Effectiveness of "Painting the Scene"?

So, “Painting the Scene” seems to be a pretty common technique (it’s described in this tweet

I have not had the best luck with it, and I’m curious what other people think of it. In your all’s experience, does it generally increase player engagement or otherwise improve gameplay?

If you don’t mind, I’d like to hear examples of when it worked well and/or poorly?


Could you give us some examples of how it has fallen flat when you have used it?


As an example for when it worked amazingly: We were playing Monster of the Week, and we were coming up to a Blues Club. Our GM asked us about details that showed that the club had seen better days and was struggling, and one player explained that half of the huge parking lot was now taken up by a permanent flea market, because they didn’t need all that parking space.

Later, we needed an old record player, and where but a flea market would you find something like this? Good thing that one was close by!


Sure, I can add details, if that’s helpful.

So, I’ve never used it as a GM. As a player, I honestly can’t recall it ever working well. Now, I may just not have noticed the times when it did work. (I mean, if you’re being sucked into a story, then you’re not thinking about how you’re being sucked into a story.)

In my experience, being asked to Paint the Scene takes me out of character. I suddenly have to scramble to come up with some appropriate setting detail.

Once I come up with a detail, the story just kind of moves on. Maybe I’m creating the wrong kind of details or something, but they don’t seem to improve the story or anything.

Other people seem to love the technique, so I have to wonder if I’m missing something fundamental.

I’d understand if the technique was just meant to lessen the load on the GM, but it seems like other players enjoy it for its own sake.


To the extent that you’re missing something fundamental, it may be that the technique isn’t solely about adding bells and whistles. It’s a way for the MC to get some cues about what players might find interesting about that scene/situation. It just so happens I was the player who added that Flea Market detail that @SabineV5 mentioned, because I wasn’t just interested in how the club looked run-down, but what steps they were taking to survive.

To some extent it’s kind of supposed to take you ‘out of character’ for a moment, because it’s polling the players on stuff that’d engage them. I’ve found it works best when you ask about immediately-actionable details (“What’s one way the Nazis have made it hard to approach the castle?”) maybe less-so if you’re just asking for flavor that won’t really impact the scene even if players pick up on it (“What’s a menu item that proves this is a fancy restaurant?”).

Does that help?


I have found Painting the Scene useful and fun, both as a player and a GM. When I’m given a prompt by the GM, I go for something that both hits the thematic note the GM indicated and creates a setting element I want to interact with. For example, when Jim asked us about the Nazi fortifications of Castle Glazkov, I invented a co-opted statue of a warrior woman of old Urucia, fully planning on grabbing the statue’s swords or otherwise playing into it later. As it turned out, another player’s character picked up the whole statue to use as a weapon—which I felt was a satisfying payoff!

Similarly, when I give players a Paint the Scene prompt, I lean in on it. Sometimes that means suggesting an elaboration inspired by what they said. Ex: “What tells you Undertaker’s Row once had a brush with prosperity but is now a down-on-its-luck neighborhood?” “Oddly elaborate architecture on the rowhouses that have been subdivided into apartments? Yeah, I’d say so. In fact, do some of them have Gothic flourishes like gargoyles? Great. You think you spot a shadowy figure up by one of the gargoyles but it ducks out of sight. What do you do?”

Finding my way to a “what do you do?” is important here. It might not be right away in the scene, but when I bring back a Paint the Scene detail as a prompt for action it really gives that player-generated detail some mechanical and story teeth.


I do this all the time! I love it. My players love it. I didn’t know some people don’t do this.

A great usage in my sci-fi game is generating seedy Star Wars cantinas. The players tend to use the scenery a lot more if they created it.


This might seem like an odd question, @ancusohm, but would you consider yourself much of a visual thinker?

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For me, the contrast between these two lines explains exactly why I love PtS and similar mechanics. It allows me to do more than just live in my character’s head and take on a more storytelling role. But players who value total character immersion are going to dislike it for exactly that reason.

I also think PtS requires some skill on the part of the GM to ask really juicy questions, and on everyone at the table to follow up on the answers.


I think that for some players, “total character immersion” means they can imagine themselves fully in the scene, including details the GM has not yet enumerated. It strikes me as a culture-of-play issue — at a table where players know their subjective imagined experience might readily be incorporated into a given scene, they will likely get in the habit of visualizing things more. In my experience, when you’re in the habit of doing it and you stick to the Czege Principle (“When one person is the author of both the character’s adversity and its resolution, play isn’t fun“), painting the scene can increase immersion, because the player is seeing the imagined world through the character’s eyes.


I find it incredibly effective in action scenes. I prime the players to paint in tactically interesting terrain features.

For investigative scenes, it can often be counterproductive. The player scene details can make for annoying red herrings – unless you’re playing an entirely no-myth mystery, in which case there are no such thing as red herrings.

For most other kinds of scenes, it works fine. It’s just set dressing, but it influences the scene’s tone, and you can’t overlook the subtle benefits of letting the players have some say in the scene’s tone at the outset.


Even if they’re immersed in their character and filling in details the GM didn’t describe, it takes them out into director stance when you ask them to design the set for the scene.


Like @jasonlutes suggests, I find that PtS is a way of increasing immersion because you’re prompting the players to visualize the scene themselves and express that visualization to others. That’s really powerful, and engages cognitive pathways that are very different from the usual “absorb & process the GM’s descriptions.” That might be part of why it feels jarring or like it’s taking you out of character, because it’s such a different mental process.

I work in instructional design and software training, and one of things we actively try to do is include a variety of techniques that hit on different learning preferences. So we intentionally change up between lectures, focused reading, small group discussion, and guided exercises… between step-by-step instructions vs. “here’s the finished product, let’s pick it apart and see how it works”… between telling them how something behaves and asking them a series of leading questions… etc. etc. Some topics are naturally better fits for different techniques than others, but we actively try to cycle through a multitude of techniques in our classes.

This approach means that, for any given topic, we end up using a technique that feels comfortable for some learners but less comfortable for others. But it also means that we’ll soon rotate into a different technique, and do something that makes those previously-uncomfortable learners “light up.”

I think of Paint the Scene as one of these alternative, non-lecture techniques. It hits the preferences of certain players and really makes them light up, but other players feel uncomfortable or are just left kind of cold by it.

And that’s… fine. It doesn’t usually last very long, and if you don’t get a lot out of it, realize that other players at the table might be getting a lot out of it.

There’s definitely skill and technique involved, too. As a GM, I’ve definitely made the mistake of invoking Paint the Scene after I already asked a whole bunch of questions to the players, and the whole thing feels really drawn out. I’ve also asked Paint the Scene questions where the core concept wasn’t “grabby” enough to really elicit interesting answers. (It’s been particularly painful when I’ve made both mistakes together.)

From a player’s side, too, there are differing levels of comfort and skill with it. Like, @JimLikesGames describes taking the prompt we were given (“what tells you that this blues club has seen better days and is struggling”) and intentionally taking it to the next level, asking himself “what’s something that would demonstrate what they’re doing about it?” and answering that question, without drawing attention to it, and that’s… golden. I aspire to that level of intentionality.

By contrast, one of the folks I regularly play with face-to-face consistently imagines scenes and spaces completely differently from how everyone else imagines them, to the point that they give answers that are incompatible with everyone else’s answers. So anytime I use a Paint the Scene technique with them, I have to be extra careful about how I frame it and/or just expect that there will be a lot of discussion and negotiation after they answer. Which, again, is okay. Their answers (and the subsequent conversation) often make things to in completely different directions than anyone was expecting, and that can be exhilarating. But it can also be exhausting, too, and I’m therefore cautious about using PtS with that group.


I think if someone needs “total” immersion, they probably wouldn’t enjoy the games I run and that’s ok. I run kind of “writers room” style games and PtS is great for that. But that style isn’t for everyone.


There’s no such thing as “total immersion.” it’s broken every time you have to look at your sheet to make a roll.

Asking “what shocking thing do you see when you step through the door” is way less immersion-breaking than counting up bonuses on your sheet before you make a roll IMO.


I don’t see that as such a clear line, conceptually or experientially. Players are asked, “What do you do?” all the time; “What do you see?” is just another prompt for them to describe their character’s experience.

In my experience, the point at which immersion is disrupted — where the cognitive shift into “directorial stance” occurs — is entirely subjective, varying from player to player and dependent upon their personal sense of immersion, their group’s play culture, and the specific prompt.

Running Blades in the Dark last year, I asked a player, “What does your workshop look like?” and watched their answer take them deeper into the fiction. Running Dread last week, I asked a player, “What are you wearing?” and watched them freeze up. The art on the GM side is in figuring out what kinds of prompts to offer and to whom.


In my experience the technique in question improves players buy-in to the game and what is happening. Mostly because it gives them space to add interesting for them detail to the scene.

Having said that please remember that it is very Writers Room approach to gaming. IMHO it is not for players who like being told a story, this is for players who want to contribute to the story.

When this technique worked the best for me as GM and player.
When GM asked different question to every player - that way you get a lot of details rather than 4 details of the same thing.
So if my players walk to a fancy party I’d ask to each player of the following questions:
“What do you see that let’s you know that only those super rich attend this party?”
“What let’s you know that waiters are also security guards?”
“What is the tournament going on in the corner of the room?”
“Who is here that you did not expect?”
Ask questions that you as MC don’t know that answer to but that the answer will be interesting/important.
Also target the questions to players+characters. The question about the tournament will be awesome to ask of character who is like a thief / con artist.
Question about waiters as security should be asked of fighter so that we can see his expertise on it.
Also inform your players beforehand (if they are new to this) that it is best if they give the most juicy and interesting answer and not the safest answer. So the answer to "Who is here that you did not expect?" can be “Oh no, it is my worst enemy, Baron Bloodheart!” or a very boring one “some unknown beggar”.

When this technique worked not so good for me as player/GM.
When the question was the same to every player and not very actionable or important or the detail I’ve added never came up.

I hope it helps :slight_smile:


You never know what little detail will be reincorporated, but by creating them, you’ve given everyone a palette to work from - little creative hooks that may or may not reappear. Since a table full of your smart friends are invariably going to contribute way better, more surprising stuff than any one of you would alone, I feel like this technique isn’t just good, it is essential.

Here’s a positive example: In Night Witches the play group collectively draws each duty station from a series of prompts. Someone established that the runway at Duty Station 5, Zambrów, Poland, was carved out of a wheat field. This detail really stuck in people’s minds, and later on someone’s plane landed in a fiery wreck, and of course the wheat field caught on fire. This opened up a huge story beat for us as our camp was threatened and other interesting things spun out of the initial scene painting.


Task immersion vs. character immersion:

Task immersion is about being really focused on and interested in the fiction, in this case. I’m immersed in the task of playing an RPG. Character immersion is all that, but while inhabiting my character, bleeding their feelings into mine (and probably vice versa), trying to embody their quirks and foibles, and making my decisions from their point of view.

If I’m inhabiting my character, say her name is Anna, I want to make my decisions based on my Anna’s internal motives. So if you ask, “Diana doesn’t come out of the bar for a long time. What do you do?” I can answer, “Crap! I go in after like 15 minutes and look around.” That’s what Anna does. Anna isn’t micro-managing, but she’s alert to risks here. So she gives Diana time, just in case, but after too long? She’s going in.

Now you ask me to paint the scene. “It’s a dingy faux-Irish pub that’s seen better days. What do you see that tells you it’s a hive of scum and villainy?” Are you asking Anna or Jon?

If I am making the decision to add a scene element from Anna’s internal motives, there is only one answer. “I see Diana. She lost track of time talking to the bartender.” Anna wants to see Diana safe and sound, so that’s what I want to be thinking about as a player. If you ask me what Anna wants, that’s what she wants.

If I am making the decision to add a scene element from Jon’s perspective, I want to use the opportunity to add complications, add interesting color, or control the scene’s tone. Thinking about it, Jon wants the story to be dark and mysterious. “I see a well-dressed raven-haired woman drinking a whiskey. At the empty seat next to her is a half-empty bottle of Shiner Bock, Diana’s favorite beer from her time spent in Texas, but there’s no money on the bar.”

“I see Diana” is all Anna wants.

“I see signs that things are going bad, but also a way to get more information” is all Jon wants.

Some people are OK switching stance rapidly. They can jump into director and back to actor in the blink of an eye. I can switch to Director easily, but it takes me a few minutes to switch back to actor stance. I don’t think I’m that unusual. Getting into someone else’s head is a lot harder/slower than stepping back into my own.

So when I play RPGs that give me a lot of directorial control, I spend the whole time in director or author stance. I start referring to my character in third person. And that’s fine. That’s fun. I think I usually prefer it, in fact.

But if your goal is to run a campaign that encourages a lot of bleed and actor-stance play, you’re going to fail with me if you keep taking me back up into director stance. I will probably still have fun, but it won’t be what you wanted.

Does that make sense?


I’ll just add, because I don’t think anyone else has said it, that this is a great way to

  • Keep people engaged with scenes that their character isn’t in.
  • Create something that feels scary/high class/whatever to them, instead of what you think will seem scary/high class/whatever (but which might not seem that way to them). In effect they’re pushing their own buttons for you.