Many dungeon master’s try to focus on how descriptors in D&D can make the world come alive. They think if they can describe the world well, the world will come alive. There are a few flaws to this.
Descriptors in D&D are used to convey messages. Descriptors should only include what is important, use the 5 senses, and the atmosphere/your confidence.
I was going to just quote the hobbit to show how much detail was put into describing a hobbit hole, but I got bored and thought that it was too much to copy and paste here. I love the hobbit but dear lords above and below everything is described so much that you can’t help but get bored or skip. This has been a huge flaw in Tolkien’s writings.
Once the message has been delivered any extra detracts from the message.
We understood the point of what tolkien was trying to make and show us halfway through his description but he kept on going. Who would do that in real life? Very few people and we do not want to be those people
So what do we have to do in order to make our world pop and feel alive? Aside from not giving page long descriptions, let’s look into what makes good descriptors in D&D.
What is relevant?
“The sands stretched on forever as it seemed that nothing would stop them.” It doesn’t matter if something would stop the sands. We do not care about the opposition to sand. What we care about is that the sand seems to stretch forever. Keep your descriptors in D&D relevant and on point. Ask yourself, “what do I care about in this scene?” After that ask yourself, “What would my players care about in this scene?” Once you answer those you will know what should be cut.
“The old, decaying carpet hung from the walls along with a tattered sheet and a dusty portrait.” You are not writing a novel. You are trying to convey a message. Tell the players instead. “There is a dusty portrait and some old linens on the wall.” This way you do not go into detail about every little thing when the players could care less.
Breadcrumbs to a larger picture
That second example I gave didn’t tell the players at all about the linens. I left the details vague so that the players could inquire about them if they cared. If the players didn’t care it saves time while the players don’t get bored. If they are interested then I can describe the details to the players after they have taken charge. The players now are more interested since they asked and have agency.
This is called breadcrumbing. Dungeon masters do this all the time when they create lore for their world. You don’t want to give your players every detail of your world right away, so why should you give them every detail when describing things?
The answer is simple my friend, you should not. Breadcrumb your players so that you don’t overwhelm them, make them bored and then have them lose interest or at worst forget what you have already described. Let your players take the helm and ask for details themselves. This time, your players might actually remember something! (I would not hold my breath on that)
The most common piece of advice is that you should use the five senses to describe things. It looks ghastly! It smells rancid. These descriptors in D&D are the most common pieces of advice because they are some of the most important.
When we recall events we think about how it felt. Was it hot? Did we smell something terrible? How did the food taste? Did you not like the person because they smelled or looked bad? A terrible expression can sour a person’s opinion.
These senses don’t just help us convey our ideas to one another. These senses often make us feel or even experience the situation ourselves by empathy. That is why using the 5 senses to use emotion is critical.
“You see a half-elf with a leg that is unnaturally bent. The half-elf’s arm is also bent at an unnatural angle, and it’s hand is limp. The chest has six stab wounds through a worn tabard, and his head has one side bloated and misshapen. The one good eye looks at you as it painfully tends to the bar.”
That description almost made one my players cry. What I described was a ghost. The players knew that the previous owner of the bar was killed since he couldn’t pay his debts. The players saw the ghost interact with people before, so they knew that the ghost wanted to tend to the bar but didn’t know the extent of the ghost’s suffering.
This made the player relate since they themselves were having debt problems. This might have added some emotion, but the fact that the ghost just wanted to tend to the bar even after dying and being forced into this painful existence made a player almost cry. This player wanted to protect the ghost since all he ever wanted was his bar.
I know that I added a lot of descriptors there, but I could have added far more. I could have talked about the depth of the stab wounds, the shape of the one good eye, the angle of the bends, so much more but I didn’t. Instead, I used just enough to keep it relevant and describe the situation to my players. This caused an emotion that I have never made
If I stuttered at all during that description the impact of the moment would have been lost. If I was unsure of myself the impact would have been lost. I made up that description on the spot, but I didn’t show any hesitation.
“You see an ummm aaaa half-elf with a leg that is……..unnaturally bent! The half-elf’s arm mmmmm is aaaa also bent at an unnatural angle. And and it’s hand is limp!”
This is a little bit of an exaggeration but look at the difference between the two. You need to believe what you are saying and convey it with conviction. If you need some time to think give a small pause. This builds tension and is much better than breaking the scene.
You might be thinking that you cannot act at all! I am not a professional actor but I can pull off some bad acting here and there. As you can probably guess I made sure to act out the impression that I gave my players when I described the ghost. Was the act great? No, no dear lords above and below no! I just know a little secret.
Your players don’t care or even know if your acting is bad.
You will be the only person who cares or critiques yourself about your acting. Can you critique yourself about your acting? Yes, but no one else generally will unless you get wild and jump onto the table or do something weird.
Bad acting is okay in short bursts. Do not feel embarrassed or bashful because you are bad at acting. Be confident, sell that act, and make your descriptors hit home.
We don’t get better at things by wishing we were better (unless you make a wish in D&D). If I want to get better at something I have to practice at it. The same goes for you. If you do not know how to practice, here are a few exercises to help you out.
-Describe your environment in your head when bored!
–Have an ‘encounter’ journal at the end of the day where you describe the most important events of the day.
– Read. Read what people write and look at how they describe their environment.
-Watch people. Watch how others interact and play out the scene in your head. What are they doing, smelling, feeling, etc. Describe that in your head. It is only creepy if you are caught staring.
As and For
Many dungeon masters are wondering how to use descriptors in combat. I have a new rule for you to go by. I call it, the ‘as and for’ rule! If you are about to describe a hit, say “The orc swings as his axe goes wide.”
For your players, have them use this rule in order to help communicate what they are hitting. I have many times had a misunderstanding on who the players are trying to kill and this wastes time while taking everyone out of the immersion. If a player says “I roll a 15 as I recklessly swing at the ord with my sword.” I now know who the player is swinging at and that they are using a reckless attack. Just make sure if a word has an in game mechanic that it is only used with that in game mechanic.
“I roll a 16 for investigating the runes.” I cannot tell you how much this helps with skill checks. You one moment ask a player to roll for something and then get caught up answering another player’s question. Half a minute later the player is done waiting for you and tells the dungeon master that they rolled a 16. For what? Investigate. Investigate what? This simple for rule makes every bit of communication much clearer and does wonders.
Only describe what is relevant! That goes for when you are describing something that the players already know but what about a new place? If the players are encountering a new area you can add a few small details to give the proper atmosphere. “The tidy room” “The looming trees” “The tall buildings” “The flat land” all give different feelings and convey different messages. I was able to convey these messages with one word.
Do not get too fancy by adding sentences. We still want the descriptors in D&D to be brief to convey a message, but verticality, adjectives, and some personality help bring an area to life. Once again, don’t go too crazy with this. Convey the message, no more.
Descriptors in combat
How do I communicate that the enemy is damaged? This is the most common question. You can give descriptors in D&D that actually give an enemy disadvantage like “the enemy now has a deep cut in their arm and are having a tough time moving” but I don’t like that. The game was meant to be played unrealistically so let’s keep it that way.
If your minion is damaged just progress the damage. “The orc has a deep cut in his right arm.” “The orc is struggling to move” “You can see the pain on the orc’s face.” Only willpower is keeping him up.” All of these told a story and I just slowly progressed the damage. You do not need to describe every wheeze or grunt.
If a special effect happens, make it apparent. “The spell starts to take effect but as big bad enemy moves toward you she shrugs it off and smiles.” That was a legendary resistance. A normal resistance would be some confusion, anger, momentary pause, but a legendary action is stronger than that so we used a stronger reaction. Again, not too much but just enough to indicate that something big happened.
Making your players use descriptors
Your players will start to use more descriptors in D&D if they see you do so AND like what you are doing. If you follow these instructions and make your descriptors interesting players will start to emulate you.
If you want your players to start describing things more quickly use the ‘as and for’ technique. You can tell them that you are trying to clear up miscommunication. This is 100% true, but it also makes the players get more engaged.
Do not force your players if they really don’t want to describe things. Sometimes players get shy or doesn’t want to look like a fool. If you keep up your descriptors and get others to do so these players will start describing things as well.
Descriptors in D&D are an important part of the game that help us communicate, but we do not want to go overboard.
Descriptors can be powerful things that help set a scene, convey emotion, and just enhance our gaming experience.
What did you think of the ‘as and for’ technique? Did you agree with it or not? Leave a comment telling me what you have done in order to describe things in your games!
For further reading, here is an article that gives a great way to do descriptors for theater of the mind from Roleplaying Tips.
If you still need help with passive/uninterested players read this article to help you out!
This has been Wizo and keep rolling!