Today the theme is Frame.
As a GM, what we include and exclude from our descriptions frames the players’ interaction with the game and determines their engagement and approach.
Give the players a very sparse description, and it encourages them to treat things like an intellectual exercise.
Conversely, give too many small inconsequential details, and it can be hard for the players to get involved – their eyes glaze over and they reach for their phones while waiting for us to finish waffling.
We control what they pay attention to by what we describe. Spend time describing the papers on the desk and they will feel they ought to investigate them. Describe the box in the corner, and they will focus on that instead.
People can also only remember a few things – the rule of thumb is being able to 3-7 distinct things in memory at once – so we need to keep it succinct. In my experience, describing more than two or three items at a time to investigate or interact with leads to glazing eyes and things being forgotten.
But an area may have quite a few things they can interact with, so how do you manage that?
I’ve found it helps to think of the area in sections. Give a high-level description of the room:
You see a bed in the corner, its rumpled sheets thrown back; there is an oak desk beneath the window, its chair tucked underneath, and a couple of tapestries in dark wool hang on the walls.
The party can then decide what they want to investigate, and now your frame changes to more detail on a smaller section:
The desk is made of oak, polished dark through long use, and has a tray with writing implements on it alongside wax and a seal. It has three drawers on the right-hand side, one above the other.
“We look in the drawers”
The top drawer opens smoothly, and contains sheaves of paper and couple of well-stoppered bottles of ink. The middle drawer sticks a bit, but eventually scrapes open; it contains a pair of soft red suede leather gloves, a miniature lantern and a couple of flasks of an oily liquid which rattle as you open the drawer; a fishy smell comes out of it. The bottom drawer won’t open.
And so on. This way each description is short and to the point, and the players are actively invited to engage to gain more information.
The way you phrase the description can also frame the players’ engagement. Keep it active and personal: “you see”, “you smell”, “as you walk down the corridor…”. It catches the attention more than a bland “there is a…” as it brings the players into the scene.
Feel that one of your players is losing interest or being left out? Put their character foremost in the frame: “Marcellus hears a soft whispering coming from behind the door.”
Most of all, make sure the frame is on the characters and what they would notice and be interested in. The details of the wallpaper and the pattern of the rug may be important, may be useful in setting the scene and the atmosphere, or may be just irrelevant information.
Keep it succinct. If you try to keep your descriptions to two to three sentences, that forces you to concentrate on communicating the key facts and then passing the focus back to the players. After all, it is supposed to be a collaborative journey, discovering the story along with your players as they interact with the world you are presenting.
I find it helps to prepare background description text in advance – when I try to make up descriptions on the fly, I find I both waffle and hesitate while my brain freezes, whereas if I have a description to go on, even if I don’t use it verbatim, I have the key points ready and I have thought about how to express it.
What do you focus on when you set the scene? What do your players pick up on?
Come back tomorrow for Day 16 and the Dramatic.