Saturday, December 29, 2012

Know When to Hold ‘Em, Know When to Fold ‘Em

Hello readers… my apologies for the long absence. Holidays and other writing commitments have kept me away from Rogue Warden far too long.

"Son, I've made my life out of readin' people's faces..." God bless ya, Kenny.

Having survived the predicted end of the world, this is a perfect time to start talking about how you wrap things up when you’re dealing with a long-term RPG campaign.

Thus, today’s blog post is all about a time of endings – when, how, and why you should pick the right moment to close out your campaign.

Types of Campaigns

First, it is a good idea to define our terms for this discussion. Naturally, these terms are being defined by me using my experiences; if you don’t agree with these descriptions, that’s just fine.

Just ask Robert E. Lee about planning for a long campaign...

These are the types of RPG campaigns based on length:

  • One Shot: A one shot game is typically played only once per year in a single session. One shots are not really a campaign (although some rare campaigns do take place once per year over many years).
  • Short Campaign: A short campaign typically takes place over three to six sessions and usually covers around two to three months of real time.
  • Medium-length Campaign: This kind of campaign usually covers around seven to twelve sessions and usually covers around six months of real time.
  • Long-term Campaign: This campaign is generally my most favored approach, and covers from twelve to thirty (or so) sessions and takes years of real time.
  • Unending Campaigns: Some few RPG campaigns have started and have never yet stopped. If you are a player or GM in one of these groups and your game has been ongoing for more than three years, I am very envious of you!

Old Campaigns I Have Known

I’m tackling a number of campaigns that I’ve played to a satisfying conclusion in chronological order.

The Messian Campaign

First there was the Messian Campaign, ably adminstered by my good friend Joshua Fairfield. This was a heroic fantasy setting for the 3.0 Dungeons and Dragons RPG that was heavily based on old, post-crusade Jerusalem. It was one of the first D&D campaigns I had played in with such a strong geographical focus, and I loved it. We got to know the districts of the city quite well, and I learned several lessons playing in this campaign that would inform my later efforts with Shadows Angelus (see below). Josh was a gifted DM with a talent for setting up interesting and unusual organizations—some as friends, some as enemies, and others we were never quite sure of. Playing these factions off against each other towards our own ends was a ton of fun. 

Yeah, playing in Josh's Messian campaign was kind of like this...

My character for this campaign started out as a young, naive farm girl and ended up as a passionate champion of an adopted faith—a plane-travelling hero who freed slaves all across reality. It was a great experience and completely unforgettable in my mind.

How did it end?

Our group went from 1st level all the way up to around 17th. It was a campaign thick with all the most unique tropes of D&D: there were groups founded upon the tenets of certain alignments; we died and were raised from the dead (everyone, at least once and often more than once); there were psionics and magic and they did not mix.

The campaign reached a point where our group confronted an evil god, cheated an entire evil race out of immortality, and set ourselves up as the caretakers for a newly born goddess of hope. My character’s epilogue was a return to her long-lost farm, serving as a surrogate mother and guardian of the young goddess… and occasionally going out to other planes to take out a slaver’s nest or two before dawn.

I certainly felt like I got my money’s worth from the Messian campaign – the story that was told was a powerful one, and we all felt like we had a lasting and important impact on the setting. It was one of the first times I had actually reached what I felt to be a satisfactory conclusion to a campaign and the first time I truly felt a significant sense of closure.

Shadows Angelus

Next up was Shadows Angelus. As I said earlier, I learned a lot from playing in Josh’s Messian game, and I chose to focus more on Shadows Angelus’ setting (a single city in the dark future) because of it. Shadows Angelus was born from a very long fascination with the idea of mixing magic, psionic powers, and cyberpunk aesthetics with a gothic and lovecraftian horror milieu. Yeah, I know that sounds complicated, but go check out Silent Moebius and you’ll get the idea. To say this setting and campaign are special to me is an understatement! Luckily, I was able to share my passion for this setting with a truly great gaming group of my friends in Maryland, including Hero writer Michael Surbrook (who inspired much of Shadows Angelus with his great Kazei 5 setting).

So I get to blame Michael for pictures like these...

I structured Shadows Angelus into small story arcs that eventually interconnected, and I had planned from the start that the campaign would (or should) run around 24 sessions (or “episodes,” as I liked to call them) in length. This was a bit ambitious for me, but I felt like I had a pretty solid buy-in from the group and it turned out that my faith was rewarded tenfold. The game went for 26 sessions in total, with plenty of in-between session action through blue-booking on an e-mail list.

How did it end?

It is important to note that I had basically scripted an end to this campaign far in advance. I knew that there was a point in the story I wanted to reach, a climax I wanted to share with the players, and then that would be that for the campaign. My players understood that the campaign had a definite end as well, although I think this went over well because there was also a promise of over twenty different sessions—so none of them felt short-changed. It was a planned moment and I was able to give all the player characters some great final moments for the players to build on if they wanted to epilogue (and many of them did) their own stories.

The Captains of Crunch

Just this year, I helped get a gaming group started playing Shadowrun 4th edition. This was very much a “Mohawk” style campaign, with plenty of fun and craziness all around. The name of our Shadowrunner team became known as the “Captains of Crunch,” a moniker related to one of our earliest jobs. The campaign was fast-paced, energetic, and fun. It was also played on a fairly accelerated schedule – we played every weekend for about three months, and each session lasted around 7-8 hours. All this means that we got plenty of gaming going on every Sunday for quite a while…

This is the artwork for the original Shadowrun nintendo game box. It also looks like a Captains of Crunch adventure.

Our adventures were many and varied, and we made quite a habit of surprising the GM with unusual solutions to the various challenges placed in our path. We managed to get ourselves out of some very tight spots and it looked like we were going to keep playing for quite a while…

How did it end?

Typically, a Shadowrunner’s end goal is to make a big score and retire, a goal that few ever really reach. Previously, one of my characters in the online Shadowrun games that I’ve talked about before managed to make a million-nuyen-run and quit the street life for a cabin in the mountains. However, that kind of thing is usually quite rare.

Well, our team hit that big score – unintentionally. We were set up in a deal with a dragon (something you should never ever do in Shadowrun!) and we figured out a way to turn things around. At the end of the day, our little group of Shadowrunners had managed to enact a coup of the nation of Dubai and had taken over rulership of the entire country. I promise I am not making this up. There are going to be some readers who will instantly believe that our GM was off his meds that day or that such a score is – or should be – impossible. Yet, we managed to pull it off.

At the end of the session, we were stunned. We looked at each other, just sort of savoring the moment of our success. But there was something we needed to talk about, so we broached the subject of ending the campaign. The GM hadn’t planned on ending the game this way, but we all agreed that it wouldn’t get any better than this session. It was just the right time to bring things to a close and go out on a high note.

What do you mean, “Stop?”

If someone had asked me about ending an RPG campaign ten years ago, I would’ve responded with confusion. Why would anyone want to stop playing an RPG campaign? Especially a good one?
I like to think I’ve earned some wisdom along with my experience, and what I’ve learned suggests this: when it comes to storytelling, there is sincere value in closure. Not all stories need to end, but many stories benefit strongly by having a definitive ending point. This also applies to roleplaying games – because, at their heart, RPGs are exercises in cooperative storytelling.

Basically, this.

Endings help the Game Master build towards a satisfying conclusion. If the GM knows in advance that the campaign has a definite ending point, it can really help him in designing the sessions that lead up to that ending. Foreshadowing, prophecies, bringing back long-lost loves and old enemies alike are just a few tools that the GM can use to build the action and the emotions of the story as the game approaches the climactic ending.

Sometimes the right time to end the game is when the power of the characters overshadows or interferes with the verisimilitude of the campaign. This is often a problem for games like Dungeons and Dragons, where epic-level characters can change the game’s feel quite far away from the idea of swords & sorcery. When you can cast Wish spells, the paradigm changes considerably! Similarly, an RPG campaign can take characters from humble beginnings to the rulers of an entire realm, or even possibly a world or universe of their own! In these cases, the GM or the players may simply feel that the time is right to move on – the characters’ power level means that typical adventuring just doesn’t make sense.

Choosing to bring a campaign to a close can also provide the impetus to try something new and keep things fresh – this is often more important for groups that meet regularly on a weekly or bi-weekly schedule. There are many gamers like myself who enjoy trying out new games or different spins on existing games, and keeping a rotating schedule of new campaigns is a good way to accomplish that.

It is very important to remember that ending a campaign does not always mean that game is gone forever. You can always come back to the campaign again later if you choose or even reincarnate it with a new group. I’ve done this myself with Shadows Angelus (now on its fourth incarnation), and I’ve seen it happen before. In fact, the Messian campaign mentioned earlier was a campaign that had been played before with a different group!

In Conclusion

Knowing when to draw your campaign to a close can be a valuable lesson. Some campaigns are meant to last and last – as I said above, I’m very envious of those who have managed to keep a game going for long lengths of time! Thinking about it that way, knowing how to continue the game is the real diamond in the rough. Feel free to share your own stories in the comments of either ongoing campaigns or ones that ended – for better or worse!

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Quest for CRPGs

Greetings readers! Today’s blog post is a bit of a time warp, as it discusses games that span decades—and when you’re talking about decades and gaming, especially video gaming, you’re talking about a long time. (As a side note, isn’t it interesting how time dilation occurs when you’re talking about different cultural things? Decades is a long time in television years, not so much in terms of radio, even less for newspapers. When you talk about the internet, you’re describing time in singular years, and when it comes to things like social media, twitter, and facebook, sometimes trends can last a matter of months or weeks.) 

I’ve been a gamer for over 25 years, and some of my best memories involve playing a number of computer roleplaying games (hereafter referred to as CRPGs). It’s fair to say that I’ve been playing CRPGs since the very earliest incarnations, and I have actively studied the genre from a design, experience, critiquing, and writing perspective. Mainly my purpose with this blog entry is just to go over and highlight the history of CRPGs as I experienced them and hopefully bring across not only my love for the genre, but also how it has affected me as a game designer and writer.

This is the map for Baldur's Gate -- there's a lot of adventure in this game.

Special Note: I’m purposefully excluding MMORPG’s from this discussion, as I’m not really an MMO player and I don’t really have a lot to say about them from an experiential standpoint. I’ll concede the point that technically, MMO’s are CRPGs, but I don’t count them when I think about the genre.

The Text Adventure Era

Let’s start at the beginning, shall we? Back in the early 80’s, CRPGs were primarily in textual form. Primarily the ones I remember playing from this era are the Zork series and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. There were other text adventures out there (Leather Goddesses of Phobos and Leisure Suit Larry come to mind), but Zork and Hitchhiker’s Guide made the biggest impact on me. I’ll skip explaining in detail what these games were like (the Wikipedia links should suffice for the curious) and simply say that they were fairly primitive and exercises in frustration… if you didn’t have a game guide or type things in a very precise and systematic manner, the game would only be fun for so long.

Behold, the cover to Zork. And below, a screenshot of the game itself.

So what did I learn from this era? Oddly enough, precision and a systematic approach. Seriously, the uncompromising gameplay of Zork and Hitchhiker’s Guide kept me at it until I mastered the basics of these ideas, and that’s not a bad thing for a young mind. Additionally, these games were purely text, so I learned a lot about effective description—there’s an art to creating an image with words, especially a lasting image with meaningful details.

The Boxed Game Era

Moving on to the late 80’s, CRPGs took a slightly more advanced form in what I like to call “the boxed game” beginning with the SSI “goldbox” games of this period (technically Heroes of the Lance and a few other games were “silver box” predecessors, but that’s splitting hairs). Specifically, I’m thinking of Heroes of the Lance, the Bard’s Tale series, and the Ultima series. King’s Quest and Buck Rogers also had some notable entries in this period. These games were only really superficially a roleplaying game—although the player could make choices, those choices were really only meaningful in terms of what characters they could create and control in the tactical interface. It was a step up from the limited action/response options in the previous text adventure era, but still far short of any narrative experience. On the other hand, the tactical gameplay was really, really fun, and there were plenty of stories I could tell you about how my characters managed to beat some pretty hefty odds… which was not that dissimilar to many of the actual Dungeons and Dragons adventures of that time either.

Here's the cover and an in-game screenshot from Countdown to Doomsday, a Gold Box adventure game.

So what did I learn from this era? Tactical expertise, resource management, and the importance of having the right mix of characters in a party. In the Gold Box games, you could make a party of all fighters if you really wanted, but doing so meant you would struggle against many of the encounters in the game. Likewise, not having a theif to pick locks on doors or a cleric to heal your party in between encounters would change the experience greatly as well. The best way to progress through the game (for myself and players like myself) was to create a party like you would in an actual D&D game—meaning that you have a varied mix of classes and roles in your group. This approach allowed me to conquer many of the game’s challenges without having to reload the game too many times.

Special Mention: The Pool of Radiance series and the Buck Rogers games were some of my favorites—I’d love to go back and play these again someday. Pool of Radiance had a fun story with some memorable villains, and the Buck Rogers games actually had a fun ship battle interface! Alas, I never really got to play any serious games of Ultima or the Bard’s Tale, but I did muck about with them briefly.

The JRPG Era

Concurrently with some of the other entries on this list is a phenomenon called the JRPG, or Japanese-style Roleplaying Game for short. JRPGs are similar to the Gold Box games in that they generally emphasize tactical gameplay over narrative, but there are some very notable entries in their genre that should be discussed whenever one talks about CRPGs in general. The Japanese approach to the CRPG generally took a much more detailed approach to many aspects of gameplay, from the various items of gear to the types of magic the wizards can cast (Red Mage, Black Mage, White Mage, anyone?). JRPGs spanned the timeline from the late 80’s through most of the 90’s with the entries I discuss here.

I like to split up my experience with JRPGs into two sub-categories, Tactical and Storytelling.

Tactical JRPGs

The tactical side of JRPGs focuses on the combat, leveling, and character growth elements in a CRPG. In many of these games, developing your character over time is critically important—choose the right set of careers along the way and your character can end up quite powerful. Make foolish or dead-end choices, however, and it’s back to the start screen for you!

Ack! This screen is from Dragon Warrior.

Probably the most well-known of these games is the Final Fantasy series, but I actually began my journey into the realm of JRPGs with the NES game Dragon Warrior. I remember that I was so fascinated with the game that I stayed up all night killing slimes and raising levels. I did eventually get into the Final Fantasy games after that point, of course, and my personal favorites include FF6 (3 in the US), FF7, FFX (or Ten), and Final Fantasy Tactics. FF6, FF7, and FFX all deserve special mention in that they also possessed a very stirring and compelling narrative that draws you into the game far above and beyond the simple factors of fun and engrossing gameplay. The Disgaea games also fall under this category.

Square is definitely a fantastic company for this kind of approach, and I’d like to single out another similar tactical game for special praise: Front Mission 4. If you love Final Fantasy and giant robots fighting each other, this is the game for you. In recent years, a new notable entry into the same field is Record of Agarest War, which blends the typical JRPG with dating sim elements and introduces an interesting new mechanic in dynastic gameplay, where your character’s choices determine the effects to the next generation of characters—up to five times in the first game!

Storytelling JRPGs

As previously mentioned, FF6, FF7, and FFX all shared a truly dynamic and engaging narrative. Alongside these giants in the industry are some slightly less well-known games that are definitely RPGs but stress the story elements over the actual gameplay. For this section the games that come to my mind are the truly excellent Secret of Mana and Chrono Trigger for the SNES. A later entry into the same general type of game is the amazingly immersive Shenmue.

 A memorable moment in Chrono Trigger. Behold the time portal!

So what did I learn from JRPGs? From the tactical side, I learned that you can create compelling gameplay elements for tactical thinkers – combinations of abilities, little mini-games to power up abilities (remember Vincent’s games from FF6?), interesting opportunities for traversal of the overland map (airships!) and how you can combine effects and/or special events (i.e., “limit breaks”) to build some impressive cinematic combats. From the storytelling side, there’s a great deal of narrative value to be found in things like FF7 and Chrono Trigger, from making characters the player can identify with and care about to building a villain with a tragic past that the player nevertheless is determined to stop at any cost.

The True CRPG Era

During the late 90’s into the mid-2000’s came a wave of computer roleplaying games that truly took the genre to the next level. I consider this timeframe to be the era of the “True CRPG,” since these are the most iconic games that I think of when describing the term. CRPGs really came into their own about this time, with fascinating storytelling, engaging gameplay, and the ability to build your own character and interact with some of the most memorable NPCs of all time. CRPGs of this era also included branching storylines and incorporated meaningful choice into the gameplay experience for the first time, meaning that multiple playthroughs could have very different outcomes.

The originator of this era and probably the most well-known is the Baldur’s Gate series (which also includes the Icewind Dale games). Created by Black Isle/Bioware, these CRPGs pioneered many effective gameplaying techniques that are still in use today. Fantastic music, voice work, art and interface design combined with a great story made for an unforgettable experience. The characters of Baldur’s Gate resonate through the entire industry—up to and including references in modern games like Mass Effect.

Note: For me, personally, Misc is the greatest NPC and companion of all time.

This is the man.

Of special note is the Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition that is nearly out now—a great way to experience this game-changer of a CRPG.

The True CRPG Era started out strong but it would hit an amazingly high peak by the unparalleled Planescape: Torment in 1999. Torment redefined what an RPG was capable of and how people perceived the genre.  A tour de force of storytelling and characters, Torment set a standard for CRPGs that has yet to be equaled.

Other CRPGs of this era include the very influential Fallout series. Fallout’s contributions are many, amongst them a unique vision of a post-apocalyptic setting and cementing the isometric 3rd-person interface as the preferred method for many RPGs to come.

Torment was followed up by two worthy successors: Arcanum and Neverwinter Nights 2. Neither of these games were quite as good as Torment, but that isn’t to say they aren’t both great games—they certainly have earned that title.

Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura was a flawed but exceptional game that had a ton of potential. It combined magic and technology and cashed in on the (then-brand-new) Steampunk aesthetic. I encourage anyone who loves CRPGs to give Arcanum a shot, because it also possesses a fascinating story and some great characters.

This game is a must play!

Neverwinter Nights 2 was developed by Obsidian Studios, featuring a lot of the same creators as Torment. Whilst Neverwinter Nights 2 is fairly pedestrian from a storytelling standpoint, it does present everything you’d expect to find in a CRPG with some unique twists. The companions in the game are well-designed and the major selling point is that you eventually are given a keep to supervise, upgrade, and defend in an extremely memorable climax. Alas, the otherwise unremarkable story and the perplexing ending keep this game from succeeding wildly.

What did I learn from True CRPGs? The right voice can turn a good character into an unforgettable character. Exploration gameplay and storytelling does not have to be linear. RPGs can turn your world upside-down and change your perception (Torment!). The nature of a man can change through belief (more Torment!). Classic fantasy RPG tropes can form the foundation for truly epic stories and intense game experiences. Music and sound are vital to the experience of a CRPG. Challenge beliefs, change expectations, and you can create something beautiful.

The Console Era

Starting in the mid-to-late 2000’s, CRPGs moved primarily into handhelds and consoles. With this move came an increase in technology and the ability of the game to convey information, primarily through visual means. This stripped away some of the verbosity from CRPGs – where before, a crucial conversation could involve multiple pages of text, it was now resolved with just a few sentences. Storytelling remains strong in console CRPGs, but the focus has shifted again, lifting visuals and gameplay experience more into focus.

The Sith Triumvirate of KOTOR II are some of my favorite villains ever.

The Knights of the Old Republic series is probably the first and most heralded of the console CRPGs. In my personal opinion, I credit KOTOR 1 and 2 for saving Star Wars after the truly atrocious prequels nearly destroyed any interest I had in the IP. KOTOR (once again created by many of the same minds behind Baldur’s Gate and Torment) paved the way for even more advanced CRPGs to come from Bioware. The Dragon Age and Mass Effect series (with the unfortunate exception of Mass Effect 3) were both excellent game franchises that capitalized on all the strengths of the genre. Mass Effect and Dragon Age returned some of the depth in the form of in-universe journal entries and informational packets, helping to build some very strong worlds, organizations, and characters that have made an undeniable mark on the genre.

A very underrated CRPG is Alpha Protocol, a CRPG that goes into a rarely-entered subgenre of espionage action. If you’ve ever been a fan of James Bond or Jack Bauer, make sure to give this game a try.

A scene from Alpha Protocol. The game features about a half-dozen ways to get around those guards, from direct combat to smooth talking to stealth.

Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas helped to cement this era with open-world gameplay and a very “sandboxed” approach that contrasted nicely with Bioware’s much more linear designs. Both games are very good, but New Vegas really pushes the envelope with its amazingly innovative DLC designs.

In addition, no mention of console CRPGs would be complete without discussing the surprise smash hit of 2011, Skyrim. This entry in the Elder Scrolls franchise made a huge splash into the gaming market and introduced a whole new generation to fantastic, open-world gameplay linked with stunning environments and excellent level design. So far, the only thing I can critique about Skyrim is that its DLC is very lacking, especially compared to Fallout: New Vegas.

One special note here is the Shadowrun SNES game from 1993 is one of the earliest console CRPGs that I remember... and it was very, very good.

What did I learn from the Console Era?  Meaningful choice as the centerpiece of a game is a powerful tool. Concise textual design can get the main ideas across without requiring a player to read multiple pages. Memorable climactic moments can turn a good game into a great one. The importance of creating a good, solid ending to a CRPG cannot be overstated. Building a character’s story over multiple games in the same line can launch a legend.

Death is a badass. In Darksiders II, you get to play Death. Seems like it would sell itself, right?

A special mention I’d like to make here is for Darksiders II. Whilst Darksiders II is an “action RPG” and is definitely further towards the action side of that scale, it is a fine RPG and features design and writing work from yours truly.


Into the Future

For diehard CRPG fans like myself, the future is actually looking very good. Wasteland 2, Project Eternity, and Baldur’s Gate Enhanced Edition are on their way to completion from some very good teams in the industry, and they promise to bring back much of the “True CRPG era” strengths to new technology like the ipad whilst leveraging more modern design principles. The success of Skyrim, Mass Effect, and Fallout 3 have bolstered the role of CRPGs in the marketplace, and the upcoming Dragon Age III promises to build on that legacy of quality. I, for one, am very optimistic about what’s coming soon for CRPGs and I hope that the genre continues to build momentum long after today.

In Conclusion

This blog post has been all about my experiences and memories of CRPGs – what are some of yours? No doubt there are a lot of folks who will point out some games I missed along the way, so don’t hesitate to make a comment below!

Monday, October 29, 2012

Interview Time: Rich Baker

Greetings, readers! Today I'm very pleased to present an interview with Rich Baker, a man with a long and legendary pedigree in the world of roleplaying games.

Rich's career spans a multitude of game worlds, from Star*Drive to Dark Sun to the Forgotten Realms and beyond. I spoke a little about Rich back in my review of the Birthright campaign setting, and it is through Birthright that I personally first became aware of his work.

Rich Baker: Man. Myth. Legend.

Rich is also a novelist, and I will definitely recommend books like the Shadow Stone and City of Ravens for anyone who enjoys good fantasy fiction. However, my personal favorite is still The Falcon and the Wolf!

I've made a point of speaking to Rich every Gen Con if possible -- mostly to geek out about Birthright -- but also because I'm honestly a big fan of his work. I want to extend my gratitude to Rich for agreeing to this interview, and I heartily suggest that anyone who wants to know more about Mr. Baker should check his out his blog at Atomic Dragon Battleship.

And now, on to the interview! As always, my questions are in red.

(Click below the fold for the entire interview!)

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Setting the Scene

First, yes... late blog post is late. My apologies, this month has been quite full of stuff, like GDC Online and an upcoming Seattle trip.

I owe the inspiration for this week’s blog post to my friend Matthew Steen, who wanted to find out some of my thoughts about setting the scene in an RPG. Matt is a very creative person and very interested in the narrative aspects of RPGs, so I thought his suggestion was quite interesting.

My History With RPG Scenery

I’ve been playing RPGs for about 27 years now, and setting the scene was always something I found to be important. After all, the heart of an RPG is all about imagination—so I generally tried hard to make each game as immersive as possible. When I started out, this idea was mostly expressed as focusing on the “cool” parts of the game while relegating rules mechanics to a far secondary role. Thanks to another friend of mine, Brad Wilson, I did learn to let the story and the mechanics work together a lot more harmoniously during my high school years.

This, just the camera is in your mind.

When I got to college, I joined a Champions group that met very near to the University of Wyoming campus. In this group I learned a lot, but one of the most memorable things about the group was the way that describing the scene worked. I was actually co-GMing the campaign with another player, and I often found myself jumping in to help out by adding detail to the descriptions of various scenes—particularly the flashy superheroic battles that the group engaged in. During my time in the military, I discovered how powerful setting the scene can be when trying to evoke a particular genre or emotion in your players. This was further defined with my gaming group in Maryland where we reached some truly spectacular heights with a horror-themed game that relied heavily on the ambience and description of each scene.

My journey of discovery with setting the scene in RPGs has been quite instructive to me, and I’m glad to share my thoughts on the subject. Evocative roleplay is my favorite kind!

Note: the subject of this blog post is highly subjective and is unlikely to apply in equal measure across all groups. I’ve done my best to give broad advice here, but you should keep in mind that every group has their own approach to RPGs.

What is Setting the Scene?

Setting the scene is all about effective description; whenever an environment, character, action or event is being described, that is part of “setting the scene.” This kind of description can vary from extremely basic (“You see a 10’ by 10’ room. Inside is an Orc guarding a pie.”) to flowery and detailed. Switching from one style to the other is often considered a telltale sign that something is special about the upcoming action. One of my favorite quotes to this effect comes from Knights of the Dinner Table: “Anything with that much flavor text is obviously a trap.”

Basically, this. If the cheeseburger was flowery description.

Basic descriptions provide the bare minimum needed. I like to think that many Game Masters provide more than just the nuts and bolts—they try to make an impact with their descriptions. This is what I think about when I imagine “setting the scene.”

Here’s an example of setting the scene from one of my early Shadows Angelus games where the party was investigating a mysterious asylum:

“You are standing outside the darkened asylum as rain hisses down all around you. A light fog roils around your ankles and you sense a sharp, coppery scent of blood in the air. There’s a hushed, expectant atmosphere as if your arrival here was no coincidence. Suddenly, you can hear a thunderous roar erupt from the asylum’s depths – a primal sound of endless hate.”

Tools for Setting the Scene

If you’re looking for some methods to use to help craft immersive and interesting scenes in your RPG, here are some tools that I use to benefit this approach:

Excite the Senses

Often, describing the scene is purely visual (see the example of the Orc and the pie above). However, we all have many more senses than just our sight – describing what the scene sounds or smells like, providing details about the texture or subtle vibration in the floor, and adding some information about the gritty wind blowing across the plains can all help bring the action to life in the minds of your players. Sight, hearing and scent are the easiest cues to build into a scene, but also consider the other senses from time to time.

The accordion kings want to remind you that hearing is important.

In one of my Birthright games in Louisville, Kentucky, my good friend Bryant Smith was playing a fallen paladin who had succumbed to alcoholism. In a truly memorable scene, he found the only cure for a terrible disease ravaging his body involved drinking from a unique liquor known as the wine of dreams. Because this was a very important scene for his character, I went all-out describing the thick, honey-like substance, the sweet and spicy scent, and the riot of flavors across his tongue as he downed the bottle.

Relate to the Real

It is sometimes easy to forget that the players don’t always have the same context and memories as yourself. It’s not hard for me to remember, for example, the size and majesty of Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. However, it would be a mistake to assume that my players can all relate to that same image if I attempt to describe the monster as being “roughly the same size as Devil’s Tower.” On the other hand, I can generally assume that most players have seen a skyscraper building at some point in their lives—so describing the monster as being “several skyscrapers high” is much more effective.

Consider using measurements that are easily relatable… and the more easily memorable, the better. If you can use the dimensions of the room, for example, that is generally a good way to help people imagine the scene. You could also use nearby features, such as the parking lot across the street to establish the general dimensions of an abandoned keep, or point to a visible water tower out the window as an example of the wizard’s tower.

Similarly, don’t forget weather effects! Not every single adventure needs to take place during a sunny day – rain, snow, high winds, or fog can all enhance a typical scene and add extra drama to a confrontation in-game.

For my Shadows Angelus campaign, I had decided that the city experienced weather similar to London – high amounts of rain and fog. Consistently adding these details helped set the game experience apart and made certain moments in the game very memorable.

Find the Right Words

Vocabulary can make quite a difference in the description of a scene. Consider the following two examples:

Description 1: “The creature staggers towards you, covered in slime. Instead of a face, there is only a wriggling mass of tentacles.”

Description 2: “The creature lurched across the threshold, noxious slime dripping from every pore. Its face was merely a squamous mass of writhing tentacles.”

While these are both perfectly serviceable descriptions, the second has a particular flavor that is missing in the first. Choosing the right words to describe the scene can add or enhance the tone of the game. If you have a particularly heroic, high-fantasy game, for example, you could consider using words like “valorous,” “bastion,” or “sublime.” A gritty, street-focused modern or near-future game might instead benefit from terms such as “grimy,” “glaring,” or “suspicious.”

Antidisestablishmentarianism is a great word for nearly any RPG. Okay, maybe not.

Like much of the rest of this blog post, vocabulary choice is very subjective—thus, your mileage may vary, and you should always take into account your personal style and that of your group.


Don’t underestimate the power of physical props to get your players immersed in the game. Obviously, some games are going to find this easier than others – high fantasy rarely lends itself to common props that a game master can easily get his hands on, for example. However, even just some basic actions or objects can really enhance the experience.

During a very memorable Dungeons and Dragons game, my character encountered a disguised monster known as a Lamia. Taking the role of the Lamia, the GM moved in close and constantly made small touches to my leg while we were talking. (If this sounds vaguely uncomfortable, that’s okay… it was /meant/ to be!) The Lamia drains Wisdom as a touch attack, and my poor character had been reduced to a wreck without rolling a single die.

Another time, I was running a game of Dark Champions where the player characters were all street-level superheroes. During one of their investigations, they came across the wallet of a dead man containing vital clues. I had actually acquired a used wallet and mocked up various items found inside, such as business cards, ID, etc. Rather than describing what they found, I simply handed over the wallet and let the players go from there.

Building Atmosphere

Using evocative description is a great way to build a proper atmosphere for your game. This can be done over a single session or over an entire story arc, depending on the scope of the theme or mood you wish to highlight.

What I do when I want to build atmosphere is select a certain theme; “betrayal,” for instance, or “fairy kingdom.” Next, I use a set of key words that bring that theme to the forefront and scatter them throughout the descriptions I use for the game. If I am trying to build atmosphere during a single session, I like to a slow build—maybe two or three references at the beginning, moving up to about double that at the middle, and then hitting it really hard in the third act.

For a long-term campaign, building atmosphere relies on consistency—if you refer to the Swanwood as peaceful in one session, it shouldn’t suddenly feel threatening later on unless there’s a very good reason for that.

I’m currently part of a Birthright campaign where this concept has been used well; the Swanwood is a place of peace and serenity, and visitors to it always feel as if a weight had been lifted from their shoulders. Wisely, the GM makes small references to that whenever we visit the Swanwood after the first time, even if we’re just passing through.

Similarly, in Shadows Angelus, the extradimensional Entities always invoke feelings of nausea and illness (known as “Entity Sickness”) to any being nearby. Every time an Entity shows up, I tried to be inventive about how sick it made the player character’s feel just to be around them.

I recommend using an index card listing a specific theme and the vocabulary choices you want to use to reinforce that theme. Keeping a small set of these cards handy to review during breaks can be helpful.

Narrating the Action

One thing that I like to pay close attention to during any RPG I am playing in is how the narrative aspects of combat are handled. I’ve seen a lot of games (probably too many) that rely simply on “I hit, you miss,” and similar comments. Even more games have battles that (aside from spell effects or gunfire) are eerily silent.

For me, I like to imagine each game as a movie in my head, and that means I lean towards the cinematic as often as possible. This also means that I like to have my characters (and NPCs) talk during combat, exchanging quips or threats, or even just stating the obvious (as you do, especially in a superheroic game) such as “Our weapons are useless!” or “You’ll never get away with this!”

I recommend varying things up more than this, though.

I believe that the player characters are meant to be the protagonists of the story, and that means they should generally feel competent in what they do in combat. This means that when I am narrating the action, I try to do so in a way that empowers the character concept and furthers the story. Few things can affect a player as strongly as when he feels he or his character is being mocked—it is easy to chuckle over a critical failure now and then, but it can easily damage a player’s enjoyment of the game if he constantly feels like the narrative description of his actions casts him in a bad light.

Take a look at the following two examples of narrating the action, both occurring after a player has made a bad roll against an opponent during a combat scene:

Example 1: “You swing at the Orc and nearly drop your sword, fumbling the weapon and almost tripping over the scabbard.”

Example 2: “You swing at the Orc, but he brings his axe up to intercept it, snarling defiantly at you, ‘No one gets out of this dungeon alive.’”

The first example de-protagonizes the character and makes him seem foolish. This is occasionally fine (and more often acceptable in a lighthearted or comedy-styled campaign), but it often is harmful to the player’s overall enjoyment of the game. The second example empowers both the character and the story, giving the player something to riff off of should he choose to respond.

How Much is Too Much?

The pace of a game is very important, and it should be noted that descriptions can get overly flowery and detailed—thus slowing down the game for little benefit. Naturally, a game’s pace will vary based on the group and the GM, and every group has their own unique style. That having been said, I would recommend that most scene-setting descriptions should get the idea across as concisely as possible.

My recommendation is to write down what you would consider a typical description and time yourself – any descriptions that take more than twenty seconds or so is probably too long.

In combat, keep things short and snappy in order for the action to flow smoothly.

In Conclusion

Setting the scene, as you can probably tell by reading this, is important to me. I’m pleased to have the opportunity to talk about it, and I hope that you find this blog post helpful for setting the scene in your own RPG games. If you have any suggestions for other ways to help set the scene, please don’t hesitate to mention them in the comments section below.