CPR: Breathing Life Into Your Game, World and Character

Keep Calm and describe what you sense…

As both GMs and Players, and even aspiring authors, Josh and I are big advocates of the storytelling aspect of the Cypher System. It’s one of the big reasons that we started this blog in the first place. This post is going to talk about how we inject life into the game, the worlds we create and the characters we play. 

Before I get started with this post, though, I’m going to give some specific thanks:

  • First thanks goes to Katika Schneider who did an amazing presentation at GenCon Online 2020 and is a wonderful author. Her focus was less on the RPG Realm and more on the Writer’s side of it. However, she had some really good key points about breathing life into your work. I highly recommend her in the future.
  • Second thanks goes to our very own GMSprinkles on Cypher Unlimited for his wonderful YouTube video about Creating Convincing Characters found here.
  • Of course, finally, thanks go to Monte Cook Games and the people at Pelgrane Press for their presentations at GenCon and the wonderful work they do.

Now, on to my thoughts…

Breathing life into your game is more than just funny accents, interesting locations or surprises. It’s about the overall ‘feel’ of the game. The genre, or game you run will have a feel that is different from any other genre. Fantasy doesn’t feel like Science Fiction which doesn’t feel like Post-Apocalyptic or Superheroes. Next, you want to make sure that you include all the senses, touch, taste, smell, hearing and sight. Too many times we focus on what we see, what the player sees, that we forget or ignore the other senses, which are every bit as important, and often, more powerful. 

For example: You have just described your player as having entered a sewer.

It’s dark, everything is dimly lit and all you can see are shadows and occasionally the glitter of light on standing water.” 

Then you stop your description there.  It seems kind of… lackluster, doesn’t it?  Now what if you said this instead?

The first thing that hits you is the smell, fetid, stagnant and disgusting, a combination of feces and moldy socks. Even breathing through your mouth doesn’t save you from the smell, now it feels like it’s coated your tongue. The second thing is the air, damp, cloying and clinging to your skin, you know when you finish this, you’re going to be in desperate need of a shower. Not even a hint of movement in it to grant you some small reprieve from the sticky heat. You hear the faint dripping of water in the distance, a low soft splash sound that is almost rhythmic. Entering the sewer, your eyes slowly adjust to the dimness. The light barely enough to see by and creating distorted shadows along the floor, occasionally broken by the gleam of standing water.

It sounds more alive, and more like what you or your players would be experiencing as a character. 

This is all description. You do the same when you build your world, and you want to answer questions about it.  What is the relevant history of the current location? Are there common religious beliefs? What is the political situation?  What freedoms or non-freedoms do the people have? What is the climate and location like? A character from the plains will have different views than someone from the mountains. What is the assumed level of safety for the current area? Are you at war, a cold war, or is it peaceful, homey? These are all things you need to think about when developing your world. 

Characters:  I like to ask and answer questions. Where is my character at? What are they doing? Why are they there? And most importantly, What do they want and need? How do they plan on meeting those wants and needs?

“Where” they are is all about the setting.  That’s a big thing between you and the GM and a subject that should be discussed during character creation (perhaps during a Session Zero if possible).  There’s a difference between Core Cypher System, The Strange, Numenera, or even Invisible Sun. A science fiction character is not a fantasy character.

What are they doing? This is more than just their job, it also includes what they do for fun, for leisure. Do they read, do they do art, little things that make the character feel more real.

What are their wants and needs? How do they plan on meeting those wants and needs? There’s a difference between a want and a need. I want to complete my collection of books, but I need to buy groceries. Sometimes the want and need are simple, others are more complex. How they plan to meet those needs also defines who the character is. A character that sees no issue with murder, stealing, telling lies, and cheating to meet those wants and needs is going to be different from a character that wants to work hard and earn their wants and needs. This is not to say that either are boring characters, necessarily, just different.  If you want to take this a step further, don’t just think about concrete wants and needs, ask yourself, what are their dreams?

Why they are there comes back to the needs and wants question. They’re there to see those needs and wants met one way or another. 

You’ll notice that I didn’t include physical descriptors of the character, what they look like, above. That’s because it comes with it’s own set of challenges, questions and answers. How someone looks does affect how they perceive themselves and how the world sees them, but it doesn’t always change their core needs or wants. Oftentimes, that beautiful man, wants to simply be accepted, that beautiful woman, can hide the most depressed look. That man or woman that doesn’t fit societal norms, might be perfectly happy with who he/she is and want something completely different than someone who desires to be included or one of the in-crowd. Don’t let your characters fall into the cliche, or trope. It’s not always about the significant other, the money, or the looks, it’s OK to make it different. It’s OK to be different.

For us, the enjoyment of this hobby and writing fiction has always been found in the stories we tell.  The more that you allow yourself to be carried away into the descriptions, environment, and senses of what you are experiencing in your mind, the more your players will be caught up in it as well.  This creates a deep sense of immersion and the quality of your stories will be greatly improved as you develop the skill.  Happy gaming!

  • Joann Walles

2 thoughts on “CPR: Breathing Life Into Your Game, World and Character

  1. I go with two or three senses covered in my descriptions. My thought is that I want to give plenty of detail without giving the players information overload, and I’m happy to provide more of they ask. My descriptions would typically be somewhere between your two examples with detail. I’m curious why you recommend all five. The example is great; I like learning the other person’s thought process as that helps me better understand the “why” behind things.

    With filling in the world, I’d recommend start small and slow. It’s easy to fall into the trap of describing every single aspect of a world.

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    1. So, working my way backwards, I agree with you on the world building except, I also like to do broad strokes. Climate, location, and major landmarks such as mountains, towers or massive forests that people in the city know or know of. Mostly because I feel like it makes the world feel a little bit bigger. IE. I know about the Eiffel Tower, Stonehenge, Big Ben, The Pyramids, but I’ve never seen them.

      Now for the describing, I’m not going to lie and say that I’m perfect at describing everything every time. I am also not trying to say to do it all the time, like some authors do (Look at Robert Jordan for an example). The post was more about giving players and GMS broad advice on ways to increase immersion and vividness of game and writing. I do try to include at least three of the five senses, it doesn’t always work, but I do try. However, I’ve played in a number of games, where all I get is ‘you see this thing’ and getting more information is difficult and the GM hasn’t come up with anything else to describe it.

      As for the ‘Whys’ of my describing the way I do. First of it is due to in Elementary School (mid to late 80s to give you an idea as to my age.) My English teacher was extremely focused on using all the senses when you’re writing because even if your conscious brain doesn’t always know it, your subconscious does.
      The second ‘Why’ is if you’ve ever seen Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame II the scene that sticks out most for me, is when he’s showing her different things around Paris and telling her to use other senses, when he does. (Rosemary is not a pretty flower, but smells really nice.)
      The third ‘Why’ is two fold, one is habit from having players wanting to play unique characters; from a character that was blind (ala Daredevil) he wouldn’t ‘see’ things, but he could smell and feel them. I had a character playing as a Naga, who used his sense of ‘taste’ since ‘Snakes don’t use their nose to smell.’ The second part is a document I read about Helen Keller. (For anyone who doesn’t know Helen Keller was a young woman that was blind and deaf. And unable to properly communicate with her parents or others.) In the document, Anne Sullivan talks about how she started to teach Helen Keller to finger-spell by holding one hand under running water, then spelling the word ‘Water’ in the other hand. I always found the imagery of a simple ‘touch’ opening up a whole new world for Helen, as she was now able to learn how to communicate, fascinating.

      I hope these explanations and examples help answer your questions and clarify what my thought process is. I appreciate the opportunity to talk more about these subjects and hope to continue receiving questions and other people’s view points. I view this as something we’re all in together to enjoy RPGs in different ways. I will never say I am the ultimate knowledge. I just want to share what knowledge I have with others and hopefully gain their knowledge in return.

      Thank you
      Joann Walles

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