Tricks of the Descriptive DM (REPOST)

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!

(This Article was originally published by myself on April 22, 2008)

Adventure Notes #11

I had originally intended to take the party to the Mad House, while there I was going to hurt them. A sadistic Doctor treating them as guests for a day or two, but then suddenly deciding that they should be patients. He would put them through treatments that are torturous that are intended to drive the characters mad.

This would had been a really tough game to DM, as players really hate to be contained and kept prisoner, and it’s very hard to do! There was a lot more involved, and my intent was to target my newer players whom now get the mechanics behind the game, but are not ready for the next step, which is role-playing. My logic is that I think that it would be easier to roleplay madness then the tough guy that all new players want to play.

This is what I prepped for, but this isn’t what happened. Instead, two days before the game I learned that I was getting 2 more new players. Players that didn’t cut their teeth on 3rd edition and have never played a game before. THIS WAS NOT THAT GAME!!!! So instead of heading to the Sanitarium, mindless hack and slash was called for! This actually turned out for the best, as it forced me to up my timeline and explore a new route.

On Game day, the two guys which I was going to target with forced roleplaying called in, which really hurt the game. I had believed that I set my monsters to high for 4 players to deal with, but as it turns out I really didn’t challenge them enough.

Well, the newbies were challenged! My new players are Raiden whom is playing an ex-soldier, and Kim who is playing a Detective. Raiden originally wanted to play a Spell-caster, however those things are WAY to hard for novice players so I restricted him from doing that. Yes our party really could use a Wizard, however not at the expense of a new players experience with the game. I believe that your first character should always be either a Fighter or a Thief. If you are a book worm and really push the issue, then I’ll let you cut your teeth with a Priest. I find Wizards take a lot of experience with the game to really keep alive, and even then there is a healthy dose of luck involved! Maybe that is just me being unfair?

Anyway, I wanted to return to the isle of Dread and say goodbye in style. I designed one hell of a fight! When the party shot off their flare gun to alert their ship that they were ready to go, they alerted the surviving members of the “Six-Fingered Hand” to their location, and also caught the attention of a wandering T-Rex, a 30th level monster which can swallow anything whole with an attack roll of 19 or better.

The first on the scene was the Hand, their party was now only 2. The Voodoo Queen, and the Beetle. After a couple of rounds the T-Rex showed up, my intent was to force both parties to unite, except for The Voodoo Queen whom was attempting to dominate the creature and use it as a weapon. Spells take longer to cast in this world, all cast times are doubled, but I fudged the rules, She would get the creature after 3 rounds. The problem was that the party was still firing on her, completely ignoring the T-Rex until it entered the melee, and then they left it to the Sharp Shooter to take out with called shots. Of course the Detective pulled off a miracle shot on the thing and took out 35hp in one round (we’re playing with guns, all 6’s rolled are counted and then re-rolled) It only took one called shot from the Gunfighter to bring that mammoth down. This made the Voodoo Queen a tad angry, and behind the screen she had died 3 times, however I needed her to tell the story. She is ready to cast a no good spell but right when she was ready to set it off, BANG! The Beetle shoots her in the back of the head and reveals that he is Mr. Black, the mole on the inside that’s been feeding them information.

The Beetle knows where the last piece of the Artifact is, which was enough leverage to force the party to work with him. Their ship rescues them from the island, however all is still not well. In the time that they were away, most of their food supply has been found to be rotten, the ships engine broke down and requires a part, forcing the ship to rely solely on the sails, which are also in short supply. And to top it all off, the ship has been hassled nightly by the ghost of “Queen Anne’s Revenge”.

Blackbeard had two purposes, the first was to acquire the pieces of the artifact and deliver them to the Si-Fan whom have been lurking in the distance waiting for somebody to do the hard work for them. He was also suppose to destroy the parties ship and sink her into the Atlantic Ocean. He didn’t get any of this done, it was exciting! An undead pirate crew trying to take the Embargo, she shot down her masts and crippled her, then the crew of the damned boarded, slaughtering all of the crew without remorse. Blackbeard boarded, and got to have some fun, however Misty, with the help of the Artifact was able to turn him, and the rest of the party shot him down and saved the ship.

They had enough masts on board to quickly fix the problem, and made their way to Florida where they discovered that they were flat broke. I WAS able to take all of their money! And as a reward for good playing, they were unable to pay the crew to take them to Germany, however they were able to sell the ship for a nice big chunk of change.

From Florida they caught a ship going to Germany, where Beetle led them to the Safe House of the Six Fingered Hand which the last piece of the artifact is being kept, the abandoned home of Dr. Frankenstein.

Of course I couldn’t make it THAT easy. Upon their arrival, they discover that all of the men there are dead, and the artifact has been stolen. They conducted an investigation and found evidence that it was the Si-Fan, and found a letter from Fu Manchu directed at them, taunting them to find him in his lair in London.

This marked the end of our little thrown together adventure. They actually moved faster then I thought that they would, but this one was designed to teach them the different mechanics involved. I did start off the new players at 5th level, which I feel kind of bad for. Before game day Shannon had ran them a quick mini-game, but I read that Gygax had very strict rules about inducting new players. They were to be run one-on-one at 1st level, I wish that I could had made this happen, but this game is more difficult then your average D&D game. I think that both of them still had fun, and are looking forward to the last phase of the game before we start our brand new campaign, which I must admit to really be looking forward to. It will be nice to get back to Pulp Fantasy, of course I’ll still keep my elements of horror in as that is my style, but I am anxious to get back to the games roots of Swords and armor. That, and I really enjoy DM low level characters! I know that a lot of DM’s hate it, but perhaps that is fodder for another post.

Pitfalls & Triumphs of the Realm of Terror

Our friend and scholar, James Maliszewski from Grognardia (a slightly popular blog, maybe you’ve heard of it?) reviewed a module that runs deep for me, the original Ravenloft Module put out in 1983.

I had originally tried to post a comment on his blog, but evil Internet fairies ate it, which I suppose is for the best, as I do have a lot to say, and I really shouldn’t be wasting his bandwidth with my drivel.

I purchased this Module years after it was released. I haven’t ever ran the story that came with it, but I bought the thing for its map of Strahd’s castle. This amazingly popular module spawned it’s own setting, also named Ravenloft. It is this setting which I cut my DMing teeth upon. I must admit that I really don’t “get” fantasy. I mean, I read it from time to time, but never anything new. I value my time to much to read anything that can’t be told in a book or two. I don’t understand fantasy, but I do have a firm grasp upon Gothic horror. This is my favorite genre! And to be able to run a Dungeons and Dragons campaign in a setting such as this . . . Well it was a natural fit for me.

Ravenloft was an experiment. In some ways it was a huge success, and in many ways it failed utterly. The basis behind the setting was an interesting one. The greatest evil beings of all time were drawn into the mist, an astral world which was a prison, or perhaps it was a weapon of mass destruction? Nobody really knows, THAT was left up to the DM to figure out.

Strahd became just one of the Dark Lords of this realm. He controlled the land, and all within it, as did the other Dark Lords, whom were all blessed with land however suffering some curse that was debilitating to them. Time was ignored, as were seasons; The realm of Adam (read Frankenstein) was based during a time of electricity in a very German world, while G’Henna run by a knock off of Mr Hyde was Midevil and perpetually Summer.

This was brilliant! Complete with all of the 2nd Edition fluff that one would expect, a DM could have a field day with this kind of atmosphere! It originally got expanded in a box set that was one of the greatest boxes of all time. Realm of Terror (1990): It was chock full of nothing but fluff and atmosphere. It gave a creative DM enough fodder to keep a table happy for many many years.

If they would had stopped there, I doubt that we would be having this conversation. Modules were written, that were absolutely terrible. A great world changing catastrophe which they called, “The Grand Conjunction”. Much like the plot of the original Ravenloft Module, the players could not stop this from happening in any way.

The Box Set went from, Giving a DM just enough information to fuel his imagination, to coming out with these monstrosities that were so big and powerful that if you wanted to play the Cannon world, then you were stuck dealing with. Game masters became too afraid to use the adventure hooks supplied in the box set, because once they did run a game of their own creation, TSR would put out a map and module set that completely destroyed what you did.

THIS ISN’T ROLE-PLAYING!!!! There were no choices to be made, DM’s had to buy these products or else they simply weren’t running Cannon. This was the greatest failure of Ravenloft. Like Forgotten Realms before it, Ravenloft simply got to big and could make too much money, and pretty soon, that was all it was good for, making money.

The Grand Conjunction literally tore the map apart. Dark Lords died, different lands joined the Core, while others floated off into the Sea of Sorrow. This world takes place on the Astral Plane, this kind of stuff can happen, but it did it in such a way that it did ruin it. Players couldn’t effect this, it happened on its own and they were just in for the ride.

Probably the best book to come out for the setting was Domains of Dread, it was probably the last Ravenloft sourcebook to come out for 2e. It was awesome, but it too had its failures, the maps were unreadable, but other then that, it was a great book! Which was needed since TSR tore the heck out of it.

Now Ravenloft is not without it’s triumphs! It is a world that is not level appropriate. Players knew that the deck was stacked, and that it wasn’t stacked in their favor. They were the minority, they had to fight against incredible odds, survival was never guaranteed. Magical items were not handed out like candy in a chocolate store, but death was! This led to some truly heroic deeds. If Ravenloft has one lesson, it teaches players how to be a hero. Good vs. Evil in a realm completely dominated by evil. If a player fails, or resorts to an evil act himself, then he runs the risk of being taken by the realm. THAT is cool, and is still a theme in all of my games.

Ravenloft also taught DM’s how to make truly living and breathing NPCs. In the hands of a talented game master, these NPC’s are tools to better convey a story, a bridge between the DM and his players. Unfortunately, these NPC’s still don’t help cover up bad behavior on the part of weak Dungeon Masters. Were the NPCs abused? You betcha, but weak Dungeon Masters abuse everything that they have at their disposal, so we really can’t judge Ravenloft for that.

If I could do it over again, as I’m never going to go back into the realms of Ravenloft, I wish that I had the knowledge that I have now.

  1. Screw Cannon! It is just a marketing ploy. Players don’t read up on settings, and you can do just as good, if not better then any company when drawing up dungeons.
  2. Don’t WRITE UP dungeons. Material should be written up for sittings, not settings. Isn’t that clever? Yeah, I hate it too, but it makes sense. I put so much work on writing modules that I never used. It was fun, but a total waste of my time.
  3. And finally, Scenarios are meant to be interactive. I used those Ravenloft modules as a basis for writing my own adventures, and that was a huge mistake that I repeated over and over until I identified the problem.

Not bad for something that I really enjoyed when I should had been going to collage!


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