Monday 29 March 2021

The Auction of the first Hundred Words

Text prioritisation in encounter, monster and room design. We know it when it's bad,- we are reading a dungeon and we think; "Oh fuck, time to get out the highlighter, time to underline things, or pull a pen out and essentially re-write this deal".

And probably we have had the opposite experience, of reading something and thinking; "Ah yes this feels like it would work, feels like it would be easy and immediate to run."

But how much have we thought consciously about how it *works*? (Probably someone has yes, but *I* haven't, (much).)


For reasons of clarity I want to remove many of the layout methods we used in real situations to help differentiate and prioritise text in books. So, for instance, no talk of titling, bolding, italics, parenthesis, visually transmitted levels of the information hierarchy, no bullet points, coloured inks etc.

There is nothing wrong with these methods, but I hope that by excluding them from discussion we can focus almost entirely on the procession of concepts as written in the text. 

For, an encounter or room, when we consider it from the point of view of people within the imagined world, is a whole thing, apprehended, if not at once, then at least, in a global sense, with later details more filled in as time goes on. But a sentence, paragraph or string of text is entirely linear, and may only proceed one after the other, with the first thing made clear first and the second after that etc.
So when we convert from perception, or even imagined perception into text, and then back again, we are simulating a more global awareness with a more linear one, and then unpacking that text, and transmitting it, into voice and performance.


One way to think about this is that every part or aspect of a scene, a room, an encounter or an adventure element, is in a kind of competition, a sort of bidding war within the paragraph, or the block of text, as to which should have priority and become the dominant element, preceding the others and shaping perception before them, so that they are integrated into an idea shaped by it, rather than the other way round.

But the 'bids' or the arguments each idea puts forth are complex, not just about how important they are 'in abstract', but about the relations they have with each other and with the game as a whole.

To explain this to myself and help make sense of it, I put forth these 'bids' or arguments, as if they came themselves from the different forms and types of information, each making a request or argument that *they*, themselves, should be at the front of the first sentence describing a room or encounter in an adventure.


"I am very extremely obvious on entering this room, I will be noticed immediately by the PC and therefore I should be at the front. It would be perceptually and logically incoherent NOT to include me. I am so big and obvious that not putting me at the front is 'burying the lede' in a way that makes the whole experience silly."

So - "This room is hung with hundreds of brightly coloured flags" or "This room has a BRASS BAND playing in it, and they are WAVING brightly coloured flags"

A counter-argument to this might be about the necessity of prioritising 'hidden' or less obvious information which might be vital to the running of the 'room' or its integration in the larger adventure
So "This room contains an illusion cast by a small goblin, that of a large brass band."

(Though this intuitively seems slightly or very wrong or stupid. I would write it more like; "This room seems to contain a large brass band parping and stamping. (Actually the illusion of a small goblin hiding in the room.)"


The very question of 'obviousness' vs 'hiddenness' differentiates information between that directly for the Players, and the PCs, and that which the DM must know perhaps separate to the players and PCs. 
That leads us to;


"The PCs won't notice me immediately, and might not even interact with me directly, but the fact that I am present has a meaningful effect on the context and procession of other actions. The DM needs to know about me immediately, even if the Players and PCs don't."

A situation in which a hidden element might claim higher priority could be if the room or encounter has a certain overarching trick or concept, not obvious to the PCs but vital to the DM in order to run the encounter. 

In which case it needs to be moved to the front, perhaps with an encompassing over-statement.

The alternate version to this, or the counter-argument is; "yes this room has a trick or deception in it BUT

- it only becomes evident if PCs prod or investigate it

- this prodding or investigation is locked some 'layers deep' in the interaction with the room (i.e. its unlikely to happen immediately as they walk in)

- it doesn't deeply affect the way the DM would run the room as a whole, there is no secret intentionality which must be considered 'up front' as even the preliminary interactions take place"


Does it have a Goblin in it? How about a Goblin assassin waiting to strike? how about a Goblin jamboree?

"I am an active living thing with intentionality and my own perceptions" - this is a strong argument for being moved up in priority, or at least it seems so to me.

Why though?

- Both PCs and Players are strongly coded to think about living things first.

- Its a deeper and maybe more attractive challenge in mental modelling for the DM as well, there is a lot of complex information in thinking about the actions of living beings but it tends to be the kind of info human minds are good at processing and therefore is "pleasurable work"

- Consequentiality, interactions with a living agent will have possibly stronger, more immediate and more long term consequences?

Some Questions - 

- Is it a potential threat maybe even waiting for the PCs?

- Is it something that might notice the PCs and will respond if it does.

- Is it a big active thing (the jamboree) which will be very obviously noticed, but might not notice or react to the PCs even if they just straight-up walk in there.

Obviously the active nature of any element makes it 'more obvious' which brings in a different argument. It might benefit us to consider the following idea which, though rare in practice, does neatly separate 'livingness' from 'obviousness'.

- Is it an invisible being, which will obviously not be noticed by the PCs, but which will may notice and react to them?


"I am a piece of information very different to what the Players, PCs and DM have encountered and described so far, so much is this the case that I should be moved to the front, my novelty should precede all other elements"

How "different to expected" does a situation have to be to move it up the priority list?

Like if its clearings in a forest, and a storm has been raging anyway, then you don't need to know - "hey the storm is still raging here". And if its a 'standard dungeon' with stone walls, 1 foot corridors etc, sconces with flaming torches every so often, then there being another 30ft by 30ft stone room is not a big deal

But if the weather is very different in this one place, or if the rooms shape, substance etc is very different than expected, then that should be a bid.

A key concept here being the difference to the already-running set of assumptions between the players, PCs and DM.

Interesting - every adventure and series of play ends up creating its own structure of assumptions about the environment and situation being simulated or talked about, and these assumptions grow and deepen in depth as play goes on. 

So for the start of an adventure or dungeon, everything is novel to some extent, but as play proceeds, we would expect everything new to make some kind of sense with what went before, if it comes from the same 'adventure'. Even a 'funhouse dungeon' has the built-up logic of 'ok this is a funhouse dungeon, expect everything to be unique, bounded by place, puzzely and a bit gonzo." So if it suddenly started 'making sense', i.e. being contiguous and more like a coherent story or environment, then it would make less sense...


"I am a global phenomena, like light, or weather, or a sticky sweaty cloud, I reach out and I affect a lot of things, and everything I effect shows some result of this, to the extent that both the DM and the Players and the PCs should know about this soon, sooner than anything else"

The range and 'wideness' of the phenomena’s interactions, the more 'global' it is, the more things is touches upon, affects or changes, then the further up the list it goes.

Difficult to separate this from 'obviousness' and 'consequentiality'.

AND - such global phenomena are much more likely to be familiar- non-novel. Things like light, weather, smells, gasses, gravity effects, all seem likely to 'spread' and therefore to be more common in the adventure.

All of these arguments gain in strength from mutual combination but this one perhaps has one of the weakest 'bids' when considered in a singular sense.


"I am where I always am! The DM knows where to find me quickly and if you move me from this position I will be harder to locate, slowing down comprehension and even  disordering all other information, making the whole section harder to understand!"

This is an important argument!

It is the similitude, place and placement of information *within a block of text* that allows the reader to rapidly scan and know ahead of time, what information will be where.

So that, if the *sequence* of information is always the same, even if the information ahead of the vital text is boring, repetitive or irrelevant, as in; "a square stone room, 50ft each side", then so long as this information is *always* at the start then the eye may scan rapidly over it and therefore latch onto the part of the description which is novel, active, consequential or necessary.

It seems to me that this is a much more potent argument when applied  to titling and information hierarchies as a whole rather than *within* the short initial text blocks I'm considering here.
It may matter more where something is on a page than where it is in a paragraph.

A danger is the 'numbing' effect of regularly repeated identical or very similar low-consequence information which the DM must read through to get to the important stuff.

The two negative possibilities that spring to mind are firstly, that the DM might just miss something important because the text has trained them to 'skip over' or scan certain sections, and secondly the more subtle danger that the similitude of 'dead' or repetitive text disconnects the DM from the imagined world, quenches their inspiration and engagement, to put it simply; it bores them. 

And if text is boring the DM it must therefore have a negative effect on the game.

There should be room here, a necessity even, for *some* flexibility regarding the customary and regular arrangement of a piece of work, absolute regularity, at all times, regardless of consequence or circumstance, is stultifying, deadening, and perhaps ultimately, not useful.

In fact its necessary to hold in mind at all times; "Is this actually interesting to read?"

Not everything on an adventure page or spread can be interesting all the time, and if *everything* is interesting, then that might be too much for the DM to handle and have another, different, negative effect.

But, there must be interest, even if it comes at the price of ease of comprehension, because that interest, engagement and enlivening of the imagination is the absolute core of the experience, much more than any simply procession of techniques.

nevertheless, this argument of 'accustomed position' should perhaps form the initial strongest bid, against which the others might perhaps combine their values, overwhelming it if enough of them have a strong enough argument,

And of course, there is a meta-element here, because if there is a common structure to the ordering of text in a piece of work, then that very initial structure is subject to exactly the same bidding war as any specific paragraph


  1. Wish more adventures paid attention to this. Recently came across the following example from the DCC Corebook:

    A wide stone throne faces you from the center of this square room. The walls are hung with primitive clay tablets, head-high and inscribed with strange symbols. Each tablet is a few feet wide and there are dozens hanging on the four walls. However, your attention is riveted to the enormous snake that has crawled out from behind the throne. It is ringed in crimson bands the color of hellfire and has a demonic horn in the center of its fanged head."

    Pretty much described in reverse order of what's important

    1. I can see it working as a cutscene sort of description, which, depending on how 'pulp' CoC is played, maybe ok with players.
      But 'cutscene' requires a certain patience from the players to sit and wait until it is done before they can do anything, so it has to be short and maybe not used too often.

    2. "However, your attention is riveted to.." that's absolutely classic after they already spent two sentences describing the clay tablets down to how big they are.

  2. You're overthinking it. Don't reinvent the wheel. What's super obvious to the players should come first. Less obvious information next. Secret or hidden content last.

  3. The "I am traditional in my customary position" can be used for stat blocks, for example. Such block won't be much important before (if at all) the combat starts but once it starts all information required is here.

    Of course, stat block is a mini-space itself, and if it is for a complex system (such as PF, for example), it also requires an inner hierarchy (within this part of the text) in the already existing hierarchy of the all text on the page.

    As for global phenomena, the advice I once read was 'Always describe lighting condition and / or 'mood' of the light first in the paragraph' with humans being visual creatures and light giving or concealing a large part of details we perceive. Humans have a huge 'perception library' in regarding to the lighting conditions, and the mood of the place can be quite easily conveyed in many cases simply through describing how the light is presenting itself in that environment, how light is interacting with this particular place.

    'Sun-drenched chapel' and 'Trembling candlelight chapel', for example, could be the same chapel in architectural sense, but the condition of light in it in any given time drastically shifts the 'mood' of the place when PC encounter it.

    1. You could combine the diegetic effects of minimal or partial lighting to create a pattering of information designed to lead PCs into the scene via investigation.

  4. I don't think the wheel has been invented for one. a majority of adventures start of with "20x30 room, with tables and chairs, it has broken pots and pans, and a sink, and broken plates and rotting food.." none of this conveys anything meaningful.

  5. Great questions, great subject. Probably the most efficient way of transmitting the contents of an environment to the GM would be to have a small map of the room surrounded by adjacent textboxes; each box holds a discrete type of information (entities, valuables, flavor descriptions, hidden objects, if(then) statements, environment dimensions and materials etc) in list form, with each line containing the minimum text necessary to transmit the essence of the game element that it represents. Possibly each element would have a little grayed-out line or cone to where in the environment it *is* or *affects.* The boxes would probably be clockwise from the upper left (assuming a left to right reading culture), but I'm not sure which of those categories would come before which.

    I wouldn't write rooms this way except as a piece of reference material for the actual product.

    I tried to lay out my process but the truth is that I do it by feel. I am attempting to entertain and I unconsciously prioritize that over ergonomically transmitting information, and so I reveal things in the order that feels most dramatic. I try to have things build and play off of one another until there's a payoff, or something that is deeper and more meaningful when it is revealed, or a piece of comic relief. Or I sort of attempt to create a mood of deepening menace, mirth, weirdness, importance or verbal aestheticism, which eventually builds into a level of maximum intensity, madness or meaning. I don't deflate the tension after unless the climax will tend to do that; I just move on to the next topic.

    I do this because I envision my likely readers to be 50% GMs and 50% people just reading for pleasure. I count on the GM being able to interpret the informational needs of the players and to use bits of my prose as is appropriate. I rely on the GM to fill in whitespace with their existing RPG backdrop schematics; if I haven't mentioned it, then they can determine it. If something doesn't support the 50% people just reading for pleasure, I tend to leave it out (though I sometimes include breathers). That all combined with the degree to which my adventures rely on light rules and GM discretion means that they're not really suitable for beginners.

    I feel that way about rules-light gaming in general; I think it's good to cut your teeth on a disciplined system with round-based combat and detailed character advancement so that you can understand what those systems emphasize and what they offer to players which might be opaque to a GM since he's not playing from a subjective perspective. It's a common criticism of storygames that they neglect pleasures like strategic combat or tinkering with your character chassis. Systems that minimize fiat and emphasize mathematical resolution are good for a beginning GM because they give those things to players but also shield them from the GM's mistakes while he learns his craft.

    Later on, once you learn the kinds of things that are actually pleasurable for players, you can strip down the rules a bit and give them the combat and character planning experiences they love but a thousand times faster, more adaptive, and in contexts that were previously denied by the realities of the rulesets.

    1. Yes I also do it by feel, and doing it by feel isn't necessarily bad if it involves a largel cluster of mutually-interacting complex fields of information at roughly the same level of hierarchy and imagined through the human life-world. Thats an area where intuition can work pretty well. But still I would like to try to understand better how my intuition works.

  6. Reflecting on how I approach descriptive text when I’m writing it for someone else... I wonder if the two guiding principles I follow are ‘what get’s noticed first’ and then ‘move from whole to part’ e.g. The lake of purple goo, the bridge over it, the lever operating the bridge. If something is hidden and instrumental (e.g the lever is trapped) then perhaps it’s better to finish with that information because it means it’s hopefully at the forefront of a GM’s mind when they transition into running the room/encounter.

    Two ships locked in cannon-warfare, a kitchen, an abandoned hut. Just the title alone will do 90% of the descriptive work for the GM, so it is efficient and logical to start there and then fill in the specifics.
    It also allows each player to imagine it as is most intuitive for them but still be able to interact with the encounter together according to consensus.

    Speaking of consensus, it is a great technique to pack a ton of assumed information into the mind. A player can describe taking a frying pan from the kitchen even if the GM didn't specify it has any.