by Mike Shea on 8 November 2010
Not all of us can improv like Robin Williams. We can't spout off Tolkeinesque descriptions of fantastic locations while our friends stare at us with a half a slice of pizza in their hands. We may understand that a good D&D game is like a broadway show; equal parts story, production, characters, humor, and drama; but that doesn't make it any easier for us to say just the right thing at the right time.
That, my friend, is why we need read-aloud text. In short, read-aloud text is a script for you to read at specific times in your game. Some may scoff at the idea and maybe it doesn't have a place in their game, but it sure has a place in mine. Read-aloud text ensures I get the right points into the heads of my players at the right time without umming and ahhing my way through some half-assed description of what was supposed to be a monumental discovery. If our D&D game is a broadway show, our read-aloud text is part of our script.
Today we're going to look at a few tips for writing awesome read-aloud text.
You'll notice some of the tips below work equally well for adventure writing and writing in general. That's because writing good read-aloud text is like writing micro-fiction. You have a tiny story to tell and less than 250 words to tell it. Good read-aloud text is like all good fiction and thus the rules for writing good fiction work just as well for read-aloud text.
What is your point?
Start up front by writing down the one main thing you want your players to get from your little bit of read-aloud text. Are you just giving a description of a room or are you exposing a particularly interesting plot point? Know the purpose of your read-aloud text up front. Jot it down in a few bullets if it helps you stay focused. While good read-aloud text should be more than "just the facts, ma'am", it is the facts that should drive the rest of your prose.
Keep it short
Like all good writing, say only what you have to and cut the rest. If you didn't edit your read-aloud text and remove 25% of what was there, you didn't try hard enough. Don't describe every stupid tree, just describe the elements most important to the players. Ensure every word has a place in it.
Most of the time your players are there to get into the action. They didn't come over to your house to listen to you prattle on about horse lineage. Remember your Strunk and White: brevity is a bi-product of vigor. Keep it short and keep it powerful.
Know your audience
Know what sort of elements interest your group. Do they like a little bit of humor in your read-aloud text? Add some! Does your group prefer hearing only about tactically important features? Don't go on and on about the fine dwarven craftsmanship of the archway unless your fighter can collapse it down on some orcs. Knowing what sorts of things interest your group can tell you how you should focus your read-aloud text.
Here's a great tip for any sort of presentation. You might spend a long time sitting in front of a computer editing and tweaking your read-aloud text, but until you've actually read it aloud, you have no idea how good it will or won't be. Practice reading your read-aloud text out loud. Listen for weird repeated words or phrases that just don't make sense. Nothing helps you refine your words like reading them aloud.
Keep it fantastic
We're playing a fantasy roleplaying game, quit writing read-aloud text that sounds like it came from Ikea instructions. Though you want to stick to your main points, add in the bits that make it fantastic. Discuss the maelstrom of violet clouds swirling overhead. Describe the crash of the mile-high waterfall. Never forget to remind your players that their PCs are in someplace wonderful.
Tell before you show
You might feel the temptation to reveal the encounter location before you start reading your read-aloud text. Instead, hold back that temptation. Read the text first, building the image of the location into the minds of your players BEFORE they see the actual tactical battle map. Otherwise while you're describing the roaring crash of the mile-high waterfall, your players are busy looking for cover and figuring out how to avoid difficult terrain.
Like all good writing, good read-aloud text is nothing short of telepathy. You have images in you head that you wish to transfer into the head of others. Take a little time, edit it down, and keep it focused and you'll breathe new life into the imagination of your players. Or at least they'll know when to get up and go get the pizza.