Roleplaying games are a combination of game and story. The Game aspect is handled by challanges that are resolved with game mechanics. These challanges are set in the context of a story. That which makes a game good or great is the quality of the story that the challange is embedded in.
To this end, I have the following advice to all GMs.
I want you to think of a story in terms of a movie. This is how most players “see” stories. Stories in books are narration/ story based. Movies are stories over time, narration with pacing. Games are more like movies than books, as they are stories over time.
When you describe things, close your eyes and see the scene as it would be up on a movie (TV) screen . Then describe everything you see, including camera angles/ close ups/ etc. (This is the perfect segway into the advanced GM tools that are simple to use).
So repeat after me, my game is a movie. Each scene of my game is like a scene in a movie. How would this be in a movie? Repeat until memorized.
Also repeat, I am a GM and the movie is not completely under my control. It is like riding a horse, I am not completely in control. At any time, the horse (players) can just go where it wants.
As a GM: I want you to use two gold standards that will help you have a more movie like experience.
1) Is this something I would see in a movie? Think about this before you start any game scene or add something to your game world. Think about it: Is the scene up comming exciting or adds something to the story? (If not, cut it and narrate it through) Is the scene too long now (then use narration to shorten it). Stop and ask yourself “is this good for your story?”
2) You are making a movie, not a documentry. You can “cut scenes short” or cut to new scenes by using narration. You do not have to slavishly follow around your players, documenting (playing out) ever instance of their life. So rather than going through the actions of opening 100 boxes, feel free to speed things up by saying, after you open 73 boxes, you find. Feel free to “direct the camera” to speed up your game.
Along this line, keep all bookkeeping out of the play time. It should be done between sessions if humanly possible.
Orson Wells said, “Movies are just like Life, with all the boring parts cut out.”
Moonhunter says, “Games are just like Life, with all the boring parts cut out. “
Now as a GM, I want you to be appropriately organized.
Every adventure you think your players might go on, will be made up of scenes. Many of these scenes you can work up ahead of time. (This is the chase scene. This is the fight on the stairs. This is meeting the princess.) I write these up on 3x5 cards (or appropriate note medium). On the top of each card I write the name of the scene, the expected setting, and a number. On the card I write little bits of narration, important things that must be covered in the scene, and any special mechanics (or the page number to reference them). By making a little flow chart for the story, I can keep the cards in order by using the number. If the players do something unexpected, I can always pull an appropriate card out of order and use it then. These scene cards are invaluable training tools. They get you to organize your thoughts. Eventually, you will no longer need them.
Now to improve your description skills, I want you to use cue cards and riffing. There are two simple tools you can use to increase your level of description and your skills at producing it.
The cue card is taken from its television roots, the cue card is a note card that tells you what to say in a given situation. Usable by GMs or players, the cue card provide “notes” on things. When in the appropriate situation, you pull it out, rattle off the description/ dialog/ action, and move on.
When a GM, I use cue cards for settings (specific places or generic street/ wilderness/ etc), weather (a few cards for each season or weather type), bits of dialog (one liners or key phrases), bits of action description (describing tactical actions or how certain things are done), or other descriptions that can be quickly added to any action. Any related game mechanics are usually included on the card. Cue cards are traditionally made on 3x5 cards, but they can be typed out on sheets, or any medium that is useful to you. The advantage of cue cards is that if you have a great idea on how to play your character while not playing, you write it down and can use it for later.
An aside: To keep the description consistent for the entire campaign, I base my words and phrases on a favorite author. One author forms the inspiration and the template for the voice of the campaign. Right before the game, I’ll read a chapter or large chunk of one author, Mercedes Lackey, Ann Rice, Terry Brooks, Peter David, or some such, so that I have an idea of how the author would describe the scene. It reinforces the “voice” of the campaign in my mind.
Filling up cue cards is not a monolithic task. Start small. Do a few every now and again. Eventually you will find yourself with more cards than you can conviently carry.
Where do you get the info to fill a card is the question I am hearing from you now. There are two methods. The first is to borrow a descriptive bit from your campaign’s author. The second, and by far the most common, is Riffing. This is the second tool.
Riff on important or notable non player characters when you have free time. When you’re in the car or shopping or in the shower (or any place your mind can safely waunder), think of situations your NPC might be in, and how they’d react. Think about the dialog, the feelings, the actions, and the responses of others in that situation. These riffs will help you better define the NPC and give you “prepared” responses. Write down any important bits you discover on a cue card.
I also riff on possible combat actions. I see a cool martial manuver in a movie or read slashing fight scene in a book, these things see with me. If I riff on a fight scene, I can write what I see in my mind the character (or type of character/ monster) doing. It is sort of a mini-movie of an action scene. I adapt what I see into a brief bit of description, and write down the appropriate mechanics. If it is for a specific character, I actually write down the numbers to roll against. (I have a dozen or so cards for Zombies shuffling, lunging, lurching, grasping with cold, claylike hands… etc)
Scene Riffs are very possible. Locations are characters that don’t have arms, legs, and mouths. Think about various areas of your campaign setting when you have free time, such as when you’re in the car or shopping or in the shower. There are various ways to describe any place, each one conveying a different feeling or view of the world. (Hmm is this a normal alley, a dark and evil alley, a place where the homeless go, or what?) These places will be with you when you need to describe a place while playing.
Like Scene cards, you might eventually outgrow these tools. Once they are ingrained in your gaming technique, you might find yourself not needing them. This is okay. Just do it.
Here you go. Get into the movie mode. Think visually. Use movie terms to describe your scenes. Think of the story over time. Keep the story moving. Keep the plot/ action going. And when the session comes to the end, and you mentally say “cut”, you will be happier with your product.
PS Note: Credit goes to Jonathan Winters, who is credited for creating riffing (or working things out ahead of time) for improvisational comedians.