Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Mastering Wilderness Description at the Table

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?  


  1. I'm just going to make a huge, ugly, awful generalization here:
    I think the reason the majority of Dungeon Masters and RPG writers have a difficult time when it comes to describing the outdoors is because the majority of RPG people don't spend very much time in the outdoors.
    I'm a wilderness firefighter and I spend a fucking lot of time outside - 16 hours a day, 2 weeks at a time. When i describe a setting, it's pretty easy for me to draw on a range of things i've seen to envision what I'm trying to come up with.
    I think the trick is just to draw from real life. Go for a walk in some nearby woods. Pay attention to the way the water sculpts the earth into valleys and ridges, the way flora follows water and changes as you rise in elevation, the way rocks tumble and fall into hollows, the fractal nature of shifts of sandstone that burst into patterns, the goat trails that always follow the easiest route. If your party is going to climb a mountain next session, instead of reading a book about mountains, maybe go climb a mountain yourself.

    I don't mean this as an indictment; I have no reason to believe that you, ckutalik, are not a bad-ass cave-dwelling bear-man, and i think you're a very cool dude. my point i guess is, naturalists are an intelligent place to start, but there really is no substitute for experience

    1. +1

      With the exception of some long-lost pre-1982 scouting troops rolling dice around the campfire, this is an activity people opt into *instead* of playing outside and has been for ages. And if you don't know which animal makes the two long lines in the snow and which makes the little clumps, it's all going to abstract down to the same "roll d20 to track" anyhow.

    2. "huge, ugly, awful generalization" and one that is likely very true.

      An excellent point, I absolutely agree that even the best of writing is a poor substitute for actual experience.

      Now that you mention it, it makes me wonder if my better descriptions at the table come from places drawn from my own hiking, tramping, canoeing, hunting (as mercifully brief as that was) and other outdoor activity. I've noticed that a lot of my wilderness by habit almost starts sounding like the cedar breaks, box canyons and white limestone hills of the Texas Hill Country or the dark mixed woods, jagged granite hills and high alpine basins of Slovakia.

      With a toddler in tow--and creeping middle age--it's been tough in recent years to get out as much. A shame, I miss the quiet and head-clearing.

    3. "I have no reason to believe that you, ckutalik, are not a bad-ass cave-dwelling bear-man."

      For the record, I am not.


  2. "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."

    Definitely an opportunity here. Whether there's actually a perceived "need" for it or not, I don't know. My suspicion is that people buy Outdoor Survival for the map and throw the book away, which might be part of why Wilderness Adventures remains so unpopular.

    Since I am bombastic, I might steer it away from theatrics into pure ecology: less imaginary garden, more "here there be frogs." Quick-and-dirty "nature generators." Low-level forest populators. I always loved the tree-to-tree tables in Ready Ref for that and think that might be a solid base. For when people have time!

  3. In my experience, brevity is the most important. Players care about doing things, they care about treasure, monsters, interactions. That's why they are perfectly happy with this: “After leaving Vienna, the Danube spreads out and the country becomes a swamp for miles upon miles. You see a vast sea of low willow-bushes before you..."

    I guess it has an anchor (Vienna), an object (Danube), a change (spread), nature (swamp), some mood (miles upon miles), some detail (low willow-bushes), direct addressing (you see) and little else.

    In terms of process, the most important feedback is what players are doing. As soon as one of the seems to be paying attention to something else, I cut the description short and go directly to "something happens!" or "what do you do?" Then, upon enquiry, I improvise more detail as required. This is rare and confirms my suspicion: my players value brevity above all.

    1. They do and some more than others. Agree that telescoping or expanding description is a pretty important skill. Even I who tend to lean to the more indulgent end as a player get bored after that minute or so ticks off.

      Still overall I think most GMs I have played with err way too much on the vanilla, short side of this spectrum and I always feel like I never get a measure of the land we are in.

    2. Good point bringing it back to the players. Players who are invested in this stuff will interact with the scenery because that's the part they like. You can wax lyric with them. Everyone else will zone out until you drop the next detail with mechanical impact.

      Give the fluff mechanical teeth and they'll pay attention to the deeper eco workings. The mosquitos north of Galveston carry mummy rot and like the smell of a rare albino Indian paintbrush. Eating its flowers on a rainy day acts as an atonement spell. When it rains the double-tufted screech owls come out. The owls have been at war with the communal marmots for generations and are searching for their messiah, a halfling who looks like that burnout who rents kayaks. Throughout, rabbits are being "chosen" but nobody knows why or what exactly that means.

  4. I think repetition is important too. Especially if the time of year is very different from the imagined time of year. We tend to forget: "oh yes, that water could be frozen," or "Oh maybe we should drag the wounded to the shade." I try to keep reminding my players of the quiet and damp of the dungeon because our game table is the opposite.

  5. After twenty years as a park ranger and resource ecologist, and another twenty-plus years on top of that camping, backpacking, scuba diving, snowshoeing, and paddling for fun, I feel like outdoor description is probably the easiest thing for me to do as a referee.

  6. I never got around to commenting on your dullness of wilderness crawls post--for the tabletop Hill Cantons group, its the destination, not the journey, that's important. There's a reason movies use montages to show travel: a few scenes blending into one another while an overarching musical theme plays can convey a sense of time and space in a few minutes of film. Likewise, in RPGs as opposed to books, it can be useful to summarize if the crowd's getting restless at the table.

    Regarding descriptions of the outdoors, a few words about sounds (birds and animals, wind in the trees, running water, etc.), smells (vegetation, bodies of water, living or dead animals, and so on), and sensations (of rain, wind, sun, and temperature) will do as much if not more than sentences of visual description.

  7. For those Referees who have one or another reason not to spend time in the bush, examining the books on nature writing that are written for authors might be a useful exercise.

  8. Mood is indeed important, but I think you've gotta be really careful with it because when attempting to describe the mood of a location its very easy to fall into "dictating reactions".

    A place shouldn't smell "disgusting", it should smell "like sulphur" 'cause my half-demon/half-drow crit build grappler actually finds that smell comforting and not disgusting. ;)

    "it's a twisting, moody, almost-sentient labyrinth of shifting channels with great beauty and the hint of something unknowable." <- is good, but every person at the table has an increased chance of visualizing this and conceptualizing this in a different way. "moody" and "great beauty" are totally dependent upon my personal experiences. Jim Henson's labyrinth seems to fit that description, but is that what you wanted me to be picturing (i.e., glitter everywhere)?

    Great article, and I completely agree that you've found a great gap 'cause my buddies and I have been trying to address it too! Here's a rough map and hex key we've been working on, and if you decide to check it out, "The Chant" under each point of interest is what should be "read aloud" to the players.


    It really really is a bitch trying to find that sweet spot where the description of the wilderness is evocative enough to be "seen" but not so long that people's eyes glaze over.

  9. Some good suggestions here. Ideally I'd love to take my gaming group to a wilderness lodge somewhere and have a game there, to really get them in the mood. Of course, the problem is budget, even if we could all get the timing right. :-)

    One thing I do is make use of the pictorial resources on the Internet. Since the object is to describe wilderness areas that are 'natural,' meaning they could actually have been somewhere on Earth, a little research can get you photos of an area that's pretty close to what you want.

    Since I prefer brevity also, and to let the players form their own reactions -- I'll nudge with my descriptions, but I want them to form their own emotional links -- I find that photos are a good shortcut.

    If the area you're thinking of is comparable to a much-photographed travel destination, all the better. For example in one adventure where they had to sail their ship through a maze of limestone islets in a coral bay, all I had to do was say 'it's like Ha Long Bay' and all my players twigged on to the possibilities at once.

  10. My big issue with describing wilderness is that:

    - there is a lot to describe

    - I'm not always ready with the right vocabulary.

    The sweeping generalization above aside, it's not lack of experience seeing mountains that causes me problems. It's finding the words to convey what the PCs see in a manner they can use in game that I find the most difficult. I find it hard to show them the picture I have in my head of the outside world. In a dungeon it's more limited, so even if we see different things the overlap - the hallways is 10 x 10 and is shaped like these minis and drawings show you - is good enough. I can't just whip out a picture of everything, but I feel like I need one.

  11. Totally off topic:

    Hi Chris. Its been a while since we spoke; but, I wanted to share some really good news. I just played for the first time with my twin girls (4 yrs old). We did a totally trimmed down rule set. One was totally into it and bashing things around with her sword, the other girl was overly cautious but did OK.

    We used a totally trimmed down rule set. Now they're arguing with me that the rules are too simple. Gah! 4 years old and looking for variability already.

    Hope things are going well with you and yours.

    FYI, rule set was:
    (1) d6 opposed roll to hit, highest wins
    (2) one point of damage per hit
    (3) two hit points to put down someone (monster or character)

    As far as the topic of this post is concerned, we did little-to-no wilderness or between encounter play. There was one encounter in the woods; but, the description was necessarily terse to keep the interest of a 4 year old.

    1. Hey that's great, perhaps in a year's time I will break the game to the eldest of the little ones. It's a good feeling?

  12. Did read this post a while ago, but when I started blogging about 3D environments, this came to my mind again. With me, those descriptions mostly lacked depth. I think "dull", as you put it, describes it right. Overland travel is something I like to handle as fast as possible and I only "zoom in" for random encounters. Well, I think I got an idea about this (more like a thought experiment, really) and maybe you see some value in it: