In Role Play, Description isn’t Always a Good Thing
The most dreaded words I can hear from a game master are, “Describe your attack.”
I’m not talking about describing complex character actions. That I understand. If the game master needs explanation on how one of my characters is trying to perform a certain act, especially an unusual one, that makes perfect sense.
No, I’m talking about the rather mundane, usually involving combat.
My character steps into a fight, swings his or her weapon. I roll dice. The weapon hits. I go to roll damage and …
“Hey, describe that attack.”
I’m in the heat of battle, the other players are ramped up while waiting for their turns, and suddenly off the cuff I’ve got to come up with some overly descriptive paragraph about a fairly simple task like hitting some goblin over the head with a war hammer or sliding my short sword between the ribs of some umber hulk.
Okay, I get that some people think the added description builds drama. They think it improves role play. And personally, I think some game masters feel a sort of peer pressure to include more descriptive elements, probably brought about by seeing online posts from other GMs who are espousing this very thing.
To be blunt, I disagree with all those people.
Description does not equal drama. Description does not equal role play. Description equals description.
And, often enough, description only manages to bog down play, to get in the way, to slow things down.
Role play is just that, role play. A player takes on a role as a character. Interaction between characters fills the “play” portion of the equation. Nowhere in there is there anything about description.
To back up a little, not all description is bad. Description can be good. But too much of it is a bore, especially at the wrong moment.
Description should be used to embellish role play, not replace it. This is often a matter of timing. Bringing it up during the middle of action only manages to break the players out of the world in which they are currently trying to exist. Description at the wrong time reminds players they are only playing a game.
This is not a good thing.
One does not want to remind the players they are playing a game. The game master most definitely does not want to remind players they are playing a game. You want players to forget about reality, to be sucked into this other world, to forget their real-life cares and have fun for a while. You want them to be living, breathing characters in a world of your creation.
Reality will intrude soon enough once the session is over.
So many game masters, and players, seem to think role play is improved by description. But too often they try to include description at the wrong points within the game.
From a literary perspective, think Hemingway or Ed McBain, not Faulkner or Mervyn Peake. To repeat, role play is about characterization, and is revealed through character actions and interactions. Description is just description.
There is a time and place for description, but it’s not during the middle of an action scene, especially a combat. If you’re running a combat-light game of world or emotional exploration or what-have-you, fine, go ahead, feel free to toss in all the description you want, and expect it of your players. If it’s the beginning of a session or the players have run across a new scene, unusual character or something new, yes, by all means, add some description. But if you’re running a combat heavy game, or even the typical role playing session of two to three fights within a few hours of play, I’d suggest cutting back on the description, especially during the fights.
There are those who might argue I am suggesting “telling” instead of “showing.” Maybe they are right.
But this isn’t cinema. It’s not TV. There are sometimes comparisons, but it’s not even writing. If one is to compare it to other forms of art, role play is probably more akin to improvisational theater than anything else. Yet even that is not truly accurate. Role play is live. It is live action, live entertainment, and it is instant.
Live action becomes slow action or halted action when the action part is stopped for someone on the spot to have to muddle through a few words about how brightly-colored some blood is or about how steel flashes beneath the sun or how some orc gurgles and drops dead with his eyes staring up to the sky.
It can be colorful, but it still kills the action as dead as that orc.
Sometimes a castle is just a castle and a sword between the ribs is just a sword between the ribs.
Roll the dice. Describe the action, briefly, then move on. The time for description, or at least anything more than a short description, is before or after the action. Role play has an ebb and flow, and cutting into that flow at the wrong moment can bring the game to a halt. Description can be important and fun and embellishing, but it needs to be utilized in its proper place, not when everyone is trying to accomplish something and is awaiting their turn.
Now go Stay Nerdy!
And I don’t even need to describe how you Stay Nerdy.