Friday, September 15, 2006

Technique: Jared's Rule of Three

In Jared A. Sorensen's award-winning game octaNe: premium uNleaded, the psychotronic game of post-modern trash-culture america, there is a gem of technique hidden among the sprawling mass of sheer coolness that comprises the game.

Jared calls it 'Detailing.' I call it Jared's Rule of Three. In octaNe, Jared writes:

When describing how your character looks, here's a trick: only write down three details. Nobody really cares about your character's exact height and weight or the color of his eyes. C'mon, really. What you should describe are the things that really stand out:
  • Wears a raggedy tuxedo and horn-rimmed glasses. Carries a fender guitar.

  • Dresses in dusty leathers and wears a jury-rigged brace on his leg. Has a sawed-off shotgun slung on his back.

  • Huge dude wearing wrestling boots and a red leather mask decorated with orange and yellow flames.

  • Has a tattoo of dice on his neck that says "Born to Lose." Wears a cowboy hat and a big gold chain.

  • Small monkey wearing an orange sash and carrying a small stick.

  • Hot chick with spiked heels. She's wearing a tight black cat suit that's unzipped to her navel.

  • Bipedal gila monster. He's wearing off-the-shoulder overalls, and he's chewing a toothpick.

So here's an official rule: You can only describe three distinct details about your character's appearance.

Extrapolating a bit, Jared's Rule of Three can be a powerful tool in our arsenal for bringing more color into our games. And a comforting one too. You don't need long descriptions laden with carefully-selected adjectives to inject a serious dose of color into your games. In fact, that would be counterproductive, in my experience. The more someone drones on and on about details, the more likely others are to tune out and grow bored.

Details are like salt. A touch releases flavor. Too much makes the entire dish unpalatable or even inedible.

Instead, take some inspiration from Jared's Rule of Three. But don't confine it to characters. If you have the opportunity to describe something, give it one to three short, succinct details that make it stand out. Use the technique for characters, locations, objects, or anything else that you want to introduce into the narrative fiction that you and your friends are creating. Have trouble coming up with details on the fly? Keep a list of cool adjectives/descriptors on a notepad, and cross them off when you've used them.

Try it. Your game will start dripping with cool.

If you have an idea for a technique you'd like me to share, write me at


rdonoghue said...

That is, curioualy, exactly what Roger Zelazny said about describing characters, and if you look for it, it's clear in his work, and is part of why he manages to convey characters so quickly and clearly. It's a great, great technique.

Thor Olavsrud said...

Cool! I didn't know that. Thanks Rob! Any chance you have the quote handy? I'd love to see it.

John said...

I got it from Zelazny, too (by way of Brust). I'll try to dig it up.

rdonoghue said...

No source for me, I fear. It was from a convention I saw him at back in, god, like 92 or so where he was talking about writing and also talked abotu why so many of his characters were homicidal immortal cool guys, and abotu this awesome book he had coming soon called "A Night in the Lonesome October." :)

Michael said...

Excellent post, Thor. Just moments before reading it I put this in the Foresworn working document, regarding detailing planets like Lucas does in Star Wars: "Pick a dominant color. What does the society seem like on the surface? What is one thing it defies expectations?"

Great minds...

Thor Olavsrud said...

Ha ha! That's awesome, Michael. I'm really looking forward to seeing what Foresworn looks like.

Anonymous said...

Wow, Rob. I saw Zelazny around then too, at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, and he read from A Night in the Lonesome October. He had a great reading voice. And, it was a freebie to all attendees -- the hardcover book. (It's also one of the sources for our larp-in-perpetual-progress.)

-Lisa Padol