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I first played (Advanced) Dungeons & Dragons as a teenager, and one of the main differences between the D&D I play as an adult and what I played back then is description. “Inside the room are six orcs. Roll initiative.” This is pretty close to the adventures run, and participated in, by a teenage murder hobo.
I recently started running a low combat, high mystery campaign set in real world Victorian England in 1851. As the tea parlours and opium dens of smog-ridden London contain - so far - zero orcs, it’s made me reflect on how much has to be done through description. I’ve created some rules for myself as I plan and deliver each session, and I thought I’d share my rules in case they’re useful to anyone else.
DFP’s rules for descriptions
Description must serve a purpose
For me, there are four good purposes for description: to provide information; to establish tone and create character; to provide opportunities for interaction; and to deliberately deceive.
Providing information is probably the easiest of these and needs to preempt the obvious player questions. Is there anything trying to kill me? Is there anything here I can have sex with? Is there any treasure I can steal? How big is this orc sex dungeon and what equipment do they have? Is it obvious that what’s going on is consensual? And so on.
Game Master’s love to use description to set tone and develop character. Whether it’s the warm and welcoming halfling tavern at the end of the adventure, the warm and welcoming ancient black dragon they slew, or the warm and welcoming sphere of annihilation they looted from it’s hoard - we all know description matters, but not all descriptions are equal.
Good descriptors of tone and character are about what your players can perceive about the world, not what your players feel about the world. You probably thought “warm and welcoming” was a pretty bad description for a sphere of annihilation, but fine for a halfling tavern. And when you thought that, you were wrong. It’s a bad description for all three of those examples - even the ancient black dragon.
Let’s assume what we want our players to experience is a warm and welcoming tavern. Instead of saying warm, we could mention a large fire burning in the hearth. Easy. Instead of saying welcoming, we could have a tavern patron shout “Norm!” as our characters enter - providing one or all of them are called Norman, or something similar. Why is this better? Because now our players have a better shared concept of the world, and that improves their ability to interact with each other and with that world. You’ve probably heard this concept described as “show, don’t tell” in writing. While it’s most commonly quoted in relation to character dialogue, it’s also true of objects, places, appearances, etc.
Opportunities for interaction are - for me - the most fun parts of D&D. From a random encounter of between 5 and 7 orcs in a nondescript room, to meeting a warm and welcoming fishmonger in the town market, there should always be things for players to interact with. This is a pretty broad concept and I’ll use an example to explain.
The fishmonger in the town market is someone who has information your party needs, but this isn’t immediately obvious to them or to the fishmonger. You need to provide the party with an opportunity to get this information. If a game stalls, it’s often because players don’t know how to interact with the world.
Finally, a description may exist solely for the purpose of deception. If you want your players to think about the north wall in a room - describe it and don’t mention the east wall where you bricked up Jonathan’s body after your fight. Set a DC for passive perception and unless a character beats it or specifically investigates, don’t say a fucking word about the east wall. We will get through this if you can just keep your mouth shut.
Anyway, if your description isn’t doing at least one of the four things above - it’s probably bad. And people definitely know.
Descriptions should always use multiple senses
Yes, always. Fight me.
There are five traditional senses which were defined by Aristotle - sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell. Back then (in the Greek times) you could just name senses, not even including temperature sense, hunger, or balance and people still thought you were a big time smart guy. But Aristotle’s five senses are a good start - try to use two or three each time you introduce a new place to players.
I would suggest that when providing descriptions you think about how your players normally experience the world. For most, sight is the dominant sense, followed by hearing, smell, touch and taste. If you happen to be the GM for a group of people with no sense of smell, don’t go around describing how everything smells, you monster. Stick to describing the texture of flowers and the sound of food.
I try to split my descriptions into 50% things that can be seen, 30% things that can be heard, 15% things can be smelled, and 5% for all other sensations as appropriate - you may find a different ratio works better for you. In my last session, I realised that I hadn’t described any sounds for a bit, so I added a banging in an upstairs room. What was the banging? It was probably nothing. Probably.
Descriptions should not override player autonomy
One of the most important things about D&D is that it is collaborative. In a combat scenario most GMs would feel comfortable saying, “the orc slashes you with its black ichor-coated dagger” but would never add, “your character says ‘ouchie ouchie’ and pouts like Little Miss Muffet after the spider incident - awww, who’s a sad wittle baby?” Your GM should never do this. Except maybe one time because it’s funny. But otherwise never. Players are in charge of how their characters react to the events of the world the GM sets out.
This is a principle you can honour in all areas of the game. As discussed previously, by describing the tavern as warm and welcoming - which are character experiences - you override autonomy. Some characters may find the tavern stifling and over-familiar. But just by mistaking one (or all) of the characters for a man (or men) called Norman (or Normen), the ball is very much in their court over how they feel about that. Maybe they’ve always wanted to be called Norm. Maybe they’ve always wanted to be called Sally. We can’t know what nibbles we’ll get until we drop the bait in the water.
The overall effect of description should convey activity which occurs separately from the players
In setting up a scene, I like to take a moment to think - what is everyone else doing here? What were the key players doing just before the characters arrived and what physical signs are there of this activity? For craftspeople, partially completed items. For scholars, a note indicating that the Grail is to be found at the Castle Aaaaargh! How about cleaners? I bet you’ve never even considered who’s cleaning up dragon shit, but it must happen, and surely that iron broom leaves marks.
Even if you’re describing an empty room - think beyond cobwebs. Cobwebs are pretty static. How about trails left in the dust by the tiny feet of mice searching for food? How about a pile of pigeon excrement under a beam where birds roost at night?
Most importantly of all, when the door of the orc sex dungeon opens, the swing should already be in motion.
These are my thoughts. If you like them, consider chucking this a RT on the old Twitter @dfpiii.