM’s responsibility to make sure that the player understands that he is implying that the character is performing that act even though he has not said so, and agrees that it is indeed what he wants to do. This understanding must be established first, before the information is divulged. This is of VITAL importance where tricks and traps of some sort (regardless of whether mundane or magickal in nature) are involved, attached to the object or feature examined and about which the detailed information has been requested.

Contact with it on the part of the PC must be established first.

By seeking to verify the character’s actions, the GM actually provides the PC with the opportunity to back up a half-second and perhaps check for traps, if he is trained as a Huntsman or Draughlatch or Roberdsman, or call another character over to do so for him, and perhaps ask that those who have the arcane knowledge to do so check for the presence of magick, if the character cannot do so himself.

This procedure saves the GM from unintentionally tipping his hand by tripping the trap or springing the surprise on the PC(s) under the presumption of the character’s action, then having to recant it when the player protests. This results in the players being given an unfair advantage, basically rendering the trick/trap useless and the time that went into developing it wasted. Telling the players to disregard what has been inadvertently revealed because their characters do not know the danger that awaits them is absurd.

The game takes place in the imaginations of the players, who now know.

The player in question can claim he never stated the action nor intended to, in spite of the implication in the question, he didn’t understand the situation properly. In the interest of fairness, the players’ understanding of the relationship between the environment and their characters is what must be established in any situation where those characters are in danger, especially when the effect of that danger hinges on a specific sort of action on the PCs’ part(s).

Sleeping guards and guardians rousing suddenly from sleep, and similar NPC’s or beasts lying in wait hoping to leap out upon the PC’s with the advantage of Surprise will allow the PC’s to proceed into the setting and explore it at their own pace, up to a point. That point will be the arrival at the spot deemed most effective for those in hiding to spring forth from cover and attack as many as they can reach at that point. However, the details of planning and executing ambushes, the stalking habits of beasts and how to emulate them in play, how to determine the timing and even whether or not they will attack (if the PC’s are too numerous, they might not) are all provided in the Bestiary.

When providing a description of the characters’ foes, regardless of their type, the GM must be careful not to give the game away. When it is time for a NPC foe to strike at one of the PC’s, the GM must never say “Bitsy the Knave thrusts with her misericorde at your Warrior, Ethan Thudnblunder, piercing his padded armor and sticking him in the Thigh.” How is Ethan supposed to know a) that the girl’s name is Bitsy, and b) that she is a Knave? And if poor Bitsy was already known to the PC’s but clad in a disguise to make her appear as a man in the first place, the GM would really have blown it. “Bitsy the Knave?! But I thought she was dead!” Oh, well. Not any more. This sort of lapse is only acceptable when the PC’s can see their foes clearly for who they are and already know with whom they are dealing, when the PC’s recognize the foe for having been faced with him a time or two before. This just isn’t that likely to be the case if the PC’s are new to the game world in the beginning of their first adventure, or in the beginning of any adventure when the NPC has only just been introduced.

In the same vein, when the PC’s are being attacked in the middle of the night by some ravening beast(s), the GM must not say “Three were-wolves come leaping into the circle of firelight, one of them taking a swipe at each of you with their vicious claws …” when the were-wolves are in full-wolf form. Sure, they may be a little bigger than the average wolf, and a little meaner, but how are the C’s going to be able to tell the difference between them and common mundane wolves, or that perennial favorite the “Dire Wolf”, especially at first glance in the middle of the night and by flickering firelight? Highly unlikely! A character of one of the magick-wielding trades might sense the magickal aura about them, know for sure if he touched one or one touched him, or if he took the time to perform a Divination – while in the middle of battle. The fact that their weapons of common steel didn’t affect them would be a fairly big clue, at least revealing the fact that they are supernatural in nature. Another clue might be the fact that they will fight together, maybe even in formation as a team, and will respond to the advice or instructions shouted between the PC’s to foil their plans, indicating they understand the spoken word and thus possess an unusual intelligence.

For the sake of clarity, the GM must finish with one thing before he starts another. If the GM starts with “There is a door in one wall …” and gives some dimensions, then continues “and another door in the next wall …” and mixes in some more dimensions or a little description (perhaps it is a fancy decorated door of some kind) and then continues with “There is also a scrivener’s stand and a tall joinery stool against one wall and a tapestry beside the door in the next wall …” and keeps going with “Oh, and a set of crimson velvet curtains swagged on either side of the fresco on the next wall …” he should not be surprised if he gets a response like “Hey, wait a minute – there are five walls? Is the room pentagonal in shape?” or simply “Hunh?” from the players. The GM should start with the features and objects in one area and finish with that area before moving on to the next, and be sure to let the players know the direction in which he is moving about the room as he is giving the description. This is where having a standard method comes in handy. Stick with the format that is most comfortable. Starting right in front of the PC’s, middle distance, then farthest, then moving around the perimeter from the right counterclockwise around the room, or vice versa, or perimeter first and then the middle ground, as desired. Of course, when there is some astounding feature, some fixture, object, creature or being that is grandly huge or large and monstrously ornate and which obviously dominates the space or comprises an obvious focus of the room’s design and décor, the GM should make a point of describing that first. This is no doubt where all eyes will first be drawn.

If the GM takes the process described here and breaks it down into an outline format from which he never departs, despite the fact that this can aid him in making his notes in preparation for the game, he also runs the risk of making the descriptions sound stale and “canned” or contrived even when they are original. The GM must always try to make the game sound fresh, lively and even urgent.