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Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Ordinary vs. Extraordinary Descriptions

Related to the boring menaces in an interesting labyrinth post, there's been a forum thread that was originally about something else, but turned into a discussion of how terse or wordy a room description needs to be. Zak S. compared this typical TSR module description:
120. Kitchen. This place is 20' x 30'. Within the darkest recesses of the fireplace dwells a giant poisonous snake. It is coiled and may strike by surprise (50% chance). It has not eaten for a long time, and is very hungry. It can strike to 8 foot range, half its length, and attacks any creature coming within that range. Near the ogre skeleton is a usable shortsword (its "dagger") and a leather sack containing 84 gp. These are hidden under a small pile of nondescript debris. The ten-foot-square rooms were used for crockery storage and food storage, respectively.
To this description of the same room:
120. Ruined/vandalized Kitchen. Ogre skeleton. Hidden: snake, 8ft long, sack w/84gp. Shortsword (ogre's "dagger").
That's actually about how terse I prefer my room descriptions, too, although I would have included the fireplace (to suggest places the PCs could climb up into.) Still, basically, just a set of key words, rather than a lot of stuff we know from the map, from the monster manual, or from common knowledge.

But the point I wanted to make was that most of the rooms in a module should be like that, while some would be more like:
120. Ruined/vandalized Kitchen with fireplace. Ogre skeleton. Hidden: snake, 8ft long, sack w/84gp. Shortsword (ogre's "dagger"). Snake is reincarnation of ogre, becomes follower of high-charisma Chaotic adventurer.
And then a very few would be elaborate tricks or otherwise special areas, where you might include more "evocative prose", as people call it. While playing the game, you can describe the kitchen with whatever colors, textures, odors, or details you want, but since these have no specific effect, it's kind of pointless to waste words on them.  However, an occasional special room could add a detail like "Walls have brass lion heads about 8 feet from floor", to give players something to think about ("What are they worth? Could we steal one?") and to occasionally conceal something even more special ("One lion head opens a trap door in ceiling when pressed.")

As one person put it: "If I know what a room is and what is in it based on its name, don't tell me what it is and what is in there." But I would add: Only include a detail if it makes something happen. The fireplace makes something happen (possible hiding place or exit via chimney.) The snake being a reincarnate ogre makes something happen. The lion's head that opens a trap door makes something happen.

1 comment:

  1. I'd also add that a detail can justify its existence if it provides a clue to another, interactive thing, or to the big picture in the dungeon regarding the sub-area or as a whole.