Teaching Describe To Live

Some of the players in my game are having difficulty wrapping their heads around the Describe to Live style of play. Typically they are used to engaging the game situation with mechanics with description/roleplay coming as an afterthought; whereas with this game, it’s essential that the players interact with the game world with description of action and questions. It’s been very difficult to break the “Can I use this skill now?” mindset or “I would like to try to…” rather than describing character action explicitly. It’s been a struggle to prompt them without suggesting solutions to the problem at hand, but constant reminders from me to “describe what your character is doing right now” are starting to frustrate them and get old for me. I was thinking of making a little player card with some examples of questions about the environment or descriptions of basic actions for when players are stuck.

Any tips on this? Both for me as GM, and for my players? I have a feeling half the battle is my skill as a GM, with the conversational process of drawing out the descriptions from my players.

Tell them to turn their character sheets over?

When they enter a new room engage them with at least 2 or 3 senses.

Tease them. Make it obvious that they need to ask questions or interact with something in a specific way. “You see a scrape along the floor leading through the archway at the far end of the room” prompts them to check it out.

Lead them, not with examples, but with questions. “Do you want to walk over and inspect the scrape mark, or are you cautious as you enter the room, scanning for dangers and tapping the floor with your pole for traps.” This is like training wheels; PC style rpg play. You give them a list of choices (like the classic nice response, snarky response, rude response dialogue list) and let them pick. This keeps them in a narrative mode. It’s inevitable that they chose option d) other. When they do, you know the training wheels are starting to come off and you can start to leave things off your multiple choice list more often. As they get the hang of it you can start leaving the choices off the table and just tease them with the descriptions and let them make their own decisions.

For me, it comes down to asking questions. If a player says, “I search for traps,” I respond: “Great. Tell me how you’re searching? What do you do? Do you touch something? Smell it? Poke the floor with a stick? What are you doing to find the trap if there is one?” Ask them to try to step into the shoes of their character and imagine what it would look like. If this were a TV show or movie, how would the director/cinematographer get across what the characters were doing without having a character say, “I’m searching for traps!”

As the GM, you’re looking for details so you can judge what the appropriate skill and what the effect might be. And if you do elicit a good description, don’t be shy about applying the Good Idea rule. Once a Good Idea saves them time and trouble a few times, they will be much more eager to describe!

In my game yesterday, the characters approached a door that they’ve passed through a number of times before. They wanted to open the door. Just before I was about to call out for a Health test for everyone to avoid the trap that had been set up since their last sally into the dungeon, the Leader spoke up and described how they would do it: The thief would stand beside the door (near the hinges) and reach over to pull the door open. The elf would stand by the other side of the door, shielded by the wall, and the dwarf would be standing in the doorway with his crossbow, ready to shoot anyone on the other side if necessary.

Because of their description, it was clear that only the dwarf would be a target of the crossbow on the other side of the door that had been rigged to fire at anyone opening the door. The other players breathed a sigh of relief. The dwarf player didn’t have to try too hard to roleplay being Angry after failing the test…

This is all great advice. I’m still negotiating my own style for how to run this game, in terms of when and how much I offer options or push more leading questions. Hopefully my players will catch onto the spirit of things soon, they are still into the whole “I keep failing stuff and I’m so bummed” phase my Burning Wheel group had to travel through in order to get to a place of masochistic storygame bliss. I do think next game I’m going to try asking everyone to play with sheets face down.

I’m having a bit of an epiphany. I think the players will do what the GM does. If the GM acts in the role of translating everything into mechanics, the players will start acting mechanically. (“I Scout the room.”)

I notice now that the Describe to Live section is advice to the GM, not to the players.

You need to present a setting worth engaging with fictionally. Allow the mechanics to be an afterthought in your own mind.

Like, this seems totally dysfunctional to me:

GM: You open the door, which opens into a corridor.
PC: We go through.
GM: Come on guys, how do you go through?

This seems better:

GM: You open the door, which opens very smoothly and quietly, despite the rusted hinges. Beyond, is a corridor, much like the one you are in, but with deep scrape marks along the floor.
PC: Weird, I look at the hinges.
PC2: What’s the scrape mark?

The next question is, as a GM, what are you describing? Are you producing vivid descriptions from your knowledge of natural and artificial caverns? Are you just rolling on a random dungeon room description table? (“The room is uh… brick… with uh… a sulfurous smell.”) No!

You are describing evidence of what has happened here! The players will learn to care because this information is vital to understanding the dungeon. That in turn is vital because the players are on a foray into a deadly place, and the question that’s on the top of their minds is, at all times, “When do we turn back?” When two of them are half dead, they will be desperate for any scrap of information for what’s coming next.

My conclusion is somewhat heretical, but it goes like this:

  1. During dungeon prep, the GM ignores the mechanics. Do not create ‘challenges’ and ‘obstacles’, except as emerge naturally from (say) a pack of orcs living there.
  2. Focus on creating a place with multiple layers of history, and consider what evidence each layer leaves. Do this over and over again - at least four eras with a major happening or pattern of behavior in each.
  3. During play, as GM, you have a ton of stuff to describe. Describe it, and let the players explore further or ignore things as they see fit. The evidence flows from an authentic history.

A pit trap is an obstacle. A pit trap that’s been jammed open with a rusted iron stake (but nonetheless still presents a challenging 8’ gap) is much more interesting obstacle. Who staked it open? Are they still here? Can I hear anything?

  1. In play, much as you would for BW, the players act by describing their actions in the fiction, interacting with the rich setting you’ve made. They must engage your dungeon narratively. It’s easy for you to respond narratively, because you have so much to say on it. Your pit trap isn’t an Ob 4 health obstacle, it’s an 8’ gap. This keeps mechanics out of your mind until such time as they settle, narratively, on a means of dealing with it. Only then, do you look up skill, then obstacle. (How hard is it to cross an 8’ gap? Let’s find out!)

  2. (This is the heresy part.) Let the players deal with party logistics much more mechanically.

The rules for adventuring logistics (food, camping, cooking, hunting) are long, quantitative, detailed, and interconnected. The most beautiful thing about them is that, in total, they represent a crisp opinion about how hard it is to adventure. I say let players master these rules as rules. This is a proxy for their characters’ real-world knowledge of how vulnerable they are, so they have to grasp how it works, quickly.

Party logistics is Torchbearer’s equivalent to D&D 3e’s battlegrid tactical combat minigame - it’s a baldly mechanical portion of the experience that’s fun in its own right. I love the discussions that emerge from them - do we camp now, and hunt? Hunting isn’t so easy here, we’re in mountains. Do we try to stretch the rations, or head back to town now and see if we can refill using this silver plate.

I think they generate fascinating choices and behavior without trying to pretend that adventurers are doing them for anything other than mechanical reasons. It seems counterproductive for a GM (who may well be inexperienced with the skill factors and all the ways that skills can be used) to try to master these on the players’ behalf and paint them with a fictional veneer. I think if you wrote the game, or have mastered it, you can do this.

But otherwise, embrace that this is not a fiction-first part of the game. Let the players become seasoned expeditionists, who are balancing a flinty-eyed assessment of the shit they are in with the risk of moving forward.

But but but… that sounds haaard :stuck_out_tongue:

Well said. I can tell when I’m not painting the picture well enough because I don’t get a really vivid response from my player (yeah, just one for now). She’s not overly mechanical, but I do get a lot of “I keep going” or “I walk down the stairs”. Which is fine because I can always prompt her and ask more questions, but I feel like if I was setting the mood better she’d naturally describe how she’s doing things more. That’s the trick of being the GM.

If you’re serious, I’d love to hear more. What’s the hard part? (Does it just sound like no-fun work? Or is coming up with evidence difficult?)

I was half-serious. I simply meant it’s time consuming to go into that much depth, and it’s the sort of thing that can be as time consuming as you want it to be. It requires a great deal of focus and attention and creativity. It’s much easier to read off a random dungeon list, or make it up as you go along, but doing those things definitely won’t result in the same level of detail and vivid description. It’s like “if you put more work into it, you’ll get more out of it”. Well, yeah, but hard work is hard :slight_smile:


Incredible post, Fuseboy – thank you!

I wrote a one-sheet play guide for my players who aren’t interested in skimming the rulesbook. It discusses the basic steps to playing and outlines which mechanics the players need to know are “player initiated”, so it’s kind of a strategy guide to help coach them through the first few sessions. Let me know what y’all think, or if I’m saying anything wrong.

lizlarsen_torchbearer_playsheets_howtoplay_roughdraft.pdf (477 KB)

cool. My only thought was to accentuate the major points in each section more (they seem to be bold already, but for some reason they don’t stand out much on my screen… bigger font maybe?). Also, some of that information is right on the character sheet as well, though not organized all in one place like yours, so that’s quite nice. Did you see the other cheat sheets that came with the pdf? The things they highlight are the more mechanical aspects of the game (town, conflicts, and gear costs).

+rep, liz! So nice!

Michael, that is wonderful and just the way I would like play, and have been finding it extremely haaaaaaard to write up my dungeons as a series of obstacles with suggested tests as explained in the rules. I much prefer the ‘layered history’ method you are ascribing to, looking up the obstacle numbers and appropriate tests as the narrative evolves not only from the GM’s ‘layered Hx’ descriptions, but also from the players ‘describe to live’ responses.

Judd is also well up on this
As suggested in the mediography and influences on the game, I thoroughly recommend using Mr. Dowler’s How to Host a dungeon to develop this history, its the best lonely GM fun ever.


The rules actually don’t tell you to come up with a series of tests. They tell you to come up with a series of problems. Problems that stem from the layered history that you create as part of adventure creation. Those problems only become tests as a result of the players’ actions when interacting with the problems. That’s why the tests and obstacles listed in Under the House of the Three Squires are suggestions. Michael’s take looks like correct application of the rules to me.

Interesting. Now that I think about it, I think I do know what you mean about it actually being harder to come up with a series of obstacles. The difference is that doing it that way is probably less time-consuming and creative, but it’s also kind of boring. It’s harder to motivate yourself to create obstacles randomly without context, and it can feel wrong, making you second guess yourself, but it’s more intense to come up with an in-depth word. Different kinds of hard I guess.

I’ve mostly been GMing off the cuff for my one player session lately, just because I haven’t had a tremendous amount of time to plan, and I’m never sure when we’re going to play, so it’s often a surprise. I think I start with mood and setting and then draw on genre to inspire the sorts of rooms and hazards might be around. Then I let the players explore, but I don’t explicitly think about what the obstacles and available skills are, though often it’s pretty straightforward.

eta: I think the biggest thing I need to work on is improving my descriptions of the environment in conflicts to invite more interesting descriptions of actions and possibly Evil GM Factors and good ideas for bonuses.

Hey, Liz, you were asking about mistakes on the PDF, yes?

Where it says: "Use Fate points to reroll 6’s - Every time you roll a 6, you may spend a fate point to reroll one failure. Maybe you’ll get another success!

I’m pretty sure the rules is that you spend one Fate point to roll a new die for each 6 you roll, repeat until you stop rolling 6s.

Also, this is a great resource. Thanks!

Yes. Spending one Fate point allows you to explode all 6s on your roll. The more 6s you roll, the more bang you’ll get from your Fate point.

When a roll is related to your Wise, you may spend a Fate point to reroll a single failure, whether you have any 6s or not.

That sheet is awesome. I particularly like how you framed the “before you roll/when your friends roll/after you roll” items.

Thanks for the feedback on the sheet! I’ll correct the errors pointed out and improve the formatting before I post the final version (there’s a thread for sheets I’ve been working on over in the Hacks & Expansions subforum.) I also need to finish writing the Belief/Instinct/Goal tips section – originally I’d copied segments from the rulesbook but I didn’t want to post it online like that. If you have suggestions on other “main ideas” I should make room for or alter, please let me know!

P.S. I was working on my own character sheet design (1-sheet) which excludes a lot of the rules notes that are on the official sheet, so this 1-sheet is meant to be a sort of companion to that sheet. Here’s a preview of that:
lizlarsen_torchbearer_playsheets_charactersheet.pdf (527 KB)

Nice character sheet. It’s nice to have it all in one place. The only thing I noticed was that Resources doesn’t need a /, in TB tax permanently lowers Resources and you need to train it up again like any other skill or ability (unlike nature and unlike BW Resources).

eta: oh, did you have a chance to play again yet? If so, did it go any better?