Some Tips in Describing Settings

Today I’d like to talk about describing stuff. Scenes can be difficult, and storytelling isn’t easy. The secret is to be quick and brief, but choosing your words carefully to put just the right things into the player’s imaginations so that they can all color the world in roughly the same way and see the same things.

I find that most modules are too wordy, and these huge text boxes need to be trimmed down and summarized considerably so that we don’t get ignored, and we need to resist over describing things because, for one, players loose interest in such things, and two, we don’t want to fill their heads with gibberish. The human mind can only hold so much information, and if we bog it down with too much information then we’ll get lost. I’ve had characters put too much stock in facts that really weren’t important, and I’ve had them become so lost that they can no longer remember what in the hell the goal that they were supposed to be accomplishing even was anymore.

Coloring things is simple. The quicker that you are at doing it the better. Say that I describe a room to you, I can go all crazy and describe everything right down to the shine on the couch, but is that really necessary? Probably not! We’ll just want to put the idea of what this room is used for in the players heads, and let them fill in all of the empty spaces themselves. They can also learn more about the things by asking questions.

You open the door and see a 25 x 25 foot room dominated by plush furniture constructed of well-lacquered wood, the room smells of lavender. Many pictures hang on the wall.

PLAYER: Is there anything of interest in this room?

On a small table, next to a sitting chair is a reading lamp and a book.

Player: Anything else?

A curious cabinet is all by itself on the west wall.

Player: Anything else?


And from there, these guys can explore the rest of the room. People who just assume to much are going to miss much, but this is the way of life too isn’t it? Most folks, when they walk into a room, don’t even bother to look around. Five minutes later, if asked to describe the room their answers aren’t going to be all that accurate, if they can tell you anything about it at all.

Basically, what we want to do is describe what a space is used for, and then the things that are found within the space that might be useful to adventurers. The best advice that I can give you, is to be observant yourself. What is the first thing that you notice when you walk into a space? Is it the loud ticking of a clock? Maybe a scent? Is it visual or is it something else? Scents are dramatic while sounds are more easily ignored, however once we leave a space we will miss the sound of white noise that a particular room created. Pay attention to this. Most visuals aren’t emotional, however scents and sounds are; and they both bring an emotional response.

The fun part is that we get to describe fantasy settings, or places that never existed. What would a goblin cave small like?

Well first off it would smell like dirty bodies, as goblins don’t bathe. They also don’t have plumbing so the smell of bodily waste would be an indicator that that is what a particular room or cavern is used for. What can one find in a cavern like that? If you dropped a coin or something, would you pick it up, or bother looking for it? Perhaps there is some treasure in Poop caves, but getting too it would probably not justify the risk . . . nor the smell. Perhaps a goblin tribe counts on this, and it is this place where the goblin’s hide their horde of stolen booty?

Goblins also must eat, and they are pigs about it. Do they cook? If so, they need a space to keep food and utensils to cook with. They may have procured an oven, but they might not know what to do with it, it might not be ventilated properly so whenever the cooks start it up the entire cave fills with noxious wood smoke and ash which sticks to everything, and if they are using coal, then it will be even worse! This adds color, but we needn’t bother the PC’s with this stuff unless they specifically ask what the source of this ash or smoke is, but once they discover the cooking cavern, the oven will definitely be out of place, and probably the cause of a giant mess since the goblins wouldn’t really ever clean the thing, and just scrap the hot ash and partially burned fuel right out onto the floor in front of it.

The eating area won’t be much better, the place would be covered in bones, inedible chunks of gristle, and other stuff which the goblins don’t care to eat. Perhaps dry, and withered eyes shrunken by the heat, stray fingers and toes or other things which don’t have much meat on it. This room would be filled with horror and what would that smell like? Rats would have a heyday here, as would lots of parasites and insects which feed and breed in filth. Broken pottery filled with living fuzzy molds which may or may not be infectious if it is touched.

The deal that you want to accomplish, is to bring the spaces to life. This is where we DMs are allowed to become story-tellers. We can use the five senses as foreshadow, or in layman terms, giving hints of things to come.

We can look at the map on Prep day, and study it. What noises would be generated by this thing? During the day we would tend to ignore everything but what is in our own general area, but come time to camp, deep in some underground labyrinth of endless hallways and monster infested corridors, our minds expand and we would hear EVERYTHING!

The underground lake with a monster in it would generate sounds as it catches a lone orc for dinner. Perhaps the pine supports in the dwarven mine section are creaking and shifting under the tremendous weight that they are forced to endure? Natural caves are caused by water carving paths in the rock, drips and damp drafts are constant. Then we have the sounds of the master race underground. The fighting, the yelling, the nightmarish grumbling as they make their rounds . . . and of course, if the party is being too loud, then they can be heard too!

Spirits are also fun to throw in. Nothing strong or formidable, nothing powerful enough to even pose a threat to anything, just little things to keep the adventurers on edge. Chains rattling down a hallway, a disembodied sigh or a few meaningless words uttered in the darkness. Critters can also sound bigger in the middle of the night, a mouse could get inside of a pack and look for food or some bedding. We should fill up the time spent resting with some kind of color, even if it isn’t combat.

Have fun with descriptions, be colorful and be aware of your own senses and how your mind works. What does your living space look like? Perhaps your favorite spot in the house? I know that mine is the leather chair down stairs. Its got a forever full ashtray, a bowl of candy, and my remotes right there, as well as a book or two. My wallet is sometimes there if I’m planning to come back soon, and if I just left, there is usually a cigarette butt smoldering in the ashtray. I suppose that that is helpful foreshadowing too. Signs of life, is a room empty? How long has it been so? Does it look like the occupant has just left or will be back soon? All of this can be colored in with a little ingenuity on your part. It may not be outright apparent, a person who just steps into my living space may not notice the smoldering cigarette right away, only after they look at my little coffee table will they catch it; how they feel about it depends on their intent.

The undead can be a tricky thing to describe too. We want to fill their worlds up with evil. Things of gloom. Few creatures can tolerate them being around, creatures like rats, owls, and ravens would not only be present, but possess a very brave and bold front. There should be an oppressive weight upon everything until the undead creature has truly been destroyed, and once this happens, then, and only then will life and light return to the area. Walking from a crypt would reward you with a sunny day, and all of the birds chirping and singing and carrying on. It should be in stark contrast of how the cemetery felt on the way in to perform this grim task. Evil corrupts, it stains and taints everything that it touches, and this should not be forgotten.


Nope said...

nice, excellent post! On the flip side you can save the longer and elaborate descriptions for "cutscene" moments. Like when you first encounter the BBEG, or you finally discover the secret location of some ancient ruins you've been searching for the last few sessions, or when you first travel through the planes and reach some fantastic outer plane.

Those types of scenes deserve I think a little extra time, but as you've said being concise is a player's best friend.

RipperX said...

That is a great idea! I suppose that it will depend on the set up, and the wordiness would be a reward, of sorts. It would also depend on the players, and their state of mind. A big "WOO HOO!" is a good indicator that you should continue.

The players themselves, and their body language are always the best indicators that your doing a good job, or if you are boring them with stuff.

Thanks for that suggestion Kaeosdad

Rusty said...

Yes, thanks. Food for thought and an excellent examples to illustrate your point.

Valandil said...

Excellent post! Love how you finished the article with the last sentence. Good job Maese X.

Tkhamon said...

What is the room used for? What does it sound like? And what does it smell like? I think I've got it.

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