I like to create a high level of player engagement when I run a game, and I employ a number of tools to achieve it. The most important of those is the technique most closely associated with my GMing: Paint the Scene.
I created Paint the Scene back in 2016 and have been refining it ever since. Today, it is a cornerstone of my GM prep and one of the things that makes my game sessions exciting to be a part of.
Here’s how it works: if there is an idea, theme, or visual motif that is particularly important for an encounter or scene, ask the players what their characters observe in the scene that reinforces that idea, theme, or motif.
Here are some examples from actual game sessions I have run:
Scene: The dilapidated main street of a small town in Kansas during the Dust Bowl (from a game of Crossroads Carnival).
Paint the Scene question: “What do we see that is evidence that this town used to be prosperous but is now a dried up husk?”
- “A department store has a dress in the window that is clearly out of style.”
- “The parking lot of the shuttered bank is being used for an impromptu flea market.”
- “Flyers for the Christmas festival from two years ago are still hanging up.”
Scene: The beautiful palazzo of Lady Eshrigel (from a game set in Vornheim).
Paint the Scene question: “As you walk around the palazzo, how do you know Lady Eshrigel is a medusa?”
- “There are an impressive number of statuary gardens.”
- “The ceiling of the main foyer is set with a decorative illusion of thousands of snakes writhing around in a massive ball.”
- “Instead of mirrors, the walls are adorned with sheets of highly polished black glass.”
AN IMPORTANT NOTE: The technique is somewhat deceptively named. “Paint the Scene” suggests we are only concerned with the visual, and that simply asking the players to describe their surroundings is enough. That is wrong. This technique is about exploring ideas. We don’t ask “What does your character see when they enter the opium den?” Instead, we ask “What does your character see that reminds them that this opium den is a place where the social classes meet?” The first question is serviceable, and may even lead to good outcomes, but the second question is better: deep, interesting, and focused around an idea.
Paint the Scene leads to many happy outcomes:
- The cognitive load of the players is tightly focused, which helps them be awesome.
- The level of player engagement is high because the players are the ones telling us all the cool details, not just the GM.
- Players take more ownership of the setting because they have connected with it on a personal level.
- The GM’s workload is significantly reduced because the players will be pulling their weight in terms of making the setting compelling.
- Coming up with Paint the Scene questions forces the GM to start thinking in terms of theme and motif, which will eventually make them into rockstars.
Inserting Paint the Scene questions into your GM prep is extremely easy. If you’re running a module, pick out the four or five coolest parts of it and attach Paint the Scene questions that reinforce ideas within those parts of the module. Or, better yet, pick out the four or five dullest parts of it and attach Paint the Scene questions to them in order to liven them up. If you’re doing something like my 7-3-1 technique from last week, add a Paint the Scene question to draw out a theme or add some player-generated texture (making it 7-3-1-1, I suppose). What about Apocalypse World fronts? Dead fucking easy: think about what kind of vibe or personality you want Rolfball to have and then add a Paint the Scene question that explores that vibe or personality (“When you look at Rolfball, how do you know he is a person not to be fucked with?”).
Paint the Scene is the most defining aspect of my personal GM style. This technique, and the frame of mind that comes with it, is the reason my games fill so blazing fast. Do you want to take your game to the next level? Do you want to add thematic richness and depth to your sessions? Do you want to be a “rockstar” GM? I’m giving you the keys to the castle, here.