BigBooks The shopkeeper’s green tunic clashes oddly with his blue alien skin. The 6 strange nostrils on the top of his head are flaring wildly, a gesture of greeting for his people. As you eye over his wares, he moves his large bulky body over to you, causing some of the racks to slide out of the way. “Hello. My name is baaan paaar. I am double pleased to greet you. Welcome to my shop. I see you are looking at the vestrum power converters. Good choice! I too enjoy the stability of that model……………….”

The impressively long and detailed description of the shop and the interaction with the alien went on for about 6 minutes. The GM had gestures, a voice, and had really well detailed out this alien race with a personality and uniqueness. It was impressive, the only problem is that it was the fourth such encounter the group had in response to one player saying “I buy a few things before we embark on our ship.”. In a longer campaign, the interaction would have set the tone and oddity of our dealing with alien species for the game. One hour into our 3 hour convention game, the descriptions were getting tedious. We were trying to push forward and were biting eagerly at the plot hooks to get things moving, but the GM was interested in showing off the world.

[pullquoteleft] One hour into our 3 hour convention game, the descriptions were getting tedious. [social_warfare] [/pullquoteleft]Impressive as it was, and as interesting as we found it, we were missing out on the other things that drew us there – the game and the action. Detail and description create a dynamic, living feel for games and can make a setting feel unique and interesting, but sometimes the descriptions bog down what is going on.

There is one thing the Game Master could have done to improve his game. He could have weighed his scenes against a simple question:


For this element should I be brief or eloquent?


A simple assessment of the importance of each scene or element is something every Game Master should do. While it all wraps into that one question, there are many factors that have to be considered.

  • Does describing this in detail build up to a payoff in relatively short time? (Players will forget details the more time goes on.)
  • What elements of the game do the players derive enjoyment out of?
  • Does this description provide information the players may need? (I.e. the beast is armored up front.)
  • Have I already expounded on something like this before? (Is this going to sound repetitive?)
  • Are the players’ faces telling me they are interested in this interaction or not?

Each game and session is going to have unique factors that help gauge the level of detail you give to your descriptions, but it is important to analyze them during the game. Mentally asking yourself “Brief or eloquent?” as you start into each new scene or interaction will kick a part of your brain into analysis mode and help you decide how much importance and time to take with the encounter. You may find yourself putting more effort into describing and elaborating on things that would otherwise be bland or common. You may find yourself pulling back the details and getting to more in every session. You may find yourself changing nothing about your style at all, but the asking is important and helps you look at your game in a new way.

Do you analyze your games for pacing? What criteria do you use to do so? When a game has unique elements and style, like aliens or oddities, how do you bring it to life without getting long winded?

9 replies
  1. Silveressa
    Silveressa says:

    I think in the above example the GM was unused to convention style scenarios and designed (or reused) an opening adventure from a more long running campaign which lead to the issue of pacing.

    In a home campaign with my significant other where the session length is generally “until we get tired or I run out material” I don;t worry too much about being overly long winded, since I can usually tell from my players body language (or she just tells me) when things are getting tedious and to move things along.

    When gaming outside the family (which these days is usually online) I try to keep things better paced by letting the players choose how much they want to interact with a given NPC.

    Using the original articles example, If all they want is a simple two minute shopping stop over between adventures that’s fine.

    However, if they ask about what kind of shop they find, the gender/race of the person behind the counter and show interest in the shopping trip then I’ll expand it into a scene and run with it on the fly (doing an improv for the shopkeeper or using one I already have written up)

    Mostly when gaming outside of a convention time isn’t so much of an issue since whatever you don’t get to that session you can easily cover in the next, and as long as the group is having fun and no one is getting bored with descriptive/rp interaction tedium (and know they should tell you when/if they are) then it’s usually a non issue for the most part.

  2. ooviedo
    ooviedo says:

    I think this is a really relevant issue. On the one hand, table-top RPGs are really about “theater of the mind”. We don’t have special effects, soundtracks and professional makeup artists. What we are left with are our narrative descriptions. As such, they have to count if we want to evoke imagery and create immersion. On the other hand, I think the exposition for a scene has to scale with how central the action is to the main story thread, as has already been stated. Furthermore, having a GM who hogs the limelight and monopolizes the game is just as bad as when a player does it. I think the issue here is one of equality with regard to game contribution.

    In my games, I highly encourage people to describe things. In fact, we play a homebrew game in which such description earns the players points which can be converted to XP, used to buff skill rolls and so on. The difference is that as GM, I don’t carry the sole burden of describing everything and bringing everything to life. I share that responsibility with the players. Sure, things can get chaotic, but in the end they are rarely boring. By my giving up that absolute control, I feel the game gains so much more.

    Consider the above example with the long-winded description of the alien shopkeeper and his wares (which was amazing, if I were reading a novel). What if the player who is shopping gets to describe to goods in the shop (he wanted them in the first place)? Suddenly you have different contributors to the elaborate description, and the player is more invested because he is helping co-create the world.

    When it comes to consuming a narrative experience, tabletop RPGs are a different animal than a book or a film or a video game. When a GM goes off showboating a highly detailed world by reducing players to spectators – in many ways he is trying to be an author, not a GM. I think the key is collaborative contribution, rather than having one person (the GM) do all the work, have all the responsibility, and have all the power and control.

    Thank you for this insightful article.


  3. Airk
    Airk says:

    The compulsive reader and stickler for terms in me finds this vexing; You can be both brief AND eloquent. If you turn a handsome phrase and aptly sum up the situation in a few words, that is eloquence – you have clearly expressed yourself.

    This article is actually about “brief vs detailed”.

    With that out the way, I favor broad strokes, but also scaled to how important something is – an unimportance scene element gets maybe one detail – the guard by the door has a big nose, or red hair or something. More important elements get more details. A major NPC probably gets 2-3 sentences. If you need to add a little bit of extra to something because it’s a setting element that’s going to be repeatedly important, do so, but don’t go nuts.

    Most of the time, your players have vivid imaginations and giving them too much description will just result in them getting bogged down in your description or forgetting the details.

  4. Roxysteve
    Roxysteve says:

    I enjoy playing games with a high exploration/evocative landscape description content. All-too frequently a GM builds a beautiful and intriguing bit of scenery, then, before anyone has a chance to sit for a bit on the stone terrace of the vine-encrusted temple ruin and drink it all in, some stupid wandering monster drags us back to the same old dice bingo.

    But shopping? Sometimes, as a GM, I want to know what people plan on taking with them into the desert or up the mountain because part of the epicness is going to be “Oh god, we’re out!” at some point where commodity x is needed, but I never role-play the shopkeepers when I do that.

    Of course, there is another factor at work: the unfortunate tendency for all my characters to start off in one accent but slide gently into Cornish Pirate if I go on too long.

  5. Scott Martin
    Scott Martin says:

    I’d have been thrilled to encounter the first shopkeep with text like that in a home game. That’s where good improv filling in the bits can really make a world come to life.

    I unfortunately agree that a con slot isn’t the time for dawdling. In fact, time management really bit me recently.

  6. Blackjack
    Blackjack says:

    I know I’m late to the party with this comment but I do want to offer a few thoughts on how I deal with this challenge.

    As Airk notes above, the question is whether a GM’s description of a scene should be brief or detailed. I answer this by asking myself another question: Is this scene important to the story? Yes ==> detailed. No ==> brief.

    “Important to the story” can take different forms, of course. It could be a matter of defining the setting (e.g., brightly colored aliens with unusual manners and sibilant voices), introducing a recurring NPC or location (this merchant is a weapons smuggler they’ll have future dealings with), or describing a situation that’s about to turn into challenging encounter (e.g., the alien’s behavior is supposed to make the PCs suspect he’s spying on them for a crime gang– whether he is or not).

    I also involve the players in whether or not they think a scene is important to the story. In a situation like John’s example I’d ask, “Do you want to ‘meta’ the shopping trip?” Meaning, if you’re just buying ordinary equipment at market prices, we’ll call it done. Maybe if there’s a small issue like finding one unusual part or keeping to a tight budget we’ll make an appropriate skill check or two to determine how long it takes and what price can be bargained. But that only takes a minute or two to talk through, versus an hour to roleplay a string of NPC encounters that are overall fairly trivial to the story.

  7. Silveressa
    Silveressa says:

    I like the idea of asking the players if they want to meta shopping trips and the like and then trusting them to let you know when they see a place where they think rping the scene rather summarizing will work well.

    The only downside to this is when one (or more) of the players want to rp the shopping trip (either because they are curious about the variety of aliens in the spaceport, want a chance to ask questions about the local sector or just want to window shop for cool/fun stuff the Gm might have their char notice in store displays or on sale.

    When the other player/s would much rather gloss over it and get back to the actual adventure at hand it usually leads to some level of frustration within the group; which depending on the groups maturity level (and if they are friends outside the gaming table) can lead to the unhappy party members becoming disruptive (such as trying to shop lift, start brawls in the market etc.) Or just trying to barrel forward with the adventure minus the group that’s off shopping.

    I’ve ran into this a few times in the past where the combat monkey of the group is more interested in blowing away bad guys then shopping for shiny’s and have usually ran a side scene with them at some kind of fighting arena near the market to keep them occupied while the rest of the group rps their shopping trip, but it’s always felt kind of a forced solution.

  8. valadil
    valadil says:

    I’m strongly in the brief camp. For me it’s not a question of using my time efficiently or pacing the game correctly. It’s the effect narration has on the players.

    When I go on with a lengthy description, the players go into audience mode. They sit and listen. Their expectation is that they will continue to listen. When I want them to step up and play, they’re still just sitting back listening.

    My goal is to run an interactive game. Ideally the players will be talking and I can just shut up and let them do the work. Describing every little detail that’s in the world runs contrary to my goal.

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