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2012-12-04 Short Descriptions

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Over on the Hill Cantons, Chris wonders about Mastering Wilderness Description at the Table. Back in 2008, I wrote Keep It Short. I still try.

He pointed to the opening paragraphs of The Willows by Algernon Blackwood and illustrated how he’d strip it down. I’m willing to go further than that, however.

Here’s what I wrote:

In my experience, brevity is the most important. Players care about doing things, they care about treasure, monsters, interactions. That’s why they are perfectly happy with this: “After leaving Vienna, the Danube spreads out and the country becomes a swamp for miles upon miles. You see a vast sea of low willow-bushes before you…”

I guess it has an anchor (Vienna), an object (Danube), a change (spread), nature (swamp), some mood (miles upon miles), some detail (low willow-bushes), direct addressing (you see) and little else.

In terms of process, the most important feedback is what players are doing. As soon as one of the seems to be paying attention to something else, I cut the description short and go directly to “something happens!” or “what do you do?” Then, upon enquiry, I improvise more detail as required. This is rare and confirms my suspicion: my players value brevity above all.

When I wrote Caverns of Slime, I was also trying to keep things short. When I wrote How To Write A Module, I said: “In order to further aid improvisation every location starts with a sentence or two setting the mood, a list of impressions (sounds, sights), a list of names to use—little things that I’d appreciate as a referee.”

Here’s an example:

“The tunnel opens into a big cavern. On the ceiling, you see a glowing city with light bubbles and hanging bridges and gray webbing holding everything together.”

At the far end of the cave lies a lake. The stone wall rising from the water is wet. A dark fungus moss grows here, fed by water raining down from a black hole above. Flying or climbing up this wet tunnel will lead you to the realm of the Shroom Lord.

  • spider webs cover every hanging house
  • rope bridges connect platforms
  • this huge mass of webbing is secured by glowing glas balloons
  • water is diverted from the Fungus Falls at the back and distributed using wooden half pipes
  • occasionally ropes reach down to the cave floor below
  • the cave floor itself is covered in broken bones, the fallen remains of what the spider people feed upon

This city is one of the few places down here where the party can make friends and rest.

The above is then followed by events (encounters, monsters) and non-player characters (in this case, a spell-casting aranea).

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