“Benedicto: May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds. May your rivers flow without end, meandering through pastoral valleys tinkling with bells, past temples and castles and poets towers into a dark primeval forest where tigers belch and monkeys howl, through miasmal and mysterious swamps and down into a desert of red rock, blue mesas, domes and pinnacles and grottos of endless stone, and down again into a deep vast ancient unknown chasm where bars of sunlight blaze on profiled cliffs, where deer walk across the white sand beaches, where storms come and go as lightning clangs upon the high crags, where something strange and more beautiful and more full of wonder than your deepest dreams waits for you--beyond that next turning of the canyon walls.”
- Ed Abbey
Mastering natural description is a real bear in tabletop rpgs. It's a damn tricky balancing act that charts a tight little channel between the Scylla of bland terseness (“you're in a forest”) and the Charybdis of eye-glazing purple prose description.
Gaming products rarely hit this sweet spot in their unrushed published forms, pulling it off at the table even more difficult. (Who says GMing isn't a hella demanding performing art?)
I've written before about how wilderness crawls seem to always be a little dullish compared to the real deal, one of the few areas in fantasy gaming that seems so. Months later—with a wilderness survival-escape mini-campaign in the offing--I still find myself ruefully still mulling how to get out from under that rock.
Part of the problem is that there is really little in the way of outside assistance to help a brother out.
How strange it is in a hobby where we are almost buried in the sheer amount and diversity of free and commercial products that we haven't really produced any great, go-to guides on mastering the theatrics of the game table. You can read hundreds of pages of mind-numbing minutiae about things like the culinary predilections of Subspecies 35 Elf, but almost nothing about how to do something that happens thousands of times a week in as many play groups: describe a wilderness area that “pops” without boring your players to tears.
So what's to be done?
The best answer I've come up with is starting to pay attention in my readings to the best passages of naturalists (the new tendency to want to substitute “nature writer” or “natural historian” leaves me cold)--or barring that the best descriptions of writers closer to home in speculative fiction. Read a few pages of the sad ruminations of Aldo Leopold or the caustic and anarchic Ed Abbey and you find pure gold: a vibrant and well-paced descriptive art.
Let me start showing and not telling.
Take the opening of The Willows by Algernon Blackwood, a horror tale made all the more melancholy and terrifying by the attention to the “mundanity” (yes, that is a word Open Office) of natural detail:
“After leaving Vienna, and long before you come to Budapest, the Danube enters a region of singular loneliness and desolation, where its waters spread away on all sides regardless of a main channel, and the country becomes a swamp for miles upon miles, covered by a vast sea of low willow-bushes...
In high flood this great acreage of sand, shingle-beds, and willow-grown islands is almost topped by the water, but in normal seasons the bushes bend and rustle in the free winds, showing their silver leaves to the sunshine in an ever-moving plain of bewildering beauty. These willows never attain to the dignity of trees; they have no rigid trunks; they remain humble bushes, with rounded tops and soft outline, swaying on slender stems that answer to the least pressure of the wind; supple as grasses, and so continually shifting that they somehow give the impression that the entire plain is moving and alive...
Happy to slip beyond the control of the stern banks, the Danube here wanders about at will among the intricate network of channels intersecting the islands everywhere with broad avenues down which the waters pour with a shouting sound; making whirlpools, eddies, and foaming rapids; tearing at the sandy banks; carrying away masses of shore and willow-clumps; and forming new islands innumerably which shift daily in size and shape and possess at best an impermanent life, since the flood-time obliterates their very existence.”
Ok paragraph two is a bit excessive and smacking of things too poetical to be of use. But trim out half that and you have a description that evokes a great gaming wilderness scene in less than a minute of breath.
Obviously the answer here is “we should all become incredibly-talented writers”, but I do take away from this and other passages that there are elements worth trying to ape.
Here's a start—and I will add to this as my thinking out loud continues:
Pay Attention to the Whole Package. How does the whole area fit together in your mind's eye? If you think it's “just woods” you are likely to describe the trees and maybe the underbrush. But if it's a “high alpine basin choked with conifers and warmed by geysers” the details started clicking together an evocative unit.
Mood is Important. It's not just a swamp or some willows on an island: it's a twisting, moody, almost-sentient labyrinth of shifting channels with great beauty and the hint of something unknowable.
Short Laundry Lists Help. Trotting out a single line of small details can help color it all immensely with a veneer of how sweeping the diversity of the area is. Take this from Abbey's Down the River (and this is not his best): “We listen for the breathing of the Minotaur but find only cottonwoods glowing green and gold against the red rock, rabbitbrush with its mustard-yellow bloom, mule-ear sunflowers facing the sunlight...and curled horns of a desert bighorn ram, half-buried in the auburn sand.”
Brevity. This is the trickiest part take all of that above and try and distill it down to descriptions less than a minute—closer to half that really if possible. Take all those mental descriptors you are now mulling in your brain to sex up your wilderness area--and then cut that by half. When you are done cut it again, dropping all but the most essential of adjectives. (Note my impatient ellipses in the quotes above.)
This post is growing overlong and my list incomplete, any tricks of the trade you lean upon? What do you do to make your wilderness areas pop? What do your players say?