Jan 3, 2019

Improving Descriptions Using the Gricean Maxims

I rarely make absolute statements rather than propositions or suggestions, but I can't think of a countervailing example to the statement that good descriptions improve roleplaying games. That is, the better the descriptive powers of the referee and players, the better the game. I don't necessarily mean complex, verbose descriptions (some people like them, some people don't), nor do I idolise the modern imitators of Hemingwayesque concision.

Rather, I want to talk at the level below that aesthetic level, at the level of the cooperative principle and its derivations, the Gricean maxims. For people who've never heard of them, here's a brief explanation in text, and one in video. The basic idea is that Gricean maxims are the principles that an audience uses to evaluate a speaker's utterances in a cooperative exchange. One can not only apply them, but also flout them (and opt-out of them under certain circumstances, and just straight up lie, of course).

The Gricean maxims are the root understanding behind the old roleplaying joke where a referee describes a throw-away NPC and the mere act of describing them causes the players to want to interact with them or suspect them of being involved in the plot somehow: the joke is just that they incorrectly apply the maxim of relation beyond a reasonable level.

Anyhow, weird as it may be to say about something this basic, I'm amazed at the number of games I've played in where the referee flouted or failed to wield the Gricean maxims fluidly when describing the world to the players.

Sometimes this is because they don't frame the utterances well. They fail to establish that this bit of scene-setting is just a bit of evocative description like an establishing shot in a movie, there to create a picture in the players' heads, instead of a sequence they're expected to execute decisions in relation to. (Secret bonus referee tip: I tend to gesture more dramatically than usual while doing these so that people understand I'm just describing things)

Sometimes this is just because they describe a ton of irrelevant crap in a manner that disguises instead of distinguishing what is relevant. Sometimes it's because they withhold essential information, often because they mistakenly think they're in a competitive exchange: Waiting for the PCs to ask about it or to figure out that they need to use a skill or power to discover it.

Sometimes this is because they're working from a module that was written by someone who didn't follow the Gricean maxims in its composition, or that was just otherwise written in an unclear way that buries the relevant, truthful information the players need in a place where it can't be easily reviewed.

All of those are bad situations to be in, both as a player and as a referee. They could all be improved by following the Gricean maxims. In fact, if you robotically follow the Gricean maxims for any situation the players are in, while merely speaking concisely and using prosaic terminology, you'd be surprised at how players will compliment your descriptive powers (I know this because I do it all the time). Add in the occasional evocative or captivating flourish, and they'll rave.

Individual referees have their own unique styles, and the members of any given group will be happier or not with a given referee's style. I don't think aesthetics are purely arbitrary and individual, but I also don't think it's worth trying to denounce or bolster a particular aesthetic style or taste outside of a concrete instance. But with the Gricean maxims, we are sub-taste, at the level of the pragmatics of speech and conversation, and mastering the pragmatics will only improve things for everyone involved.