“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
- 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
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
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
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:
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
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
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
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?