Game Tips03/30/2004

Setting the Scene

One of the most basic jobs of a GM is to set the scene that the PCs interact with. Unfortunately, most adventures do not have the time to set the entire scene for you, leaving you, the GM, with a number of important questions to answer and gaps to fill. Take the following example.

This small chamber was once a prison cell with two entrances. Inside the room is a single orc, positioned here to guard the way. He fights the PCs to the death.

This extraordinarily simple encounter can be handled a multitude of different ways. Most of it depends on the context and mood of the rest of the event. Identifying the type of event, the mood of the encounter, the flavor of the area, and the disposition of your players, can turn the above example into a seamless part of the adventure. One of the best ways to approach this, as a GM is to look for the theme first, then alter/add the little details to make the encounter fit the theme. Most adventures fall into the category of sword and sorcery, high adventure type plots, which might make the above example something like this:

“The door swings open revealing a cramped chamber lit by only one flickering torch. On the far side of the room is a filthy orc standing guard. Looking at you with contempt, he snarls, raises his scimitar high and charges!”

This takes the simple encounter, and turns it into a situation of immediate action. The other details are kept to a minimum so that the action is stressed and not cluttered by unnecessary detail. However, this does not work for all adventure themes. Some Living Greyhawk adventures focus on a suspense or horror driven plot. In one of those adventures, the above encounter might sound more like this:

“With a slow creak the door swings open into a chamber full of shadows. Rusted manacles hang from the wall, stained a deep crimson. From the shadows comes a snarl as a vicious orc wearing ratty fur steps into view, a cruel rusted scimitar ready in his gnarled hands. Scars cross his face but do not hide his building rage.”

Here the details are much more in focus, their evil purpose much more apparent. The orc is more of a nasty inhuman beast who would just as soon devour the PCs as chop their heads off. The details presented here are only slightly embellished from the base, but add a sense of dread to an otherwise boring room.

Another common theme is the light-hearted adventure. These are less common than the previous two, but no less valid. Often times a high adventure plot can easily become a light hearted adventure, depending upon the mood of your players. In a light-hearted adventure, the above encounter might be described thusly:

“The door swings open revealing a small chamber that was once a cell of some sort. Against the far wall is an orc, half-asleep while precariously reclining on a rickety chair. Drool running down his chin, he snaps out of his slumber and looks at you with an angry glare. Apparently, you have interrupted his nap.”

Here, the details are turned into a more comedic scene of an orc trying to take a nap while on duty. While it still ends in a combat, the feel is much different than those presented above. Gone are the bloodstained manacles and the rage. The only details that matter here are those that keep the situation light and fun while still portraying the scene.

When describing a scene, remember that little details can go a long way in altering the mood and tone of a location. While the bad guys and traps are certainly vital, it’s the sights, sounds, smells, and textures that make an encounter rich and memorable. The author does not have the space to give all of these little details to you, so a little embellishment can go a long way.

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