Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Ditch the Purple Prose

I haven't played D&D in more than a month and I've done damn little work on the subject...and damn little writing here. C'est la vie.

I tried a little experiment at the last running I gave, back around the last weekend of July, in which I attempted to provide a little of the purple descriptions that accompany most published material from the fantasy universe: "As you slash your way through the forest, feet growing cold from the snow that lays two feet deep on either side of the broken trail, the stygian darkness on either side of the party seems to close in, to suggest that something evil and unnamed dwells deep within, preparing to strike without warning..."

Whereupon I was pelted with peanuts, potato chips, empty pop-cans, all to the accompaniment of groans and pleadings for me to cease. I tried several times, always with the same response. Seems that my players would rather get down to the business of playing, and fuck all the mood shit.

Now, I know there are some out there who are all about the mood. But I have to agree with my players on this one. I can't be bothered, really, to extensively write out descriptive paragraphs that don't actually move the game along, particularly if they're not likely to be appreciated. And--just for the record--what other game outside of a role-playing game even considers the mood?

I have played poker under every condition imaginable. In train stations and on trains, on school desks, while minding tables set up at open houses, in community centers and in living rooms. I can't remember, EVER, anyone suggesting that we should dress up or change the lighting, just to make it seem MORE like poker. I would have to say the same goes for bridge, chess and baseball. In the last example, we may put on uniforms, but that's so we can tell who is who, NOT to enhance the game.

Some might argue that razzing the batter falls under the category of mood enhancement, but really I've considered everyone who ever did that was a fuckwit of the first order...the last league I played in didn't allow it.

Why, why, why can't D&D stand on its own merits? Why does it need any show?

For me, arguing that the game shouldn't just be about rolling dice is along the same line that poker shouldn't just be about cards. The dice are not just rolling about for no reason--each throw has a significance. I don't think any of my players really give a shit about the mechanics of it...they are too wrapped up in what the die says, than in being exhausted at having to pick it up to throw again.

No, seriously. To hear some talk about it, you would think that we all sit around the table thinking, "Oh damn, I have to roll AGAIN to attack? Can't I do something else?"

I don't know what games you people out there play, but I have players who are on the edge of their seat waiting for their chance to swing, to find out if they kill the rat bastard lycanthrope or if they're going to risk another round of damage and disease. Maybe its the way I play, I don't know...but I don't find I have to spend a lot of time explaining the color of the wererat's fur. It's usually enough for the story when the party discovers the town ratcatcher who has been "overwhelmed" by the rat population turns out to be the cause of it all.

Mood? I'll tell you what mood is. It's having an angry, bloodthirsty party screaming, "KILL HIM! I smash the motherfucker with my MACE!"

All the cheesy descriptive paragraphs in the world won't match that kind of emotion.


KenHR said...

I was never one for mood lighting, costumes or accents - as a matter of fact I think that's something else entirely from the stuff you started off with - but...

Setting the mood can be important in an RPG session, sometimes. I think your experiment was doomed to failure because you consciously went down the purple path. Mood can effectively conveyed through a few well-chosen words or details without resorting to archaic phrasings, laundry lists of adjectives, etc.

As every good writer knows, brevity is where it's at. And you're a very good writer, from what I see on this blog. :)

I usually make a couple notes about a location's appearance, smell, unusual noises, etc. before a session. But I rarely use them all in a single piece of description. I'll incorporate them off-the-cuff into a description. The trick is to think of yourself in the situation at hand - just for a split second - and describe what you most "noticed" in that time.

So, to use the example you started with: it's dark, they're in a forest. I'd mention the depth of the snow and the fact that it's an ass pain to walk through. All that stuff about suggesting evil and the like isn't needed. Just describe what is; your players will make the mood.

All that said (sorry this is so long), I'm in about 90% agreement with you on this. I don't think long descriptive passages are necessary very often. They're great to kick off a session or describe an unusual location, but stick to the play once the play begins in earnest.

Anonymous said...

I don't think the dice are as important to D&D as a strong and vivid imagination is. The stronger your imagination is the less you need purple prose and mood to begin with.


Bard said...

Writing, and speaking is different. And every DM is different. There are DM-s, who can improvise beautiful descriptions, and who can set the mood with words. And there are others, who barely can speak. Who can speak only about technicalities of the game. room 10x10, in there a gomblin with knife. little Torchlight. Big table. etc. But maybe while they are telling the players this, they have a smile what is frightening... So every DM should do what suits him/her, he should use the communication form what works for him and his players.

Alexis said...

Yes, every DM is different. Therefore, you wouldn't want to consider any new points of view, or reexamine any part of yourself, because you are unique in a beautiful, lovely, perfect way. There's no reason whatsoever why you shouldn't just go on doing exactly what you're doing, because being different is enough; enough for you, anyway.

Dark Lady Alice said...


I personally have played with both and found that regardless of the purple speak, the game play has been affected by it. DMs that may have incredible descriptions pay less attention to actual gameplay, and once description is removed, there's only really twenty minutes in a four hour session worth of play.

A lot of the game is supposed to be played. It's not theatre, and too many people choose to treat it as so. I would rather play a game that would be captivating becuase of game play rather than read a book with dice involved.

Carl said...

Your players throw stuff at you? I'm jealous. Mine just give me blank stares when I try to set the mood with purple prose. This is usually followed with deadpan queries like, "So, do we roll for initiative or what?" And, "Have you been reading Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser again?"

They don't mind if I embellish a little on fight choreography as long as I keep it brief. I've found that a little embellishment here and there can help to build tension and excitement. Overdoing it runs the risk of taking control from the players.

What is it with late spring through early autumn? All my players want to play but none of them can schedule a game, so our next game is set for the middle of October. Sounds like you have a similar deal going on.

How's your leg?

Alexis said...

The leg is fine. Two weeks more and I can ditch the brace and the crutch.

My players are pissed that we haven't played in seven weeks on account of my injury, summer or no. Though two of them had a personal conflict and I think I've lost the cleric. I have yet to see.

We wouldn't have stopped playing if I hadn't fucked myself.