GM: “You see a stream through the fields.”
Player: “What does it look like?”
GM: “Ummmm, a stream, and fields to each side…?”
Has that ever happened to you? Or this:
GM: “There is a bend in the river.”
Player: “Describe it.”
GM: “Ahhh, there’s a river, and it bends to the left…?”
Or how about this?
GM: “The trail leads up into the mountain range.”
Players: “How steep is it? How wide? Are there any tracks?”
These things, or something similar, have certainly happened to me, and I’ve seen them happen to enough other GMs to think it’s fairly common.
Players ask the darnedest questions
These occurrences, and many more like them, are examples of players asking for a detailed description of something the GM didn’t expect to have to describe in detail.
It’s almost impossible to prepare descriptions of everything; practicalities of prep time almost always mean that there are more useful areas in which to invest your time.
Consider that before you can describe something, you have to visualize it, and more importantly, you have to find the uniqueness that distinguishes this particular scenery from a hundred others.
If you were writing a novel, you could take as much time as you had to in crafting and polishing your description, That’s just not possible when you’re writing to a deadline, and game prep is always writing to a deadline.
What we need is a shortcut, a way to take most of the effort out of the process, and a shorthand to compress the results to a manageable level.
My shortcut comes in three steps: Geography, Season, and Image search.
Whenever I define a geographic region, I will always nominate a real location as a basis of similarity. To do this, I dig out an atlas and look for a region somewhere in the world of similar climate and terrain to the region in question – it doesn’t have to be an exact match, just something that’s roughly similar. I also note any major differences between this basis location and the geographic location.
I employ this technique with plains, mountains, foothills, rivers, etc etc – as well as cities and anything else that might be useful. I might be describing a futuristic city to be emplaced around a star many light years from earth, or a medieval city to be emplaced in the elemental plane of fire; it doesn’t matter. I select an analogue that I consistently use as my primary springboard.
I do nothing further until the location in question seems likely to pop up in an adventure, at which point I will proceed to the next step.
The first thing to note is the time of year, and any climatic effects that will need to be incorporated. If it’s winter, will there be snow? Will the ground be frozen? In spring or autumn, perhaps there will be hail, or heavy rain. In spring, there may well be mountain runoff swelling the watercourses. I don’t try to second-guess the climate; I either know it, or I look it up, or I define an analogue with which I am familiar.
And then I do an image search. The first term is the specific feature I’m trying to describe; the second is the season; and the third is the name of the analogue. If that doesn’t produce satisfactory results, I will remove the season, and make any adjustments myself. I then pick the three or four images that look most interesting, or iconic, or unique, or typical – all I want are relevant images that look reasonably easy to describe verbally.
These images then become the description that I document using the shorthand – which I’ll get to in a moment.
The technique has a couple of major flaws or shortcomings. The first is that this ignores totally the impact of climate and geography on society and sociology; it assumes that these are all independent of each other, at least substantially, and that the society can be whatever I want it to be regardless of the chosen analogue location. The second is that there will usually be some interpretation necessary, and that can sometimes require some effort. The third is that the images may not precisely match the desired target.
Google image search works by displaying one or more images from any web page that uses the search terms within its content. It pretty much completely ignores the file name, but it will place emphasis on any caption or metadata associated with the image, as well as other factors, which are used to assess the probability of relevance to the search query.
In particular, when multiple search terms are used, priority is given to those images whose reference points (including page text) match all the search criteria; then those that meet one fewer terms; then those that meet two fewer; and so on, until either all the images that match at least one of the terms, and other search parameters, are met, or an arbitrary limit is reached. (I think Google currently operates on a 1,000 results limit, but I won’t swear to that).
For each search, my preference will be for “large” images, but if that gets me nowhere, I’ll look for “medium” images. I tend not to change the other parameters. These options are currently accessible by clicking “Search Tools” on the search page menu – that is, the results page.
In general, if you don’t have a result you can work with in the first couple of result pages, you’re not likely to find one – but it only takes a few seconds to scan a page of results and cherry-pick those that meet your needs.
Once I have three or four images displayed in separate tabs in my browser, I will move on to the shorthand phase. What I want first is an overall impression, especially of anything the selected images have in common. This will get written down as the starting point of my narrative. I will then follow with any specific elements from each of the images that I want to add to my description. In both cases, of course, I have to adapt what I am describing according to any differences between the inspiration images and the actual location.
There are three rules to the descriptive narrative:
- Every non-essential word will be left out.
- As many vowels as needed will be left out.
- Punctuation will be left out. A Dash is used to separate descriptive elements.
I won’t refer to “jagged mountain peaks”, I will write “jggd pks – ” and then move on to the next descriptive element.
I generally find that colors need to be fully spelt out, almost everything else can have the heck abbreviated out of it.
The Fourth Rule
A fourth rule that is invoked whenever possible is to employ descriptive, emotive, vivid language as much as possible. This permits each word in the resulting description to conjure up many more, and to create a more vibrant impression.
Decompressing the shorthand
The results are treated like a bullet point summary when I get called upon to describe the location. I extend and extrapolate as much as necessary from these starting points.
It takes a little practice, but most of the time I can fit a full paragraph of description onto a single line or less – and that line got written about as fast as I can type.
Why it works
The goal is to conjure a sufficiently vivid image in the minds of the players to enable them to interact with their surroundings. I neither know nor care whether or not the mental image that player 1 generates bears even a superficial resemblance to the imaginings of player 2.
Remember, I employ this technique for generic locations; if a specific location is needed, I will craft an appropriate specific description, using the general model as a starting point.
A cheat or two
The occasional employment of lateral thinking can go a long way to extending the usefulness of this technique. If I need to layout the stalls in a market, I will look for a store guide to a shopping mall – then translate the shops into in-game period equivalents. Furnished office space layouts work well as the basis of a prison – cubicles becoming cells – or a hotel. The aisle layout of a hardware store can give you a handy analogue for an entire manufacturing district, showing where certain factories are located (the aisles themselves become streets). If you want a more “progressive” style of building, the layout of a theme park or resort can give rise to an entirely more futuristic building concept – but the internal logic of the original still maintains a rationality to the design. If I need to populate a tower block with offices, I will sometimes use the internals of a multi-story department store.
If what you need doesn’t exist, or is likely to be hard-to-find for some reason (like the internal layout of a prison), get creative.
Example: The stream through the fields
Here are three Google image searches to illustrate the diversity of results that this technique can yield (click on the image for an updated search, and note that irrelevant search results have been heavily blurred):
The first thing that I notice is that in most cases, I have a stream or I have fields, not both. That’s fine, if I have to, I can perform more specific searches.
Rolling a d4 at random to choose between these – under normal circumstances, I would have only one set to work with, anyway – I get “Stream Fields Columbia” as my example. In some ways, this is the trickiest one because – as you can see above – I immediately tagged seven images as being potentially relevant. I quickly prune that list down to three, operating as much by instinct as anything else. By coincidence, these are the three images on the right:
I liked the look of Number 2, but it was clearly from a different season than the others. If I specifically wanted a winter season, it would have been one of the more important choices.
Looking at the three images that I have chosen, I quickly exclude the first one; on closer inspection it is a glacier and not a stream. From the other two (one of which is technically not actually Columbia and the other of which is technically a lake) I note the following description:
flat bnks – dprssd sfce – cnstnt wrggle b&f – crstl clr – cool – snwcppd mtns mid-dist – trs in sml stnds – rushs stp wtr edg – no fnces – v lng frrws b strgt – rghly pllel to bnk
that quite literally took just seconds. I doubt anyone will have too much difficulty translating it, but what it says when decompressed is:
“The riverbanks do not rise noticeably above the surface of the ground, which simple falls away into a depression filled with water like a smooth-edged crack running through the fields, the edges undulating back and forth. The water is crystal-clear and cool. Snowcapped mountains seem to erupt from the ground in the middle distance as though someone had forgotten to include foothills between here and there. The flatness is only broken by the occasional small stand of trees, isolated in clumps of three or four. Rushes and reeds mingle with the grasses of the fields near the water’s edge, but do not grow into the water, coming to an end as though the river had been cut from them with a giant cookie-cutter. There are no fences to interrupt the long straight furrows of the fields, which extend as far into the distance as the eye can see, dead straight, and roughly parallel to the bank of the stream.”
This result is a synthesis of my impressions, used as the building blocks of a description that is internally consistent, and extended through the mental images that the compressed narrative conjures. It’s a lot of description for only a couple of lines of notes that took rather less than a minute to compile. Neither of the source images are the whole story, but both are undeniably a part of the finished description.
One final tip
Once you have a description of one location, descriptions of the surrounding regions tend to be a lot easier to create. This description is all about the stream, but I would have no trouble describing the stands of trees, the fields and farms, and the base of the mountains from this one passage.
Six months from now, that might not be the case. I would still have the compressed description but time would have erased the memory of the visual context – unless I tagged the shorthand description with a date, time, and the name of the fictional location, and saved the source images using the same tags (copy and paste is your friend!).
That couple of extra seconds of effort makes it possible to recapture completely the scene as it was in my mind anytime the PCs return there in five or ten seconds. I just read the shorthand, and look at the pictures, and then read the shorthand again, and I am instantly transported back to the fictional place of my own creation – utterly unique, and yet completely natural, and so vivid that I could reach out and touch it – not to say being able to instantly visualize whatever is happening there, and describe the scene to the players.
Even in a game session that’s all about traveling from A to B, it would be unusual to need more than a half-dozen to a dozen such locations, assuming that the GM can extrapolate what lies between. Allowing for the time to conduct the searches and select the images required, that should involve about 15-30 minutes of prep time. That’s a very small price to pay for never being caught short by a player’s unexpected demand for a description again!