Hello everyone, today I am going to discuss the importance of description in a game of D&D, an excellent topic requested by Jon, a regular reader and a friend of mine who also DMs. Thanks for the topic Jon!
Description is often the difference between a fun session of D&D and a immersive, compelling, session, during which people lose track of time, because they are so invested in what is happening.
Description is the words/visuals used to help a player better visualize and imagine the action currently taking place in the game. The better a player can imagine a setting, the more they will interact with it, or take it into account. A fight with goblins on a tight mountain pass should not be described, or feel the same, as a fight with goblins in a field.
Description is important as it provides clues to players about the contents of an area, as well as helps them become more invested in the game.
Equally important are combat descriptions. Take the image above as an example of a combat turn.
I could say, you are attacking from the front, you are flanking , roll to hit… hit… how much damage… and then move onto the next player. However, combat becomes far more interesting if DMs and players make effort to describe their actions, rather then just describe the rules.
You lunge forward with your axe, the hairy beast is off balance and attempting to fend off you and your ally, roll to hit you have advantage. With a tremendous swipe your axe cleaves into the beast’s side, blood sprays out of the wound, the beast howls in fury and glares down at you.
This second example is more exciting, it pulls greater investment from the players, and makes the game easier to picture. It also makes the monster more then just a combination of stats and abilities.
I will give a few techniques I have found personally to work. Description is something I at times still struggle with, so I am constantly evaluating how clear and interesting my descriptions were after each session. If I noticed that several players seemed confused by certain encounters or settings I view that as signifying that my description could have been better.
Repetitive description can be especially tough to avoid in room after room of the same dungeon, if you find yourself in a slump try to make a room slightly different, maybe the next one has some fuzzy green moss growing on the walls, or some mysterious dark stains on the ground. Mechanically both rooms are the same, but these little details make them feel different.
Keep Descriptions Brief
I read in an article that 3-4 sentences should be the max you use for an initial description, after that its just too much info at once.
In those 3-4 sentences you want to describe the general shape or environment of an area, any threats or points of interest in the area. Only worry about important details in this first description. Give every important item or creature in a room at least one adjective, if possible even 2 or 3 adjectives, to make it easier to picture. This is not how many people write; however, for a visual game like D&D it works.
Here is an example of a room description I recently used:
Within the cramped room five dusty sarcophagi are clustered, standing along the walls. Their heavy, stone lids have swung open, and are all empty. On the West wall, with an looming, empty, stone sarcophagi standing along either side, is a ornately carved obsidian shrine. A single ghostly blue candle illuminates the various items on the glimmering black alter in a cold blue light.
I repeat multiple times that there are sarcophagi in the room, but they are empty, and then I give a great deal of attention to the shrine, highlighting the two major features of the room.
Give additional details throughout the encounter: If the party spends more then a few moments in an area, or around a creature be prepared to supply additional description.
For instance, when fighting zombies, I will initially describe the vague numbers of the swarm to my group, describing their gaping wounds and reaching arms. As combat continues my descriptions of the monsters won’t cease, nor will I keep repeating the same thing. Instead, I will build on the foundation my initial description gave. I will describe the smells, noises, feel, or other details of the encounter, to better flesh it out for the party.
This can be as simple as just sprinkling in this additional information when it feels appropriate.
Use Body Language and vocal tones: As a DM you have to make a wide variety of creatures and beings come to life in a player’s mind. While word choice can go a long way, subtle tone and voice changes can also be very effective, as can body language. If I am describing ,or roleplaying, as a wizened, old, wizard, I will hunch over and maybe wheeze some during my sentences. During combat descriptions I my use my hands to act out some of the motions of melee, or use my facial expressions to mimic a creatures. This may feel funny or strange at first, but if you keep at it, it will definitely make your games more fun. The key with this is to not get too over the top, as it can then make a serious moment silly. Try to find a balance that will work best for you and your group.
If I know my party is going to fight a lot of the same monsters over the course of several combats, I try to jot down a few different ways to describe similar things. One group of goblins may be cowering wretches, while another may be quivering, dirty, dregs, pretty much the same thing, but it adds variety to my descriptions, keeping things fresh.
Get Players Involved: Getting party members involved in describing their own actions can be difficult, some players will, others will not. I often give an opportunity for my players to describe their actions, even asking “How do you do this attack.” For my more hesitant party members I will describe their attacks for them. This allows the visuals in my game to be maintained at a nice level, while allowing for a variety of experience and comfort levels. I have found the more consistently I employ my own descriptions, the more my party members get involved.
Look for Inspiration: If I can’t mentally picture an environment I will google pictures of similar landscapes, or even watch movies that I know have the settings in them. A great movie to help find inspiration for cramp, claustrophobic, cave exploration is The Descent. Even if I don’t write any notes down, if I can better envision an environment I can then describe it better.
The same goes for monsters, read the Monster Manual descriptions to better understand what the monster looks like, moves, and acts like. This will help your creatures come alive. If the Monster Manual doesn’t cover it try to make some educated thoughts of your own.
If you are struggling to find good examples of descriptive D&D play, try watching Community Season 2, Episode 14 or Season 5, Episode 10 (Season 2’s version is better). Both episodes have great examples of goofy, but vivid D&D descriptive play, highlighting how much fun it can be, and how to go about doing it.
I would love to hear if this has helped people. How do you go about describing your actions and encounters? As usual if you have a topic you would like me to cover feel free to send in a request through the comments :).