308 - Descriptions on Demand

Descriptions on Demand in tabletop rpg’s. We’re not always comfortable, especially in a new game, when the GM gives us the talking stick and asks us to make something up on the spot about their game world.

Here’s an article that references this approach: https://thealexandrian.net/wordpress/44891/roleplaying-games/gm-dont-list-11-description-on-demand

So… what do we think about this?

From Roger Brasslett

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As stated in the article it can have it’s place. I have ran into both the like and dislike reactions from players.
As you guys have mentioned on the show, it really comes down to knowing your group.
In a home group the game master probably knows that Moe loves adding little bits to the story narrative. On the other hand the GM understands that Curly hates it, and always feels like he’s put on the spot.
The GM also probably knows that asking Larry or Shemp will just get him a goofy or silly response to generate a laugh. A GM can also use this knowledge as a tool. Maybe the table needs a good laugh to perk up a slow moment. It could also be used as tension relief after a rough encounter.

Using this in your game most definitely needs to be talked about in session zero. Even then most players will not be ready for it at first. Remember to be patient and encouraging if you want this to be a part of your campaign. Even some seasoned GM’s can have trouble pulling names and unexpected descriptions out of the air at times. Just look at all the books, apps and tools that are out there to help with just this very thing.
I as a player and GM enjoy this in my games, but it’s not for everyone. Nice article!

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Personally, I’m not a fan. Especially for more detailed questions. Part of what I enjoy when playing in a campaign is the feeling that the world is known by the GM. That I’m (as a character) interacting with a fully realized world. Now, it doesn’t matter if the GM is making things up on the fly because it’s still their creation and will have the same feel. If I ask a question about the setting and the GM says, “Why don’t you tell me about that organization?” or something similar, it totally breaks the immersion for me. It tells me that the GM doesn’t know about that organization, that it would probably not have existed in detail if I hadn’t asked about it. It makes the world feel shallow or patch-together. I certainly don’t say it’s a wrong approach…for those that like it, more power to them. Just not something I like myself.

There is an exception to this. Before the game starts, if a player comes up with a backstory regarding elements of the setting important to their character, then I’ll encourage them to detail it as much as they want. It’s before the game and the player is contributing. So, before the game starts, if people want the setting to include people, organizations, etc…then I’m all for it. I’ll either allow, disallow, or modify it to work.

Actually, let me expand my exception above. If, at any time, a player wants to voluntarily provide additional information for the setting that they would like to see…an organization, NPC, etc…I have no problem with that. It’s a player telling me what they’d like to see. I’ll make it fit and try to work it into the campaign. To me, that’s very different than asking the players to detail things that you as GM haven’t.


I’m for sure a lot more in line with Tom, than with Beholdershorde. Again, the strength of the hobby, that we can all come at something like this with divergent opinions and perspective. As an (albeit superbly mediocre) GM, I tend to struggle with a number of the things that descriptions on demand needs, which is why I prep. That prep might be detail specific, or it may be a list, such as names, or 10 PCs I plug in as needed. While I’m poor at on demand as a GM, I really don’t wanna do it as a player. Much like Tom, I want to be immersed in the spread the GM lays out.

Minor notes: I really enjoyed the rant by Sean at the end. Hilarious, and I was one of the pests bothering him at the beginning of this episode for said issues (sorry about that.) Looking forward to the next episode, as I DO think easy winds have value. Maybe not great for sailing like a strong wind, but great for relaxing and cooling off. Also, I’d be happy to run Blades in the Dark for you. I don’t know how to run it either, but you said you like to be a player first, and I’d be happy to ruin that help Sean with this.



I have to say I’m with Tom - with caveats.

Most of the questions that the Alexandrian posted in his article are HORRIBLE examples.
I play to explore and discover the mysteries of the world i’m playing in.
I want to find out what the mayors secret is and figure out a way to stop it - if I find his secret diary and the dm says - “ok - you tell me what you found in there” it takes me out of the game as a player.
It cuts the legs out from under the whole process.

The situation is can work is when a player is discussing his back story - Thongar the Mighty comes from the swamp town of Madison - I think the folowing are reasonable things for the DM to ask during play:

  • What did you father do in Madison
  • You grew up there - how do the townfolk you grew up with feel about <generic war of 10 years past>
  • What was your uncles name & occupation

Questions that are “about” the player’s character are acceptable to me, I’d rather backstory came out in play rather than from an 8 page sheet.

“why did you chase down that goblin and stomp his body to a pulp?”
“Goblins burned my neighbors farm as a kid and killed my dog!!”

I’d rather that get made up on the spot - it’s personal to the character.
So Brent asking the players who grew up in a neighborhood to describe his perceived relationship an NPC to the other players is cool - but to actually define the NPC and co-create the world ehhhh.

We;re not co-writing a book, nor are the players DMing - we’re playing an RPG, my contribution is what my character does and says, same with the other players.

Frankly Brent - if I were at your table I’d rather you asked me for 10 NPC names / jobs via email BEFORE the game if it’s something you know you’re bad at.

Having it come up during the game would take me out of the game as surely as a discussion about who has seen the last episode of the Witcher, or whatever sports-ball team played last night.

My two cents - sorry for the late reply.


Speaking of late replies: You guys covered the subject perfectly. And you know me well enough to speak for me any time.

Here’s the thing: when I’m sitting down at your table (especially for the first time), I don’t know your world. I don’t know your tropes. I don’t know your rails. Is my idea totally off track with your world? A blank slate is intimidating, and who even knows where to start?

On the other hand, when I’m thrust in this situation as a GM, I know my world. I know my local personalities. I know how to keep things in my comfort zone. I can go on with too much detail on demand.

Thanks for this episode!


What Rory said. I tried to address the topic of backstory as an afterthought, but what he said was another facet of that. While the GM can certainly add to or nix elements of a character’s backstory, ultimately I want the player to provide as much of that as possible. Either before the game or during play.

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