Describing A Scene

October 14, 2022 See All Posts


I've been game mastering since D&D in middle school circa the year 2000, starting with 3.5e. Throughout my GM career, I've made a lot of bad adventures, and run a lot of published modules. I think, especially when learning a new system, that it's good to understand how the veterans of that system use it to design adventures before going off and doing your own thing.

One of the things that kept me from trying out GURPS was the lack of lengthy published adventures and brimming bestiaries. Paizo, for instance, routinely publishes adventure paths that take players from the beginning of the game to max level, and they take most groups over a year to get through (if they ever do). Yet, you still need random encounters and wandering monsters and improvise for when things get off the rails, and for that you need some sort of bestiary. As far as I could tell about GURPS, it didn't have either of those things.

Then I found saw an advert for the nordlond bestiary which, at a higher pledge level, included a whole slew of adventures, in the setting. Gaming Ballistic was stepping up and providing both answers to my fundamental problem. Sold.

My group picked up DFRPG, I tried to absorb the rules, and then ran I Smell a Rat, the included dungeon as a tutorial to the system. In the background, I began preparing Hall of Judgment, which is the adventure geared toward fresh 250-point characters.

The rest of the post will detail the prep that I did, and list out pain points I had in parsing the text. I provide this so that others can copy my work, and potentially know that you aren't alone in your confusion.

Note: I think it is of the utmost importance to point out that I highly respect Douglas Cole and the whole Gaming Ballistic crew. I've asked a ton of questions about the adventure and the setting and the kind folks over there have limitless patience. None of what follows is meant to be in any way insulting or a complaint.

A Note On Content

This post is going to be heavy on theory. If you're not interested in my thoughts on how Scene writing can be optimized to streamline prep for GMs, or how read-aloud text can be optimized for player engagement and pacing, feel free to skip this post straight to the application of this theory in Rewriting Logiheimli.

2022-10-20 Edit: Digging a little deeper into the alexandrian, it seems that Justin beat me to the punch by about 8 years with his series on the art of the key. We arrive at almost exactly the same solution, using almost exactly the same format!


You may have noticed in my post on isfjall, that I kept using the word Scene. We needed an opening scene, a scene where Geirolf gave the heroes the quest, a scene for the town encounters, a scene for the shops, and so on. The Scene concept is fundamental to understanding what's actually going on in a TTRPG (or any narrative, really), and the angry gm goes further in depth (using more words) than I want to on the topic.

The idea is that as the GM, you're ever only giving the players two things: scenes and scene transitions. In a scene, you provide the establishing shot, flesh out the details, and then your players play in it. Eventually, you close the scene and based on what happens, you transition to a new scene.

When thought of this way, you provide the establishing shot of the adventure in your opening speech; it gives context to the setting and lets the players know where they are and what's going on. Then, you zoom in and describe the specific scene where they are, and tend to ask "what do you do?". Say you described the players as having gotten off at the docks, and just made it to the market square. They tell you that they want to find an Inn. You might say:

After exploring the town briefly, and asking some locals for guidance


You're directed to a newly constructed two-story brick building with a wooden sign depicting a sentient bow yelling at an annoyed scout. The inn declares itself to be "The Raving Bow". It seems this section of town built up not out. Even with two stories, the cots are in the cozy main room. The smell of venison ribs in some sort of wine marinade floats in from the very nearby kitchen.

The "town square" scene transitioned to the "raving bow" scene. In places where movement is free and time isn't carefully tracked, scenes are often very interconnected, so rather than writing out scene transitions ahead of time, it usually makes more sense to list out what scenes are in an area and then improvise your transitions.

However, in a place like Logiheimli, a Dungeon, movement is very restricted, they'll tend to be in one scene for a long time. Each scene only connects to a few other scenes. It becomes possible to make a flow chart of how these scenes connect.

For instance, say they approach Logiheimli. Approaching Logiheimli would have a description (read-aloud text), and then the players can either check out the fortress or the barrow. So the Logiheimli Approach is connected to the Barrow Door and the Fortress Gate.

The Barrow Door also needs a description, and players can go back to the Logiheimli Approach, or venture inside to the Barrow Tunnel. In the tunnel, they can go North to the Tomb of the Honored Questors, or South to the Villager's Rest, West to the Sturdy Door, or East back to The Barrow Door.

Once this mental model is ingrained, you can start thinking about how to tell a GM (or how a GM can tell themselves) what's in a scene. Then, the GM can tell the players what's in a scene.

Coding a Scene

In another angrygm article, the author gives a procedure for how to code a scene. The article itself is worth reading, but in summary your players need the GM to tell them:

The GM additionally needs

Example 1: Barrow Tunnel

The damp, dark tunnel meandering west into the tomb is lined with torch-holders, but the torches have long since rotted away. The decrepit remains of the holders are placed every three or four paces. Further down the passage is a intersection of another tunnel running north-to-south; the main passage continues to the west before ending in a sturdy looking door. Standing in the middle of the intersection is a vertical stone marker chiseled with ancient runes. A pale green light glows from the both the northern and southern passage.

The ordering of this text is both specific and important. It always begins with the establishing shot, which is your time to get fancy with the prose and pull out your vocab. Then, it talks about the exits (connections to other scenes). Then, it talks about the interactables, which are things the players can key in on.

The players, too, have been told in advance that this is the structure. They know that all the details up until the GM starts talking about the exits are part of the setting, not stuff to distract them.

They're free to fill their sacks with rotten torches or poke and prod at every rusted torch-holder, but they are, and will always be, just as insignificant as every rock or square-foot section of cave wall.

Then, we get to the exits and interactables, and that removes the sense of analysis paralysis that lots of players have. In a scene like the Barrow Tunnel, you can:

Always writing the scene this way provides structure for the players, and really helps with the pacing. It keeps the players from getting lost in descriptions, and that's extremely important when playing a game that's based on deliberate interaction. DFE19 Writes:

The GM may wait for a player to declare that she’s looking behind the curtain or whatever – so pay attention when the GM describes each area!

Here's some examples of this in action from I Smell a Rat:

Once the altar is cleansed – before that, if the looters don’t mind being cursed – it can be searched. An unconcealed compartment within holds a diabolical-looking sacrificial dagger. -DFD11

If greedy looters think to strip the metallic sheeting off the double doors, they can make off with 20 lbs. of coin-purity copper. -DFD16

Games like DnD5e or Pathfinder take the opposite approach. Your characters have some sort of perception score. You tell the GM "I want to search the room". Your GM rolls against perception to see if you find the goodies hidden in the room or not. You don't say "I search the room", then fail your perception, then say "I want to search under the bed, I want to search behind the curtains, I want to investigate the runes on the obelisk." All of that was abstracted in your "I want to search the room" roll.

Here, there is no "I want to search the room" skill. You listen for things you'd like to investigate specifically, and if you choose to investigate them, you probably find them. Sometimes, they're especially well hidden, and then we're rolling dice.

That also means that GMs need 3 sorts of interactables:

If every interactable is some sort of treasure waiting to be found, then it's boring; there's no more player choice. They just listen to your description, parrot back the last thing you said, and collect treasure. You need to create risk and tension.

Thus, sometimes the stuff we give them to mess with they really ought to leave alone (punishing interactables), and some of the stuff needs to be interesting but useless. They're waiting to find out if the thing is good or bad, and it's neither, and that builds tension for the next thing. Courtney Campbell's Tricks, Empty Rooms & Basic Trap Design practically wrote a thesis on the concept, and I wholeheartedly encourage everyone to read it; especially the chapter on Empty Rooms.

With all the theory out of the way, what does our whole Scene look like?

Barrow Tunnel

The damp, dark tunnel meandering west into the tomb is lined with torch-holders, but the torches have long since rotted away. The decrepit remains of the holders are placed every three or four paces. Further down the passage is a intersection of another tunnel running north-to-south; the main passage continues to the west before ending in a sturdy looking door. Standing in the middle of the intersection is a vertical stone marker chiseled with ancient runes. A pale green light glows from the both the northern and southern passage.

Example 2: Livestock Enclosure

You see an "enclosure" marked only by stone posts, some collapsed, some still present. Whatever fencing or roofing that used to protect the animals of Logiheimli have long since disintegrated. The rest of the Logiheimli Fortress is to the Northwest. While no structures still stand, the remnants of the livestock itself, in the form of skeletal remains, can be seen.

Reviewing the Examples

Hopefully these examples illustrate a major difference in the way that Hall of Judgment (and modules in general) is explained to the GM, and the way that I advocate for authors (and GMs) to explain scenes. The fun, flowery language and complicated prose is for the players. The GM needs short, clear instructions. It mirrors how screenwriters will write a screenplay for directors and actors; terse and informational, but then the performance of that art is anything but.

For one last example of this, check out how "6. Ritual Chamber" is explained on DFD10-11. Really read through it, and try to figure out what you'd say as your players enter the door; how you'd run the combat with the peshkali; whether you remembered about the incidental damage to the tapestry that releases the zombies, the potential smell checks, the low sanctity; whether you remembered to secretly check for all of those things.

Now check this out:

6. Ritual Chamber

You enter into a large, square chamber with soaring, vaulted ceilings, all of it evenly cast in a light of a blood-red hue. The lines cut out of the stone to form the room are perfect and angular; a hallmark of magical architecture.

The rune-lined tunnel proceeds to the North, while a blasted out section of wall in the South marks the entrance to a rough tunnel. The blood-red hue is emanating from three danging lanterns high above.

In front of the tunnel lies an ominous, large, blood-stained stone altar. A black curtain is draped against the eastern wall, while a huge painting depicting demonic depravities graces the western wall.

Importantly, in front of the altar resides a being. It's top half is that of a feminine warrior with six arms and golden skin. It's bottom half is that of a massive snake. In each of its six hands, it bears a cutlass. It does not appreciate your intrusion.

Hopefully this is convincing! Hopefully GMs, Authors, and players find the format useful. I know I do!