Effectiveness of "Painting the Scene"?


@Jon, it completely makes sense and is an excellent and helpful articulation of how immersion works for you. All I’m saying is that, as you note, it works differently for different players, and also that the taxonomy of stances sometimes fails at describing actual play experience. For some people, the jumping back and forth does not exist — it may be a more fluid shifting, or a kind of immersion that encompasses multiple stances at once.

As an aside, I am confused by one aspect of your example:

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.

“I see Diana” does not appear to answer the GM’s question here (“What do you see that tells you it’s a hive of scum and villainy?”). Is this an example of how you might answer a different question than the one asked, or just an oversight made when composing the post?


Depends on the game and more importantly the game group. Sometimes it’s a good idea and sometimes you do it less


I don’t use PtS as much as maybe I should but sometimes when I do I push a further restriction on things–like it’s not just “Why does this ship look like it has an ill fate” but also “Okay, for the journey to Vinland, gimme a detail of the trip, choose from either supernatural or deadly.”


Yeah, that reply had me wondering whether Diana was Scum or a Villain.


Oh, I’m definitely not a visual thinker. I’ve heard that people frequently get mental images when they’re reading a book, but I hardly ever do. Like, I’ll remember if a character was described as tall, but I don’t actual imagine a tall person.

Come to think of it, that might be why I personally don’t find coming up with visuals to be super engaging.

Thank you for the responses, everyone. To be clear, I’m not against Painting the Scene. I’m just having some trouble understanding why it work so well for other people.

I guess I should focus less on not getting in the way of the story and more on actively steering the story. Thanks again.


What senses do you think in? One thing I really like is when we use other senses for descriptions in games. Pack of Strays (by @pawper) stresses smell and the game is better for it. Are there other senses you could use to “paint the scene” when you’re asked, or when you are prompting?


Um, I mostly think in just words, I guess. But thank you for the advice. I can probably find some scene-setting writing exercises online.


I think @ancusohm raises an important point here – PtS tends to rely heavily on visual imagination (it’s right there in the name). The standard PtS question begins “What do you see that …” And even if we move away from the visual (as @yoshi mentions) the idea is still grounded in sensory experience. That’s great if everyone at the table has a really rich sensory imagination of what’s happening. And as several people mentioned, grounding this kind of player contribution in the character’s sense experience can help to maintain character immersion and avoid pushing players into a wholly directorial/writer’s room kind of perspective. But that can be a stumbling block for players who don’t have that same kind of detailed sensory imagination. So I wonder what would be gained (and lost) by framing PtS questions in less sensory ways altogether. Instead of “What do you see here that tells you this place is dangerous,” you could ask “How do you know this place is dangerous?”


Hmmmmm… so you feel that being asked to imagine something decreases your engagement, and you feel that the way you imagine things better is through words…

Is it possible that you have aphantasia?

Yeah, I guess this is way outside the realm of role-playing games, but you might want to read this and see if it applies to you.


Here is the original blog post I wrote about the technique: https://www.gauntlet-rpg.com/blog/paint-the-scene

The key for Paint the Scene is you use it to reinforce a thematic idea. It’s more than just set dressing. It’s a way of getting players to flesh out a scene thematically.


I just rushed my example.

“I see Diana buying a pack of cigarettes from a machine. Weren’t those outlawed?” Fits better


Just to add one more divergent viewpoint: I love GMing, and I am a visual thinker, but I do not enjoy painting the scene as a player as much as I enjoy evocative descriptions by the GM, and I’ve found that my local friends I play with tend to feel similarly. When a GM asks me what my character sees that tells me such and such about a scene, I kind of freeze up and get nervous and realize I need to stretch creative muscles I wasn’t planning on using, like starting a workout on an exercise bike and suddenly having someone drop a barbell in my hands.

I think we lean too much on the fuzzy theoretical concept of “immersion” in trying to explain this. There are ways to paint the scene that are still 100% “behind my character’s eyes,” after all, and as noted above, looking at your character sheet can certainly take you out of that perspective. Rather, I think this is better understood as a matter of different styles of play, different skills among players, and/or a type of “code switching” not unlike rapidly jumping between different languages in conversation. When I’m GMing, I am focused on improv and evocative description. When I am playing — thanks to a largely “traditional” roleplaying background going back 30 years — I let those creative muscles relax a bit more, and slide into a more reactive way of thinking and problem solving. I’ve tried a lot of story games that require or encourage players to share a certain amount of traditional GM duties, and I’ve had fun with them. And I notice this comes up a decent amount in Gauntlet games, even old school D&D style games, so I’m gradually coming to expect it more, not feel so discombobulated when it happens, and find the enjoyment where I can. Still, due to personal preferences shaped by my background, I just don’t like that approach as much as when I get to separate player duties and GM duties more discretely. I love GMing, but I also appreciate when being a player can serve as a welcome break from more creatively exhausting duties.