Orthodoxies II: 12 Narration Exercises

This is the second in an ongoing series of posts about building up a sense of how you GM not with some high-level theory, but with approachable exercises for you to practice GMing methodically and with thought. Use the orthodoxies tag to follow along with all of these posts – just copy-paste this into your URL bar:


But let us move on to the exercises!

This time, our exercises focus on the greatest tool for any Game Master: our words. RPGs revolve around what we say and how we say it. The conversation that we have with our players is the game, and so examining what we can do with words in a conscious manner is a good exercise to engage in.

Consider the three following phrases:

  1. Someone gives something to a person.

This is bland, but more importantly, if you say this to your players, it is likely that no two players will have the same interpretation of what you intended to say (a borrowed observation from The Ultimate RPG Gameplay Guide by James D’Amato). Your players can project all sorts of unnamed facts onto this phrase and build totally narratives out of it. A bartender gives a patron a drink. A schoolgirl gives her crush a piece of chocolate. A dragon gives some upstart hero an untimely death. The vague text is capable of supporting all of these realities. Let’s see how more information changes that:

  1. Someone gives a mission to your character.

Any interpretation of this scene in which the latter person was an irrelevant stranger has now been erased. Any suggestion that a bomb, a pen, a pair of glasses, et cetera was the “something” being given has also now been erased. This is all very obvious stuff, but my point is that when we add details, what we’re doing in a game is narrowing what our audience is able to take away from our words. Understanding what exactly we’re doing – altering text to reduce scope – is crucial. Now that we understand this basic mechanic, let’s go further:

  1. Aerto Groselier, the disgraced son of Vigil’s most powerful bureaucrat, smirks as he offers you a mission – one that will restore honor to his name.

So much has changed. We have names, relationships, a facial expression, and a motivation. This is just the explicit stuff. Implicitly, we gain so much more – we are starting to get a sense of the genre of this particular adventure with this single sentence. We’re getting grounded in a setting – Vigil is some sort of location with bureaucrats, which could mean a lot of things – Vigil might be a plane of existence, a country, a giant person’s forehead. But to most people, the implicit information that is filled in is that you’re in a city, one that has potential for open intrigue.

And once you have this implicit stuff begin to settle in, your players’ minds are doing a ton of work for you. They may imagine a sprawling city, with decadent nobles who care about things such as honor, and the inevitable slums and fat businessmen left in the wake of their corruption. You’ve said none of this, but players are beginning to think of it, and the process of immersing into the fiction has begun.

Using Your Words (4 Exercises)

Some noise is coming from a building.

-A tired Game Master somewhere, probably
  1. Rewrite this, still as a single sentence. You want to convey that the structure is not sound.
  2. Rewrite this, still as a single sentence. You want players to picture a safe haven, a feeling of comfort that we get with freshly baked cookies at grandma’s house. But do it implicitly – “Grandma’s baking noise is coming from the safe haven” is not the point of the exercise, here.
  3. Rewrite this, still as a single sentence. You want to convey that this location is mildly dangerous.
  4. Rewrite this, no sentence limit. You want to convey that this location is lethally dangerous – try to suggest a different type of danger than what you used for exercise #3.

So…why bother to capture these things in this particular way? Why not just be direct, and tell your players, “You see a building. It is not structurally sound,” or “You see a building. It makes you feel safe. It’s comforting.”

Well, I would say that one of the most basic and essential roles of our words is to cultivate atmosphere, that hard-to-define thing that floats somewhere between emotional fulfilment and emotional suspense.

A horror story is not much of a horror story if it lays out the facts – but in the same way, a single sentence about a building is not much of an immersive moment if it just lays out the facts. Through our words, we can direct where players are focusing their attention, as well as a sense of texture – how a campaign “feels” or “vibes”. As an example, still riffing off of our exercise sentence, “Some noise is coming from a building”:

The Chortling Cherub, one of the few establishments left standing after the dragon attack, continued to be a source of rollicking banjo-play for the remainder of the evening and well into the night.

-Ya boi Jojiro

What’s the focus and what’s the texture? Well, I’m focusing players on recent history – maybe I’m dropping it casually so they’ll ask, “Wait, dragon attack!?” Maybe they already know, but I’m reminding them to reinforce that this really is one of the few buildings left standing. I’m also focusing players on music – on joy and resilience and on hardcore partying. This place just got hit by dragons, and they’re still playing banjos late into the night! There’s a bit of Appalachia/Americana flavoring with the banjo. Texturally, you could say this is going for hopeful and empowering rather than, for instance, solemn and melancholic. And it’s done very organically – it’s very different from me saying, “This place is still joyful. This place is still resilient. This place is based on Appalachia a little bit. I’m trying to give you some hopeful vibes.”

By Polina Mozgovaya, from https://www.artstation.com/artwork/ZEn5X

So…let’s do some deconstructive exercises.

Focus/Texture (8 Exercises)

Describe where you think the GM is trying to draw their players’ focus to. Describe what you find the texture/tone to be.

5. The dungeon entrance is kinda big even to the humans in the party, but it positively looms over the halflings, like a bloated elephant. There’s even trumpeting and general cacophany to match! It’s a right circus in there.

6. As you round the bend, Martha, you hear the crackling of flame and popping of glass. The upstairs window that you spent much of your childhood daydreaming from bulges outward and shatters with a resounding crash, and the stoop where your mother always stood in the evening to greet your father groans as it folds in on itself.

7. The floorboards creak and groan despite the party’s best efforts to stay stealthy. The incessant scuttling sound continues too. First in the wall. Then in the ceiling. Then down another wall, and finally to the floor beneath your feet. Cackling follows the scuttling, half a beat delayed.

Easy enough, right? Okay, your turn.

A person hits a person.”

-That same tired Game Master, probably
  1. Rewrite this, no sentence limit. The focus should be on a specific body part, the texture is meant to be visceral. You’re drawing out a moment and making the hit meaty and with impact.
  2. Rewrite this, no sentence limit. The focus is on the person who hits, not the person who is being hit. The texture is something personal to the person who hits – you’re framing this as an important moment for them as a character.
  3. Rewrite this, no sentence limit. The focus is on the scenery, and the texture is one of bleakness. Whatever combat is happening is ultimately pointless, and you’re trying to make sure the party knows it. Zoom out, make the fight less personalized, less meaningful. Distance your description.
  4. Rewrite this, no sentence limit. The focus is on conveying facts. There should be as little texture as possible. It’s the end of the session, everyone is tired, and while making this accurate is important, making it anything more would be a waste of time. You can see one of your players is already half-asleep. You may want to rush this and call it a night.
  5. Rewrite this, no sentence limit. You are trying to focus on a pathetic target of the hit, but not like, an assault victim or anything serious. Tonally you’re aiming for a slapstick character who is the butt of jokes, bad timing, and who keeps getting beat on.
Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam (HBO MAX)

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