Thursday, 19 March 2020

Useful Advice about Narrating and Describing

The topic of how to narrate and describe things as a DM came up in the comments to a recent post. It put me in mind of a topic that I have written about before - namely, the difference between skills which are primarily learned through explanation (reading and writing, speaking a new language as an adult learner, driving, most sport) and those which are primarily learned through introduction (law, philosophy, teaching, acting, creative writing).

In a nutshell, learning how to drive is a skill which you can for the large part learn from being directly taught a series of techniques such as how to change gears, how to do a three-point turn, how to parallel park, etc., combined with practice. This is what makes it mostly an explained skill.

Learning how to write fiction is a skill which you can only really learn by reading good fiction, combined with practice. You can't become a good writer by learning technical tricks. This is what makes it mostly an introduced skill.

For both types of skill you need a lot of practice to get good, and you need intuition and experience to do whatever it is well. But the former category is the type of thing that is amenable to being taught through a course and/or textbook, while the latter is the type of thing that can only really be taught by consistent informal exposure for a period of years. This is why there are useful textbooks on how to learn Romanian, but there are no useful textbooks on how to write fiction well. Romanian, like any other language, is mostly learned from putting into practice rules and techniques. Writing fiction well cannot be learned through a similar process (which is why 'how to write fiction that sells' type books are full of useless crap like, 'Write what you know' or 'Don't use adverbs', which no great novelist, or even bog-standard novelist, has ever actually followed).

Learning how to DM is in my view quite clearly much more like learning to write novels than it is like learning to drive. Yes, there are rules of thumb, and you will need to learn the rules of whatever game you're running, but what makes a good DM is mostly learned from watching others and from practice rather than from following technical guidelines or lists of 'best practices' or anything of that nature.

I am willing to be proved wrong, but I think in particular that the elements of DMing which concern describing and narrative events can't really be learned other than through watching good DMs and through practice. How to describe a fight scene in an exciting way? How to make wilderness travel interesting? How to make a scene, or a particular NPC, really 'come alive' in the players' minds? You have to do it a lot, reflect on what works and what doesn't, and watch other people who you think are good at DMing and reflect on that, too.


  1. I agree strongly. Even just looking at a single area (e.g. describing a fight scene in an exciting way) has endless depth and nuance to it (interweaving rolls and descriptions, being evocative and succinct at the same time, recognizing highs and lows, feeling when to embellish a moment versus giving a quick quip or a blurt of onomatopoeia, etc.). Nearly every rule has exceptions, nearly every guideline has a bevy of assumptions about tone and style hiding under it. You just have to do, reflect, and improve, forever.

  2. There's a hybrid method in between explained and introduced skills two where the two approaches are combined: watching a skill being performed with commentary. Some subjects can seem impenetrable unless they provide examples or guidance (i.e. the "explaining" side of things) and I think DMing is one of them. I know generally you're not a fan of actual play streams and while I'm not really either for people without a regular gaming group it may serve the function you outline here. I think it would be a more effective teaching method if someone were to commentate their session though, explaining why they interpreted this dice roll this way, because it encourages player agency in this way, and they skimmed over this other mechanic because it moved the game along more smoothly, etc. You could even just use snippets of a particular game so people aren't watching 3+ hour streams. Of course, watching a DM from the perspective of someone who is actually playing in the game is a lot more effective (especially if the other people at the table are the same ones you're going to be running a game for)

    1. I don't think noisms was advocating following one approach to the exclusion of the other (e.g. his use of "primarily learned" in the first paragraph). I learned the functional side of driving stick shift from instructions, but I still stalled out quite a few times on my first day trying it from lacking the feel for applying that knowledge. I learned how to write stories from thinking about what I enjoyed/disliked about what I was reading, but primers on effective forms of plot shapes helped me improve my baseline until I had the experience to make sense of how the results changed when I tried breaking certain guidelines.

      There will always be elements of any skill that have to be learned from experience (e.g. just knowing textbook Romanian is unlikely to be enough to understand dialects and colloquialisms). There will also always be elements of any skill that can be taught as rules (e.g. why it's bad to have a novel that lacks moments of tension release). My reading of the post was primarily that there was a divide between skills for which getting instructions was a substantial portion of the learning process versus skills for which getting instructions was a method of broadening your horizons, changing your perspective, etc. after which you needed applied practice to see how it'd really work for you. It's like the difference between understanding principles of psychology related to game design and actually designing games which leverage psychology to their benefit (e.g. it's a fact that intermittent rewards are more addictive than constant rewards, but nobody can tell you the exact percentage of empty rooms that'll lead to the most fun dungeon).

    2. I agree that AP with commentaries would be really helpful and interesting.

      But Ash is right - I tried in this post and the previous ones to stress that activities are all on a spectrum. Everything is a hybrid already in that sense. Learning how to drive does have its intuitive and "learning by watching others" elements, and there are some really basic technical rules that are helpful in novel writing.

    3. But also, Slick, clearly there is a gap in the market for what you're suggesting, so why not do it?

    4. I don't watch them I've never really had the interest in doing my own Actual Plays, and I'm not the kind of person to do something just because there's a market for it or money to be made somewhere. Honestly I'm not sure if there isn't someone out there doing commentated APs already. If there is they're probably a better resource to learn how to DM than watching ordinary AP's, but I'd wager a lot of the AP audiences watch for entertainment and not to get better at a game they may or may not themselves actually play. I could think up more excuses but I guess my answer to your question is unfortunately the old standby: "why bother?"

  3. What you call introduced skill I would also call accultured skill. These are the areas of expertise where you need a whole lot of context and "state of mind" to understand precisely what you are doing
    As Viollet-le-Duc said : "To make an architect, as to make a doctor, you ought first to make a man" (in the original French quote, man is to be understand as a developped human being as well as someone who is proficient in humanities)

    1. Yeah, accultured works. I think "introduced" is not a great word. I was trying to get across that you are "introduced" to something like DMing by watching other people do it.

  4. I'm going to disagree with some bits of this one, at least in emphasis.

    How I'd divide things up is the sort of learning that gets you from being a complete novice to passably mediocre and the kind of learning that gets you from being passably mediocre to being actually really good at something.

    To get to the passably mediocre stage in most any skill all of the "explained skill" you talk about works wonders in most anything. This includes driving and learning languages but writing as well.

    For example when I grade my students' creative writing, a lot of them are making really elementary errors that absolutely CAN be avoided by learning technical tricks. If you're making really basic errors like having a story without any conflict in it then basic rules and techniques absolutely CAN improve someone's creative writing. It can improve it from all the way up to the level of barely passable fanfic. That's not a very high bar but by teaching a few technical things I can absolutely get my students to write far far far better creative writing. Then they actually have a recognizable beginning, middle and end and all of that!

    Now to actually be really GOOD at something instead of passably mediocre then all of the stuff that you call an "introduced skill" applies. All of the stuff I teach my students about creative writing doesn't do squat to make their writing actually GOOD, just not terrible. But the same applies to just about every skill. Being a REALLY good driver isn't something you can teach with a list of techniques. Same with a language. All of the ins and outs of connotation and tone can be impossible to get through just looking at grammatical rules in a textbook. You often get near-fluent English speakers using slightly archaic words or having a sentence with a weird mix of slightly more formal and slightly more informal words that a native speaker would never string together and going that last mile is something that's pretty much impossible to teach.

    Same with a lot of activities.

    What further skews things is for a lot of activities the discussion is dominated by people who are trying to go from mediocre to good so that people who are trying to go from terrible to mediocre can really get the wrong idea. The basic stuff that you have to do to not be terrible isn't discussed much since most people who are into an activity enough to discuss it a lot take those basic things for granted. This can give newbies a really skewed perspective about what they need to do to get up to the level of mediocre.

    1. I think this is a thoughtful and interesting comment, but I am not sure you are saying anything all that different to what I was trying to say in this post and the other ones on the subject (although admittedly I dealt with it more in the post I linked to than in this one). What I want to say is that in reality everything is on a spectrum - so, yes, even in something like novel writing there are some basic techniques or rules you can learn to get to a not-completely-godawful standard, and even in something like learning to drive there is trial-and-error and learning-by-watching.

      Your last paragraph is a very interesting and important one, I think. I hadn't really thought about that before, but you're undoubtedly right.

    2. I also think the last paragraph is an important point.

      I think in large part the issue is that you have a lot of people who are very poor at basic speaking-to-audience skills who don't realize that the number one reason the DMs they see on youtube are effective is that they are comfortable speaking *as a general matter*.

      A good teacher or salesman or improv actor is going to need a completely different type and degree of instruction to become a good DM because they don't have to first figure out how to be engaging in front of a crowd. People who don't have that background have a real challenge ahead of them.

    3. For what I'm disagreeing with you about it's more that you were dividing certain kinds of skills between "stuff you can learn out of a book" and "stuff you have to figure out for yourself" while I'm drawing the line not between different skills but between different LEVELS of skill in the same activity.

      Or to put it differently:
      You: you can learn to speak Romanian out of a book but to write a novel you need to figure out it for yourself.
      Me: you can learn to be mediocre at speaking Romanian or writing a novel out of a book but to be GOOD at either you have to figure it out for yourself.

      And yeah, the last part is the important bit. I've mentioned it before in this blog's comments but under my Google+ handle which I can't use anymore for obvious reasons.

      For the last bit I've seen it over and over and over in really disparate places like weightlifting and homebrewing as well as D&D. For example if you look at the fitness reddit and you look at what's being discussed (getting into the weeds about different programs etc.) vs. the sort of stupid shit you see people doing every day at the gym (aimlessly wandering around the machines and doing a couple quarter reps at random) it really doesn't match up.

      People online, especially extremely online people, REALLY don't discuss the basic shit you need to do to get from newb to mediocre. This often sends newbs down really weird tracks when they try to do expert level stuff (or all the little things to go from good to great) without having their base down.

    4. You: you can learn to speak Romanian out of a book but to write a novel you need to figure out it for yourself.

      That's where I think we're in agreement. I definitely DON'T think that you can just learn to speak Romanian out of a book and I definitely don't think you just need to figure it out for yourself to write a novel.

      What I do think is that learning to speak Romanian is a skill that has lots of technical elements to it that you can learn from a book, which you then have to practice lots and lots so they become intuitive. But, of course, instinct and 'feel' are important too and only a fool would suggest it is just a matter of learning techniques and practising them a lot.

      In other words, you can learn the techniques you need to be really, really good at Romanian from a book IF you practice them in the real world A LOT and if you combine that with the intuition and practical know-how you get from that real world practice. The getting good part is, of course, what you call 'figuring it out for yourself' because you are the one doing the practice and it is your brain figuring out how the technical elements of the language work in practice.

      Novel writing, on the other hand, is something that you really cannot learn to get really good at just from learning techniques and practising them, but obviously some basic techniques of prose style and plotting can be useful so as not to be absolutely terrible.

      In other words, activities are on a spectrum, with some activities being mostly comprised of techniques that you practice to get really good at, but which also have an ingredient of intuition and experience necessary, and some activities being mostly intuitive processes that you also have to practice to get really good at, but which have some technical elements to them.

  5. I could nitpick about how much you can learn a second language as an adult through a textbook vs real world practice, but you're right about DMing. The two rules of writing are "Read a lot and write a lot." The same should be said for DMing: "Play a lot and DM a lot."

    1. I wanted to be clear that it's not about practice. To get good at anything you need real world practice, whether it's learning to drive or speaking a language. The point is that at one end of the spectrum (and it should be emphasised again that it's a spectrum), practice means putting into effect learned techniques, and in the other, practice means trial and error largely in the absence of learned techniques.

    2. It's the difference between learning a second language as an adult and learning a mother tongue as a child.

  6. This is an area I could definitely improve in. I'd love to know what folks consider a good source of learning how to do this -- any AP podcasts/streams, or other sources.