Single Descriptor Syndrome

Or how you suck at being creative…

You might have a better name for it but Single Descriptor Syndrome (SDS) is the one thing that single-handedly destroys immersion in tabletop RPGs for me. I’ve heard tons of people complain about it without knowing what to call it. Some may just say its laziness and others may call it a lack or block of creativity.

I have great respect for the bulk of the GMs that have run the games I have been in. They’ve spent so much time trying to create these large, expansive worlds or to create a grand story for us to experience. But then you get to these moments when you’ve just got to think the GM either had no preparation or their brain sputtered when trying to come up with something.

The best example of this in popular media would have to be Star Wars. “What?!?” You say, “But we love Star Wars… except those prequels.” And I nod in agreement. But Lucas and/or his creative team had a whole series of SDS fails when trying to come up with a group of worlds on which to set the various movies. Instead of fleshing any of the planets out, every one of them became a generic one environment world (e.g. Single Biome Planet). Hoth was all Ice, Tattooine was all Desert, Coruscant was a giant city, the moon of Endor was just a large forest. The Star Wars universe is full of planets that are only water, only clouds, only swamp, only forests and so on. I somehow doubt that life sustaining planets anywhere would have one and only one worldwide environment and no variation.

But it’s not just Star Wars and lazy planet descriptions…

Your Village Lacks Infrastructure

I’ve seen the same lazy Fishing Village in every game I’ve played. Its always “You come upon a quaint fishing village” or “You near a small fishing village” or the sign points towards a Fishing Village. The entire town consists of “nondescript houses” and a “dock” while nothing else gets any explanation. How do they ship their goods or get food other than fish? Where’s the marketplace? Is there a blacksmith? Is there a dry dock as well? Who fixes the boats, are they all rowboats or is this a large fishing operation, are there people who make an repair the sails?

Nope, just a dock and every road leads to the dock and everyone you meet in town works at the docks and that’s it.

You see the same thing where the GM sends you the the Mining Village, the Military Outpost, the Farming Village and so forth. But every town in every world should have more to it than just that one thing. I’ve been to towns in the middle of Illinois surrounded by corn and soy that still had more variation and interesting detail than these in-game towns.

You need to consider the trade routes that exist, the way roads connect, if they share a natural boundary with other towns, how they relate to the world around them and more. That Fishing Village needs more food to eat than just fish. Do they have surrounding fields that people sow wheat on or do they have rice patties nearby? Maybe they use the local trade routes to send dried fish to the nearby Mining Town for refined metals to make the rivets for their boats. How do the actions of your players affect the entire world?

Those Rebels are Terrorists to someone…

Star Wars AT-AT tow-cable parody of Skyrim's Arrow to the knee.Another similar thing I see is when people add into their game a rebellion, freedom fighters, or evil organizations. Just think of how we handle that information in the real world and then compare it to how its appeared in RPGs.

If it wasn’t for television, internet and radio, would you know about rebellions around the world? What does that rebellion mean to you? Probably nothing if you’re living halfway around the world and have no connections to the people or region. So why then does it seem that no matter how far you travel in a game world, everyone seems to know about “the rebellion” that is causing problems. Hell, I can’t even sit in a room with my gaming friends BSing about current affairs without everyone having a slightly different way of referring to things.

That “Rebellion” is only a rebellion to the people who care about it. The King of the realm would probably consider them an insurrection or an uprising. A local farmer might sympathize with them while his nearby merchant neighbor curses their names because of the economic issues. And that blacksmith who lives 200 miles away probably has no idea that there is currently any civil unrest in the capital city unless its been going on for months or years.

Yet instead we get lazy and just stick to one name, call them “the rebellion” no matter who the NPC is, and consider no consequences of how we refer unless it is immediately relevant to the situation.

That Blacksmith Might Have a Hobby…

Another thing to consider is that a poor, medieval setting might not be full of talented artisans to the point that every person only needs to be able to do ONE thing in order for the town to have everything they need. Think of poor, tiny fantasy villages the same way you might an Australian Outback Mining Town or an Old American Wild West Town. When there’s all of 30 people living in one town without easy access to the rest of the world trying to eke out an existence in a harsh environment, you’ll probably see overlap in jobs.

You’ve probably see mention in TV series or movies where the local surgeon is also the barber and the blacksmith. The Mortician may also be a Tailor. Farmers are probably also merchants selling their wares and might even cook at the inn during the evenings.

Instead we often see these game towns where there is no blacksmith… but why wouldn’t one of the other townsfolk fulfill this much needed position? I sometimes like being that a-hole in games (especially if I’m having a bad experience with the game) that will point out “how are their no merchants in town but the townsfolk have access to {insert random thing here}” or “who upgrades and repairs the machines if there’s no machinist/blacksmith” and so forth.

Personally I figure every NPC should have a hobby even if they already have a defining job or title. Plus, if you double up some aspects on the same NPCs then your table will only need to remember 10 or so NPCs instead of 30 characters. No one ever said the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker can’t all be the same guy.

Your Thoughts?

Expansive game and world, tons of NPCs, only 10 people to do all the spoken lines.How has this affected you games? Do you mind when a GM can’t think of anything and gets lazy with town or NPC creation? Do you feel it ruins games or that it doesn’t matter? Are you a GM who realizes that your binder of NPCs could be consolidated and made more manageable by merging things together?

Maybe you think I’m making a mountain out of a mole-hill. Maybe you agree with everything I said. Or perhaps you only agreed with 1/3rd of it all. Tell us what you think about our thoughts and ideas on the subject.

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