How To Build Awesome Description On-The-Fly

From RPT GM Bob F.

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0601

How To Build Awesome Description On-The-Fly

You are doing a great job with the tips.

I struggle with being consistently descriptive in my DMing.

I try to fight the “now roll a 20, ok, you hit for 5 damages” type of droning, but sometimes the game gets slow (totally my fault).

I have taped a card inside my DM screen that says, “the 5 senses are, taste touch sight smell and sound” to remind me to be descriptive.

That said, anything you can add to the new setting that makes it easier for me to describe what they sense makes it easier for me to bring the environment alive.

Some don’t like box text but I do. I may not read it word for word, but I grab the senses from it. Makes it easy for me to deduce things like, “What does it smell like here?” and “What are the sounds like in this area at night or in the day?”

Perhaps it is just as simple as providing sensory adjectives for specific areas of the setting?

Thank you for your dedication to the hobby and to your readers. You do a great job.

Thank you,

Graphic of section divider


Hi Bob,

Thanks for the email!

Descriptions are vital to good gaming, because your players rely on you to be their eyes and ears in the game.

All the senses are important, so good call on creating the reminder for yourself.

In cities and complex areas, it can get especially overwhelming. Plus, it’s tough getting your head out of the numbers, rules and refereeing mindset and switching into creative mode to wax poetic.

Here’s my advice.

Make enabling gameplay your top goal. This means describing just what’s needed so you can turn the spotlight back onto the players as soon as possible.

Make descriptions short, useful, pithy. No need to render long descriptions full of frilly details – your players won’t remember most of them anyway, and you’ll drown out the important parts. It kills game flow when you have to repeat details over and over because your descriptions caused eye glaze from length and irrelevance.

Approach descriptions following the format I outline below. Do it this way, like a mental checklist, every time so it becomes habit. Once you’ve got this habit, you won’t need the GM screen note anymore (which you forget to look at after awhile anyway).

Set The Frame

Give a short line to orient the players. Give them a mental framework for the rest of your description details to fall into and flesh out.

It’s frustrating to imagine what someone is trying to tell you when you don’t know where the edges are. You’re trying to not only fill in the details but figure out the container you’re filling as well!

Best case is you describe the room or area’s function.

“You open the wooden door and see a square room. From the ruined furniture, it looks like this was a fancy master bedroom.”

Clean, simple language. Direct and to the point. And it frames the area up so now we know where to hang the additional details you’re about to lay out.

Also, I snuck in another technique there I got from a writing class I adapted for GMing. For everything important in the scene (every noun) add one simple descriptor (adjective).

In writing you’re supposed to have restraint and do this judiciously. But for GMing, give every thing a one word extra detail. This goes a long way to making descriptions interesting without weighing them down.

  • Wooden (door)
  • Square (room)
  • Ruined (furniture)
  • Fancy master (bedroom)

This trick also helps me to keep things simple. I do not pressure myself into having to summon more details on-the-fly.

What’s Happening?

With frame established, describe the action next. This is exciting and important detail for your players. Who’s doing what? What’s doing what?

Limiting description just to active encounter elements saves you from detail paralysis too. Focus on what’s important to players and hand the spotlight to them asap.

Active ingredients can include NPCs, anything in motion, anything about to act or pounce, any dynamic and perceivable encounter element.

“You open the wooden door and see a square room. From the ruined furniture, it looks like this was a fancy master bedroom.

Lying on the shredded bed is the twitching carcass of an elk.

A bloody head pops out of the carcass. It’s a huge snake but with the head of a woman! The snake creature begins to chant weird words of power.”

This description cuts to the chase. It focuses just on the action. There’s other ruined furniture in the room, but it’s not important right now.

In this example, I also snuck in another trick. Re-use important words in your descriptions. Repetition helps players remember what you’ve just said. Here, we’ve introduced 10 nouns or things. From the door to the words of power, that’s a lot to take in at once.

So I said the word carcass twice, bed twice (bedroom, bed), and snake twice.

I also didn’t try to get fancy with my sentences. Short, simple, direct.

It’s ok to repeat yourself and use plain language. Don’t pressure yourself to be Shakespeare. You’ll just lose your players if you do and have to repeat yourself.

What’s It Look Like?

For each active thing in the scene, describe what it looks like.

Focus just on what’s most important here.

In our example, that’ll be the naga. The players won’t care yet about the appearance of the carcass, bed and other furniture in the room.

Those details make for nice box text, but they just drown out what players care most about, and delay you handing control back to the players.

If any additional senses are relevant, now is the time to include those.

A quick trick here is to imagine a person’s face. Draw a big red line from their eyes to their ears to their nose to their mouth. Then imagine them holding their hand to their gut.

Imagine this and use it as a description map: see, hear, smell, taste, feel, instinct. Just follow the red line and walk through describing what’s important in the scene.

Here’s another trick. Don’t add all sensory information at once. Unless it’s important, delay less important detail descriptions and sprinkle them throughout the encounter instead. A great time to do this is when queuing up a player’s turn.

For example, after Krug it’s Marlee’s turn. “Ok Marlee, it’s your turn. The acrid smell of copper from all the elk blood makes your stomach churn. Last round your arrow flew wide of the mark. What’s your action now?”

We’ve mixed in-character point of view with gamespeak with game procedure with sensory description. This combo works well for me, but you decide how much of each you prefer in your descriptions.

The point is, you saved the blood smell for later in the encounter to avoid front-loading the scene setup with too much info. This approach also gives you more time to think up such details. And it lets you keep the descriptive elements going throughout the encounter.

What’s Important?

Here’s a story about something that happened in my Riddleport campaign my players still tease me about.

The group is at the harbour. They’re fighting critters on the docks. Suddenly a shark surfaces in the bay. I tell my players, “This is the largest shark you’ve ever seen.”

However, it turns out this shark is 100 feet long. And my players were thinking 30 feet, because that would indeed be bigger than what they or their characters would have seen.

I (conveniently?) left out the 100 foot detail.

So in my campaigns now, I might face the odd question like, “Is the bed 100 feet long, Johnn?”


Before you finish your description, do a last-minute check for anything important your players would want to know.

Add as needed (and as perceived).

Wrapping this all up, here’s the simple sequence you should turn into a descriptive habit:

  • Frame
  • Action
  • Appearance (and other senses if critical)
  • Important

Just answer “What’s going on?” and what choices are present for players in brief terms then jump into initiative or ask for player actions/reactions.

Add less important details throughout the encounter.

Hope this helps, Bob!

Fun Points To Enhance The Fun

From Moe Tousignant, based on an idea by Greg Bilsland

Every player can collect fun points. Fun points can be acquired for a variety of reasons, all of which are listed below.

Fun points can be used for two things:

  1. Modifying a D20 die roll. After any standard roll (initiative, skill check, attack, etc.) a player may spend any number of fun points to modify that die roll. This must be done before the results of the roll are known. Making a roll a 20 does not result in a critical hit.
  2. Taking a roll on the Fun Point Table. A player can trade in 10 fun points for a roll on the fun point table (below). These give a wide variety of in game benefits.
Graphic of section divider

Fun Point Awards

One Time Awards

  • Write up a character background: 10 points
  • Bring your own miniature: 5 points; paint it: 5 more for a total of 10.
  • Come up with a list of three things you want out of the campaign (such as “fight a dragon,” “receive an artifact,” or “be wrongfully imprisoned”): 5 points
  • Start a magic item Wish List: 5 points
  • Select a theme for your character: 5 points

Rules Knowledge Awards

The emphasis here is on knowing the rules that pertain to your character. Having your own books to look stuff up in is great and encouraged, but not necessary. You are free to borrow books to read between game sessions.

  • Buy or borrow a Player’s Handbook and read the Combat chapter and the Equipment Chapter. The new essentials Heroes of books and the Rules Compendium count for this as well: 10 points.
  • Buy or borrow the source book your class is in and read the section on your class. Also includes class updates from Essentials products: 2 points.
  • Buy or borrow a race sourcebook and read up on your race: 2 points.
  • Download and read the latest Errata, applying any changes to your character: 2 points per update released.

Ongoing Awards

  • Arrive on time to a D&D session and come prepared with character sheet, pencils, paper, books dice, power cards, etc.: 2 points (If borrowing dice, pencils etc. but still on time award: 1 point).
  • Note-taking (anyone who takes thorough notes): 2 points.
  • Spend $5 on D&D/RPG product that enhances the game for everyone: 1 point per $5 spent based on MSRP.
  • Bring Snack Food/Drinks to share: 2 points.
  • Bringing props for your character – clothing items, weapons, trinkets, etc.: 1 point/session per prop brought
  • Master of Marks. Be in charge of the ‘mark box’ tracking ongoing conditions: 2 points/session must be traded off if you did it last game and another player wants to take over. Cannot be done again until every other player currently at the table has done it or passed since you last did it.
  • Storyteller. Volunteer to do the “What happened last time” story at the start of the session: 2 points/session must be traded off if you did it last game and another player wants to take over. Cannot be done again until every other player currently at the table has done it or passed since you last did it.
  • Wish List update. Once per level you can submit an updated item wish list: 2 points/level
  • Character goals update. At any point you think of three cooler things you would like from the campaign you can submit them. This can be done at the end of each published module we finish – 5 points/submission.

Player Discretionary Awards

Each player can also give out up to 2 points per session to another player. These can be given out for good role-playing, problem solving, tactics, creativity, and for humor and fun. This includes the DM.

The Award List

Note: if you receive a reward you cannot use (e.g., ritual scroll for a fighter) you may take the value of an appropriate item in gold.

  1. Secret Stash Scroll: You just happen to have the ritual scroll you need! (Your level or lower)
  2. Secret Stash Potion: You just happen to have the potion you need! (Your level or lower)
  3. Secret Stash Adventuring Gear: You just happen to have any piece of mundane equipment (excluding Mounts and Vehicles)
  4. Secret Stash Alchemy: You just happen to have the alchemical item you need! (Your level or lower)
  5. Secret Stash Weapon: You just happen to have the weapon you need! (Any non-magical weapon)
  6. Lucky Find Ritual: Lucky you! You find a ritual book of your level or lower.
  7. Lucky Find Magic Weapon or Implement: Lucky you! You find a magic weapon or implement of your level (or lower).
  8. Lucky Find Magic Armor: Lucky you, you find a magic armor of your level (or lower).
  9. Lucky Find Wondrous Item: Lucky you! You find a Wondrous item of your level (or lower).
  10. Lucky Find Magic Arm Item: Lucky you! You find a magic arm item of your level (or lower).
  11. Lucky Find Magic Feet Item: Lucky you! You find a magic feet item of your level (or lower).
  12. Lucky Find Magic Hand Item: Lucky you! You find a magic hand item of your level (or lower).
  13. Lucky Find Magic Head Item: Lucky you! You find a magic head item of your level (or lower).
  14.  Lucky Find Magic Neck Item: Lucky you! You find a magic neck item of your level (or lower).
  15. Lucky Find Magic Ring Item: Lucky you! You find a magic ring of your level (or lower). Must be level 10 to use.
  16. Lucky Find Magic Waist Item: Lucky you! You find a magic item for waist slot of your level (or lower).
  17. Lucky Find Treasure: Double the amount of non-magic treasure you just found max of one parcel’s worth.
  18. Magical Font: Upgrade a magic item you just have to 1 level higher. Pick a new item of the same type.
  19. A Smattering of Words: You can speak and read one language for the next day.
  20. Like the Monkey: Add +5 to an Acrobatics.
  21. Amateur Arcanist: Add +5 to an Arcana roll.
  22. What Can You Bench? Add +5 to an Athletics roll.
  23. Me Lie? Add +5 to an Bluff roll.
  24. Half-Elf’s Tongue: Add +5 to a Diplomacy roll.
  25. I Once Went to the Underdark: Add +5 to a Dungeoneering roll.
  26. I Can Do This All Day: Add +5 to an Endurance roll.
  27. Have You Heard of the Athalas Plant? Add +5 to a Heal roll.
  28. Once Upon a Time: Add +5 to a History roll.
  29. Human Lie Detector: Add +5 to an Insight roll.
  30. You Lookin’ At Me? Add +5 to an Intimidate roll.
  31. Tree Hugger: Add +5 to a Nature roll.
  32. How Did You Even See That? Add +5 to a Perception roll.
  33. You Haven’t Heard of that God? Add +5 to a Religion roll.
  34.  Shhhhh! Add +5 to a Stealth roll.
  35. I Know a Shortcut: Add +5 to a Streetwise roll.
  36. Oh, Was That Locked for a Reason? Add +5 to a Thievery roll.
  37.  Fortuitous Failure: Suppress a zone or conjuration for 1d6 + 1 rounds.
  38. Wise Beyond Your Years: Acquire one feat until your next Extended Rest must meet all prerequisites.
  39. I Remember How to Do That: Add +5 to one skill check.
  40. Extra Batteries: Recharge a power in a magic item.
  41. Bull’s Eye: Ignore penalties to attacks until the end of your next turn.
  42. Third Wind: Spend a healing surge as a free action.
  43. Second Line of Defenses: Ignore penalties to defenses until the end of your next turn.
  44. I Wear Two Suits of Armor: Gain a +2 bonus to AC until the end of your next turn.
  45. I’m Glad I Took My Vitamins: Gain a +2 bonus to Fortitude until the end of your next turn.
  46. I’m Smarter Than I Look: Gain a +2 bonus to Will until the end of your next turn.
  47. I Totally Dodged That Lightning Bolt: Gain a +2 bonus to Reflex until the end of your next turn.
  48. I Sharpened My Weapon This Morning: Gain a +2 bonus to attack and damage until the end of your next turn.
  49. Monster Repellant: Gain resistance 5 (10 at Paragon, 15 at Epic) to one damage type until the end of your next turn.
  50. Can’t Keep a Brotha’ Down: Gain a +2 bonus to saving throws until the end of your next turn.
  51. These Aren’t the Droids You’re Looking: For Target creature is dominated by you until the end of its next turn.
  52. Way of the Ninja: Teleport 5 squares.
  53. Way of the Blender: Keep using at-will attack powers until you miss.
  54. Use the Force: Reroll an attack roll.
  55. Energy Strike: Deal 1d6 extra damage of an energy type of your choice on one attack.
  56. Fortunate Turn of Events: Gain +2 to a roll you just made after you know the result.
  57. Let Me Try That Again: Reroll any number of damage dice you just rolled.
  58. Quicker Than You! Initiative: You go first, chose to use after you roll initiative.
  59. Dilettante Skills: +1 to all skills for until you take an extended rest.
  60. Good Thing I Wore My Displacement Cloak: Make an enemy reroll an attack.
  61. Longer Legs: Gain a +1 bonus to speed until the end of the encounter.
  62. I Like the Look of You: One non-hostile NPC becomes a trusted friend and ally.
  63. You Lucky Devil Lucky: Reroll one die.
  64. My Arms Are Longer Than They Look: You have reach 2 and threatening reach until the end of your next turn.
  65. Tis a Flesh Wound: Take half damage from weapon attacks until the end of your next turn.
  66.  Limbo Expert: You do not elicit opportunity attacks until the end of your next turn.
  67. Big Feet, Big Hands: You gain a +5 bonus to bull rush and grab attacks until the end of your next turn.
  68. Oh, I Totally Saw That Coming: Your group is not surprised when it normally would be.
  69. Prophetic Insight: You know the answer to one question that can be answered with yes or no (DM’s discretion)
  70. Word on the Street: Find out where something or someone is. (DM’s discretion)
  71. I’m Tougher Than I Look: recover 2 spent healing surges.
  72. Damn Elves: You ignore difficult terrain until the end of your next turn.
  73. Finding Nemo: You do not have to make swim checks until you take an extended rest.
  74. Drow Eyes: You gain darkvision until you take an extended rest.
  75. It’s All in the Wrist: You gain +2 to your critical range until the end of your next turn.
  76. My Name is Enigo Montoya: Keep fighting even while at negative hit points. You still make death saving throws.
  77. I Spent Years Building Up a Resistance to Iocain: You are immune to poison effects until the end of you next turn.
  78. Dread Pirate Roberts: Push any enemy adjacent to you 1 square at the start of your turn.
  79. Only Slightly Less Known: Know all facts about enemy – automatically get 30 on a Monster Knowledge Check.
  80. Not Left-Handed Either: You can make one basic melee attack as a minor action each round (save ends).
  81. Copy Cat: Select and copy fun card from other PCs.
  82. Double the Fun: Roll twice on the Fun List.
  83. Immunization Shots: You are immune to disease until the end of the encounter.
  84. Keep a Clear Head: You are immune to daze until the end of your next turn, and any current daze effect ends.
  85. Third Eye: Immune to blind until the end of your next turn and any current blind effect ends.
  86. Eyes in the Back of Your Head: You cannot be flanked until the end of your next turn.
  87. I Am Wolverine! You have regeneration 5 until the end of the encounter (10 at paragon, 15 at epic).
  88. Just Try Stopping Me: Immune to immobilize until the end of your next turn and any current immobilize effect ends.
  89. I Get Knocked Down, But I Get Up Again: Stand up from prone as a free action until the end of the encounter.
  90. I Shall Not Suffer Frailty: Immune to weaken until the end of your next turn and any current weaken effect ends.
  91. I’m Too Fast For: Immune to slow until the end of your next turn and any current slow effect ends.
  92. Focus, Just Focus: Immune to stun until the end of your next turn and any current stun effect ends.
  93. Hulk Out: Immune to restrain until the end of your next turn and any current restrain effect ends.
  94. Cheap Tricks: Won’t Work Immune to dominate until the end of your next turn and any current dominate effect ends.
  95. I’m Not Done Yet: Recharge an encounter attack power.
  96. Take That—Again! Recharge a daily attack power.
  97.  I’m Full of Useful Tricks: Recharge a utility power.
  98. Look What a Good Night’s Rest Can Do: Gain Temporary hit points equal to your healing surge value.
  99.  Undaunted: You ignore fear effects until the end of your next turn and any existing fear effect ends.
  100. You Win D&D: Succeed at anything (DM’s discretion)?
Graphic of section divider

Permanent Battle Map on White Board

From Matthew Foster

I’ve been playing DnD for a while now, and I’ve never had the ready cash for one of the really nice battle mats. But since D&D always happens at the same place, we bought one of those white boards.

We quickly found out that if we made the grid with Permanent Marker (Sharpie), and then used Dry Erase markers for the maps, the permanent markers wiped off. So it only took an hour or so for a 4’x4′ board, but we took a box cutter to it and cut a grid into the board, and we’ve been using it for the last 3 years.

Dry erase markers work like a charm, and we only ever have to worry about the minis moving, because the grid never will.

Thanks so much for all the tips over the years, I can always find something interesting or useful to add more depth to my games!

Graphic of section divider

Use Band Names For Factions

From Jesse Cohoon

I work with a newspaper and am always coming across bar events. Some of the bands have awesome names.

So look at the bar events in a major city near you to find the names of bands that are playing, and use the names for secret societies, enemy groups or political parties.

Here are some band names I’ve come across:

  • Into the Weeds. Could be a “chapter heading” for a game in which the players are going to be facing a plant-based monster group or a group of explorers dedicated to exterminating all plant monsters.
  • Senses Fail. Could be about an enemy group that specializes in attacks that blind or deafen opponents. Or it could be a curse or magical disease that causes the player’s senses to fail.
  • Formless Ruin. Could be a group of monsters: a ghost, a shadow and a wraith working in cooperation.
  • Renegade Lightning Rebellion. Could be a group of rebels who use lightning as their main weapon.