The Hotel California Rule refers to a bit of song lyrics that I taped to my DM screen. They remind me to touch on a variety of important points when setting the scene for my players.
Hotel California is the title track of The Eagles’ 1976 album. It begins:
On a dark desert highway
Cool wind in my hair
Warm smell of colitas
Rising up through the air
Up ahead in the distance
I saw a shimmering light
These lyrics provide great instruction for setting the scene. You don’t need pages of exposition; this is fewer than 30 words. Look at what we get from just the first few lines:
Light. It’s dark outside. Light should be the first order of business in your description, because it sets the tone for what follows. How we imagine a setting is completely different based on the lighting. If you build a picture of a place in your head and then you have to “turn the lights off” it can break immersion.
Another reason lighting is important to identify up front is because we can get mechanical information from lighting. Players infer that vision is limited, which may have an impact on their actions once the scene is set.
Time. We know it’s night because it’s dark. It can be as simple as that. You do not need to describe the precise time of day if the players are outside and they know what the lighting is like.
Terroir. We are in the desert. Players know what a desert is. Let them fill in the details. Either way, you can describe the environment in broad strokes. Think in terms of the ranger’s favored terrains.
Activity. Since we are on a highway, we can assume we are traveling. This may by obvious, but it often sneaks into our expressions anyhow as an interjection: “As you ride down the road…”
Temperature. Cool wind graces us. This is building the sensory aspects of the scene. Thermosensitivity is often an overlooked sense, but it speaks to us very much as humans. A hot jungle feels more oppressive. A cold dungeon or cave is creepier.
Smell. Choose your preferred varietal of Longbottom Leaf, Old Toby, or Southern Star. Smell is often overlooked when describing sensory experience, but it also speaks to us a lot as humans. You can trigger a sense of home, a sense of lust, or a sense of revulsion with the right olfactory descriptors.
Sight. There is a glimmering light in the distance. Notice how the visual descriptions are actually limited to the object you want the players to chase. You’ve given the party enough to imagine a situation in their mind’s eye, without directing them to specific details that tend to distract players. Only give them the specific visual clue if you want them to look closer.
Goal. While building a sense of apprehension and excitement, we are provided with a goal. Give the players something to act upon. You are setting the scene and calling for action. Try and attract the party towards the most exciting part of the story.
You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.