Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Description and the World (or, 'how big is a Snattacat?')

Should a dragon be 'as big as a double decker bus'? Should a description of the Temple of Slangg draw directly on the players' and referee's knowledge of what the real Catal Huyuk or the Parthenon? Or even on shared knowledge of other fictional worlds? Does rely on these descriptive shorthands break immersion (well, yes, they probably do), or does describing the world is such terms aid agency by giving players the solid foundations upon which to base decisions? 

Referees: How much of the real world intrudes on the descriptions of the world that you provide to the players?

Players: How much of the real world should be present in the descriptions provided by the referee?

 "You're waiting in the rain for ages, and then four dragons appear at once. Unfortunately, you don't have the correct change... Your adventure ends here."


  1. A very good point. I'd not get away with using real world terms in a fantasy novel so why should I do it in a fantasy game?

    1. But if reader one imagines your dark temple one way, and reader two another, that is not necessarily a problem. Readers don't direct the action of the protagonists*. If two players are imagining different things it might well impede their ability to have their characters act, to make meaningful decisions. Worse, if the players are imagining something different to the referee...

      *Except in gamebooks, and in that case, the description isn't being delivered off the cuff, but with the benefit of as much consideration as is necessary.

    2. Also, how far do you go? Can you use 'metres' in Greyhawk? Do 'Doric' columns exist in Glorantha? Can architecture in a fantasy world be 'Cyclopean'? I know it sounds silly to suggest that we couldn't use these words, they refer to specific real world things which do not exist in these fantasy worlds.

      So, arguing (perhaps as Devil's Advocate) for allowing any and all real world references to be acceptable, I'd say that when I say to a player that the dragon is as big as a double decker bus, it is meant to be giving him the capacity to make a decision on the behalf of his character. The character, of course, sees the Dragon as being as big as Old Barrow Hill, or as tall as the Sacrifice Oak, or whatever. But in order for the players to make a decision, they need the size of the hill, or the tree, translated.

      At in the end, it all comes back to buses...

  2. I'm an extremist by the sounds of it, my preference is for as few real world terms allowed as possible, either as a GM or a player. :)

    So that would be paces, fluted columns and rough-hewn limestone boulders. :D

    1. Why not give the Dragon a comparison in the descriptive; the mighty beast lumbers out from the adjoining cavern and pauses next to the tentacled statue. Though the sculpted figure is fully ten paces tall, when the Dragon sees you and rears up it towers at least twice that height!

  3. An extremist? No, a better referee - I'd rather provide all my descriptions as if they were passages from a novel. Instead I burble on about various modes of public transport.

  4. I tend to mix and match. The problem with using purely in game references is that you have the following problem:

    GM: The Dragon is as big as a cottage!

    Player 1: Is that one of the half-timbered cottages in the last village, or the stone ones from last month?

    Player 2: Do you mean a 1 floor or 2 floor cottage? The ones with the steep roof or shallow roof?

    Player 3: Are we including chimneys here?

    Player 1: That Ogre's cottage was pretty big!

    GM: Ok, it is as big as a bus.

    Players: Aah, that big eh?

    There is a reason newspapers describe sizes in terms of buses, football pitches, Wales etc. People can easily and quickly relate to them.
    If a paper said that rainforest equal to 2% of the Brazilian state of Amapa was cut down each year, no-one in the UK would have a clue what you were talking about. If you say it is the size of Wales, everyone knows what you are talking about.