Thursday, August 4, 2011

You say you want a resolution.... part 5

When taking an action in an RPG, there are five stages: intent, declaration, resolution, effect, and description.  We've already covered intent, declaration, resolution, and effect.  The action ends when someone, most often the GM, describes what just happened.

Harkening back to the discussion on declaration (and foreshadowing the discussion on fluff vs. crunch), there is a difference between the effect and the description of that effect.  Boiling it down, the effect works on the mechanical level, and the description works on the character level.  The description is also important to tie the whole action together, much like the summary section at the end of a paper.

What's the buzz, tell me what's happening!

The description stage generally takes what was attempted and marries it to what was accomplished to give a sense of how events unfolded.  Traditionally, this is the province of the GM, as both the referee and prime narrator.  With more modern sensibilities, more players are encouraged to pick up the conch and insert their own descriptions of events.  I must confess that, as much as I like the latter in principle, I almost always fall back on the former in actual play.

The important factors in a good description are very similar to those in a good declaration.  However, we do have one advantage at this end.  A declaration is frequently couched in narrative terms that must then be translated by the listener into mechanical terms.  Obviously, this requires clarity and precision.  On the other end, though, we already have the effect determined, and we are translating that back into the narrative terms.  We no longer have the need for precision, only for consistency.  This frees us up a bit.

Much like with declarations, I feel that the description should not be limited by a narrow interpretation of the effect.  Suppose your PC is in a swordfight, and critically fumbles a lunge.  The effect is determined to be losing or dropping your weapon, requiring an action next round to recover it.  The obvious description is, "Your PC suffers a sudden case of the butterfingers, and your sword falls to the floor."  Not only is that incredibly dull language, but it also really doesn't fit with the idea that your PC is a master swordsman.  Try these alternatives instead:
  • "Your opponent claps his arm down, trapping your sword against his side.  To avoid his vicious riposte, you are forced to release the hilt."
  • "Your opponent's eyes go wide at your powerful thrust, and he ducks.  Your sword plunges into the wooden beam behind him, becoming momentarily trapped."
  • "You attempt a daring maneuver that you once saw your master perform.  Your opponent is caught completely off-guard, but unfortunately your skills aren't up to following through.  Instead of your blade finding purchase in his flesh, it twists in his clothing and is pulled from your hand.  Perhaps you should stick to tactics you have practiced more thoroughly in the future."
  • "Your opponent executes a parry technique that you have never seen before.  Your sword is yanked from your hand and thrown high into the air.  Next round, you nimbly jump over a boulder behind you, and catch the sword as it falls."  (Bonus points for reference.)
Those descriptions all have exactly the same mechanical effects, but invoke very different images.  They also are events that even the best swashbucklers in the movies encounter, without looking incompetent. 

Jessie paint your pictures 
About how it's gonna be.
By now I should know better
Your dreams are never free.

It is extremely common, especially during combat, for the description stage to get dropped.  After all, the typical flow is declare, roll, compare, determine damage.  Then, pretty much inevitably, there is a beat to reorient to the character level, and engage the narrative voice.  When combat is flowing fast and furious, taking that beat feels awkward.  When combat is dragging, you are doing everything you can to cut corners and speed things up.  In either case, shifting back to the narrative voice feels like you are suddenly performing.

While pretty much every book on GM advice cries out against this failing, and most blogs do as well, it continues to happen over and over.  Why?  There are a couple of easy reasons, and a couple of easy excuses. 

The most common excuse is time.  When you are handling combat for a dozen different people, taking the time to invent and relate interesting actions for each will bog things down.  I'll call bullshit on that, but only partially.  When you are first getting a handle on it, it is time consuming.  But, once you get familiar with the flow and comfortable with your voice, it gets faster.  And, interesting actions keep your players more engaged, which reduces the feeling that time is dragging.

Another common excuse is that the GM is no good at it.  Aside from being a confidence issue, which each GM should work to overcome instead of working to avoid, it's often a case of having too high standards.  You don't need to be able to spontaneously hit the level of Howard or Tolkien.  You just need to be able to get across to the other people at the table what is happening from the characters' point of view.  No one is expecting (or wanting, often) high literature, and they certainly don't want to hear a lot of purple prose.

One common legitimate reason is that it feels unnatural.  Especially in a busy combat, this is very understandable.  As GM, you are already juggling a lot of things on both a tactical and mechanical level.  Description uses the other side of your brain and a whole different voice.  Switching back and forth can rapidly strip your mental gears, and can create a very uneven tone in your communications to your players.  This can be overcome with practice, and with everyone getting used to the rhythm of both using and hearing description.  But, it's admittedly not easy.


  1. I am sure I don't do this enough, but I do try and add at least some descriptive to combat moves. "I attack," "He parries," "Next" gets old and stale. Even something as simple as "He dances out of reach of your attack" to add flavor to the combat.

  2. It's definitely one of those things that requires the GM to consciously engage with it. And it only gets better with practice. I was trying to pay attention to it during a big combat I ran yesterday, and I added description about half the time. I actually found that that worked in general, as it served to really highlight the key exchanges that did warrant extra attention.

    I also noted that one of my players was extremely good at adding flavor to the declaration phase of the action, but definitely waited on me to add flavor to the description phase. Another one I had real trouble getting him to step out of a tactical mindset and into a descriptive one.