Whitaker’s Descriptive Evocation
My spell for using cinematic descriptions to draw your players in
Galstaff, you have entered the door to the north. You are now by yourself standing in a dark room. The pungent stench of mildew emanates off the wet dungeon walls. — Deadale Wives
Does the above quote sound familiar? I don’t mean in the “yeah, I saw that YouTube video in 2004, too” kind of way. I mean it in the “yeah, that’s generally how rooms are described in the adventures I run/play in” kind of way. Like it or not, this kind of descriptive text is baked deep into the DNA of our hobby — most canned scenarios or adventures include some kind of text like this, whether it describes the scenario as a whole, or precedes the outline of every room in a dungeon. While text like this is certainly better and more evocative than “You enter a square, dim room. There’s a door on the north wall,” it’s hardly exciting or intriguing.
Of course, this sort of descriptive writing also informs how we as creators approach our own scenarios, adventures, and campaigns. That was certainly the case when I began running games; being unsure of how to convey something in my imagination, I naturally looked to the material I had played through or run from the “official” sources.
Unfortunately, much of the canned text provided by authors is bland and boring, and that’s mostly by design. One of the imperatives of RPGs is to “make them your own;” to take what the module gives you, and tweak or change it to suit your players, play style, and setting. This leaves a lot up to the GM, and in many cases, we tend to just rely on what’s written. I’ve personally been guilty of beginning encounters with “ok, let me see what the book says about this room,” especially in my early days as a GM.
Thankfully, there’s a better way; a way of describing things that is rich and textured, and nearly guaranteed to draw everyone at the table deeper into the game. It’s time to stop thinking of our adventures like books, and to start thinking of them like movies.
Becoming a Cinematographer
What movies do you like? Which are your favorites? If you’re like me, there will be some pretty bad films in your answers to those two questions, but there will also be some good or great ones, too. What makes those films memorable? Why do they stand out? Plot and acting, for sure. I’m willing to bet cinematography also plays a part, even if you don’t realize it. The way a movie is shot; the craft of framing, setting mood, and editing; all help to make it memorable and timeless. Guess what? With proper technique, you can use these same ideas to make your RPG sessions memorable, too.
I’m going to use an easy example; the Matrix (the first film, not it’s derivative sequels). Sure, we all remember the kung-fu, bullet-time, cyber-goth fashion and clunky metaphysics. Now take a minute and think about the way in which the film was shot; the precise character and mood of each scene. Every frame of the Matrix was painstakingly planned to evoke a certain aesthetic, or engender a particular feeling, in the audience. I want to stress how difficult — and expensive — this was for a blockbuster, and how much this attention to detail helped to cement the Matrix as a seminal work of film.
“That’s cool Kevin, but how does this apply to running my D&D game?” you might ask. Well, let’s explore that with the most rote of all RPG scenes; “so you meet in a tavern.” We’re all friends here, so we can admit that we’ve probably begun at least one adventure in our GM careers this way. Maybe your description went something like this:
You sit in the busy common room of the Brown Bear Tavern, the scent of cooking meat rising above the background noise of the patrons relaxing after a hard days work in the fields. The roaring fire bathes the room in a warm red glow, casting dancing shadows as the tavern owner and his employees deliver mugs of ale and plates piled high with steaming food to the various tables.
While you’re observing all of this above the rim of your own mug, the front door bursts open, and a bedraggled and half-crazed elf nearly falls into the room. ‘Help!’ he cries to no one in particular. ‘The goblins are coming!’
This description isn’t too bad, if I do say so myself. It describes the room and atmosphere well enough for everyone to visualize the scene, and get a general idea of what’s going on. The sudden appearance of the elf is urgent, and will probably be enough to excite the party into action. While this setup is descriptive, it isn’t very evocative; there’s nothing interesting or memorable about it, and it does nothing to convey the mood we might want to establish.
So let’s think about it from a cinematic perspective, as if we were directors instead of GMs. How would it be different? Maybe it would look something like this:
The scene fades in to the sound of a fire crackling in a hearth; the flames writhing at the bottom of the shot, lighting a man’s face in a red glow as he reaches a poker in to stir the embers. Over the sound of the fire, we can hear the quiet din of a common room. The camera switches to a tracking shot, following a server at waist height as they move through the tables and patrons in the tavern; one of them passes between the server and the camera.
As we move through the room with the tavern worker, we see the faces of the patrons; either chatting amiably with each other, or staring sullenly into their meals. The sound of the howling wind rattles the shutters of the windows.
There’s a view of the front door from a low angle. With a sudden bang, the door flies open and a frail form nearly collapses down on top of the camera. Now we see the patrons and employees from the back, staring in confusion and concern at the figure, backlit by the moon through the open door. Its an elf. He scrambles to his feet, heaving great, panicked breaths.
“Help!” he cries, sweat dripping down his face. “The goblins are coming!”
There’s the cry of a wolf, as we see a shot from behind the elf, looking into the room. His eyes widen in terror as the camera slowly zooms in, then fades.
So its certainly more long-winded, and it accomplishes the same thing as the previous description. However, I’d argue that it is far more interesting, and better helps convey the mood we want to establish. The goblins are attacking, after all. This isn’t some kind of merry adventure; there are stakes here, and the tension should be high, right from the start.
Of course, I’m not a film professional. I fully expect that a real director, editor, or cinematographer would read that paragraph and balk at my amateurish attempt at things, but by communicating the scene in the language of film; that is, a visual language; we can set a common tone and theme for the players, even though they are experiencing it differently in each of their own imaginations.
Of course, we could push things further to add more interest and tension. Perhaps we start in horror movie fashion, with over-the-shoulder scenes of the elf running through the darkened woods, interspersed with the sign of the Brown Bear swinging in the wind, and calm shots from within the tavern. Once you begin to thing cinematically, all sorts of possibilities present themselves, since you have a huge backlog of inspiration to pull from.
I Know Kung-Fu. Show me.
Cinematic descriptions can apply to more than just environments and the scenes themselves. If you’re looking for ways to make things more interesting for your players, but your unsure of how to deal with the larger and more complicated scenes, try focusing on something smaller and more immediate; combat.
Almost every RPG handles combat of some sort, and some, like Dungeons and Dragons, make it central to the game. As such, describing combat, which can often be repetitive and dull, in an exciting way, can really help to elevate your sessions.
When I first started playing and running games, fights usually went something like:
- Me: “I swing my sword at it, and hit.”
- DM: “Cool. Roll damage.”
- Me: “5”
- DM: “Nice. Its dead. The next one attacks you.”
Combat could, and should, be better. Think of all the great fights you’ve seen in the movies, and now try to remember the terrible ones. Those great fights are great for a reason. Watch something like the hallway scene from Netflix’s Daredevil, and think of just how good that scene is. The audience feels every punch; they recognize the desperation on the part of the criminals as Daredevil assaults them; they feel the exhaustion overcoming the hero with every new foe who presents themselves. Combat can feel like that in your games, as well.
How could we restate the combat above to be more interesting, but still be quick and to the point? Maybe it would go like this?
- Me: “I feint a kick at the orc’s shin, then come down with my sword, screaming a battle cry. I hit, for 5 damage!.”
- DM: “Your blade bites into its neck, spewing black blood onto the camera. As you wrench the blade free of the spasming foe, you hear a roar from behind you. You turn, and from over your shoulder we see another orc swinging the butt end of its battle axe at your head!”
Look, I know nearly every RPG rulebook talks about making fights more interesting; most of the examples given in those books are of combat, and they tend to describe things pretty well. There’s a reason for that — in most games, combat is tedious and intricate, and anything we can do to help spice it up is worthwhile. Its worth your time, and your players, to be descriptive in what combat looks and feels like.
Similar to combat, magic, super-science and other weirdness can be cinematic, and can also give your players an opportunity to help in describing the scene. Whenever you can, you should ask the players questions like “what does that look like,” or “how does it feel.” By answering these questions, the players can start to bring personal style to their characters, which, much like visual queues in a movie, can tell the audience (in this case the other players) things about those characters.
When a player says “I cast magic missile,” for the first time, ask them “what does it look like?” The answer you get might be straightforward, or it might be surprising. For every “um, what it says in the description” response I’ve gotten, I’ve gotten at least one like “brilliant purple bolts, in the shape of grinning skulls, shoot from my fingers.”
This isn’t reserved for the weird stuff, either. Always be on the look out for opportunities to get your players involved. When one player helps another, again, ask what it looks like. Suddenly, a simple “I help Bannock open the door,” becomes “I shoulder in next to Bannock, and help him press against the door. The veins in our arms bulge, and we slip a little on the dusty floor, but eventually, with a cracking sound, the door gives way.”
Don’t Be Zack Snyder
Having spent a bit talking about how we can inject some cinematic qualities into our sessions, I’m now going to backpedal a little. Not everything needs to be over the top; not everything warrants a complex, narrative description. While injecting your sessions and stories with interest and life is important, those stories themselves; and their pacing; should take priority.
As I’ve said before, don’t get sidetracked by bullshit, unless your players want to — in which case, those things aren’t bullshit anymore, and should be a priority. That scene between your players and the blacksmith probably doesn’t need evocative framing, or to even exist. But if it does; if the group decides its important; then yeah, make it feel important.
In other words, don’t be like Zack Snyder; a director who’s seemingly more concerned with visual impact than he is with telling a good, cohesive, well-paced story.
I hope you’ve found these tips helpful, and that, if you are struggling to make things more interesting in your games, you can find some inspiration here. On the other side of that, I’m always looking for ways to make my own games more interesting and memorable for my groups. What techniques do you use to set the mood, and build the tension, of your games? Are you a “cinematic storyteller,” or do you have a different style? Let me know — I’d love to read about it!