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D&D Burgoo: Set that scene

Bullet points.

Short bursts of information.

Direct. Succinct. Descriptive. Engaging.

It’s been nearly a year since I first read Charles M. Ryan’s blog post “Putting a Bullet in Descriptive Text.” In it, he describes how bullet-point Powerpoint presentations brought him around to incorporating the approach in his rpg adventure writing. Since then, I’ve used the method in my own game, and have been largely pleased.

Mr. Ryan knows of what he speaks. He’s worked in the rpg industry as an illustrator, graphic artist, designer and editor. If you have rpg sourcebook or rulebook from a major game company in the last 10 years (but especially Wizards of the Coast during the Third Edition era), don’t be surprised if you find his name somewhere in the credits.

The heart of what he writes is this: Descriptive text (or boxed text in published adventures), the information given to the PCs before an encounter begins, is too prosaic. (Writers love to write, after all.)

Instead of a dense paragraph, staccato hits that give the PCs an impression of the encounter before them, is all that’s needed. It’s information that should be given in a seemingly extemporaneous way.

Without preamble, bullet points introduce the PCs to the following types of information, which I quote directly from his post:

For practiced GMs, there is little new here. Many GMs work off notes done the same way, though, perhaps without giving thought to its technique, as such. Imagine a GM working off a large map, with a yellow Post-It slapped on the relevant section, which reads. Here’s one from an adventure I ran, in which the PCs infiltrated the underground hideout of political dissidents.

B6. Paper Storage

Hmmmm. Did any one bring a cross and a wooden stake? Hopefully, the PCs are thinking just that.

Ryan offers encouragement. With a little repetition, this technique can become second nature.

My point, though, is broader: This is how publishing houses should also present adventures.

His practice is so simple and straightforward, it’s a wonder it hasn’t been embraced.

Neither Wizards of the Coast, which utilizes the (mostly) GM-friendly delve format, nor Paizo, which follows the more literary 2nd Edition approach presents descriptive text in so stark a fashion. It’s a matter of house style, I understand, but it makes sense on so many levels.

But primarily, bullet points aid the GM because the information being provided is bite-sized. It’s digestible by the players. They don’t have to process a dense paragraph. They get the most relevant information, boiled down.

Now, that’s something everyone at the table can work with.

So, is this an approach with appeal?

More importantly, what are the pitfalls for the PCs, as well as the GM administering the adventure?

And would you like to see published adventures using this method?

About  Troy E. Taylor

Troy's happiest when up to his elbows in plaster molds and craft paint, creating terrain and detailing minis for his home game. A career journalist and Werecabbages freelancer, he also claims mastery of his kettle grill, from which he serves up pizza to his wife and three children.

18 Comments (Open | Close)

18 Comments To "D&D Burgoo: Set that scene"

#1 Comment By Noumenon On November 30, 2011 @ 2:16 am

Doesn’t work for me at all. When I prep the adventure, this doesn’t help me imagine the room because it doesn’t read well. When I run the adventure, I’m going to have to supply all the words the bullets leave out: “In the corner, there’s a… stack of propaganda equipment”, but I’ll do it less artfully.

The linked article has an example of boxed text which he condenses down to bullets… and I prefer the boxed text. It is easier for me to leave out stuff that doesn’t matter at the table (like the boulders in the pasture at the left) than it is to supply stuff that’s not there and figure out how it all fits together.

Of course, I’m not very aware of my players, so I don’t know if they’re snoring through my boxed text or not…

#2 Comment By Erpegis On November 30, 2011 @ 3:54 am

This seems nice and all, but the order is reversed. That’s not how our brain processes its input.
First of all, start with movement. We’re geared towards sudden, unpredictable moves.
Second, describe the general colors and shapes.
Third, focus on any details that might destroy regular patterns – preferably before you describe said patterns. Again, we see broken rows before regular rows.
Then, focus on the visual and auditory details, finishing with the rest of the senses (smell, touch, temperature).

#3 Comment By Noumenon On November 30, 2011 @ 7:12 am

Erpegis, that might be how the visual system processes scenes, but I think the imagination might build things up in reverse (can’t really picture myself leading with the charging minotaur and then trying to tell people about the tables and fire pit)

#4 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On November 30, 2011 @ 7:55 am

I think one of the relevant points Mr. Ryan makes is — whether or not you adhere to his method — is that you should consider how information is perceived from the players’ point of view. And that, generally, they can only take in so much at a time, anyway. Breaking it down to the essential elements — embellishing later if need be — is a way of recognizing that. It’s been a long time since I sat in on a college lecture, but surely the best instructors find ways to deliver such information similarly: in bite sized chunks.

#5 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On November 30, 2011 @ 8:02 am

@Noumenon – I think you have struck on the one element that may be a pitfall of the approach: a particular GM’s ability to convey info “artfully” — as you put it well. Some tables have play styles that require more immersive, elaborate descriptions. Like many things, though, a GM’s technique will improve with practice.

#6 Comment By MonsterMike On November 30, 2011 @ 8:04 am

When writing my own games, I have come to prefer using bullet points, but my creative process is kind of odd. I like to use bullet points for setting the scene and also for describing information an NPC may drop. However, usually when I’m writing things up I _first_ write out the scene description in long prose. _Then_ I realize that I won’t want to read through all of that long prose at the table – I like to keep the action moving as fast as possible in games that I run. So I end up condensing the prose description to a few bullet points that I can improvise from on the fly. After all, I already have thought about the scene pretty completely in my head and just need a few bullets to remind me of all that.

A typical scene or “room” (using the term in the broad sense) usually has a few bullet points of description, a stat block for any monsters or NPC’s, a short list of difficulty levels for anything that is likely to be tried in the room (e.g. picking the lock), a bulleted list of information or clues the players might pick up, and any items they might find. Almost always less than 1 page. I try to pull any information out of rulebooks beforehand for the obvious skill checks that players might attempt, so they don’t have to be looked up at the table.

#7 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On November 30, 2011 @ 8:14 am

@MonsterMike – I don’t think that’s unusual at all. I think it’s right on the money. You still build the encounter for your use — and in any version of D&D you might be playing — that can involve a lot of information. (That’s why delve presentations are often 2 pages long). The distilling on the players’ behalf comes last.

#8 Comment By Razjah On November 30, 2011 @ 8:28 am

I haven’t been doing much prep because my players run around the world doing all sorts of things which leads to improvising whole scenes. But, my next campaign will be much more structured and this looks like a very good way to present information to the players.

I enjoy the timing of this article. Don’s article talked about character portaits, but the one link works great for scenes too. Now you talk about distilling. If you use pictures to add visualization, bulleted information for the other senses works wonders for infroming players.

#9 Comment By Roxysteve On November 30, 2011 @ 8:31 am

@MonsterMike – I’m with you. Write up first, then condense down so you have an aide memoir for the stuff you wrote longhand (which even I with my age-addled brain can pull back out after a few weeks of lying fallow while the PCs missed the point and faffed about instead of getting down to brass tacks).

In my Delta Green campaign (the only one of the four I’m running for which I originate all of the material) I often start with a mentally visualized scene – typically part of the reveal – and work back from that. Often the reveal I envisaged won’t happen, but I find if I work back from the most awesome thing I can think of, figure out how to make it as unobvious as possible for a “Sixth Sense” reveal to up the player payoff I can make a more engrossing adventure.

The bullet point stage is essential for recognizing and stifling that point when an NPC background goes encyclopedic – they often will not be alive or in the frame long enough for all that loveliness to be worth the effort.

I think the method describe by Troy would work just fine for a sandbox/Encounters style game though, where the details often only need to be superficial as they don’t need to be there for their own sake. In his example the pamphlets are only there to confirm the NPCs are political activists – there’s no need to actually write one. If this were a Call of Cthulhu game one might need partial texts from them because the fact of the pamphlets would only be part of the story in all likelihood.

It’s horses for courses. Since a GM must come to their own way of writing adventures, and since the nature of those adventures is open-ended (which in turn makes the details they contain open-ended) the most important skill a GM can get to grips with is learning how to write adventures *for the game they are playing at that time*. A high adventure game with lashings of combat and treasure will naturally have different author requirements than a game of courtly intrigue, where the rewards may be longer-term and less material.

But I think taking the bullet point idea and working with it is a sound basis for sorting out your GM thoughts in an in-game agile way.

#10 Comment By Roxysteve On November 30, 2011 @ 8:39 am

Troy, I think you need to switch to Savage Worlds. Then you’d get to see what a “plot point” adventure or campaign looks like.

That said, when I buy an adventure, I’m paying for detail. If I buy a bunch of bullet points I’m wasting my hard-earned cash. I can do my own bullet summary, which will be much more use because it will be optimized to my vision of what the adventure is about, not what the author thought which may be valid but may be blinkered and formulaic – I need to do considerable work on pre-printed adventures sometimes to lift them out of cliché-land; Azathoth forbid I get a bullet list based on that.

#11 Comment By Tomcollective On November 30, 2011 @ 10:48 am

I’m a writer. I only use bullet points when designing adventures.

I think that’s an important word: design. An adventure is not a novel, its an obstacle course. Or its improv theater. Neither need more than just a framework.

My adventure notes look like thought webs. Main ideas circled and connected to other ideas with lines. This gives me the best of all worlds: lots of detail, little verbosity. Just enough depth to enjoy the swim without feeling lost in an ocean.

#12 Comment By Lee Hanna On November 30, 2011 @ 10:54 am

@Noumenon: you’ve hit one of our group’s pet peeves. We find it incomprehensible that a room description does Not lead off with the charging minotaur! It’s certainly the first thing one would notice, in our opinions.

I try to lead off with lighting, then active things (read: monsters), then a quick description

Regarding bullet points, I think I like that, but I would add some detail that may or may not be used in the initial room/scene description. I’ve liked it when adventure writers include lighting (on/off, dim, red/blue/yellow, etc.) and whether or not doors are locked or open.

Either way, I think I will work on using them in the next writing I do. It will fit in with my adoption of index cards as scenes.

#13 Comment By Tsenn On November 30, 2011 @ 11:43 am

I was sketching out some notes, bullet point style, for the party’s ship in Rogue Trader. Afterwards, it strongly resembled a list of Fate aspects. Concise, but with options to expand in many directions.

#14 Comment By BryanB On November 30, 2011 @ 2:03 pm

@Tomcollective – I operate in pretty much the same way. I used to spend a lot of time writing up room descriptions and doing detailed maps or layouts. I found after twenty years that I could get by doing much less and still have a great gaming experience. I was very much lost in that ocean at times. An ocean that the players would only see 20% of anyway.

Nice article Troy. It summarizes what I generally do already. :)

#15 Comment By Tsenn On December 1, 2011 @ 3:54 am

Ok, I went off topic there. My location bullet points tend to be size and rough shape of the area, lighting, smells, and sounds to evoke atmosphere, and then a prominent feature, like a statue, pole dancers, or the three floor fountain that rises through the building.

#16 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On December 1, 2011 @ 7:58 am

@Tsenn – Pole dancers? What kind of rpg do you run for your group, pray tell.

#17 Comment By Scott Martin On December 1, 2011 @ 10:55 pm

For my own adventures, I tend toward bullet point reminders. I don’t mind a compact paragraph or two as box text in a module, but I have encountered… lengthy word blocks that really needed breakdown to bullets and high points.

#18 Comment By velox121 On June 20, 2012 @ 6:12 pm

@Lee Hanna and Noumenon
I think the difference between what Noumenon is getting at and what is being discussed is rising action and surprise. If the game benefits from having the group get charged by a minotaur the second they open the door, then that should certainly be the first thing described; it gets them right into the action, and they can start thinking about everything else in the room in the context of the fight with the minotaur. Players often prepare for danger just before opening doors, so this might be less-than surprising, but still exciting.
I think (but I have no idea, so this could be just me on a soapbox) what Nou’ is getting at (or has touched on) is surprise. It’s really cool and scary when the scene is slowly set, the details of the room described as if it were just a room, and then when the group becomes comfortable with the room, BOOM! A minotaur charges all over their face! This creates a different scene than the one above.