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To clarify, especially after Covid I have become an exclusively text based game GM and I am looking to improve my description of events (and maybe add a bit of an artistic flare) but that results in me taking an abysmal amount of time to post which can result in my players being bored or at the very least kill the pacing. As such I have been looking for ways to increase my pace without giving up on the quality.

In summary, what are the techniques a GM can use to quicken their response time without shortening the posts?

Note: These games are not asynchronous. As such timely response is important. It is also why I didn't use PbP tag.

Things I have tried:

  • Pre writing decorations: While this worked at the start, as my players progressed they either found alternate locations I hadn't thought of or I had to retcon some things because the player they were intended for was not there. (For example the researcher guy who was supposed to decipher writings couldn't attend that session and I ended up changing that since the writings were supposed to be a significant reveal so the players had to get them somehow.)

  • Writing while players are talking: I tried this but this resulted in small writing errors that players caught and made jokes about which ended up ruining the suspension of disbelief. As a quick example while the players were discussing outside of the audience room I wrote that one of the NPC's briefly noted that a kobold adventurer is rare before giving plot information but the kobold had used disguise self while outside but after I started writing and I forgot to remove that part which caused my players to go "She has true sight!" which she didn't.

What is not working:

  • When I write posts quickly the emphasis can be misinterpreted or missed altogether causing my players to not understand what I am signalling them. Again going by an example. There were two golems outside of a dungeon that were activated due to a dungeon delving attempt that failed. Players defeated them and went inside. I described how the facility lacked and how there were two statues with the exact same appearance as the ones they just fought. I was trying to signal 'These golems haven't activated yet but they will if you power the place up' (Which they could by sacrificing spell points.) The players missed it and ended up being surprised by the golems.

  • When I am trying to describe something I can get engrossed and miss certain parts of players posts causing me to ignore a players request to do something. For example I said there were runic writings and one player decided to inspect the runes so I started writing them but I missed another player asking if they can use comprehend languages.

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    \$\begingroup\$ What have you tried? What’s not working for you? What’s not working for your players? How much time are you needing/wanting? This is a great question for experience based answers! \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Feb 2, 2023 at 14:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ I've added the play-by-chat tag which is used to cover synchronous text based media. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 2, 2023 at 14:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ A relevant detail may be how fast you can type. What’s your words per minute? \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Feb 2, 2023 at 14:28

4 Answers 4

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Sacrifice specificity for flair.

You can write in great detail about the curliques on the cabinet facings and the details of the room that show a miniature portrayal of the people's lives within.

Or you can use adjectives and cut to the chase. 'Elegant', 'intricate' carvings litter the dozens of cabinets in this room, and strewn across the floor are items that give away the details of the lives of the squatters who camped here.

What details are those? It's left vague. What are the carvings? Left vague. How many cabinets and where? Left vague. How big's the room? Left vague.

You go into further detail if the players say something like 'I inspect the cabinets'. Not too much extra detail. Just another sentence on the cabinets. They're made of fine wood, painted in pastel shades, musty with dust, and completely empty. Done.

You can either go into detail or be fancy, with a time crunch. Doing both takes much longer. Likewise, don't try to think of the perfect adjective. Just put an adjective in there. Can't think of something for 'intricate'? Just toss something in there. Gilded. Fancy. Expensive. Carefully. Raunchily. Disquietingly. Whatever. Your players won't know you couldn't think of a good synonym for intricate, or that you intended these to be finely carved cabinets rather than expensive but gaudy ones carved with raunchy woodland scenes.

Often a random adjective will lead to more interest for some reason. Likewise, it prompts you to do less pre-planning and roll with building plot around whatever your players are looking at instead which helps avoid railroading in a big way.

However this is basically the nature of text based roleplaying. It takes longer, there's less punch to things, and it's easier for people to lose interest. Innately, these are traits of it. Brevity, waiting until people ask before offering more detail, and sacrificing detail and specificity by adding pizzazz to your (short) descriptions instead all help but they won't remove the problem entirely.

nb: You can also pre-write descriptions for npcs and locations and items you expect the party to come into contact with. But this is a very obvious thing, so my assumption here is that you're talking about the times when you are writing replies during the game and are unable to rely on pre-written text.

I am specifically not suggesting that you pre-write generic text you can insert into a lot of situations or mix and match on the fly because very few people are capable of doing that successfully and it usually comes across as very awkward and stilted instead.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "You can also pre-write descriptions for npcs and locations and items you expect the party to come into contact with." Also possible to pre-write more generic descriptions. Maybe of "traveller", "inn", "cave", "forest", etc. They can be used if players encounter some these naturally. Rather than just for pre-planned content. \$\endgroup\$
    – VLAZ
    Feb 2, 2023 at 14:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ @VLAZ I cover that in my last paragraph. I've seen a lot of people fail to do that well, and you can look at 'choose your own adventure' books to see how hard that is to get right. My general view of that is that it is very hard to do without odd details coming out as jarring, like your description is of a human peasant but you're days out in the wilderness and etc. You can recover those, you can write well enough or have enough snippets that it works, but i've also seen people overload on written text and slow a game down trying to find it both in voice and in text. \$\endgroup\$
    – user2754
    Feb 2, 2023 at 22:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ @user2754 or your descriptors need to be short enough. like "Green-haired Gnome Druid" \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Feb 2, 2023 at 23:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ "It takes longer, there's less punch to things, and it's easier for people to lose interest." In terms of the roleplaying and description of environments, sure. In terms of combat - text-based RPGing can take place in environments that are greatly assisted by e.g. dice-rolling bots. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 4, 2023 at 12:07
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You can't have it all.

Sorry.

You may have heard the adage (popular in software development and/or project management) that a product can be done "Fast, Cheap, and Good: Pick Two". You have the same situation here. Synchronous ad hoc text-based gaming is hard. Your text prompts can be timely, descriptive, and accurate/mistake-free. Pick two.

If your players find that malapropisms ruin their immersion, you're going to have a hard time. For the record you misused a couple of words in this question. It happens. Nobody's perfect. Most professional writers spend at least as long editing as they do writing... but you're doing all this on the fly. Neither the process nor the outcome is going to be quite the same as a standard TTRPG. Sometimes you're going to have to go back a few lines and rewrite or even have a do-over (as in the kobold example). Your players - and you - will need to learn to live with that kind of thing, if synchronous text-based gaming is what you want to do.

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I am actively using Telnet to play in an RPG, and as such face making up descriptions in multiple ways. Of course, I could handcraft descriptions for things spending hours upon hours on making a wall of text, but others don't wait for that. So often, I experience I need a little help to get the fingers flowing.

Get me a prompt!

Sometimes, the item that is described won't be used later again or has little significance. In those cases, I use a few-traits model. That means, I only describe at most three traits of a thing to describe, and if it is ignored, it's gone. If it's investigated, I make up more stuff as needed.

For a person, that'd be age, gender & species, and a noticeable trait, while for a place I describe the use, condition, and noticeable trait. The noticeable trait can be anything from a single keyword to a short sentence. As needed, you can add more keywords, but fewer are better.

  • [teenage] [female human] [punk with pink hair]
  • [old] [male elf] [priest]
  • [hallway] [dirty] [oak closet]
  • [library] [clean] [red glass window]

Those keywords can be directly arranged to make up the bulk of a sentence:

There's a teenage female human punk with pink hair.

There's an old male elf priest in the dirty hallway with the oak closet.

The library is clean and intimidates with red glass windows.

Pick-and-choose elements

As an extension of the improvisation, I do have lists of traits. With those, I can pick together a character's description within a few seconds. This works somewhat fast, both for repeated use if I remember to save the keywords, and throwaways. Typical columns from the NPC list that I prepare in advance are:

  • name, hair color, species/culture, clothing style, body shape, age bracket, and a single memorable trait.

During the game, this can result in NPCs that appear like these:

  • Alrik Cobbler, black hair, human, red shirt/brown trousers/sandals, heavyweight, late 40s, missing the right eye. - used in a The Dark Eye game
  • Halfdan, blonde, Dane, green-blue herringbone patterned wool tunic/silver bracelet, lithe and meager, late teen, scars all over the back - used in an Ars Magica game.

The process also works for rooms and places, but it needs different source lists for different types of rooms. In a document I use to help guide the description process for a modern setting telnet-based RPG, I have lists of elements that a typical room contains. Not all elements are mandatory, but the list helps me think of items to mention or not.

  • Hall: closet, smoke alarm, light, heating/window/AC, doorbell

From the elements I set up for those, I just chose these to reflect a disused house:

  • Hall: white cupboard, missing alarm, bare lightbulb, capped pipes protruding from the floor, missing doorbell

Taking these prompts to create a description is less than a minute, but it was longer than just chaining the descriptors as in the previous section:

The hall of the house only features one few things: the massive white cupboard is illuminated by the bare lightbulb in its fitting on the ceiling. capped pipes indicate where the heating used to be, the smoke alarm and doorbell are missing.

The fewer keywords you actually use for the description, the clear that puts the emphasis on those elements that are actually there. Compare the above to this shorter description:

The hall of the house only features the white cupboard and the bare lightbulb dangling from the ceiling.

By eliminating the missing parts, I put emphasis on the cupboard and the lightbulb, each getting one adjective only. Players might try the light switch and look for the contents of the cupboards now, but nobody will randomly try to rip the water pipes from the floor that were in the more elaborate prompt.

The good part about using element lists is, that you can pre-generate the traits and spellcheck the origin lists. If you are good with excel, you can use a dropdown menu to manually choose entries, or you can use a random number generator to pick for you, and then adjust the output.

The downside is, that creation of the source lists can take quite a lot of time, and you might miss out on things you suddenly feel the need for during the GMming. However, if you have pre-prepared the lists, and maybe a few entries, you almost naturally steer towards...

pre-preparing large numbers of descriptors

In one case, I had generated an entire town's population of NPCs. I started by generating names for all of them, using a random draw of first names from the relevant culture's naming list and a reduced list of family names. A random number generator assigned an age to each entry. Then I sorted for the surname, made sure that most families had at least one (near) adult member and then assigned professions to whole families where the surname didn't indicate one. Then I picked general familial traits that would be shared - usually the hair-color or a general build.

For example, the cobbler's family had all black hair and was of shorter build, while the harbormaster and his kids had green eyes and naturally red hair. Then some of these prepared family "blanks" were spiced with special traits that I wanted to use later as hooks - the Harbormaster's family had a calico cat, which would go missing midway in the campaign. Some families did not get a trait but individuals got pre-determined traits: The missing eye of Alrik for example was defined at this stage, as I'd need him as one of the town's veterans.

All character entries that were not determined in this initial preparation stage were kept blank to be filled in later when I used the NPC. As each of the key elements constitutes a field, documenting the ad-hoc assignment was a thing of only a few words in each empty column. Due to the setup of the campaign, in many cases, the noticeable trait ended up as the date and area of the town, in which the NPC died.

Looking at the entries for the ended campaign, I spied that the daughter of the cobbler reads still like this, since the start of the game. Apparently, I never got around to using this NPC, like quite some others.

  • Hesindegood Cobbler, black hair, human, ??/??/??, short, 11, ??

alerts can help focus

One thing telnet doesn't do on its own is alert you of incoming messages. because of that, I have set up my telnet client with audible alerts triggering on specific keywords, highlighting them in a different color. For example, the OOC-tag is highlighted red, my login name is mint, and direct messages are yellow. With the OOC and the direct message I also get a beep. My screen then looks like this:

Fun with Triggers

If you are using discord as your chat client of note, you can set up the alerts to sound on every line, or you require players to use @MaikoChikyu to announce actions and thus prompt the alert. Both of these require chat discipline, which is something to learn as a group.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Honestly I'm just impressed that there are still people around who use (and know how to use) Telnet. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 4, 2023 at 12:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KarlKnechtel MUSHing is not dead. \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Feb 4, 2023 at 12:36
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Are you taking time to think of the description or are you hamstrung by typing?

The former you can practice with flashcards to speed up your reaction or take some classes in improv to get faster at being creative.

The latter you need a different input medium. If you can't do video or voice calls. Stenography is an alternative text input method used when speed is key it is used in courtrooms and subtitling live TV events with practice you can get over 300 words per minute which is comfortably above normal speaking speed, traditionally machines and courses were expensive but these days there are hobbyists, USB peripherals you can get for under $100 and free online resources. The big downside is it takes months or years of practice though some say they can get close to their keyboard speeds in 3 months.

Another option is finding some software which can do Text to Speech (TTS) although finding a good option can be tricky in itself and they do make mistakes.

https://www.openstenoproject.org/plover/

A more sane option would be so macros or random generation tables with pre written descriptive flavour text and all you have to do is tweak them for the given situation. macros could also help with saving on typing out long common names or places.

Another sane option is let the players add some descriptive flavour themselves and bring them into the world building experience.

Realistically avoiding mistakes takes time and even if you free up some time by getting better at thinking and writing you'll still need time to react to the player's messages and proof-check your reply. Shorter responses will help with both, tell the players you'll be happy to elaborate on what the PC's view or inspect.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm confused about your suggestion to change the input medium. The format is a text format, neither text to speech nor shortcut language system (that is arcane scrible to other people) would help them. Speech to text might be an option, but in any case, this reads more like a list of suggestions than ecxperienced based advise. Have you tested these, what were your results, and how could they apply that advice to their table? \$\endgroup\$
    – Akixkisu
    Feb 3, 2023 at 16:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ With regard to speech-to-text, I doubt any program could provide the reliability I would want for DMing a text game. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 3, 2023 at 16:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Akixkisu sometimes people don't realize that other-than-text is readily available to them (for example, if playing on Discord they might not have considered the option of a voice call). \$\endgroup\$ Feb 4, 2023 at 12:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KarlKnechtel a good frame challenge will lead off with that premise, and establish itself clearly. \$\endgroup\$
    – Akixkisu
    Feb 4, 2023 at 12:55

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