Game Masters' Roundtable of Doom #5 - The Weakest Link in My GM Toolbox

The Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom is a meeting of the minds of tabletop RPG bloggers and GMs. We endeavor to transcend a particular system or game and discuss topics that are relevant to GMs and players of all roleplaying games.

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This month's topic comes to us courtesy of Marc Plourde.

There are many different skills that come together to make up a GM—the ability to think on the fly, knowledge of the rules, plotting, etc. What skill do you think is your weakest? What have you done to try and improve that skill? What advice do you have to offer others trying to improve that skill set?

That’s a really good question. What I find most interesting about it is that my answer today is much different than the answer I would’ve given just a few weeks ago.

If you would have asked me this question anytime until very recently, I would’ve said that my weakest skill as a GM is improvisation. Luckily, improvisation is a skill you get to practice every time you sit down at the table to GM. Even the most railroaded adventure ever known will require some improv on your part as GM. The players will do something unexpected, and you will have to roll with it.

Perhaps it’s for that very reason that I no longer feel that thinking on my feet is my weakest skill as a GM (maybe it also helps that I always GM literally on my feet—standing up).

Now my weakest skill is definitely description. I’ve discussed this quite a bit on both GM Intrusions and Game Master’s Journey. Today, I’ll tackle this topic in two parts: why description is so difficult and what we can do to improve this skill.

Description is Difficult

Description is difficult. Not only is it difficult for me, personally, but I think it’s difficult for a lot of GMs. It’s not difficult in the “Ugh, I can’t do it!” sense. Rather description is difficult in the sense that it takes quite a bit of time and conscious effort to do it and do it well. Description doesn’t just happen; you’re not going to give awesome descriptions without thinking about it. You have to really try. I actually don’t think description itself is hard to do, but maybe I’m wrong about that. I think almost anyone can come up with a good description if they just put their mind to it, close their eyes, visualize the thing, and think about how they’d describe it to someone.

Method 1

Part of the issue here is that description takes time. I like to try to help myself succeed by thinking of important descriptions I’ll need in a session while I’m preparing for the game. The pie-in-the-sky is to have evocative descriptions written out for every scene and character the PCs are likely to encounter. I could read that description if I wanted, or I could paraphrase it, but if I’ve taken the effort to write it out, it’s internalized, and chances are good that I won’t have to read or paraphrase it—I’ll be able to give the description extemporaneously. The written description merely serves as a memory aid if I forget a detail, and as a reminder to actually give the description when the time comes. The obvious issue with this technique is it takes quite a bit of time. However, the more I do it, the easier it is and the less time it takes.

Method 2

The next-best-thing is to instead write out a list of key words instead of a full description. These words serve as reminders of the important aspects of the description I want to convey. My descriptions won’t be as well-worded, I won’t win any awards for their presentation, but this method takes significantly less time. I see this as a more advanced method to the one above, one I will eventually shift into when I’m better at descriptions. For now it’s my “Plan B” for when I don’t have time to do the full descriptions, or I forget to do them until the last minute.

Method 3

Of course, the other option is to come up with the description during play on-the-fly (improv rears its head after all!). This is a master-level technique though. Even the best writers spend time crafting their descriptions. It takes some thought to avoid the pedestrian clichés. However, I think it’s theoretically possible that if I practiced method 1, became good at that, then went to method 2, became good at that, then I might have a shot at mastering method 3. I’ll get back to you on that.

Description also takes time during play. It takes game time for you to properly describe things. Hopefully you have players who are starving for more description, and they will happily give you all the time you need to paint your beautiful word pictures. However, not all players are so patient, and impatient players can really take the wind out of your sails when you’re doing this hard work to give good descriptions. I’ve crafted this amazing scene, spent a good deal of time imagining how it looks and how I’ll describe it. I get a sentence into my laboriously-wrought description, and the players interrupt me to roll initiative. Bummer. It doesn’t take many of these instances to really make you wonder, “Why bother at all?” This is another reason description is difficult.

Finally, description is, at least a little bit, actually difficult. It takes mental energy to craft vivid multi-sensual images and then express those images in words, whether you’re doing it ahead of time or during the session. As GMs, we wear a lot of hats, and our brains are doing a lot during a game session. Giving deep descriptions can add a lot to that mental load, especially if you’re not used to it. One thing I’ve learned from watching my game sessions on YouTube is that I tend to give fewer and less detailed descriptions as the game session wears on. That is to say my descriptions are much better in the beginning of the session than at the end.

Another aspect of description that is difficult is pacing. You want to be careful, because you can kill your pacing with a description that’s too long. A perfect example is descriptions in combat. Pacing is already an issue in combat because combats already happen in what I like to call “Neo-time” (Matrix anyone?). We are taking minutes, even dozens of minutes to narrate things that happen in a matter of seconds. This is just a necessary evil of tabletop RPGs. The last thing you want to do is drag things out even more with lengthy descriptions.

What is a GM to Do?

What are some ways we can get better at description?

Practice

This is pretty obvious, but if you want to get better, you’ve got to practice. Practice writing descriptions out of game; practice giving descriptions in game. Use the methods I discussed above, starting with method 1, and then going on to method 2 when you’re ready. Practice out of game by thinking how you would describe things you see in your everyday life. This is a great, productive way to kill some time. If you’re waiting in line, think how you’d describe someone you see or the scene overall.

Mind the Pacing

Keep pacing in mind as you do descriptions in game. Long descriptions can be good for setting a scene. They can also be good for allowing tension to build.

When pacing is a concern however, make your descriptions short but dense. This is a great way to spend your prep time. Try to convey as much as you can in as few words as possible. Make each word count. Write these short sentences down, or just the key words.

For some great examples of how to do this well, go read (or reread) The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. He is the master of this technique. Take note of his descriptions (and his writing in general). He doesn’t blather on and on (like I do). He says a lot with few words. This is the motherland of description.

Get Some Inspiration

Another great place to see how good description is done is to watch a good TV show or movie with the audio track for the seeing impaired turned on. Thanks Will Johnson for this brilliant idea. Will recommends doing this with Daredevil on Netflix, especially the final scene of the second episode.

Get help from your players

Ask your players for feedback. How do they think you’re doing? They may surprise you and say that your descriptions are great. Even if they do though, don’t let yourself feel like you’re off the hook. Maybe they just don’t know any better. Maybe if you really wow them with your descriptions next time, they’ll realize you’ve just been phoning it in.

Ask your players to ask you for more descriptions when you slack. It’s very easy to forget to do them, especially in a combat or when you’re really tired. Encourage your players to ask you for more details.

Let the players do some of the work for you whenever possible. If the thing that needs described has to do with their character, have the player describe it. For example, ask your players to describe their companions and followers, the magic items and equipment they find and use, etc. Not only does this take some of the load off your shoulders, but it allows the players to have more ownership of the story and their characters. If you’re giving the fighter a magic sword, why not let the player decide what it looks like? You can also give the players opportunities to describe NPCs, taverns, etc. This gives them more of a feeling of ownership of the setting.

Finally, ask your players to be descriptive as well. Description isn’t just the job of the GM, it’s the job of everyone at the table. Ask the players to really think about how they describe their character and what their character does. This will make the game more enjoyable for everyone, and you’ll find that you inspire one another to reach greater heights with your descriptions.

Finally, don’t be afraid to take breaks. The anathema of good description is brain drain. Feel free to call for a break when you need one, whether you need the time to come up with some descriptions or just to let your mind rest for a few minutes.

If you record your games like I do, I highly recommend watching the sessions. You’ll be able to more easily see where your descriptions are lacking or altogether absent.

I don’t think I’ll ever be completely satisfied with my descriptions while running a game, and that’s ok. My goal is to constantly improve. If you have any other ideas on how to improve this aspect of our GMing craft, let me know in the comments. I’d love to hear what strategies people use.

I discuss this topic a bit in the Game Master's Journey episode on GM Laziness.

Game on!

Other articles exploring this topic:

Crossing the Divide by Marc Plourde
Encoding Improvisation by Scott Robinson
GMing Weakness by Peter Smits
Successfully Offing Your Favorite Characters by Jim Walls
Wait! Something Important! by John Marvin
Your GM Big Picture Fu is Weak by Evan Franke
Preparation is Not a Dirty Word by John Clayton

Other topics in this series:

Roundtable #4 - How Lethal Are Your Campaigns?
Roundtable #3 - My Evolution as a GM and Gamer
Roundtable #2 - The GM Intrusion
Roundtable #1 - How to Get Better Roleplay from Your Players