Tricks of the Descriptive DM

The room before you is dusty, the scent of mildew and dead flowers puts a bitter taste in your mouth. This is an old room, and from the looks of it, it hasn’t been touched in years. Sunlight fights its way through a filthy window pane, casting everything in gloomy, pale shades of blue. A delicate vanity sits against the wall, the mirror shrouded with a sheet that has stained yellow over the passage of ages. Dominating the room, an obviously expensive bed wasted by time, its mattress drooping miserably, the wooden frame twisted in neglect. Upon a dusty nightstand you can see a novel, the pages dry and brown. Upon the floor, near a thick oval shaped rug; a picture frame lays face-down, the fragile glass shattered and broken into angry, jagged pieces.

The one thing that good old fashioned D&D has over any computer game, is that the graphics are a lot better. Thinking back to some of the games that I’ve played, I don’t see myself sitting at a table, tapping my pencil on my cheetoh stained character sheet while seeing how long I can get a d10 to spin. I am magically taken back to standing in some dark and cold corridor illuminated by the fighters torch. I’m crouched down in front of a thick wooden door, forcing all of my attention to the grimy, brass lock; my picks . . . Extensions of my own fingers, feel their way around the mechanism. . . The cleric sighs in that impatient way as she fights the instinct to tell me to hurry before something comes, then “CLICK”! I GOT IT!!!

How much do you tell your PC’s?

You want to give them enough information about what they are seeing, but we also want to give them a bit more. I remember some DM’s that didn’t care about this, “You walk into a room and there are 3 trolls in there, roll for initiative.” BORING!!! But I’ve also had DM’s on the other side of the tracks who spend 5 minutes describing the shine on a leather couch. BORING!!!

How much is TOO much? Modules tend to get overly wordy in their descriptions, but that is because we as the DM have to be able to see a room before we can describe it. When writing my own dungeons, I’ll just list important things that are in the room, and wait to creatively describe them on game day.

The trick to knowing what too much is and if you’re not giving enough is based on the importance of the room. Logically, the scene about the abandoned room that I described above must be an important room that contains a mystery to be solved, or an object to find, or an encounter just waiting to happen. If this was just window dressing then you don’t want to get overly specific, the human brain is a magnificent tool and the players will color in all of the details to fill up the missing space. You just have to use your judgment, but as a rule of thumb, if it isn’t something that you would typically role-play, then keep it brief.

That said, what kind of stuff should the DM describe to his players? As a writer, one of the things that I do is experience something first hand and pay attention to the world around me. When you walk into a hospital, typically it isn’t what you see that you notice first, but how it smells. Try making a habit of this, pay attention to your other senses, and make mental notes of them. What do you see, feel, hear, smell. This is what we will be focusing on.

I Spy . . .

I know that all DM’s describe contents of rooms, but most of us need to work on specifics. Instead of just saying that there is a table in the room, quickly describe it so that the players can see the table.

A monstrously, large table. A dirty wooden table. A spotless, glass table. Be specific without being overly wordy. We need to separate this table from all of the other tables that are out there in the world.

Visually, we notice large objects first, or shiny objects that catch our eyes. Visualize the room yourself, and quickly tell the players what they need to know so that you are all looking at roughly the same room, starting from large objects and work your way down to obvious small ones. This doesn’t include objects that characters need to search for, just the general appearance.

Do you smell that?

You may not notice this, but smells are hardwired directly into our nervous systems in a way that profoundly effects how we feel towards something. They also trigger memories, we remember weird stuff like how our mom’s purse smelled, or grandpa’s pipe. We want to incorporate the smell of a place as well as the visual aspects of it.

Obviously we don’t need to over do this one, a musty dungeon is always going to smell musty and we’ll quickly start to ignore this smell. But through smells, we can hint at an encounter. Trolls are known to live in filth, chances are you are going to be able to smell them way before you see them.

The young lady has a sweet smell. The distinct odor of death waifs out of the cave entrance. Greasy old barrels stacked against the wall stink of mold and waste. Don’t just describe the bad smells, yes we notice these more then pleasant smells, but you can quickly color a scene with the use of a scent faster then you can describe it visually.

The rich smell of jasmine permeates the garden. The smell of the morning dew wakes you up in the morning. The creeping wind reeks of rain and violence, a storm is coming . . . A big one!

I‘ve got a bad feeling about this

We often forget physical touch, especially when dealing with objects. How an object feels in our hands is sometimes important. I’m sure that we’ve all played the Halloween party about “Old Herman’s Eyes”. If a character picks something up, how does it feel? Is it cold or warm to the touch? Smooth or rough? Soft or scratchy?

Some things we can feel before we can see.

There is an energy in the air that causes the hair on your arms to raise and your knees to ache.

A hot wind shoots out of the open hole, blowing your hair as you peer into the unforgiving darkness.

As the dragon reels himself up, his large powerful chest expands as all of the air seems to rush out of the room towards him.

A gentle summer breeze gently kisses you, while a bitter winter wind bites at you. Cold water can either give you relief or be terribly unpleasant depending upon your situation.

Hearing is believing

Our ears are one of our prime defenses, especially an edgy adventurer whose senses are keen. Sometimes the lack of sounds tells you more about your surroundings then what you’re eyes can see. Describing what a character hears is another trick to quickly describing a scene.

Birds singing morning songs in the meadow.

A loathsome howl seems to come from everywhere around you, yet the exact source seems to be nowhere at all.

The tired, old boat creaks and moans as it sails under a wide, starry night sky. In the distance, a lonesome whale sings a sad song that makes your heart ache, and your mind thoughtful.

Taste This, it just fell out of my nose

Tastes are more rarely described, but some smells can be so strong that it effects our tongues as well. They can be used to hint at an encounter, or be used to describe a dreadful attack where an unfortunately gross sliming can occur. Drinking potions could be described to color them up some. A spooky witch woman who lives deep in a dark swamp would make a healing potion that tastes much different from that which a high-priestess of light would make.

Some magical effects would also come with a smell of burnt ozone and leave a distinctly metallic taste in ones mouth. Poisons, even injected ones, tend to immediately flood the mouth with a bitter taste, thus instead of simply telling a player that he has been poisoned, we can quickly describe what he is feeling instead.

Other applications

We don’t just have to use our descriptions while dealing with settings, we want to describe the whole world so that they can explore it first hand.

Avoid all mention of numbers outside of combat. If the players find a Long Sword+2 in a broken boat that’s been floating aimlessly down the river, don’t just come out and say it. Encourage the warrior to notice that the blade isn’t rusty or aged at all. The quality is superb! Despite being rained on and left unattended the blade is still sharper then what he could ever grind his to be.

Art objects should be written up during prep, and described as well. Same process for any magical item. Make them earn everything by being inquisitive and immersing themselves into your world.

The key is to avoid as many mentions of numbers as possible, turning the players characters from a sheet of paper marked with stats, into a real, living and breathing entity that takes in their world as we do, which brings us to a huge part of this little essay . . .

Describing Encounters

We all have players that have memorized the Monstrous Manual . . . Hell, I am one! You throw a monster at me, then I know the quickest way to defeat it. It’s not intentional, it just comes naturally. I WANT TO WIN!!! You can spice up the encounter by refraining from using the creatures name. Use logic about it, ask yourself if this character has ever encountered such a creature in his life! How does he know that such and such monster is vulnerable to cold attacks, or that only a plus weapon can strike the monster? “I read it in the MM.” isn’t an acceptable answer, but we are all guilty of letting this logic go.

Instead of just telling the players what it is that they are fighting, you can create a sense of mystery and horror by hiding your monster behind descriptions.

You see before you what at first appeared to be a pack of dogs, but their filthy grey fur is caked with blood and gore and they are laughing. This insane, whiney laughter mixed with high pitched chatter chills you to the bone. They dodge back and forth in ways that convince you that they are mad, yet their drooling mouths aren’t frothed, and their round, piggish eyes glare into your soul with unmistakable intelligence. They keep their distance, as they circle your camp. What do they want?

This description is pretty long, but I wanted to use it as an example. It isn’t anything all that powerful, I simply described Hyenas to a party that hadn’t ever seen them before. After they encounter it a couple of times, and get to understand what they are then I can just throw the name hyena out there.

AVOID NUMBERS!!! During combat, it’s just to hard unless you’re playing with a small group. I don’t ever come right out and say what my Armor Class is, I ask the players what they rolled and tell them if they hit or not. I do prefer to get through combat as quickly and smoothly as possible. If it is a small enough encounter then I may keep up with just describing the scene, but I find that there are only so many ways to say, “I swung my war hammer!”

I do describe how the creature responds to the damage, and all odd attacks that are unique to that specific creature, but for claw claw bite, that’s as boring as saying that I swung my sword.

Is this right for my game?

What we are doing is projecting feelings. By describing the scene through all of our senses, we encourage our players to have an emotional response to the scene. We are making it more real to them, and aiding them to have exceptionally vivid visualizations. This does take practice and awareness on our part.

A great practice technique that I employ is to imagine an alien fruit from another planet. What does it look like? What does it smell like? What does it feel like in your hands? Taste it, how did it sound when you took a bite from it? Is it juicy or dry? Is it sweet or have some other taste?

Burning out players with over doing it

We are going for simplicity here, less is more. We are also going for specifics! Speed is key, if the players want to know more about an object, then they will ask questions about it. If you over do it, then you are going to bore and frustrate your them. You want to supply them with just a few specifics so that they can see the settings in their minds.

If you over explain a room or an object it could cause your Players to believe that there is something to the scene that really isn’t there. Don’t neglect the rooms, but don’t over do it either. If your characters get obsessed about unraveling the mystery of the overstuffed red reading chair, then that is your cue that you went to far, it’s up to you if you want to reward them for their curiosity or just tell them that it’s a just a chair. Also watch out for them taking everything that isn’t nailed down, which does tend to be a problem for groups that aren’t use to this approach. Just tone down your descriptions of the junk, and remember it when they are trying to retrieve something from their backpack.

End Notes

Some things also shouldn’t be described. Combat gore should be avoided, it can be misleading, and no matter how bad we want our stories to be realistic, we just can’t do it when combat is concerned. I guess I should just say that I’ve play tested violence, and can get it to work to some extent, but I could never keep it consistent. Why can you hit a 10th level fighter with a sword thirty times with a two-handed broadsword? As much as we would like to believe that it makes sense, it’s just a delusion that we keep with us while playing. It’s a necessary evil, I’d be pissed if you killed my 10th level fighter with a single swing of your sword!

Also think about other mechanics that this might apply to. How does infravision work in your world? THAT is a big question. In my world, it’s based on heat.

Describing magic consistently is challenging, but try to pass that kind of stuff off to your characters. Do encourage them to describe what they are doing so that the other players can visualize it as well. It helps get their creative juices flowing, and to me, that is what makes the game so damned fun!

By properly describing what is happening, instead of just telling them stuff, it colors the world in which you game in, and makes it come alive to your players. They will SEE distant mountains fogged in danger, they will feel the forest seem to swallow them up when they enter its dark embrace. They’ll smell the food as they walk the market streets. They’ll cringe in horror as an unknown . . . Thing stares back at them from the darkness of an ancient tomb.

With just a little bit of work on your part, instead of it just being a another gaming session for your players, it will become an intense experience that will leave them panting for more and giving them stories that they can take with them for the rest of their lives. GOOD LUCK!


Graham said...

How does infravision work in your world? THAT is a big question. In my world, it’s based on heat.

Well, that is the literal meaning after all. All infravision should be heat-based.

Which is, however, why they removed it from 3e (replacing it with a more generic darkvision). It always led to silly situations where an elf with infravision kept running into walls or trees, which don't show up on infrared because their heat isn't really different from ambient temperature.

RipperX said...

Welcome Graham!

Infravision has always been a thorn in my paw, I tend to forget players playing elven characters when describing what folks see.

I do like the heat idea, because you can do some scary stuff with it, but I this really wouldn't describe why they get a bigger bonus for finding hidden doors and objects.

I just assume that their eyes are better then humans, they don't see things like the predator, more like a cat would. It takes less light to see, but it does take some kind of light.

Clearly infravision does deserve its own post.

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