This is a response to Chris Kutalik’s latest post on the difficulties of wilderness description. Chris identifies a few guidelines for what to do/not to do, which really boils down to:
1. know the context/ecology of the place, not just the terrain type
2. play up the mood
3. short lists of details
4. keep it brief.
I’d add that it’s important to concentrate on what’s interactive. As a player I am always listening out for
(a) what’s going to kill me,
(b) what I can do in the environment to survive,
(c) how I might make a difference/explore/get into trouble.
You tell me the view from this mountaintop is majestic and I can see the Valley of the Elk spread out before me. I’m wondering how exposed I am to missile fire and/or freezing rain. If I feel safe enough I’ll try to draw a map for later.
Description is important, of course: it brings the game alive and helps to make memorable scenes. It lends meaning to the tedious business of rolling dice. In terms of interaction, it colours the players’ options and priorities and their sense of what behaviours are appropriate. It can give players a sense of urgency or creeping dread.
But consider how the dungeon is purpose-built for getting out of the way. It’s (by default) a shorthand background environment that allows the action to take center stage. If you make a point of bringing it into the foreground, it can still be reduced to a small set of signs which will affect tactical play (slippery floor, cover from rocks, sloping corridor suitable for rolling Indiana Jones boulders down).
If something is non-interactive (ie it doesn’t present me with choices to make) – even if it’s mechanically important but I don’t feel I can do anything about it – then I tune it out to concentrate on what I can do. If my PC falls in the North Sea I know the water is cold and I have a very limited time to act or I’ll die. But that means I’ll ask for something to grab onto or swim toward to get out of danger. As a player and as a PC I can’t afford to spend time living and feeling the experience of hypothermia: I need to try to puzzle out what I missed in the initial description that I could possibly use now.
So I try to make my wildernesses into fairly clear challenge environments you’d want to prepare for and that demand action, where equipment is important and damage or degradation of that equipment changes your options – deserts that limit your movement to the water you can carry, trails that get too rough for your horse, snow you can lose the little ones in. My guides for description are Redmond o’Hanlon and Bruce Chatwin,* who spend quite a bit of time talking about the small annoyances of travel in a way that places you in the situation with them and can give players something to react to.
Carcosa Wacky Races was the first thing I ran after a 10+ year hiatus – a PbP, pvp deathrace across (to borrow Jeff Rients’ memorable phrase) an electroluminescent hellscape. Each turn I wanted to present a new environment. My rules were that every turn there should be something that could be used for tactical advantage against other players, something you could choose to explore, and some meaningful choice to make even if you stuck to the straight path and remembered you were racing. Thus:
After several flat miles the glass plain in front angles abruptly upward to a high ridge line. The contrast on the other side is shocking: a series of diminishing ridges stretches away ahead, and in between the glass looks like it’s been hammered repeatedly by some titanic force – giant jagged shards of glass and rock stick up at crazy angles, creating treacherous caves and deadfalls – it’s definitely rough terrain.
Cutting through it all, more or less on your path, there’s a channel or canyon that looks smooth from up on the ridge – but it’s also indistinct – there’s some kind of purple mist obscuring the ground in there.
Lurching somnambulent figures dot the landscape – they all seem to be naked women. And farther off some kind of emaciated lupine figures loping and sniffing among the wreckage of the land. And as you watch, a few miles off to the right you can see some weird red scalloped thing like a cloud or a rock formation suddenly rise up into the sky.
Turn 4: Watchtowers
[night has fallen, revealing that the plain of glass emits a green glow]
The canyon and the broken plain come to an abrupt end in a 200 foot cliff, overlooking a narrow rift valley. Overhanging the edge of the cliff there is a cascade of travertines with grooved, smooth depressions cut across them, zigzagging lazily down all the way to the valley floor.
And now you can see what made the canyon you’ve been racing down – a giant glassworm rears up from the valley, almost to your height, its white-hot interior visible through its open mouth and translucent sides.
That’s not the only source of illumination down there, though – to the left, raised a little off the valley floor, a pool of some black liquid is writhing and burning, throwing out oily clouds down the valley. A few vehicles are turned over around the pool’s edge and four more glassworms are roiling and crashing around it, stamping great holes in the ground, making the rhythmic thud, thud, thud you heard last turn. From your high vantage you can see another black pool behind a high stone barricade wall off to the right, with a few men atop it, apparently trying to hold the glassworms off with some kind of glowing sticks. Several trucks carrying fuel barrels have been left along the margin of the latter pool – it looks like the men were collecting the contents of the pool when the glassworms attacked.
On the far side of the pools rises an enormous shield wall with regularly-spaced watchtowers along it. Behind the wall of towers the ground continues to rise into craggy, dry mountains. And because the valley is lit up by the fires, you can see that its floor is covered entirely with stone and plaster cairns and domes.
Your destination lies across the valley and beyond the wall. You can crawl or bump down the travertines, taking care not to go too near the outer edge, and then either pick your way across the cairns on the valley floor or use a spindly rope suspension bridge maybe 30 feet above them. On the far side there are two visible means to climbing the shield wall – either via another molten glass channel which runs diagonally up the wall behind the glassworms, or up a steep slope of loose scree, punctuated by bits of broken watchtower, where a section of wall has collapsed. Going up the scree looks treacherous but, unlike the channel, it doesn’t take you right past the worms. If you want to get to the pool that’s being guarded by the men, there are short roads leading from the valley floor and from the bridge to a gate-tower in the barricade wall. The gate tower’s not at the battlefront with the worms, but it might be by the time you get there.
Those of you who raced down the canyon and breathed in the purple mist can see, close at hand, occasional red eye-shine from the women climbing single-mindedly up the travertines to stalk away across the valley. And here and there, just maybe, if it’s not a trick of the light, some green eye-shine too.
* Seriously go and read Chatwin right now. One of the best bits of news I have ever heard – goats are forbidden on board. In the air by seven o’clock. Seen from above the desert is alternately white and golden orange. Ancient dunes now sprouting with meagre vegetation.
Land the greenish ochre colour of a lion. Villages like mushrooms. Skeletal trees in the heat haze.
…Mosquitoes bit the hard parts of my fingers.
The Governor. Small moustache. Sad decadent eyes. Reclines instead of sits. White robes. Masseur. Chinese pills, French pills, Swiss pills, decongestants. His servants claim their wages are six months in arrears.
**On Chris’ G+ thread the author of Legacy of the Bieth mentioned ibn Battuta, reminding me that outside Tolkien travel tends to be to inhabited places, which allow for NPCs to tell you (in “pay attention here be tactical info” mode) about the dangers up ahead, in a voice that prepares you to watch out for the cleft in the rocks and the slippery, weed-lined causeways.