GM Tips: 5 Tips to Help Describe a Scene

GM Tips articles offer advice and ideas for gamesmasters to help hone their techniques and run their games, these lists are not exhaustive but provide some tips to point a GM in the right direction.

In this article we offer five tips to help with that most important of all GM skills: describing a scene.

1. Make liberal use of adjectives

Adjectives are words that describe a noun or object (for example: ancient, bleak and deserted), using a slightly different term to the usual can help to reinforce your description of a scene.

For example: Rather than saying

You approach the old house.

Try saying

You walk towards the decrepit, abandoned mansion.

The second example has far more impact and builds more of a picture in the player’s minds, if you need some samples to get you going you can click here for a handy list of adjectives.

2. Don’t neglect the other senses

Although vision is a keep sense for most of us and features greatly in our descriptions, do not neglect the other senses, how does a place feel? What is the temperature like? Are there any sounds? Is there a taste in the air? All of these sense can help to boost your description, to use our abandoned mansion example

You walk towards the decrepit, abandoned mansion, the air feels cold and there is a coppery tang to the air.

3. Show, don’t tell

If it’s possible, rather than telling someone that a building is old or that a pathway is much used, show this using the environment; perhaps if the town is abandoned then buildings are literally falling down or plants have overgrow much of the architecture, or perhaps the cobbles of the path are worn smooth by the passage of many feet.

You walk towards the abandoned manion, it’s cold and there’s a coppery tang in the air, the windows of the building are broken and cobwebs cover the building.

4. Encourage your players to fill in some of the details

When you’re describing a scene, if possible ask the players some questions to have them fill in some of the finer details, this can take a bit of getting used to if you are accustomed to a more GM-heavy style of game, but it not only saves you some work, it also gets the players more invested in the scene. That said, if the player seems to be struggling for an idea, don’t hold up the game waiting for them, tell them not to worry about it and move on, either throwing it open to the group or making up a detail for yourself.

You walk towards the abandoned manion, it’s cold and there’s a coppery tang in the air, the windows of the building are broken and cobwebs cover the building. There is a peeling sign on the lawn, Micheal what does the sign say?

5. Have your NPCs and events reinforce the theme of the description

If NPCs are really at odds with their surroundings this can be quite jarring, for example if a bouncy young estate agent came skipping out of our abandoned mansion; if that’s the effect you want then great (perhaps the building is due for renovation and the estate agent represents progress or the gentrification of the area), however, if you want to reinforce your description then the NPCs and encounter should reflect it.

You walk towards the abandoned manion, it’s cold and there’s a coppery tang in the air, the windows of the building are broken and cobwebs cover the building. There is a peeling for sale sign on the lawn, sitting in a rocking chair on the veranda is an ancient man with a wrinkled face and a white beard running down past his knees.

 

Picture is part of a Doré wood engraving illustration from The Divine Comedy labeled for reuse on Google Image Search, the original image can be found here.

Jade-xalted: Constructing a Concept

One of the complaints/issues that I have often heard laid at the door of the Fate system is that, because there is such a lot of leeway when it comes to designing aspects, that it can often be bewildering for players, especially if they are unfamiliar with the setting or RPG-ing in general; in the forthcoming Cthulhu supplement for Fate (which I have been privilieged to do some of the writing for) it offers a little more guidance for creating aspects and even (should the players/GM wish to use them) a series of random tables for creating aspects. I plan to adopt something similar for the Jade-xalted conversion, the constructed aspects will be quite general to allow for the players to customise them, but should hopefully create a good jumping off point for anyone who is a little bewildered by all the choice available in the Fate system.

Obviously you do not have to use this system but it should help anyone who is struggling.

Concept Aspect

Under this system a concept aspect uses the following format:

“I am a/an [adjective] [type] who is skilled at [verb]”

List of sample adjectives:

  • Angry
  • Calm
  • Clever
  • Clumsy
  • Elegant
  • Famous
  • Fancy
  • Fierce
  • Glamorous
  • Handsome
  • Helpful
  • Honourable
  • Innocent
  • Lazy
  • Mysterious
  • Old-fashioned
  • Peaceful
  • Powerful
  • Scarey
  • Scarred
  • Sly
  • Thoughtful
  • Thoughtless
  • Ugly
  • Violent

List of sample types:

  • Mortal
  • Solar Exalted
  • Lunar Exalted
  • Sidereal Exalted
  • Air aspected Terrestial Exalted
  • Earth aspected Terrestial Exalted
  • Fire aspected Terrestial Exalted
  • Water aspected Terrestial Exalted
  • Wood aspected Terrestial Exalted
  • Abyssal Exalted

List of sample verbs:

  • Athletics
  • Blackmail
  • Craft work
  • Gambling
  • Fighting
  • Larceny
  • Leading others
  • Oratory
  • Research
  • Running
  • Sociallising
  • Sorcery
  • Stealth
  • Storytelling

So, for example, using this system and sample list I could quickly create a ‘violent Solar Exalted who is skilled at leading others’, a ‘sly Lunar Exalted who is skilled at larceny’ or an ‘honourable Fire-aspected Terrestrial Exalted who is skilled at sociallising.’

The aspect could be invoked or compelled whenever the adjective was applicable or when the character’s specialist skill or talent comes into play.

For example: Our violent Solar could invoke his aspect when involved in violent action but may be compelled when he struggles to resist being provoked into such action unwisely, the player of the exalt could also invoke when attempting to lead others in some sort of action but may also find others naturally looking to him for leadership or seeking his advice on important matters (when the aspect is invoked).

Invoking the concept based on the type of Exaltation

Players can also invoke their concept aspect based on what type of exaltation they have received, this is not as immediately obvious as the preceding invokes and so I provide guidelines below for appropriate invokes/compels, anyone familiar with the Exalted setting should feel free to use their own judgement though.

  • Solar Exalted: The Solars were created to lead the gods forces against those of the primordials, a solar concept may be invoked when vastly outnumbered in a combat or in an attempt to rally/lead others against a foe; however the Solars eventually found themselves becoming detached from the humanity that their powers raised them above eventually culminating in the first age solars becoming brutal and violent, a solar concept may be compelled when a lack of empathy could cause issue or when a lack of restraint may cause a problem.
  • Lunar Exalted: Originally the Lunars were bound to their Solar counterparts, but fleeing the wyld hunt they now find themselves uncomfortable in civilisation. A lunar concept may be compelled when a lunar is confronting a Solar Exalted or when their lack of familiarity with civilised society may cause problems; it may be invoked when the characters knowledge of the wild would aid them or when attempting to resist the blandishments of the civilised world.
  • Sidereal Exalted: Manipulators of fate, a sidereal concept may be invoked or compelled when chance may play a part in unfolding events, since people tend to forget sidereals their concept can be invoked to aid with stealth or avoiding detection.
  • Terrestrial Exalted: As rulers of the realm a terrestrial concept may be invoked to aid in any social roll within the realm, however they may likewise be compelled should the exalt be in a situation where knowledge of their heritage might be disadvantageous. Terrestrials may also invoke their concept aspect if there is a significant quantity of their particular element is present in the same zone or if they can convincingly weave the element into their description.
    Please note: If a terrestrial features their element in their description then that element is actually produced (causing no additional game effect beyond the invoke but potentially giving away their heritage); for example, a fire-aspected terrestrial invokes his aspect by describing a flaming punch, his attack will actually produce a momentary gout of flame.
  • Abyssal Exalted: Created as dark reflections of the solars by the Deathlords, abyssals may invoke their concept aspect when dealing with undead creatures or spirits or when manipulating the energies of the underworld is advantageous, however they are ill-suited to the lands outside the underworld and the concept may be compelled in situations where their deathly aura and lack of warmth may prove complicated.

But what about castes John?

Castes were the game ‘splats’ in the original Exalted and were basically used to govern what powers and abilities you could possess, since Fate is a more freeform and i’m hoping to create a quicker more action-packed gaming experience that with the original WOD rules i’ve chosen deliberately not to focus on castes.

However if you are desperate to include castes then I would simply suggest that you assign a character’s caste based on the highest of their professions at character generation, the five professions were created based on the skill spread of the original castes so this should be a fairly close fit.