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What is Texture?

by Rich Burlew - originally from

Welcome to the first in a series of articles about improving your roleplaying experience by adding texture to your game. What do I mean when I use the term "texture"? I'm talking about all of the little details that add up to create a complete description. Texture is the color of a sword's hilt, the sound of distant thunder, or the smell of baked pies as one passes through a village. It's knowing the reason why the villain is so villainous, and hinting at secrets that are never revealed. Everything that makes the world feel like a place where people live, rather than just an exercise in problem-solving.

Chances are you already have some texture in your game. If you are running a pre-published adventure or world, there are almost certainly many little details that you normally don't see in your self-generated adventures. And that is really the point of these articles: to allow you to add enough texture into your game so that your players won't notice the difference between a store-bought adventure and a homebrew.

I use the word "texture" for these details because for me, they are the difference between a flat, predictable description and one that is alive and vibrant. When adding details to your game, your goal should be to have enough volume so that the descriptions blur together into a patina of verbal imagery. Texture cannot exist in a vacuum; if one part of an image has texture and the remainder does not, it will be obvious. Players should not be able to pick out what is important to their plot based on the level of detail in your description. For example, pretend your gamemaster gave you the following description:

You enter the wizard's study. There are some bookcases, a desk, and a chair. There are books all over the place, and a single red quill pen, eight inches in length, stands in a brass pot of ink on the desk.

Nine out of ten players will go immediately for the pen. Why? Because it was the only item in the room truly given texture. The rest of the area was painted in only in the broadest of strokes. If the gamemaster was trying to set that quill up as a clue of some kind, he has now robbed the players of the opportunity to discover that on their own. Now, consider the following alternative:

You enter the wizard's study. A musty smell fills the air, and swirls of dust follow you as you move. A pair of oak bookcases sit on opposite sides of the room, each filled with leather-bound tomes of assorted shades of brown. On the left bookcase, one shelf has broken, spilling its contents over the shelf below and the floor. A massive desk, at least seven feet in length, fills the center of the room, with dozens of tiny brass-handled drawers. A large book lies open on the desk, near a single red quill pen, eight inches in length, standing in a brass pot of ink.

The gamemaster has given the exact same description of the pen, but has instead hidden its importance by giving detailed accounts of the room's furnishings. He knows that the only important clue in the room is the pen, but the players do not. Their actions will thus deal with the entirety of the room rather than the metagame thinking that would lead them to the pen. One might decide to check out the broken bookshelf, another might want to check the desk drawers. If they eventually look at the pen and discover its relevance, they will feel that much more of a sense of accomplishment.

This example also illustrates one of the key features of texture: it is most often irrelevant. In other words, if the players have a mission to accomplish, most of the texture you put into your descriptions will have no direct bearing on that mission. But that's the point; if I go to mail my phone bill, the fact that I pass a parked police car on the way to the mailbox isn't important. It does, however, tell me something about the immediate area and what might be going on there. This is why adding texture to your game creates the illusion of reality; you are basically giving players proof that the world is turning with or without them.

Here are 5 simple ways you can add texture to a room or character description:

  1. Color: People spend a lot of energy making sure the things they own are a pleasing color. Anywhere intelligent beings live, there is the opportunity for changing the color of the walls, the doors, the furniture, the upholstery, the curtains, etc. Of course, natural settings can also have a bewildering variety of unexpected color. Why talk about a tree when you can talk about a grey-barked tree with yellowish-green leaves?
  2. Brokenness: Things break, often. Whether they have been repaired or not is a good indicator to the players about the level of attention a room receives. How well they are fixed might also be a clue; if the bookshelf was propped up with another book but generally left broken, it says that the owner doesn't care too much.
  3. Juryrigging: Spaces are often not used in the manner for which they were designed. People tend to adapt a room or object to the purpose they require, rather than the crafter's intent. This is especially true of dungeons, where the current inhabitants almost certainly did not build the place. Think about how they may have altered the room's purpose, and what changes they might have made as a result.
  4. Bodily Functions: Living creatures need to eat, sleep, eliminate, and possibly mate. If you set up a monster's lair in a location where the occupant cannot realistically achieve all of these needs, it will be far less believable. Likewise, NPCs also need to fulfill these functions, and often at the worst possible time.
  5. Scars: Creatures who fight regularly should be scarred, especially if they do not have access to healing magic. Scars hint at a story that the player's don't know; they imply that the creature has lived an entire life up to the point when it appears "on screen". An owlbear with a jagged scar across its beak is more memorable, and perhaps more fearsome, than one without.

Those are just my opening thoughts on the subject. Next time, I'll discuss breathing life into NPCs by giving them illogical emotional responses. In the meantime, why not head to the message board and tell everyone about a bit of description of which you are particularly proud?