Giving Better Descriptions – Part II

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0092

  1. The Rule Of 3, 5 & 7
  2. Give An Odd Number Of Details
  3. Paraphrase Boxed Text
  4. Vary Your Speech
  5. Use Pauses And Silence
  6. Add Details On-The-Fly
  7. Miscellaneous Tips
  8. Use Description To Beef Up Cannon Fodder
  9. Describe Unrelated Campaign Details
  10. Use The Web To Find Pics To Help Your Descriptions
  11. Use Postcards To Help With Descriptions

Readers’ Tips Summarized

  1. Mapping Tip
  2. Let Players Rate Each Other For EXPs
  3. General GMing Tips

A Brief Word From Johnn

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Johnn Four
[email protected]

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Giving Better Descriptions – Part II

See Issue 91 for Part I:

The Rule Of 3, 5 & 7

I find it helpful, especially when GMing on-the-fly, to keep the 3-5-7 rule in mind for describing first-impressions:

  • For simple or unimportant descriptions, just give the three most relevant details.
  • For significant descriptions, give the five most important details.
  • For very important descriptions, provide seven details, or more.

Use this as a rule of thumb to help when you’re not sure how much description to provide in any given situation.

Give An Odd Number Of Details

My high school English teacher once said that comfortable descriptions have an odd number of details (i.e. 3, 5, 7). He said studies showed that lists, examples, and descriptions with even numbers of details are more uncomfortable than their odd-numbered counterparts.I’ve never been able to verify this or find those studies, but, after much experimentation, I have made his comments a rule of thumb. Test it out for yourself and see what you think.

Paraphrase Boxed Text

Module writers have good intentions when writing the boxed text for encounters. However, it’s quite difficult to read them out loud to your group in your normal GMing voice. And that often distracts your players or ruins the mood you’ve been trying to build up.You’re better off paraphrasing boxed text, putting it in your own words and lending your own style of dramatic flare as you go.Are you poor at paraphrasing? Try these tips:

  • Look for the main idea(s) in each sentence. That’s what you want to focus on and describe.
  • Quickly read one sentence at a time and then translate. You’ll start off slow but get faster at this skill with practice.
  • Switch only the adjectives and adverbs with your own words, keeping the main points intact. This means you’ll have less work to do while translating and it is a good learning exercise.
  • Use your hands and arms while you talk. They will help you when you get stuck for words. For example, when describing the shape of a strange container, you can talk about how big and what colour it is while outlining the shape in the air. Your players will understand and you can quickly move on to the rest of the description.
  • Don’t look at the text while talking. You’ll be tempted to read word-for-word again. Instead, look at each player as you speak. Any time you spot player confusion, pause in your paraphrasing and go into more detail until everyone’s clear on what their PCs are seeing or experiencing.
  • Take some boxed text and write out the main points on paper in point form. This exercise will help you separate what’s important from the fluff. Do this until you can catch the important stuff just by visually skimming. (But keep your notes for use during play since you’ve gone to the trouble of making them.)
  • It never hurts to practice. Find a safe place where you can talk to yourself out loud, like public transit for example, and try paraphrasing.

Vary Your Speech

A dull, monotone voice can kill. Well, not really, but it can be very painful to the listeners (your players). So, vary your speech to add interest, drama, and a special spark to your descriptions:

  • Monotone. Avoid monotony like the plague, but occasionally do use it on purpose for special effect.
  • Sentence length. Vary how long your sentences are, from fast and choppy, to long and slow with lots of side tracks and details.
  • Speed. Change how fast you talk. Faster speech raises tension while slower speech can increase drama.
    • Talk quickly during combats
    • Speak more slowly near the end of..sentences…that…. reveal…..something………dramatic
    • Avoid sacrificing clarity for speed or you’ll constantly need to repeat yourself
  • Volume. Change how loud you speak. Also use contrast. For example, at the end of the slow, dramatic sentence in the Speed example above you could say each word more quietly than the previous and then suddenly shout out the last word. That’ll get the group’s blood pumping.
  • Tone. Change the tone of your voice while you speak: disinterested, intense, sad, depressed, excited, joyous.

Use Pauses And Silence

Silence, at the right time, can be vary dramatic:

  • Before giving the final, important detail pause for 2-5 seconds.
  • Pause to ensure you have everybody’s attention before starting a description. Depending on your GMing style, players will often take this as a cue that something important is coming up and tension will rise in a good way.
  • Pause between details to give players time to digest what you’ve just said.
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Add Details On-The-Fly

From Rick K.

This is a response to the issue on descriptions. Don’t be afraid to use ad-hoc effects. What I mean by this is off- the-cuff DM decisions to back up your descriptions. It makes the impact more intense. For example, if a PC critically hits an ogre, then move that ogre’s miniature back a square (if you use miniatures), or explain that the ogre was knocked back, and factor that in to PC and monster movements.Use visual aids to enhance your descriptions. I had a wizard, who was missing his lower right eyelid, gathering the PCs. The whole time I pulled my right eyelid down and glared at everybody. The notable difference in roleplaying was worth the 15 minutes of dry eye afterwards.

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Miscellaneous Tips

From Chicken316

Johnn, I have some great description tips for ya. Here goes:

  1. First, gauge how much description is right for your players. As a player, I could sit through a whole page of description for important places, people, items. The gamers I GM would die of boredom half way through the first paragraph.
  2. If you’re going to work with props for description purposes, gauge how your players will deal with it. I created several pages of printed material, maps, and scribings in other languages to get them going with the adventure and nobody picked it up for a half an hour. My players showed such disinterest I promised that I would never waste my time on such a prop again.
  3. Check out National Geographic Magazine. Some of the descriptions for places there are incredible and with pictures that are phenomenal. Study them, tear them apart and discover the writers’ styles and how they group the information. Steal their techniques.
  4. If you like to use battle-mats and painted pewter figures and what not, that’s great. I love props that I can set down on the table, but they can be a double edged sword if not used properly. I have two things to say about that:
    1. Don’t leave props as your only source of description. Don’t just draw a square, put a door down and expect them to be happy. Describe stuff.
    2. Use that stuff to its fullest. Use all the colors in that bag of wet-erase markers, use green for filthy pools or sewer water, trace red for blood stains or make red squares for carpet, draw the design for the carpet. If you use barrels and they’re stacked up and a lower one gets smashed, roll the rest down, tip over tables, set chairs upside down, use that junk for all its worth.
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Use Description To Beef Up Cannon Fodder

From Alex J.

One of the hardest tricks a GM faces is making the mundane in an epic adventure epic to those who face it. How often have you had players nervously working their way through an unholy crypt and then the battle ensues as the PCs are attacked by vicious… bloodthirsty… horrible… skeletons!?”Skeletons?” say the PCs? “Weak!”So how do you make them interesting opponents? Description, of course!Make these opponents come alive. In the very first adventure I designed, I had the PCs travel to a fortress town that had stopped sending tribute to their lord, and to whom all previous emissaries had failed to return. Along the way the adventurers were ambushed several times by short ugly creatures with green skin and curled upturned lips and snouts. One carried an old nicked sword and wore rotted leather armor, but the rest were carrying heavy tree boughs. They didn’t wear armor, and their clothing was mostly tattered filthy animal skins, ripped in places, showing their distended stomachs. One of them had a lot of loose skin as if she’d recently lost a great deal of weight.”Weight,” you say. “She lost weight?”

Most fantasy players will have recognized the creatures as goblins, and have noted that they are extremely poorly equipped, even for such beings. They’ll also have noted that they appear to be starving. Such descriptions make your world’s inhabitants come alive and gives them depth that can’t be communicated any other way.

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Describe Unrelated Campaign Details

From Orion283

I’ve found that it sometimes helps to describe things that might not even relate to the campaign. Your players shouldn’t see the invisible wall at the edge of the campaign world, metaphorically speaking. Describing things in a way that makes it appear that there’s more to the world than just the things the players see and do helps the world seem more complete.For example, at the start of one game of D&D 3E (classic tavern start, of course), the players saw a small stage in one corner of the room with a few instruments and dozing musicians sitting there (the bard in the group even got to be one of the dozers). The players hadn’t done anything that would warrant a party the night before, nor did they even find out why there was a party, but the post-party atmosphere of the tavern seemed to portray the idea that the world didn’t (always) revolve around the players.

Other possible examples of things to describe:

  • Current events: newspaper headlines/tavern posters/video billboard ads.
  • Random goings on in town: a fender bender, somebody bartering, street performers.
  • Weather: rain, mud, snow, etc. (bizarre alien weather patterns are fun).
  • Foreshadowing: describe something that seems inconsequential now, but will be important later, i.e. some bit of conversation with a clue to a puzzle yet to be seen.
  • Flora & fauna: an encounter with an exotic space-borne life-form can be fun to describe and fun to roleplay; instead of a dangerous fight scene, the player must use his lightning reflexes to carefully steer his high-performance sports car and avoid hitting a bunny that has wandered onto the road!

Scenes like these can be fun to describe, and they can also make fun roleplaying opportunities. They’re also a fun break from the usual descriptions of undead nasties or weapon-laden battlecruisers. Have I mentioned fun?

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Use The Web To Find Pics To Help Your Descriptions

From Ralph S.

If you don’t have first-hand experience to help you describe something, get on the web and find some pictures. You’ll be amazed at what cool-looking buildings and people you can find to fire up your imagination.Recently I had the idea for a major temple built completely from wood. I remembered that Norway has a number of wooden churches from the middle ages and did a quick web search: This is just one of the images I found: don’t need to show it to the players. Simply look at it closely, then close your eyes and describe it in your own words. Reality is so much stranger than fiction.Or, take a look at a historical society: a good museum: are wonderful pictures to help you visualize your setting.

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Use Postcards To Help With Descriptions

From Jens

One thing that can help both players and GMs visualize landscapes, encounter locales, buildings, and so on, is postcards. The real world is full of fascinating locations and there are people (professional photographers even that take pictures of these and sell the images quite cheaply…If you know a couple of other GMs and have their addresses you can even send them a copy of the better ones and, with a little luck, you’ll soon have a decent collection shared between you.

  • You don’t even have to write an entire adventure module on the back of each card a few words like; “Thought you’d like this”, or “Imagine a band of Lowland Orx holding this bridge, cutting off the valley from supplies…” does the trick nicely.
  • Even better, provide some of the real world history behind the motif: “Three centuries ago this tower was the home and base of a gang of counterfeiters…”
[Johnn: what about online postcards? Anyone know of any sites with good online postcards for use in RPGs? Send me the URL(s): [email protected]and I’ll publish a list in a future issue.]
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Tips Request: “Handling Large Groups”

My group is medium sized with 6 players, including one playing by web cam. However, last month I faced the prospect of adding another player and suddenly I felt my group was _huge_. Things didn’t work out as planned however, so my group is still at 6, but I’d like to hear your thoughts on handling large groups:

  • Do you change your GMing style? How and why?
  • How can you reduce player boredom between turns?
  • How do you plan differently for large sessions? Do you bother planning for each PC?
  • Do the types of stories and adventures you tell change to accommodate larger groups?
  • Do you have any tips or advice for handling large groups?

Send your tips and thoughts to:

[email protected]


[P.S. Feel free to read Casey’s tip in #88 if you’re stuck for ideas: ]

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Mapping Tip

From Culix

One thing that I tried during our latest binge of gaming I thought I would like to pass along. The area where the players are currently exploring is a set of natural caves, and these can be fairly tough both to draw and explain to the players with all their twists and turns and jagged sides.

So, before the session started, I scanned in and printed out a colour copy of the map. Then I cut off the area the PCs had already explored and taped it onto the back of a folder. Next I went through and cut up each individual room that the players could explore, as well as splitting apart forks in passageways, and so on. I put a piece of tape on the back of each room or passage, and placed these on another folder.

Then, during the session, when the players finally got to a room and had explored it, I could just take the room and tape it onto their map. It worked pretty well!

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Let Players Rate Each Other For EXPs

From Andrew T.

After most of the games I play in, we have a bit of a natter about odds and sods and usually include a thirty second “Good session / Bad session, I liked the ….., not so keen on the …” Only takes seconds to run through if you do it regularly, and is damn helpful.

Related but not quite, another general tip:

In the ‘Blue Planet’ game each character has five or so strong adjectives describing main facets of the character. At the end of a session, the players get to award the roleplaying points for everybody else based on how well the player portrayed those characteristics.

For example:

  • Personality – Good intentioned/over-protective
  • Demeanor – Surly/brutish
  • Background – Nomadic/combative
  • Motivation – “it is the way of my people”
  • ‘Players choice’ – Shamanic

This gives a pretty rounded barbarian protector. The GM asks each player to rate their own or each other’s performance and awards bonus roleplaying points on that basis.

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General GMing Tips

From Candy & Will

  • Remember the golden rule: YOU are the GM. Don’t let the players run the game. Let them run their own characters. You have to run everything else. That’s the first thing I had to learn as a DM. Not to let the players argue or cajole you into changing a ruling.
  • If they behave badly, the NPCs will treat them differently. If they destroy something that belongs to someone else, there will be repercussions. If they break the law (and get caught), they go to jail. If they bust the Masquerade, they will be blood hunted. There has to be consequences. That’s the second general rule.
  • People have to show up on some sort of semblance of time. Fifteen minutes give or take, but if people come consistently late, penalize them. Give out on-time points. Or just take the game in a direction they can’t follow if they weren’t here for the beginning of it. Respect is the third rule.
  • Every once in a while, I try to run a ‘goofy’ game. One where villains twirl moustaches and damsels are tied to railroad tracks. Let the players blow off steam.
  • If the players have some gawd-awful weapon (one of my PC’s got a chain gun for his Get of Fenris Ahroun; do you have any idea how much damage a chain gun does?) design a game where they don’t get to use it. Take them into the umbra, or outer space, or somewhere. Make your players think, not shoot, every once in a while.
  • Try to get people to play something outside of what they always play. This is hard to do, and I don’t mean anyone should be forced to play something they don’t want to, but just ask, or offer gentle suggestion, that maybe it’s time to create something other than Gangrel Biker #17 TM.
  • When totally stumped, roll some dice and make up whatever you want. Nobody will ever know it wasn’t scripted to go that way.
  • Thieves are a wonderful way to rid players of excess loot, but should never be overused. You know you’ve overused it when characters quit buying things.