Three’s a charm…
In the imaginative realm of tabletop role-playing games, the setting often serves as a silent character, shaping narratives and influencing outcomes. As a game master, the power to breathe life into these worlds relies solely on your ability to describe the scenes the player characters encounter. This skill is important for two reasons, first of all it helps paint a vivid picture of the scene, and secondly it helps the players understand what they can interact with and what they have to work with so to say.
Regardless of the rule system or universe you’re using, the art of setting a scene is universally important, and challenging, but there is a nice and efficient method to help you – The Rule of Three.
This guide aim to help you masterfully describe scenes, rooms and NPCs in a way that keeps your players engaged but doesn’t require a lot of writing or prep. To achieve this we’ll use The Rule of Three. We’ll explain why it’s efficient how to use it at the table. At the end we’ve also included a few tables you can roll on for inspiration.
Whether you’re navigating the high seas of a pirate adventure, the bustling streets of a futuristic metropolis, or the eerie corridors of a corrupted crypt, this method will be your steadfast companion. The Rule of Three is one of many useful tricks included in the Game Master Advice section of Adventurous, so if you like this guide, be sure to check it out on DriveThruRPG.
The basics of the rule of three
In the world of storytelling and narrative design, there exists a timeless principle that is as simple as it is powerful: the Rule of Three. This principle has roots stretching back to ancient tales and is prevalent in many modern narratives, spanning across cultures and genres. At its core, the Rule of Three revolves around presenting information or elements in triads (groups of three), making it more rhythmical, memorable, and effective.
Understanding the principle
The human brain has a fondness for patterns. Triads (things grouped in three’s) are both compact enough to be digestible and lengthy enough to create a pattern. Think of the famous tales: “The Three Little Pigs,” “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” or even the three-act structure commonly used in plays and movies. The Rule of Three leverages this useful cognitive preference.
How to use it
When preparing a scene, room, area or creature that your players will get to explore or meet in an upcoming adventure, use The Rule of Three to help paint a vivid picture without overwhelming the players with details. Here’s how it can be applied:
- Describing an area: Instead of preparing two paragraphs of “Read-aloud text” (I’m looking at you WOTC and all your way too lengthy modules) just pick three thematic details. For instance, when describing a forest, you might highlight the scent of damp earth, the distant hoot of an owl, and the caress of a cool breeze. Those three things are more than enough to transport the person listening to a lush forest.
- Describing a room: Identify three primary points of interest or features: An ornate mirror, a smoldering fireplace, and a mysterious locked chest. By honing in on these, you provide players with concrete elements to interact with or inquire further about.
- Describing an NPC: “The guard captain is tall and muscular with steel-like eyes and a worn silver signet ring on his left hand.” I don’t know about you but that paints a pretty clear picture of a stern guard captain in my head at least.
It’s easy both for the GM and the players
For GMs, leaning on The Rule of Three makes prep way easier, because you know what you need to do, and you know when you are done. And for players, having vital information presented in triads makes it easier to take in and remember.
It’s a tool, not a law
Remember that the Rule of Three is a tool, not a strict law. There is no harm in adding a fourth descriptor of a room or NPC, the purpose of using three descriptors is to make it as easy as possible to remember and apply, our brains like things organized in groups of three.
Tips & tricks for effective implementation
Getting the most out of this tool requires more than just understanding the basic principle and slapping together three descriptors. If done right it will create vivid descriptions and memorable moments, but if done wrong it will just be confusing for the players.
Here are 4 key guidelines to keep in mind.
1. Variation is vital
While the Rule of Three provides a structure, it’s essential to infuse variation to prevent descriptions from becoming monotonous. This means:
- Mix sensory inputs: Rotate between senses. Try to incorporate at least two senses in each description. It’s easy to fall into the trap of only describing visual things, but don’t forget about smell and sound, they can really elevate your descriptions.
- Shift focus: Alternate between grand descriptions and intricate details. One scene might emphasize the general mood of a bustling marketplace, while the next focuses on the intricate patterns of a sorcerer’s robe. This technique can be used to alternate focus between things you describe, but also within the description itself, see “Large – Medium – Small” below for examples.
2. Make them useful
Painting a mental picture is nice and all, but don’t forget that we are playing a game. Make sure that at least one of the descriptors in every situation is something the players can interact with.
- Poor example: The large room is cold and cobwebs cover the corners where the walls meet the ceiling, the wind creates a howling sound as it blows through the corridors.
- Good example: The large room lit by torches and surprisingly cold. In the corner is a large stack of crates.
The first example above doesn’t contain anything the players can interact with, the descriptors are all flavor and no meat. In the second example on the other hand, there are both crates and torches that the players can interact with. A stack of crates might not be a game changer, but they invite the players to explore which drives the game forward.
3. Use evocative language
The Rule of Three is a structure, but the language you use to convey it adds flavor. Remember:
- Vivid verbs: Instead of “a bird sings,” consider “a lark serenades the dawn.”
- Sensory similes: Use comparisons. “The cave was as cold as the heart of a glacier.”
Adding some finesse to your language will greatly enhance the picture you paint in the minds of your players.
4: Be ready to expand
Using The Rule of Three to build your dungeons, NPCs and scenes will greatly improve them in an easy and efficient way. But don’t forget that you need to be flexible, and be able to expand on the descriptors and improvise new ones if needed. There is rarely ONLY three interesting things to explore and interact with in a huge library hall, so prepare to make up more on the spot.
Applying frameworks makes it even easier
To make it even easier for you as a GM to apply The Rule of Three in an effective way, use one of the frameworks below. Whether you’re focusing on sensory experiences like sight, sound, and smell, or on the size and prominence of details, these tables give you some stability to lean on.
Just roll 3D6 on the table below, one D6 per column, to generate three short and efficient descriptors.
See – Hear – Smell – Crypt descriptors
This framework focuses on having one descriptor for each of the most relevant senses when describing something; sight, smell and hearing.
|1||Dusty cobwebs||Distant echoing drips||Musty decay|
|2||Cracked stone sarcophagi||Faint whispers||Cold, damp stone|
|3||Faded inscriptions||Scuttling of insects||Aged parchment|
|4||Dimly lit torches||Rumbling from deep below||Old incense residue|
|5||Broken pottery shards||Slow, creaking footsteps||Faint metallic tang|
|6||Glimpse of an ornate dagger||Flutter of bat wings||Stagnant, unmoving air|
Large – Medium – Small – Male NPC descriptors
This framework organizes descriptors into three “sizes”, large, medium and small, where “Large” means something big and obvious and “Small” refers to a minor detail to help create depth and variety.
|1||Broad, muscular build||Beard streaked with grey||Tiny scar above left eyebrow|
|2||Towering height||Sun-tanned skin||Chipped front tooth|
|3||Weathered, leather armor||Calloused hands||Faded tattoo on wrist|
|4||Cloak billowing in the wind||Deep-set eyes||Worn ring on little finger|
|5||Shiny breastplate||Belt with multiple pouches||Small mole on neck|
|6||Loud, boisterous laughter||Slightly limping gait||Missing top button on shirt|
Conclusion – How to describe a scene using the rule of three
Mastering the art of description is fundamental in creating a memorable tabletop role-playing experience. While the intricacies and nuances of storytelling come with practice, frameworks like the Rule of Three provide a solid foundation that will help you run your game with less stress. By leveraging structured approaches and cognitive preference you can ensure that descriptions are both captivating and concise, guiding your players through a rich world without overwhelming them.