Saturday, 19 July 2014


In fiction writing you may have heard of the said-book-ism -- the overly descriptive dialogue synonym that went out of style around the 1970's largely due to its naming and shaming in the Turkey City Lexicon.

Well, if you're writing adventure scenarios you shouldn't be writing dialogue. Really. But there's a parallel in scenario descriptions: let's call it the "is-book-ism."

An idol of a horned demon looms over the room.
An idol of a horned demon dominates the room.
An idol of a horned demon commands the room.
An idol of a horned demon squats in the room.
An idol of a horned demon stands in the room.
An idol of a horned demon occupies the room.
An idol of a horned demon exists in the room.
An idol of a horned demon can be found in the room.

All to avoid the humble verb "to be" with its drabness and its insinuations of the passive voice...

An idol of a horned demon is in the room.

Most of these locutions are called out as cliches in the Fantasy RPG Bingo Card page by Ryan Macklin (refresh several times to get the picture). But is this fair?

Writing RPG scenario text is a unique literary enterprise. It's best compared to writing stage directions in a play, or the art directions in a comic book script. At its best, the genre works this way: a scenario author creates vivid images and interesting contingencies in the mind of the reader, the gamemaster, which she or he then describes to the players, who in turn react, unlocking more images and contingencies from the GM. Let's call this the GM-In-The-Middle Theory.

Trying to cut out the GM-In-The-Middle and communicate directly author-to-player, through boxed read-aloud text, is a widely and justly denounced "cheat" in this procedure. Having ruled that out, how then to write the module text in a way that helps the GM communicate and interact with the players?

Useful principles emerge from the GM-In-The-Middle Theory, if you consider you are writing for the players through their characters. So, don't describe anything the players will never get to know. Write the most apparent things first, then the more subtle things, then things that can only be known by interacting. Don't force the characters' reactions.

A harder question is, how deeply should these descriptions be written? Some have advocated a minimal, list-like format, to try to break the habit of read-aloud; dispensing with the humble "is" in much the same way that the Russian language does. I've never been happy or comfortable with this.

The GM-In-The-Middle approach explains why: to work in this way, the writing must create a fully formed and vivid image in the mind of the GM, an image that he or she envisions and believes in. Reading someone else's list makes me feel like I'm taking inventory in a dollhouse. Reading prose, even prose with archaic or formulaic or dungeon-kitsch elements, can transport the GM so that the job of description becomes natural. Perhaps the prose can furnish a few bright and lapidary phrases that make it through to the players, but the heavy lifting should happen directly through imagery -- just as someone who is fluent in a second language forms their words directly from raw thought rather than passing them through a process of conscious translation.

All this supports the Is-Book against its naysayers. As long as the prose is descriptive and evocative, without compromising either mission with cliched or rote genre-copying (who the hell knows what a gambrel roof is anyway?) it's OK to have pillars march away into darkness, idols loom, portcullises menace, balconies survey, and wardrobes dominate.


  1. I know what a gambrel roof is because I looked it up to see what the house in some Lovecraft story looked like. Using a prosaic description would miss the sound and feel of the word gambrel - which reminds me of grim and feral - and seems perfect as a way of describing some spooky, dilapidated old, New England house.

  2. Great post. The most important thing for me when using a product at the table is to not have to wade through prose when trying to figure out what is relevant to the situation the PCs are in immediately.

    I disagree that you are writing for the players though. You are absolutely writing for the referee, and need to communicate some things immediately to the referee that the players will not be aware of. For example, trap triggers. Or really any kind of event triggers. Thus, I think contents priority is appropriate organizing principle. That said, a procession from apparent to subtle is in many cases a good rule of thumb.

    Like you, I also think that a pure list form can feel somewhat sterile, though I would still take it over glowing (but disorganized) prose. There is probably some middle ground. There does not seem to be any reason why one couldn't take a hierarchical outline format, like Courtney suggests, and inject some prose or prose fragments as needed.

  3. You linked a question to a mention of my blog post, and thus invoked me, so I will answer it with authority: it is absolutely fair. There is zero question about it.

    But I never say "don't use cliches." Cliches have power, if you know how to use them. Frequently though, I get drafts that have "dominates the room" in Every Single Description. I cut that down to only those times where the cliche lends power to the moment. Otherwise, it's *worse* than just using "is in the room" each time.

    The job of the writer isn't to avoid cliches, but to understand when using them empowers a passage and when it's just lazy writing.

    - Ryan

  4. Good post. The challenge is the effective and efficient communication of information without completely sacrificing vividness and mood.

    One other important consideration in an RPG product is that it ought to be enjoyable for the GM to read away from the table, partly to make prep interesting but more importantly to make him want to run it. Boring lists don't inspire.

    My favourite RPG rule book is Cyberpunk 2020; Mike Pondsmith had a genius for telling you the rules in a clear but also entertaining fashion that was totally in keeping with the genre.

  5. I advocate lists, but I'd advocate them with prose. I'd just like to break the sentence and cut out the stuff we don't need.

    Cliches are fine, though.

    "Dominates" "squats," "commands" and "looms" denotes size, presence, etc in a single word. If you are trying to get in as much as possible in as little as possible, this seems ideal, if also tiresome.