“The stage is set. The curtain rises and the scene begins.” But… how do you set the stage in the first place?
LET’S DISCUSS THAT!
This post is inspired by one of my Patrons! Thanks for the topic, Martin.
Learning by Example
This topic is horrifically broad and complex. In essence, setting a scene for your TTRPG is as difficult as writing a scene in a novel… which is just a series of scenes that stretches on for a few hundred pages.
Even short stories must grab the attention of the reader or risk fizzling away into nothingness before the reader reaches the more interesting beats of the story that propel them to finish it and look for more.
So to really bring home this subject and unspool it for you, we’re going to use an image as our baseline and show the different steps you can use to prepare your party to interact with that stage. Our example will be a wonderful piece of art from JustMick (Michael Mowat) on DevantArt. It’s quite evocative and filled with ambiance. The image will be given AFTER we set the stage for it in “Our Example” later in this article. Use your imagination as I discuss how to describe a scene and see how close your mental image is to what I’ve given you to work with.
Part 1: Start with the High Beats
A picture is worth a thousand words. You do not have a thousand words. You barely have 150 to describe what you need, not THREE PAGES worth of read-aloud text. So how can you parse down what’s necessary and deliver it immediately into your description?
To deliver the High Beats, as I call them, consider the following 3 details:
- 1. The Vibe. A general sense of the scene. This statement needs to be a blanket for EVERYTHING that comes after. Use your sensory words here and powerful, broad topics that illicit a feeling. The very first thing you say needs to have a MOOD to it. Enough to paint the rest of your scene in a single, unified color.
- “You see a warm, inviting rhubarb pie on the counter.”
- “The stench of decay clings to you like hands from the grave.”
- “The air is thick and heavy with an oily smoke.”
- “The darkness of the cavern leaves the taste of copper in your mouth.”
- 2. A Piece of Fluff and a Location. With the vibe in place, you’ve grabbed the party’s attention. Give them a mundane, human thing to hold onto and EXACTLY where it is in relation to them, no matter how cosmic and chaotic the scene is. This detail will ground the remainder of the scene in tactile realism – it’s something the human mind can grab hold of and build outward from. You’ll almost always have people use this detail to determine spacial specifics.
- “An elk horn chandelier hangs ten feet over your head.”
- “A stone well juts from the floor in the very center of the chamber.”
- “A copper cauldron bubbles with soup across the room from you inside a stone hearth.”
- “A steel lantern, unlit, is tipped over next to a pool of water at your feet.”
- 3. The Big Deal. There’s always a central detail to any scene, and your party must be told of it with the importance due to it. The biggest threat, the most interesting object, the most difficult to navigate area, the one thing that once your eyes adjust to a room, you’re drawn to.
- “Standing before a huge stove overflowing with pots and pans is a rail-thin woman with a messy bun of auburn hair.”
- “Swinging from one of a dozen iron cages affixed to the ceiling is a rail-thin woman with a messy clump of auburn hair.”
- “A rail-thin woman with a well-kept bun of auburn hair languidly dangles her bare leg from a gargantuan four-post bed dripping with vibrant red and pink sheets.”
- “A twisted, macabre throne of bones and sinew towers nearly to the ceiling in the center of the cavern, supporting a rail-thin woman with a bloody mop of auburn hair.”
So lets build our example for this post:
“The cavern opens to a sprawling expanse of frigid, dusty ruins that barely cling to the cavern. A smooth stone staircase juts from the floor, surprisingly untouched, in front of you. At the top of the stairs, a twisted, rusty iron portcullis hangs over a doorway of shimmering, oily, purple light.”
Part 2: Use Direct Language
I know, “wut?” Hear me out. When you establish the intro to the theme, as we did in part 1, it can be OVERLY TEMPTING to build and build on your verbosity, but that can lead to disastrous situations where your players are left completely clueless and you have to “dumb down” and repeat the scene for them anyway. If you find yourself saying “So basically” and summarizing the scene again in plain language, you’ve done twice the work you should.
Also, keep in mind, this direct language needs to have actionable detail. You want to give them information that will inspire them to interact with the scene:
To build on our example, we would let go of the sinister, thematic language to say: “The air here is freezing and parts of the stone floor are slick with ice and snow. Light shines in from the outside through cracks in the cavern’s ceiling far overhead. Crumbled columns stretch on as far as you can see. You cannot see anything out of the ordinary, but crumbling stone echoes around the cavern constantly.”
There’s no raw numbers here (500-foot high ceiling) or over-burdened information (the stone seems to be hundreds of years old) or even overly location based (there is a pool of ice fifteen feet in front of the staircase that is thirty feet from you). Those details come in our NEXT STEP and are inspired by your actionable details.
Part 3: Back and Forth
You’re always going to need to give additional details for your scene. That’s a GOOD SIGN. It means your players have engaged enough to begin visualizing what you’ve described and want to put details to it. Those details need to be given on a NEED TO KNOW basis: when the PCs take an action, when they ask a question, or when the player asks a question. If you try to include every detail of the environment for the party, it will overwhelm them without fail. Our minds are not meant to build and build and build descriptions like that. It takes years of training for artists to do so for commissions, don’t expect it of your players.
In our example, I will include some details a player might ask: “There are patches of ice scattered all over the floor from water that dripped from the ceiling. Whatever destroyed this place did so violently, the few walls that remain are crushed and busted apart, leaning at odd angles. The rusted portcullis is half-collapsed, and the purple light, even from here, seems to be some kind of portal – the doorway otherwise leads to nowhere.”
Its the back and forth answering and asking of questions that will really hammer home the scene in its entirety. Let them guide you toward what information is important for them – you’ve already given the High Beats and actionable details, so the rest is up to them!
Are you ready? Here it is one more time in its entirety before you check out the photo. How close did we get?
“The cavern opens to a sprawling expanse of frigid, dusty ruins that barely cling to the cavern. A smooth stone staircase juts from the floor, surprisingly untouched, in front of you. At the top of the stairs, a twisted, rusty iron portcullis hangs over a doorway of shimmering, oily, purple light.
The air here is freezing and parts of the stone floor are slick with ice and snow. Light shines in from outside through cracks in the cavern’s ceiling far overhead.
Half-crumbled columns stretch on as far as you can see. You cannot see anything out of the ordinary, but crumbling stone echoes around the cavern constantly.
There are patches of ice scattered all over the floor from water that dripped from the ceiling. Whatever destroyed this place did so violently, the few walls that remain are crushed and busted apart, leaning at odd angles. The rusted portcullis is half-collapsed, and the purple light, even from here, seems to be some kind of portal – the doorway otherwise leads to nowhere.”
Hope it was pretty close, or this would be one worthless article!
A Word on Combat Scenes
As with real life, combat is messy and problematic. There are countless details to armor, shields, movement, position, terrain – it’s endless. BUT, by following the same steps as above, you can set the stage for those scenes just as easily. A stealthy ambush opportunity should give actionable details such as a “hidden perch” to fire from or “dark corners” to sneak through. A loud, fast, unavoidable conflict with some hungry displacer beasts should give actionable details as to their position and how
The High Beats need to directly address the most important and problematic enemies. No one needs every detail about some kobolds when a 7-foot tall half-dragon cyclopes is looming over them UNLESS those kobolds pose just as big a threat as the cyclopes does – in which case spending one of your High Beats on them MAY SAVE YOUR ENTIRE PARTY from underestimating their effectiveness.
Empathy goes a long way. What would you want to hear if you were in your players’ shoes. What could you give them to help them make an informed, worthwhile decision. What words can you use to inject flavor into the description.
As things unfold, continue the 3-steps. A new threat? repeat the entire description for the new threat – including the general area. A wall collapse? Repeat it for what’s on the other side. You’ll notice I repeated many things in my own description because if you say it 1 time, there’s a chance they’ll miss it. If you say it 3 times, they’ll hear it at least once.
And, as always, not all advice works for EVERY table. Tweak your own descriptions to fit your group so it takes fewer questions to satiate their imaginations!