One of the big GMing theory questions that constantly goes through my head is how to make important things stand out to the players. I’ve done a few articles in the past about how to do this. Still, I keep coming back to the concept and ways to do it better. While thinking about this the other day, one key concept keeps sticking in my head:

If you want it to be remembered, it has to stick out. Put it in a red dress.

Ok, so I’m dating myself a bit here, but I remember the Matrix movies from when they first came out. The one big takeaway that I pulled from those movies is the red dress scene. Remember the scene where Neo is learning about the matrix and gets entranced by the woman in the red dress in a midst of black suited corporate types? Yup, it always struck me that the girl in the red dress was blatant and meant to stand out. I always thought how cheesy that was, but the more I thought about it the more I realized I still remember the woman in the red dress. That keeps sparking a thought in my head in relation to gaming.

If you want something remembered, make it stand out from the scenery around it in some way.

That’s right, make it bold, make it stand out, make it divergent from the background if you want it to be noticed. Even if it feels like it is breaking the game reality or is over the top. If you don’t want it to be forgotten, make it BOLD in a way nothing else is!

The paradigm exists in all sorts of media. In video games, any item you can interact with is almost always brighter than the background or has a small glow around it. In old animation, moving characters were given the appearance of vibrance by raising the plates of the cels a few millimeters above the plates for the backgrounds. In most writing, only the important details are focused on after the initial description of the setting.

Too often as Game Masters, we want things to flow organically and every element to be part of a diverse backdrop. But how many times have you watched players struggling to pick out that one vital clue to solve the puzzle or social situation? When you want an element in your game to stick out, doll it up and make it front stage.

There are3 major things we have to think about when thinking about the actual scene playing out at the table:

  1. Despite props, maps, scenery, description, and all the other things we do to make the game occur at the shared space of the table, the final movie theater is in each individual player’s mind. They each control how bright or bland things are for their experience.
  2. There are rarely medium grounds inside the mental theater of players’ minds. Things being imagined are almost always either very scant and fuzzy with only the important things being in focus, or everything is vivid and bright and you have very little control over how they imagine things once you’ve described them.
  3. Players don’t see it from the character’s perspective. Looking at a situation from the outside, let a long being described the major elements of it by someone else, is a far distance from actually being there and experiencing it. The things you describe (such as the innocuous person slipping a knife back into their belt) are going to be ignored or picked up on with gusto, but they are never going to be the same as if the person were there.

And that means…

that any important element has to be distinct from the landscape in some way, i.e. the red dress in a sea of black suits. Not every element needs a red dress, but if you want it to be big and remembered, then it needs to shine like the woman in the red dress.

So what do you do to dress up your NPCs, plot pieces, important clues, and other game stuff? What are your red dresses when you GM?

2 replies
  1. Roxysteve
    Roxysteve says:

    I agree with your line of thinking, and can see the sense in it, but despite that I find the practice abhorrent.

    I *do* it in games occasionally, but by Azathoth I hate seeing it in a movie. It’s like being hit in the head with a hammer by someone saying “you’re too ****ing dumb to spot this yourself”.

    It’s only one remove from simply saying “such-and-such a thing seems intriguing to you” which comes close to the GM playing the player-character.

    A Red Dress breaks suspension of disbelief and creates a jarring element in the narrative.

    But I can’t see a way around the need to use the Red Dress when it is important to the plot either. I guess it’s like old-school mouythwash. Tastes horrible but the point being made is worth it.

    Interesting article, and an important lesson for new GMs.

  2. John Arcadian
    John Arcadian says:

    @Roxysteve – The Red Dress does definitely denote what could be considered an extreme measure in a game and it does have the potential to break the verisimilitude of the game. Like anything, it can be done in a way that keeps it inline with the story going on.

    I think the key concept is to make the red dress stand out, but not be garish. For an example, let’s look at an assasin’s dagger scenario. The PCs are protecting an NPC from assasins trying to kill him. A fight occurs, the NPC gets nicked by a blade and dies. The dagger is poison and is linked to other NPCs who are in the assasins guild but are under cover, so you want the PCs to realize the importance of the dagger and keep it in their memory. It needs a red dress. The fact that it was poisoned will likely come out once the PCs examine the body, but maybe they won’t examine the daggers being used any closer, thinking they are just poisoned weapons.

    However, if you were to give the dagger a red dress, say the fact that the blade is of an incredible design, curved slightly and with a scrolled pattern cut out of the center; the hilt is wrapped in a red and black cloth with a green pommel jewel which pops open to reveal the loading chamber of an intricate poison delivery system. Now the players will more likely remember the ‘red dressed’ dagger, and when you describe the same look on a dagger sheathed on a once trusted NPC, in passing description, they might make the connection more readily without having to have it pointed out more blatantly. That is the hope anyways.

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