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

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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

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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.


I think the way you frame or present the prompt can make a great difference to some people, too.

Are you answering “in-character”, or not? What imaginary senses are you using?

Let’s take this example:

You could frame this in a variety of ways. Do you say, “The waiters aren’t just waiters; what else are they?” That puts a lot of authorial responsibility on the player’s plate. There are lots of possible “wrong” answers (“They’re clowns!”), but a lot of room to add a twist to the story and take it in another direction. The player has real “director-level” input into the scene and plot.

On the other hand, you could say, “your instincts pick up something that’s off about the waiters. What do you notice about their body language that might suggest they’re more than just waiters?”

Now the player has a chance to add some description, but the nature of their “hidden identity”, while constrained somewhat by the player’s answer, is pretty wide open. They aren’t determining major backstory facts, after all, but just improvising some details about body language - something their character is presumably knowledgeable about (it works best if you lean on a point of interest or expertise for the character - don’t ask the gruff barbarian what kind of penmanship is being used to sign the local pottery).

You could also lead it into much more gently, by asking something like this: “Are you relaxed and oblivious, just enjoying the ambiance, or are you paying attention and scanning the room? [Player tells you that they are on high alert; you ask some more questions, keep talking back and forth.] Something is off about the waiters; your hard-earned warrior’s instincts notice that the waiters might be more dangerous men, working in disguise. How can you tell?”

I haven’t seen any players react negatively to the third “tier” version; it’s formulated so heavily from the character stance that it doesn’t feel like “authoring” at all (especially if you imagine the omitted dialogue, where the two players riff on each other’s descriptions and details - perhaps the player says that she can often tell whether someone’s handled a weapon by looking at their hands, so you describe a waiter walking by holding a crystal chalice in calloused hands: you did the description, but the player prompted it, in reality, and you’re just reacting).


To me, it’s mostly about decreasing the workload for me as a game master. I rarely describe an environment fully, but leave it to the players to fill in the details. In the same manner, I expect my players to never describe something in full, but leaving details to me to fill in. That’s one of the things I want to encourage as a game master; to build a structure where there is back and forth between all participants, because it’s a way of creating engagement.

The drawback, apart from immersion breaking, are that it can create a blockage for the player. I’m really good at making things up, and it’s probably what I enjoy the most with roleplaying games, but I need to know on beforehand that this is the way of playing. I know game masters that switch between being a traditional game master and doing this kind of player involvement, which doesn’t really work in my opinion. I’ve been in situations where I was put on the spot without me having the mindset to contribute, because that wasn’t how we played during the session.

So tell the players about this in beforehand, incorporate this technique in everything you do, and make sure that the players understand that they will never put the game master on the spot or “break” what the game master has previously thought up.

I love the idea of leading questions, and they work well if it’s about increasing the detail when a person is setting a scene (“Does it rain?”), but not when it comes to the character. I would then prefer to say something like “Some of you know that this is a person that shouldn’t be fucked with” instead of asking “As you are chatting with Lady Castafiel, what do you see on her person that lets you know she is not to be fucked with?” (example from the blog post). That’s just unnecessary jumping between actor stance and author stance.

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This! Clear expectations are extremely important to me. Some of that comes from the gaming or the rules of the game, but, for me, explicitly discussing can be really helpful. To me, the pitches for games (as rules sets or as individual sessions) so often mislead, usually unintentionally, what the game is about and what will be asked of the players. For me, making things clear, means I can have more fun.


Is it the act of jumping between those two stances that you don’t like?

I know for me, I really enjoy talking both at a meta level and an in-character level. I know, I don’t have any problem switching between those things, and I would actually much prefer to answer the “what do you see on her person that lets you know she is not to be fucked with” version, then being just told the state of things.


Is it the act of jumping between those two stances that you don’t like?

I know for me, I really enjoy talking both at a meta level and an in-character level.

I do jump between all kinds of stances during a session (if I can), but I do that by my own free will. Being asked/forced to do it can sometimes break my engagement, just like people can have their immersion broken by meta decisions.

I guess that could go for the opposite as well; where I’m ready to do author stance, and forced going into actor stance which makes me play my character with less engagement. It’s just in theory though, because I can’t recollect that happening.

I’ve definitely had that happen! It’s quite jarring.

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@AprilMarch, I have an aphantasiac player, and it’s sometimes hard to know how to set scenes for him. Aphantasia seems to actually be pretty common; it’s just that most people with the condition don’t realize their experience is different than others’.


@dunadhaigh I would be interested in how you deal with that at the table. I have players who have trouble with “paint the scene” for other reasons (language based). I’d be interested in understanding your experience.