Establishing a scene can be tough sometimes. You need to communicate information to the group quickly, and as a player you need to parse what’s being said for value.
It’s easy enough to say, “There’s a room with four kobolds” and leave it at that, but it’s pretty dull. Some GMs oversteer by describing everything in extreme detail. “The room is a slick green from a broken pipe leaking out refuse, there’s a battered old wardrobe which reminds you of home. It has been fitted out as a kind of makeshift bed, a weapon rack, a campfire and a hopefully dead rat on a spit which drastically needs turning. Oh, and there’s four kobolds.”
I get the instinct to describe everything first so people will take it in and then mention the kobolds, but it’s likely to get forgotten about the moment you say they’re there. This is bypassed in using tiles, maps and miniatures, but then that pushes imagination away and becomes simple backdrop to the grids and any markers for terrain. So back in theatre of the mind style play what do we want to do?
Personally I like to hit the high notes. If the group are seeing a threat they won’t take it all in anyway, they’ll be alert. “The room’s slick and green, filled with trash. Four kobolds are arguing over a half-dead, half-cooked rat.” This way we’re adding a vague sense of what’s there, the enemies and what they’re doing in the room. They’re naturally part of the world instead of a mob simply standing and waiting to see an enemy.
Keeping details but making them a little vague can be useful, too. A player might ask questions about whether they could use any of the trash as a hiding place or a weapon and the answer can easily be ‘yes’ without contradicting anything you’ve said before.
Rather than using box text in encounters, I like to encourage this style by mentioning a couple of elements for the room which I can riff off, like, “4 kobolds & their camp. Slick w/sewage. Trash.” And that way I can keep track at a moment’s notice and if I end up not using something I can cross it off for my own continuity.
One final thing about scene framing which I love is a technique I first heard about from The Gauntlet, called “Painting the Scene”. This is where you can set the scene, but also invite questions from the group to help flavour a place. I love sharing ownership of a world and a story with players as it drives up their investment in it and means it’s not just being created by one voice. In this case, you might travel up the Dry Altar Mountains and as GM I might say:
“The mountain road is long, winding and you feel it difficult to keep a sense of direction. There are statues and ruined temples belonging to long-forgotten gods. Which ones stand out to you the most?”
Then the players can add things which could include a temple to add safety, a source of water in the dry mountains, hints to the backgrounds of the characters or even a threat. Other questions could be things like, “What tells you this market was once prosperous?” “What obvious tells does the waitress have that she knows more than she’s letting on?” And so on.
If you’ve not heard of this technique, I know surrendering some of the reality of the game over to the players might seem daunting but I definitely encourage it. As a form of worldbuilding and getting your players invested it’s great fun.
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