The Art of Wonder

Posted: March 27, 2012 by pointyman2000 in Advice, Articles, Roleplaying Games

Today’s article is a little bit of a companion piece to yesterday’s post on the art of describing brutal violence to achieve a given mood. Word choice and carefully considered descriptions while GMing is always a useful thing to pay attention to. Today, we’re looking at the art of establishing a sense of wonder.

But before that, why bother with wonder at all? Well, for one thing, RPGs benefit from having a strong sense of place. Vivid descriptions with attention to lavish details serve to give the player characters the necessary material by which to form an image in their heads of what kind of world their characters inhabit. It’s easy to forget that the worlds that we spend so much time thinking about during the planning phase is mostly a hazy image in the minds of the players.

It becomes important therefore for GMs to realize that the whole talk of “Show, Don’t Tell” really does make a whole lot of difference in this form of entertainment. Sure having a few visual aids help, but most of the heavy lifting still relies on a GM’s ability to convey the aesthetics and mood of a setting to their players by means of the spoken word.

So in order to help newer GMs with their games, here are a few tips to keep in mind when it comes to describing things in your game to help convey a sense of wonder:

  • Smell the Magic – I’m sure that many of you have heard that the sense of smell is very closely tied to memory. As such it’s easy to sketch out a huge amount of information by simply using scent. Describing a marketplace as “heady with the smell of spices” will paint a vastly different picture from a marketplace that is “Reeks of fresh and salted fish.”
  • What are you wearing? – Clothing choice is another great way to differentiate cultures and settings. A people well known for their culture of wearing colorful bandanas, or striking beadwork jewelry will give a strong and memorable impression. Many people go out of their way to show some flair with fashion, so focus on little details like filigree on jewels or the geometric patterns of a robe will further differentiate one NPC from another.
  • Panoramic sweeps are your friend – I think this is something that I tend to overuse now and then, but I do like describing a long establishing shot of a setting whenever the players enter a new and unexplored area. Describing the nature of the local flora, the architecture and the surrounding landscape in a panoramic view is a great way to set the tone of a location.
  • Play it again, Sam – Music is also a nice touch for a game. Some GMs have had great success with actually playing music in their games, but I find that my pathetic multi-tasking skills make it difficult for me to time it right. That said, knowing a few musical terms and genres help a lot, and an appreciation for world music is something that helps me with my games. Cultures that value a naked song without instrumentation would be very different from those who have elaborate orchestras and Opera houses.

These are but a few ways to polish your descriptions and lend your players a hand in understanding how a setting feels. Hopefully this will come in helpful for the newer GMs, and may serve as a reminder for other GMs like me who tend to get lazy with descriptions as the campaign goes on. I find that I often have to give myself a mental kick in the pants to make sure I don’t end up lazy.

  1. uncleasriel says:

    These are all highly effective methods of making your players buy the experience.

    I particularly like the playing with the non-visual senses, especially in Mage. The Tome of Mysteries recommended reading on synesthesia as a way of expressing the effects of resonance. I carry this forward to anytime an NPC’s nimbus flares. One of my villainous NPCs is a patient, proud giant of the path Mastigos, driven to uncover the secrets of awakening regardless of the moral costs (or who has to suffer). His nimbus, “the terrible stillness before a thunderstorm, a tension in your nostrils and down the hairs of your neck” stood out for my players, reminding f them that he was a powerful threat who bided his time, even (especially) when they had him cornered.

    I’ve found music to be excellent when subtly used, but I find I easily forget to play a cued up track when the players enter the expected scene. It has excellent prospects for mood-setting, provided it can work in subtly into the scene. (My PCs LOVED when I cued up the Kara no Kyoukai OST just as their characters began to Awaken. Things were less effective was when I played the Kill Bill theme when a comical NPC showed up asking to fight).

    Overall, these are very effective tactics: just be sure you remember to use them! (cue cards or timers work well here)

  2. thus the inspiration for my blog. the desire and interest in the art of wonder, every day.

  3. Hikkikomori says:

    Music always helps in foreshadowing.

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