GM DESCRIPTION: NARRATION OR CONVERSATION?

Bedrockgames

Adventurer
This comes from a topic in another thread where GM description came up. Some posters saw the GM's role as that of narrator, preferring a style of description that felt like prose from a novel, others preferred a more conversational approach. The first approach was more literary, placed emphasis on being evocative and building a sense of atmosphere. The second focused more on plain spoken language and interaction between the players and GMs as the descriptions unfold. This is a simplification of the topic, but that is the basic division. And obviously there are many approaches in between and from totally different angles. I am curious what other posters think about how a GM should sound when describing things to players.
 

Bagpuss

Adventurer
I thought we all agreed he should sound like Matt Mercer and anything else was bound to end in disappointment?
 

Imaro

Adventurer
Initial thoughts...

I tend to lean towards liking the prose approach as a GM, whether that's boxed text in a pre-made adventure or prose that I have written up/improv 'd myself. It allows me a chance to create atmosphere while also allowing (when pre-written) the chance to make sure I haven't missed anything important. As a player for me it's just more evocative and immersive than the conversational narration, and draws me in more to the imaginary world the group is a part of. That said I want to make it clear that good prose doesn't have to be lengthy or overly descriptive, good prose IMO uses just enough word count to set the mood, evoke emotions and relay necessary information and err'ing on the side of shorter is probably better.

I have played in conversationally narrated games and it tends to create a sense of being a further step removed from my character, not sure why. I also noticed that it tends to increase side conversations, jokes, etc that can at times shatter or break the mood of the game There are also instances where it devolves into a million and one questions, many of which would/should have been answered if an actual narration had taken place and tend to (the longer they go on) pull me out of my character as well.

Now that said I don't expect the GM to keep up that level of description or narration for everything in the game, but I enjoy it as a scene setter an introduction to important and new things in the game and as a way to initially set the atmosphere, tone, etc of the game. I have no problem with the conversational narration if it's covering something like quick travel, an unimportant room or even nameless pointless NPC #237.
 

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
This comes from a topic in another thread where GM description came up. Some posters saw the GM's role as that of narrator, preferring a style of description that felt like prose from a novel, others preferred a more conversational approach. The first approach was more literary, placed emphasis on being evocative and building a sense of atmosphere. The second focused more on plain spoken language and interaction between the players and GMs as the descriptions unfold. This is a simplification of the topic, but that is the basic division. And obviously there are many approaches in between and from totally different angles. I am curious what other posters think about how a GM should sound when describing things to players.
While I wish you had framed it differently, using different words (see what I did there), I will try to just state my position:

First, this isn't about RPGs in general; this is about TTRPGs.*

Second, this isn't about all TTRPGs, I am referring to "mainstream" TTRPGS (for lack of a better phrase) that have a GM and multiple players, and the game exists in the interaction between the players and the GM within the specified diegetic framework; moreover, the GM has final content control of the gameworld (the diegetic framework).**

Okay, so with those disclaimers out of the way-

The type and nature of the interaction between the players and the DM will be system-dependent, and while some systems will allow multiple modes of interaction, other systems will exhibit strong preferences to one, or another, mode of interaction.

Clear? :)

Let me give three examples that I hope are fairly easy to understand:

A. Narration Strong

Paranoia (I am thinking of the early, 80s, editions, that I still play). So, in order to properly play Paranoia, IMO, you absolutely have to use word choice and build a sense of atmosphere. The game is, fundamentally, a darkly humorous game, and in order for the game to "work" you need to have the GM and the players build within the specified diegetic framework using appropriate narrative language for any given situation. In other words, if the phrase, "Friend Computer" isn't used, or you don't understand what "Please refrain from smoking when terminated" means, you aren't maximizing the value of the system.

Or, put another way, if you play Paranoia in a normal, "plain language" conversational manner, it will easily be the WORST rpg experience of your life. "And then I died again. Unfairly. For the sixth time. Due to a weapon mishap. And the game was over. Man, that sucked."

B. Plain Language

So, if you've ever played a game like FASA Battletech, you know that the game doesn't require any kind of special narration; in fact, such narration will just slow down the good bits (awesome Mechas battling Mechas!). There's not much else to say, really ... woah. That's meta.

C. Mixed


Take 5e ... please (h/t Henny Youngman). There is no requirement that narration be particularly good, or long, or ornate; or that characters be done in-voice; or that the DM and the players attempt to enhance the RP part of the RPG by building an evocative atmosphere. Now, there might be occasions when a more narrative style is preferred (for example, if you want to lean heavily into the Gothic Horror of Ravenloft). There might be times when it is not preferred (for example, when you are running a combat-heavy old-school dungeon crawl). But it really depends on how the group wants to play.


TLDR; what is best will depend on the system and the table.





*Obviously, when considering other RPGs, such as LARPs, performance matters a great deal.

**The final is necessary, as I am including games that allow substantial player content creation, but assuming that the GM has final authority to, at a minimum, resolve disputes.
 

Bedrockgames

Adventurer
Initial thoughts...

I tend to lean towards liking the prose approach as a GM, whether that's boxed text in a pre-made adventure or prose that I have written up/improv 'd myself. It allows me a chance to create atmosphere while also allowing (when pre-written) the chance to make sure I haven't missed anything important. As a player for me it's just more evocative and immersive than the conversational narration, and draws me in more to the imaginary world the group is a part of. That said I want to make it clear that good prose doesn't have to be lengthy or overly descriptive, good prose IMO uses just enough word count to set the mood, evoke emotions and relay necessary information and err'ing on the side of shorter is probably better.

I have played in conversationally narrated games and it tends to create a sense of being a further step removed from my character, not sure why. I also noticed that it tends to increase side conversations, jokes, etc that can at times shatter or break the mood of the game There are also instances where it devolves into a million and one questions, many of which would/should have been answered if an actual narration had taken place and tend to (the longer they go on) pull me out of my character as well.

Now that said I don't expect the GM to keep up that level of description or narration for everything in the game, but I enjoy it as a scene setter an introduction to important and new things in the game and as a way to initially set the atmosphere, tone, etc of the game. I have no problem with the conversational narration if it's covering something like quick travel, an unimportant room or even nameless pointless NPC #237.

This is interesting. My reaction is the opposite. When the GM is speaking in prose and it feels like I need to wait to weigh in, I feel less connected to my character and the setting.
 

Imaro

Adventurer
This is interesting. My reaction is the opposite. When the GM is speaking in prose and it feels like I need to wait to weigh in, I feel less connected to my character and the setting.
I can't comment on your experiences only my own and the reason I feel less connected with conversational narration because it lacks atmosphere or mood which is definitely something I as my character want described and because the back and forth questions to get basic information it often devolves into is hard for me to correlate to anything along the lines of how my character takes in info or even his thought or action processes. It feels weird to have to get basic information piecemeal and in a back and forth with the GM. For me when the GM is narrating, it feels much more as if my character is first taking it in, it's what he initially sees, smells, hears, his impressions, etc.
 

Saelorn

Adventurer
In my opinion, the point of having the GM describe something is that it lets the players know what the reality of the situation is. I find long-winded descriptions to be distasteful, primarily because it's an attempt to manipulate the emotions of the player, but also because it makes the world feel more like a novel and less like a real place. In the real world, if you walk up to some scenic vista, the only description you get is whatever you make up for yourself, based on the reality you see; likewise, the GM's job is to present the reality, and you can make of that what you will.

I once described a Spike Demon as a cross between Baraka and Super Shredder, because that seemed like the most efficient way of conveying the image to my audience. What I'm saying is much more important than how I say it.
 

Satyrn

Visitor
When I'm DMing, I find that I'm at my best when the session looks like an Agatha Christie novel: there's the briefest narration, enough to set the scene and nothing more, and the action is resolved in the dialog.
 

HJFudge

Visitor
I think a mixture of both styles is probably best used in most d20 systems I play.

I begin by narrating the scene's description...BRIEFLY. I then go to a more conversational approach and talk with the players and encourage them to further explore and question and interact.

The beginning narration sets the tone of the scene. I feel that its best done well...if its a major thing I have prepared for, I'll usually have a brief paragraph or two to read that I have written in advance. However a lot of times the scene needing described is NOT something I have prepared for, in which case I simply try to describe from Big to Small in a narrative voice and have a little cheat sheat where I remind myself to hit on different senses: Sight/Sound/Smell/Touch/Taste....again, BRIEFLY. Also not ALL of the senses need to be mentioned ALL of the time. The sheet is there to remind me to vary it up.

Most of the game, however, is done in a conversational style and tone as the players interact with the world.

TL;DR: Both should be used. Narrative style for descriptions of important scenes, conversational style for everything else.
 

jasper

Rotten DM
BOTH BOTH.
If I trying to setup a mood or atmosphere narrator. If it is 7/11 tavern number 1307 established in 2012 conversation.
BUT BUT
What is best changes with my mood and my players mood.
 

GrahamWills

Adventurer
Some posters saw the GM's role as that of narrator, preferring a style of description that felt like prose from a novel, others preferred a more conversational approach
It almost goes without saying that this is a good thing -- people preferring different styles. But then this thread would be quite pointless, so I'll elaborate a bit. However, I do think the biggest effect is what you like. Outside of roleplaying, I like lyrical descriptive novels. So I read LOVE IN THE AGE OF CHOLERA and MOBY DICK, and loved both of them. My wife, an English Lit. major, dislikes MOBY DICK for the same reason I like it, and I'd never recommend the former book to her. In poetry it's the same. I don't see any reason to believe it's not the same for role playing games -- people like different things.

However, I do think that genre has an effect of what people expect. It might be that it's just that people who like more evocative descriptions prefer some genres, but thinking over my experiences, I think it's also the game style and genre. Let's take the following example description:

You've never seen a room with so much furniture and so many hues, nor a room you could love so much. Most of the rooms have clean lines, simple and mostly white; but these walls are all burnt orange and reds. The furniture is rustic and dark, sprinkled liberally with vibrant cushions. There is a table in easy reach of every seat and the walls are more paintings than paint. Every one is of a happy memory, a smiling child, a birthday, a new baby. There is lively music in the background and the scent of cilantro in the air. You feel like you want to sink into the couch and never move

- adapted from an excerpt from Angela Abraham​

If I was playing in a game of BLUEBEARD'S BRIDE, where room descriptions are a central experience, this would be perfect. The game is about emotion, feeling, safety (and lack of) and sensuality. I would be delighted to hear the above, if slightly worried about what it hid underneath ....

On the other hand, i also play in a regular online D&D4E game, focused on tactical combat. Very much a GAME; numbers, actions, rolling, success, fail, damage, consequences, status, conditions, target -- we mostly speak technical language to make our tactics clear and lean towards in-game jargon rather than narrative description. In that genre, I'd be a lot less excited about the above. I'd be all "how many seats? tables? are they blocking terrain? should I just assume all movement is halved?"

So I don't think it's entirely about the players. I think it mostly is (some people just plain dislike evocative descriptions, for example), but the genre and tone of the game come into it also. As with most things, by the time you are into your third session, you should have a good feel for how the group likes to work. If you are running at a con, match the default tone. If your running for Indie Games on Demand, it's going to be different than if your're running DDAL. And be prepared to switch!
 

Bobble

Villager
I prefer the way it was when the first RPGs hit the market. The GM was the eyes, ears and senses of the PCs and verbally conveyed just that information so that the players could immerse themselves and experience other world in a somewhat natural sense. Story telling has nothing to do with that. When you walk down the street is there a person telling stories in your ear?
 
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dragoner

Dying in Chargen
This comes from a topic in another thread where GM description came up. Some posters saw the GM's role as that of narrator, preferring a style of description that felt like prose from a novel, others preferred a more conversational approach. The first approach was more literary, placed emphasis on being evocative and building a sense of atmosphere. The second focused more on plain spoken language and interaction between the players and GMs as the descriptions unfold. This is a simplification of the topic, but that is the basic division. And obviously there are many approaches in between and from totally different angles. I am curious what other posters think about how a GM should sound when describing things to players.
False Dilemma fallacy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_dilemma
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
This was the division that existed in the thread in question. Not saying it has to be one or the other.
As written, it comes off as semantics. I know the most basic/earliest examples of play given in books such as Basic D&D and Understanding Traveller, starts with the GM giving a description (narration) and goes to a Q & A between the GM and players, which on the whole would be a conversation. If either plain or florid language is used is due to someone's vocabulary, or their changing it up to give voice to an NPC.
 

Blue

Orcus on a bad hair day
As appropriate for the situation?

If I'm giving a recap of last session, or describing a grand new vista in front of the characters, I'll be as eloquent and evocative as I can be.

If it's an established scene where the characters are interacting, as DM I will also be interacting with the player and getting them information in a streamlined manner.
 

aramis erak

Explorer
As a player, I prefer short narration followed by interactive for additional details.

As a GM, I try to be more evocative than descriptive, when practical, which reduces the needed amount of narration, and increases the player investment...
 
I

Immortal Sun

Guest
I go for a mixed approach, depending on what is necessary to set up the scene. Not every scene needs to have a high literary element to it, and there's a balance that exists somewhere that makes the moments that do better, because the moments that don't aren't overdone.
 

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