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:
- The physical aspects of the scene
- The characters or monsters present and visible
- Sounds, smells, and lighting
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
- Paper is stacked on pallets.
- Set of tools a printer might use.
- Propaganda pamphlets, booklets and broadsheets.
- Behind crates and barrels a wood box; a casket.
- If Daylight, contains sleeping form of human with hardened features and pale skin, dressed as courtier of Iberian peninsula
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?