DMing Tip: Compelling Descriptions

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.

expert-flank

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.

Example:

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 :).

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Sunless Citadel: Session 4

Hello everyone I am back, with details of my last D&D session. This was our fourth session, and my party was drawing close to the end of the Sunless Citadel adventure.

If readers remember, in the last session, the party, specifically Milbee the Wizard, killed Calcryx the White Dragons, which the kobold tribe had hoped the party would rescue. After the ensuing chaos, Milbee ended up tied up along with Meepoo, as the party debated what to do. Eventually it was decided that they would stick with Milbee, and Noble walked behind Meepoo and slew the kobold. The party decided to adventure further into the Citadel, in hopes of finding and slaying Belak the Outcast, whose followers had been harassing the party.

Initially, it took some time to get my party focused, they were in a goofy mood. After about thirty or so minutes of goofing around, jokes, and very little actual play the party began to explore deeper into Goblin territory. (It should be noted I don’t necessarily begrudge this delay, it was a good chance for me to re-look over my notes).

Eventually, the party ended up in a long chamber, with two rows of dark obsidian columns. The chamber was quite smokey from the numerous torches lit, making seeing far ahead difficult. Three doors jutted off from the hall; however, the door at the end of the hall had a lot of noise coming from the other side. Sneaking up, one of the party members looked in, and saw dozens of goblins, mostly children and unarmed civilians; however, 4 hulking and armored hobgoblins stood guard, as did 6 regular goblins.

After some discussion the party formed a nice plan, popping open the door. Starfall cast Spike Growth, while Aman held the door, and other party members attempted to shoot enemies. The horde of goblin civilians ran, many impaled on the Spikey Growths now jutting out of the ground.

The party, expecting to see Starfall show remorse, instead saw her shrug as she continued to slay both combatants and noncombatants. The party joked that by slaying Meepoo they had “broke” her.

Despite the missile shots, and spells, two hobgoblins did manage to get to the door and attack Aman. He was shocked to find that they hit quite hard. When working in tandem they did additional 7 points of damage, bringing him from max health to near unconsciousness in one round. Aman quickly began to back up, as the rest of the party attempted to deal with the few combatants left.

Goblin Ambush

Unfortunately for the party, a neighboring room of goblins had heard the fight, and came to help, rushing into the flank of the party. Ironically, Milbee, who had just withdrawn from the hobgoblins was standing right where the goblins came rushing out. Taking quite a bit of damage the party now had to deal with threats from two sides! Milbee’s player began to joke that no matter where he was, if they were going to be ambushed that was the direction it would come from.

At this point at least one party member was unconscious (I can’t remember who). The party made some solid use of various abilities slaying the hobgoblins, and coming to grips with the 5 rampaging goblins. Milbee, determined not to fight the marauders, withdrew to the opposite end of the room. A door was on that side, and the Wizard jokingly remarked, “Watch another group come from this door.”

Well, he was right! With a little glee I described yet another band of 5 goblins come rushing through the door, throwing javelins at the closest enemy, who was yet again Milbee. The plucky Wizard fell unconscious, as the party both laughed and groaned.

The first group of ambushing goblins was slain, while Starfall fell unconscious to a rain of javelins. Luckily for the party, the remaining members  managed to slay the goblins, and keep any party members from dying.

They then briefly interacted with the goblin noncombatants; however, they discovered little new information, after which they withdrew to a safe zone to rest and level up.

Level-Up-Logo

Now level 3, the party had access to cool new abilities and spells.  Listening at the room following the one filled with noncombatants, they heard movement within the neighboring chamber. Sneakily Aldo peeked into the room, seeing several hobgoblins, goblins, and a hobgoblin chief resting on a throne. A pit, with vines growing out of it, took up the center of the room.

Taking quite a while to discuss their plan, they party decided to split into two groups, to each come in from different doors. Starfall would be made invisible and attempt to creep up to the group of enemies, and then she would use Thunderwave to hit as many enemies as possible, after which the party would rush in. (They were making great use of their new 2nd level spells)

The plan worked very well, killing nearly all the combatants. Aldo put one of the remaining Hobgoblins to sleep with a Sleep spell. Aman; however, was ambushed by two Hobgoblins when he rushed through the door. His new found skill however, allowed him to handle them quite handily.

After one quick round, the Hobgoblin Chief was all that was left, and he was pissed. Rushing forward, Noble grabbed the beast, casting Inflict Wounds. The chieftain; however, took that as an opportunity to grapple and throw Noble into the pit. Failing multiple saves, Noble went tumbling down, taking 4D6 damage before managing to grab a vine after falling 40 feet.

The remaining party made quick work of the Chieftain taking him prisoner and questioning him. They found out the pit led into the final layer of the Sunless Citadel, it contained the Twilight Grove of Belak, and was guarded by more goblins, hobgoblins, 2 adventurers, a gardener, and some skeletons, in addition to Belak.

Noble eventually climbed his way out of the pit. The party found a few nice items in the chieftain’s chest, and then concluded they needed to use the vines to descend down into the Twilight Grove of Belak the Outcast.

At this point we called it an night; however, the party was quite excited to see the conclusion of the adventure in the next session.

Overall, I think the session went very well, the party had 2 tough fights, one of which planning and great use of spells and skills made less challenging. I think the party also learned to respect the power of Hobgoblins after they repeatedly caused the party problems.

I was also very please how each combat had very different tones and feel, despite containing very similar creatures.

Hopefully I didn’t mix up which of my party members did what too badly; however, if I did I am sure they will correct me in the comments :).

 

Critical Failure: The Overpowered Centaur

Centaur

This will be the first, of a semi regular segment called Critical Miss, which I will discuss and analyze some of my worst failures as a DM. We all make them, but afterwards they can make a good story, plus many can serve as learning lessons.

This particular event occurred during my Lost City campaign. The party had just escaped from the pyramid, with a chain of captives, and was prepared to head to the nearest city, Calimshan; however, they needed to traverse through a wide swath of desert first.

Shortly into this journey a burly centaur, leading a group of bandits, waylaid the party, demanding money for passage.

The Cleric of the group (whose name I cannot remember), was played by the same person as the dead Fizzywinks (See the story behind the name article), approached the front of the gaggle of players and NPCs to bargain.

After a brief exchange, one of the party members said something rude to the centaur,  offending him. The centaur charged at the Cleric, dealing triple damage, since this was 3.5 lance rules. Despite me rolling minimum damage, the Cleric was slain in this single strike, without any of the party having a chance to react. Starring in horror, the rest of the party quickly gave up the demanded tribute. The Cleric had, had the most hit-points in the group, so they knew they stood no chance.

My game had been notorious for being deadly; poor decisions, spats of bad luck, and the deadliness of first edition D&D adventures meant that characters dying was far from uncommon. My players actually joked that I relished the killing of new characters, as I took the character sheets as a trophy, even hanging them at times in my dorm room for all to see :).

Killing a PC

This level of danger; however, was a completely new level. Never had anyone been one hit,and rarely had anyone died unless they made extremely poor decisions. While the Cleric’s player took the death well, at that moment I could see the confusion on his face. What had he done wrong, what error had been made, had they missed a clue? In a campaign I based on giving logical repercussions and reactions to player’s actions, this was completely illogical.

The reason behind this was simple. I had made a fatal error. Falling back on the Dungeon Master’s Guide, rather then my own intuition, I had attempted to make a deadly, yet conquerable encounter, following the confusing logic CR and ECL (the centaur had levels as a fighter). The end result was a horrifically unbalanced encounter which the players had no chance of beating AND to make matters worse, I had not purposefully designed it that way.

Right at the killing blow, part of me wanted to take back the encounter, rewind the game several moments, and give the party a chance. However, with the Cleric’s rapid death, the rest of the party had agreed paying for passage was far preferable.

While it was a tragedy the Cleric had been slain, I could see the newly restored caution  instilled in my party. This came at a crucial time, as they had completed 1 major arc of the campaign, and were feeling quite powerful, this knocked them down a few notches, which in the long run might improve the game. Also, the Cleric’s player was shortly going to be ceasing playing and instead joining me as a DM assistant. I made the split second decision to stick too my guns and keep the Cleric killed. After the session I told the Cleric’s player that encounter was flawed on my part, and I had not meant him to die, luckily he understood.

Some lessons and thoughts.

1- I am glad that the 5th edition encounter balancing equation makes a lot more sense. ECL plus CR never made any sense and CR always seemed off.

2- When your institution says an encounter is too difficult, even if the rules says it shouldn’t be, go with your gut. As the group’s DM you know their capabilities best.

3- Be extremely careful when applying character levels to monsters, as it is a much bigger power boost then it may initially seem.

4- Finally, take the time to examine the damage output of your encounters. How quickly can your players lose characters if all goes well for the monsters? This is a great way to eye ball encounter difficulty, or at least block majorly unbalanced encounters, after all, rarely should you be wanting to one hit your players into oblivion.

Well, hopefully reading about my mistake has been amusing, maybe given some insight into DMing. I am sure the Cleric’s player will appreciate the public admission of guilt in his slaying; however, Fizzywinks, you and I both know that character was a dick and had it coming :).

Adventure Log: Bard’s Tale, Volume 3

Aldo is back with the 3rd entry in his epic! I hope you enjoy Bard’s Tale: Rot in the Oak. Interestingly here we really begin to see Aldo take some creative liberties to play up his own role in the story. Of course, why not make himself the hero of his story.

Halfling_Bard

The Bard’s Tale

By Aldo Hardbottle

Rot in the Oak

We slept the day in the Ol’ Boars Inn,
bothered not by the tavern’s din.
We awoke not to comfy bed,
but paralyzed and filled with dread.

In the back of a rickety old cart, we lay,
no other sounds but the horses’ neigh.
All the heroes tried themselves to stir,
but try as we might motionless we were.

Through the forest the cart traveled on,
until a clearing we came upon,
By this time some could move their hand,
Not an ideal situation for our last stand.

They unloaded us from the wagon and onto some stones.
All around us, the clearing was covered in bones.
We were to be sacrificed to their master’s wicked tree,
unless we found the strength to act and flee.

But fortune smiled on our heroes this day,
for Noble threw himself from the stone without delay.
Shock took our captors, they knew not what to do,
“Our poison,” they cried, “its work is all through.”
With that your clever narrator from his stone did leap,
And put several of the scoundrels fast to sleep.
A battle ensued and our heroes fought hard,
and the only one wounded, was your humble bard.

Not a wound you can see, well maybe a little,
but we found out that night that a heart can be brittle.
Something pierced my leg, a smallish blade,
and it came from the hand of my elven barmaid!

Aman attacked when he saw this betrayal,
as I lay on the ground and tried to inhale.
The battle quickly drew to a close,
with Starfall striking the final blows.

In the end we captured a thug,
We asked him some questions, but he remained smug.
Eventually we were able to draw out,
Some information from the oafish lout.

There were cultists in positions throughout Oakhurst.
Suddenly from the trees a creature burst.
The cultists turned a ghastly white,
“The master has sent his pets, the Blight!”

Twiggy figures surrounded the glade,
the smell from them was woody and decayed.
Horror came, we were not ready for this,
here we would die, in this forested abyss.

Millbee alone stood ready and waiting,
he cast a spell, all while berating
his friends to set them ablaze.
Quickly, Noble broke out of his haze.

He threw fire at one and it burst into flame,
and just like that we were back in the game.
Those with spells threw fire when they could.
It made perfect sense, these creatures were wood.

It was twelve against five, maybe not the best odds,
but it seems we heroes are favored by the gods.
We beat these creatures back into the dark,
The clearing charred by our spark.

Alone in the clearing we wondered what to do,
“We must keep on moving, or more will come through
looking for us, this cult wants us dead.”
These were the words that Noble said.

Starfall just wanted to sleep.
“Can’t we stay here,” she started to weep.
After a vote we all agreed,
to make for the Citadel at full speed.

For hours we traveled the lonely old road,
towards the Sunless Citadel, our pace never slowed.
We heard in the distance a loud fearsome howl.
We quickened our pace, wolves were on the prowl.

After a few hours of an exhausting chase,
The wolves decided to strike with savage grace.
Noble was knocked to the ground,
mauled by the ferocious hound.

Aman ran to defend the horses
from the pack’s surrounding forces.
Starfall spoke to the wolves in their own tongue,
and one of them stopped, while the rest sprung.

The horses spooked and ran up the road,
with Millbe attempting the creatures to goad.
Sensing easy prey the wolves pressed the attack,
one of the beasts knocked Starfall on her back.

As the battle dragged on it was looking rather grim,
without spells, our chances of survival looked slim.
And here my friends is where we turn the tide,
worry not for none of us died.

Aman the Mul killed a rather large beast,
and Millbee was able to calm the horses at least.
Poor Noble was being dragged off into the wood,
I tried throwing darts but my efforts were no good.

But Aman was a hero and truly saved us all,
he attacked another wolf, and cracked its skull.
Sensing now we might not be the easy prey they’d hoped
the wolves backed down and off to the woods they moped.

Trudging along for another hour,
the night’s events left me feeling sour.
A cult in Oakhurst meant the town was unsafe,
The thought weighed heavily on your poor little waif.

The only thing left was to power ahead,
answers we’d find if we pulled at the thread.
The Sunless Citadel was tied to all of our woe,
We would not be safe until Belak the Outcast was brought low.

Adventure Log: Tieflings and You

Hello everyone! I have some more amazing content created by a player from my group.

This is created by Starfall’s player. In game, Starfall is continually handing out pamphlets describing the plight of the Tiefling, drawing inspiration from characters, like Britta from Community.

For the past few sessions, Starfall’s player has actually be creating this pamphlet, and here is what he came up with. Enjoy :)!

Tiefling Handout

Tiefling Handout 2

Tiefling Handout 3

Tiefling Handout 4

Tiefling Handout 5

Tiefling Handout 6

So what did you think? Pretty cool, considering it was made in between his turns. I would love to hear reactions, and if you want more stuff like this please do comment, my group read the blog and I am sure it will encourage them to create more.