Blog Post of Note: Description on Demand

I want to bring your attention to this excellent post by Justin at The Alexandrian. Justin brilliantly describes something he calls “Description on Demand.” This practice is when a player is given control over parts of the game world other than their character. In a conventional RPG, this is a game master technique where instead of describing what happens, the game master asks the player to improvise what happens. One example is when a character of mine died from a poison gas trap on a chest and the DM asked me to narrate his final moments.

In conventional RPG’s the player is only in control over the actions of their character and perhaps a henchman or animal companion/familiar. “Description on demand” can be a feature (mechanism?) of many so called “storytelling” or sometimes more typical role playing games.

Here’s the money quote,

Description-on-demand tends to be a fad that periodically cycles through the RPG meme-sphere. When it does so, the general perception seems to be that every player thinks this is the greatest thing since chocolate-dipped donuts.

So let’s start there: This is not true. Many players do love it. But many players DO NOT. In fact, a lot of players hate it. There are a significant number of players for whom this is antithetical to the entire reason they want to play an RPG and it will literally ruin the game for them.

GM Don’t List #11: Description-on-Demand

I am one of those players. I despise this technique. This is especially the case when I’m playing a game like Dungeons and Dragons or Call of Cthulu where the point of the game is for the player to discover what or why something is happening. Tension is built in the game going toward the reveal. Which cult is behind the horrible murders? Where is the treasure? What will the treasure be? If my character opens a treasure chest and the DM asks me, “So what’s in it?” My character will run to the nearest pit trap and jump in head first. Awful.

I don’t like it when it is built into a game either. Unless everyone playing the game is very practiced at improvisation, these games are a muddled mess. One player introduces something, and then another player introduces something contrary and contradictory and everyone at the table but me is like, “Oh, how clever.” I’m gritting my teeth and getting a tension headache as I try to make some sense out of it. I tolerate this approach when it is a relatively minor aspect of the game. Some of the ways you can use “bennies” in Savage Worlds fall into this category but I can just tolerate it.

Now before you go, “Have you tried this game?” I have played some of the so called “story games” with designers and hard core story game hobbyists. I played with the darlings of the story game/independent RPG scene who live in a cluster out in Western Massachusetts. They have frequent game days and their own convention. I tried. I played, in earnest. I bought some of these games. I read them through and I gave it an honest attempt. I just don’t like games that are heavy on improvised player control over elements of the game world/setting/events.

There is one version of this technique that I can get behind. Players will often ask if something exists or available. This is a form of player improvisation where the player is introducing the idea that there could be a big rock they can drop on a bad guy from above, a loose board concealing a hiding spot for a treasure or skilled blacksmith who can fabricate some contraption for the party. This is fine because it is initiated by the player and the player is asking, “Does this exist.” The game master is not asking the player to decide what exists.

I know some people love player narrative control, description on demand or whatever you want to call it. Its their jam and that is great, for them.

I am not one of those people.

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