I love and hate descriptive text. And I’ll get back to that point in a minute.
In the mean time: A few months after I was hired as Brand Manager for RPGs at WotC, our department was reorganized and a couple new people were brought in, including a new boss for me. Part of the idea was to modernize the way we managed our brands, and my new boss was hired in from Kraft on the back of his top-notch brand management expertise. The guy was frankly a dickhead, and most of his direct reports quit over the next few months, after which he was let go. But that’s another story: My story revolves around the bullet point.
See, one of the things he forced down our throats was a new style of business communications. (By “forced down our throats,” I mean (among other things) “made me rewrite a 30-page report seventeen times.”) I was frustrated and incensed—I’d been a professional writer for two decades, and I didn’t need this philistine to come along and tell me I’d been doing it all wrong that whole time. But one of his key requirements was that we summarize our main theses in bullet points instead of running text.
Despite my righteous indignation—and his short tenure at WotC—I eventually came to see that he was right. My prose might be scintillating, but scintillating prose belongs in novels and blogs, and maybe the odd RPG sourcebook. When your reader needs you to actually get to the point, you need to put your point in front of the reader quickly, directly, and in clear order.
Around this same time I was giving a lot of Powerpoint presentations. You know what makes Powerpoint presentations really boring? Someone who writes their presentation out on slides and then reads them to you. You know what makes them interesting? Someone who speaks in a lively, engaged manner, keeps your attention focused on him or her, and never seems to be paying any attention to the slides.
I don’t write many 30-page business reports these days, and I don’t give many Powerpoint presentations. But I write a fair amount of stuff for my games, and I present that stuff to my players. And that brings me back to descriptive text.
As your journey takes you northward along the road, you approach a curve and see a scene of devastation and violence. A large wagon sits half in a ditch. Twenty feet away, a second, smaller wagon lays on its side, with smoke rising from it. Seven goblins, armed with axes, bows, and spears, appear to be ransacking the baggage and goods from the wagons, while an eighth stands atop the larger wagon, waving a staff and speaking in an animated voice. It seems to be dressed in a more ornate manner than the others. Around the scene lay the bodies of five humans and half-elves, which have been brutally murdered. There are woods to the left, while the open, rolling pasture to the right is dotted with large boulders. Overhead, a glowering sky gives the whole scene a apocalyptic air.
Read that to your players. Go ahead, I dare you. When you look up from the text, their eyes will be more thickly glazed than a Smithfield spiral-cut sugar-cured ham. And when you’re done and they lift their heads from the table, their first question will be “what was that middle part?”
That passage might have been a scintillating batch of prose (it wasn’t, but it might have been), but this isn’t a novel. Your players need you to get to the point, and even more importantly they need you to be lively and engaging when you do it. And now we get back to my asshat boss and Powerpoint: Your players need bullet points.
Now read this to them:
- Violent, apocalyptic scene: Bloody bodies, overturned wagons, rising smoke, and dense, low overcast
- Two wagons: large one in ditch; small one on its side
- Goblin in ornate dress rants from top of wagon; waves staff
- A bunch of goblin warriors ransacking baggage
- Forest to the east; open land with boulders to the west
Actually, don’t read it. Imagine the scene, then describe it. Spontaneously. Engagingly. In your own words. Glance at the bullet points just enough to remind yourself what you need to cover. And watch your players’ eyes: Hardly a lick of glaze to be seen—because you’re talking to them, instead of reading at them.
(As an aside, this cures my other pet peeve about descriptive text: Point of view. Too many writers of boxed text assume the players are approaching the scene from a particular angle. WRONG! The whole point of RPGs is that they’re nonlinear and the players may come from any angle! Bullet points make no such assumption; they simply state what is there. You add the point of view as you describe the scene.)
So what should your bullet points cover? Frankly, the same stuff you descriptive text would cover:
- The physical aspects of the scene
- The characters or monsters present and visible
- Sounds, smells, and lighting
Shoot for three or four bullet points—maybe five at most. The point is to convey the impression the scene makes, not to deliver every bit of information (more on that in a sec).
OK, you’re sold. The wisdom of my method is clear to you. But how do you master this technique short of sending seventeen drafts to my short-lived ex-boss? Follow these simple tips:
- Focus on what the characters would see in their first impression of the scene
- Make the most striking element of the scene your first point, and then go in descending order from there. Perhaps the dragon in the center of the cave is the most striking thing. Or maybe it’s the staggering size of the chamber. Or the waves of intense heat rolling over the heroes.
- Remember that you don’t have to describe everything. If you use a battlemat, that alone will answer a lot of questions (like how big the room is, the exact number of orcs, and where the table is located).
- Keep your language general (“a large hearth” is better than “a 12-foot wide hearth”)
- Leave the fiddly details, like what specific weapons the goblins are armed with, out. Your players can always ask for clarification. This keeps your presentation simple, and if they do ask followup questions, you’ve turned the process of describing the scene from exposition to engagement. Which is always, always good.
(By the way, this focuses on the descriptive text for encounters or scenes, but it works just as well for monsters, NPCs, spell effects, or anything else you care to describe.)
I love descriptive text. I mean, I still put my bullet points in a gray box at the top of my encounter writeup. But what I hate is descriptive text, and this method has solved that problem for me. When the entire game industry recognizes my genius on this topic, it will solve it for everyone. What do you think—will it do the same for you?
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