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I, and one of other players in my play-by-chat group, have expressed a desire to improve the narration of our character's actions.

When they brought this up, I noticed the sort of unvaried descriptions I'd been giving as well. This is more my character Hrafnhildur 'Fin' Arnursdottir (she/her):

Fin hurries to keep up.

Fin walks into the room slowly, looks around and up and takes note of the closed rooms.

Pretty much every single action has that structure of name first, then the action they're taking.

The issue isn't an issue with clarity, formatting or attribution. It's with the structure of the sentence.

We have found ways to express in character and out of character messages (out of character goes in parentheses), and differentiating between speech (quotation marks) and actions (unformatted or in italics).

As players, we are each only in control of one character, so there's no inherent need to preface messages with character names so that message is attributed correctly. If it's relevant, but I can't imagine it being so, we only have one 'channel', and we're open and don't need to pass secret messages.

For me it's just become natural to write '<Character name> does...' for each bit of character narration. And regardless of whether this is acceptable or you don't consider it a 'problem', at least two of the players (my self and my fellow player) would like to change this.

Also, we're both aware that a solution might not need to always work for every situation, because the problem is that the narration doesn't vary. If only half of the messages narrating actions were in the same format it would feel sufficiently varied.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Do you read fantasy fiction? Ever had a fiction writing class (college level, by preference)? Written fiction stories? \$\endgroup\$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Oct 28, 2021 at 18:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ @zeiss yes I have to all three, but writing in a game is going to be different than writing prose. A good answer should naturally cover that \$\endgroup\$ Oct 28, 2021 at 18:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ I agree, but knowing what you have to build on will help answers. \$\endgroup\$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Oct 28, 2021 at 18:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Zeiss I can't vouch for any of the other players though \$\endgroup\$ Oct 28, 2021 at 18:32

3 Answers 3

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Play by Chat made easy!

I am very deep in the MUSH scene. MUSHes use Telnet connections to transmit pure text, and text formatting basically is not existing on that level. On many a MUSH you can only use ASCII only. So, what techniques do help one when having nothing but text and wanting to write elaborate posts?

Let's take a very quick look at Exalted 3. Or rather, the Stunt mechanic from it:

For an action to qualify as a stunt, it must fulfill two criteria, as approved by the Storyteller:
• The action must be cooler than a basic declaration of intent (see below for examples).
• The action cannot be boring. 1

in a good Play by Chat - be it a MUSH or not - we want to make every one of our poses qualify as a Stunt (even if that isn't a mechanic)!

Now, we have a goal, and we want to reach it with a varied start. So we need to first get out of the very simple A does X pattern first, and then we can start to vary it.

More than A does X

React 101

If you don't know what to do, start by reading the post you react to! Let's assume the last text you can react to is about this:

Goldmoon put her right hand on the hilt of her sword, the left one picking up the holy symbol of Paladine to present it to the skeleton archer. "Turn, you unholy!"

What can we do to make our own pose more elaborate? We can use some of Michael's pose to inform about the timing of our own character's actions. We could use it as triggers to show our own character's emotions - and we can react to verbal queues, even if those are not aimed to us!

Flint, worried about his companion, stepped up next to Goldmoon, readying his shield. "Are you sure this will work?"

Exapand!

Now, we have our basic idea. We can always expand our text, get a little more elaborate. How does Flint look worried? How do his steps fall? How is his voice? Is there any significance or noticeable thing about things you do? A certain swing to some motion? Is there a reason your character says something?

The basic action is the same in this example, but I added details, even some that are utterly useless. But they do add to the look and feel of the pose:

Flint, visibly worried about his companion from the deep furrow between his old eyes, sighed a short moment before he hurried his heavy dwarven boots. Coming to a halt next to Goldmoon, he braced the shield he had smithed all those years ago when leaving his family. Glancing with his weary eyes over its battered rim at the archer, he muttered under his beard: "Are you sure this will work? Your last attempt at this didn't work so well."

Telegraph!

So far, all we did were actions and how we tell about them. But we can do more! We can indicate what our character will do in certain events! In HEMA that's called telegraphing. In MUSH-ing, often a little telegraphing helps to make other players react better, as one gets a little better hint on how the stance is. See how I can add a tiny bit of intent into the extended version?

Flint, visibly worried about his companion from the deep furrow between his old eyes, sighed a short moment before he hurried his heavy dwarven boots. Coming to a halt next to Goldmoon, he braced the shield he had smithed all those years ago when leaving his family. Ready to dart in front of the cleric, he glanced over the battered rim of it with his weary eyes at the archer. Only when he had found the footing, he muttered under his beard: "Are you sure this will work? Your last attempt at this didn't work so well."

Season!

Now, we have a solid pose on itself, but we can do more! We might (with GM approval) add seasoning. That's everything that isn't our own character or what they are doing. Things that the character notices, things that describe the surroundings more, maybe even expound on relationships. Things that might seem superfluous, but give other players more to react to.

Flint, visibly worried about his companion from the deep furrow between his old eyes, sighed a short moment before he hurried his heavy dwarven boots over the rough cobblestones cracked by the wear of decades. Coming to a halt next to Goldmoon, he braced the shield he had smithed all those years ago when leaving his family. Ready to dart in front of the cleric that wasn't even a third of his age, he glanced over the battered rim of it with his weary eyes at the splintered bones of the reanimated archer and then past it to the dark hallway it had emerged from. Only when he had found the footing, he muttered under his beard: "Are you sure this will work? Your last attempt at this didn't work so well. And there are more of them coming."

But Seasoning needs to be done a little more carefully: Never impose details on others that alter their characters without their agreement. You always should ask the player if introducing something about their character is OK beforehand. If you want to alter or add to the scene, like adding that more of the archers are coming, clear it with the Narrator or player in charge.

Variation to victory

@emit it!

In MUSH parlance, there are three ways to make text appear:

  • say (") will format it as Character says: "..."
  • pose (:) which starts with the character's (chatter's) name
  • @emit starts without any preface

Now, how do we turn our pose into an @emit? There are various ways, and they are what makes the text often more enjoyable, but might come at the cost of clarity, unless one makes sure to include who's making the @emit somewhere in it.

So make sure to have the name or a unique identifier somewhere in the paragraph if you do this!

Start with Speech

The easiest is to start with something you say, for example as a direct reaction to someone's action or speech. Technically this only pushes the name down the line some, but hey, it varies the paragraph style and gets us an immediate thing to react to for others.

"Wait for me!" Flint growled as he started to hurry to Goldmoon's side, his heavy boots...

Refer to the character with a descriptor

You don't always need to refer to the character with their name. Flint is a dwarf, the only one in the group even! Why not use that? Oh, and he's old

The old dwarf sighed, visibly worried about his companion...

Sub-sentence Order

Sometimes, you can alter the order of the first sentence to put the name or description much later. This is especially true if you have an explanatory part in the beginning. look back to how we Expanded on the sentence? Just push Flint back to the main sentence and start with the subordinate sentence about how he looks!

Visibly worried about his companion from the deep furrow between his old eyes, Flint sighed a short moment before he hurried his heavy dwarven boots.

Reacting 201: Start with it!

Let's look back to reacting. We could directly start there, pointing to what we react to in the first place, then do our reaction and work from there. And we can easily combine it with the descriptor instead of name.

As the light gleams on the icon of Paladine getting pulled from Goldmoon's pocket, the old dwarf's face deeply furrowed between his old eyes. With a grunt, he spat out a short "Wait for me" ...

Telegraphing 201: Start with it!

Wait, we can start with the reaction, so we can start with telegraphing too! Just pull the telegraphed action to the front, indicating what Flint would and would not do in the time between his current and the next pose!

Ready to dart in front of the cleric, Flint sighed a short moment before he hurried his heavy dwarven boots to get next to Goldmoon. "Wait for me!" he grunted, ...

Moodify!

Now, here you could go off the rails and extremely moodify the text. That means we go all out and start with describing stray thoughts and other internal workings of the character. This can become really confusing though, so... make sure who is the actor. Also, this is going in the deep end of writing.

The darkness of the tunnels and the whining of the wind in the cave entry felt almost like home to Flint, the shadows cast by the sole torch held by Tanis behind him distorting their silhouettes at the wall. Inhaling deeply when the woman, much too young to even consider adventuring in the dwarf's opinion, stepped forward with that carved symbol of a God he didn't even believe in, he let out a sighed comment to wait for him as the muscles that felt sluggish after the long day's trek began to shuffle his body over the broken cobblestones. ...


1 - Exalted 3rd Edition, p.187

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    \$\begingroup\$ Wow, that’s an awesome answer! I’m saving that for future reference as a DM, and printing it off for my kids next time they’ve got a creative writing assignment… \$\endgroup\$
    – Dan W
    Oct 31, 2021 at 9:17
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Oh Captain, My Captain

Playing by chat is a task that has frequent pitfalls due to the lack of expression that any logical mind can fall into. You want to be concise and direct so that other players know what is occurring but it can come off as lifeless. But you're not chatting for a game, you're creating a narrative. So it's imperative that you use language to its fullest extent. Especially when describing characters acting.

Given the two examples we can only see the actions taken. We can't see how they feel so it's more difficult for the audience (the other players) to develop a connection. Which would be my first suggestion. Put some feeling into your words and your deeds. Why is fin walking slowly into the room? Fin could be skulking suspiciously into the room to case the joint for a heist. Fin could nervously mutter about the dangers of traps before tip-toeing into the room and marking out potential threats. The adjectives and adverbs only do so much, it's up to the player to convey how a character feels through text.

Given you're playing a game, there's definitely going to be times it's better to or worse to add emotion. You don't have to narrate every single blow given. That's a recipe for burning out your brain. However, practicing that emotional enhancement will bleed into more and more of the game as it goes on.

Emotional Apple Pie

If you've taken writing courses then you know filler. In many ways, filler can be bad especially when it distracts from the narrative being told. But for characters who are active, filler can cover holes in the expressionless sheet that moves from place to place doing tasks. Narrate the actions that precede the important actions. Narrate your failures. Narrate the things that don't matter.

Fin is loathe to rise from their sleep but slowly awakens at the smell of food. Fin looks at their broken lock picks in disbelief. Fin recoils from the vicious blow before attacking back.

Characters are active all the time. So the narration should be as active. Again, this isn't to suggest you need to overly narrate everything the character does. And there should be time given to other players so that they can respond. Emotional filler can turn into character conversations or developments.

Whose Line is it Anyway?

If you want to go further away from narrating character actions, consider who's the actor. Absolutely, every character is the main character. But does Fin notice something in the dark or do Fin's eyes dart toward a glimmer in the dark? Does Fin attack unexpectedly or does Fin's dagger shoot out of its sheathe before burying it in the unsuspecting foe? Change who/what is doing the action. Focus on specific parts/tools. Narrate as if the character is the spectator.

Ultimately, character/action statements are the most concise way to provide information. Depending on how fast you play, it may be the only way to convey information fast enough. But to change up your style, consider these suggestions to add emotion into your actions (and more importantly to break up long lines of x does y). Look for opportunities to react, even if the reaction is narrative filler. Consider compounding actions, something narrative then something mechanical or vice versa. Or even consider making the character be spectator to their own actions. And don't forget to mix and match. Variety is the spice of life after all. So long as you have fun doing it.

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I'm in a play-by-post game (Dungeon Fantasy RPG: Powered by GURPS in my case), have been for more than six years (or about three months character time). We usually post twice a day, vs. every few minutes in play-by-chat. I don't see any issues with myself or other players posting repetitive or uninteresting descriptions of their actions.

Our situation allows more time to imagine, compose, and even edit our posts. It's similar, however, in that we're only allowed to describe our own actions, not what they do to other PCs, NPCs, or the world. I find a background of writing (ability to summon synonyms on command, good spelling and grammar on the fly, good sentence structure on the fly) helps tremendously, though with the time frame we play in even players who don't seem to have much of a writing background do pretty well (perhaps the format tends to select for that ability, however).

What I would suggest to your group is to consider slowing down your pace a little -- surely not so far as the two actions per day of mine (sometimes it's hard to remember the name of an NPC your character met "yesterday" as that was two weeks ago for the player, and the NPC spoke only once), but perhaps set a standard of so many minutes for a player to post to the chat -- a time frame long enough to think more about what you're writing, instead of merely banging out literally the first thing that comes to mind. I commonly take five minutes or more just to write one of my responses, blending in RP elements, in-character discussion/interaction with other PCs or NPCs, character speech styles, and personality, and I think that length of time (say, ten minute posting limit?) is close to the right length so people don't feel rushed in posting their actions and have time to embellish a little.

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