Let the Players Tell the Story

Great.  My PCs decided they wanted to go to the one place on the map I haven’t prepared.  And now I have to come up with a tavern, merchants guild, magic shop, blacksmith, etc. for the entire city.  Now what?  Random generators probably become your best friend at this point, since few people have the skill to improvise such details on the fly.  If you can improvise these, good on ya.  I can’t.

GMs have the awesome responsibility of designing and describing the world they have created.

GMs have the holy-crap-I-don’t-know-what-to-freaking-say daunting responsibility of designing and describing the world they have created.

How do you do that?  Where do all the words come from?  Especially when the ONLY details I have came off of a random generator.  Where can I go for help?  AI?  Published material?  No time!  My players are all looking at me, waiting for me to describe the town!!! 

You know that dream when you go to school/work in your underwear?  Ya, it’s kind of like that.

As GMs, we have a TON of resources out there to help us create lush and robust worlds, but few to create details that are interesting to the players just on demand.

The key phrase: “interesting to the players.”

Then, why not let the players describe the scene???

Your party arrives in a new town and tavern.  The town is rustic, but on a major thoroughfare between major cities.  The random generator tells us the tavern name is the Boar and Hen.  The party enters the tavern.  You turn to the rogue and say, “Describe what you see.”

The rogue then begins to describe a crowded barroom filled with laughing patrons, gamblers in the corners, shady figures in the back, and a single bard playing an out of tune lute in the corner.  There is a large hearth in the middle of the room and servers bustling about handing out food and drinks and slapping more than a few faces.

Had you turned to the bard, you may have gotten a more upscale tavern with a full band playing on a stage and very attractive servers who don’t slap faces.  Point being each player will give you a different description.  So, just pick a player and have them describe what the new tavern looks like.

This works.  I was preparing for the next phase of a campaign when the party decided to go to a big city and one I hadn’t developed.  I secured the license for a great map (because that’s what I do) and gave it to the players beforehand.  Using a Discord channel, I asked the players to find something interesting on the map and then tell us what they think these locations were.

Some of the areas identified included a bar they all wanted to go to, the good docks and the seedy docks, a casino, the slums, the lord’s manor, a magic shop, a druid’s grove (in the middle of a city, yes), and a mage’s college.  Many of these came with full descriptions of the interior and NPCs they might find there.  It was awesome (and I didn’t have to do the work).  Since I had an idea of where the campaign was going, I added a few more which would provide resources to the party as things progressed, but I only needed to come up with a few.  My players decided what the town was like, who lived there, where they lived, etc.  And all in all, we spent about three days on Discord hashing things out.  After that, I drew a line and said, “Okay, I’ll work with what we’ve got.”

I didn’t have to spend a whole lot of time next session describing the details of the town, because the players had already decided what those were.  We were able to get right into the action without wasting time setting the scene.

This worked extremely well for my group, since we had some time before the session, but even if you ask a player on the spot to describe a new scene, I believe everyone will be really excited about the answers. 

Naturally, this is an expectation you should discuss during Session 0 so players don’t feel put on the spot and in order to find out if anyone is not comfortable doing that.  It is also a good idea to award inspiration for really good descriptions.  What is “good”?  You get to decide.

In addition to the numerous resources for creating settings and scenes in your campaign, don’t forget one of the best resources which are sure to provide interesting ideas:  Your Players.