5 Description Tips
From Johnn Cinq
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #249
As the interface to the game world, you the GM need to provide the best descriptions possible to help your players understand what’s going on and to help immerse them in the roleplaying experience. Some GMs are natural born poets, and their descriptions are wonderful, entertaining, functional, and complete. If you’re like me though, you need to work at it else you get rusty and deliver rambling, boring, and unsupportive descriptions.
Following are a few tips, some new and some recounted from past issues, on providing better descriptions while GMing. As descriptions are subjective and a matter of GM style, not every tip will apply to you. As always, pick and choose from the ideas and advice presented and tailor your game mastering accordingly.
Mete Out Descriptions Carefully
A good pair of questions to keep in the back of your mind at all times while GMing is:
- What are you saying?
- Why are you saying that?
Though I’ve never scientifically measured it, I estimate that 80% of what I say during a game involves description. Next time you’re running a session, pay attention to what you’re saying to the players and categorize it:
- Idle chit chat, jokes and humour.
- Rules: interpreting, enforcing, resolving. “Ok Bill, roll a d6 and add your strength.”
- Description: opening scenes. “You open the door and…”
- Description: combat action and results. “With a mighty cleave Trogdor, you chop your foe in two and a fountain of blood sprays everyone nearby!”
- Description: action resolution. “Your sweet-talking seems to have its intended effect as the magistrate begins pulling out last year’s gate records for you.”
- Description: people, places, and things.
- Roleplaying: in-character parley with the PCs and between NPCs.
If you find that you don’t provide much description during a game, consider adding more. This might seem obvious, but an RPG session without description takes on the feel of a board or card game, and it engages far less player imagination.
If you find that you too spend 80% or so of the time describing things as you GM, then you can understand how working to improve your descriptive powers can have a dramatic effect on the quality of game play. If you make a slight tweak to your description skills, then you’ll be impacting a huge amount of gameplay!
Another implication of all this description is that the players can only absorb so much of what you’re saying and describing at any given time. If you do spend the majority of time providing descriptions of one sort or another, then you’re asking your players to absorb a lot of information.
Therefore, keep your descriptions focused and mete them out in digestible chunks when possible. Try to provide the exact amount of description required for any given situation. Avoid being too descriptive, and avoid being too sparse.
This brings us back to the pair of questions at the top of this tip. Listen to yourself speak during games and try to be objective in your self-analysis. What are you saying? Are you providing some sort of description? If so, why? What are you trying to accomplish? What are you trying to describe?
I catch myself frequently wandering away from the topic of discussion and describing unimportant or unrelated things. A little of this is ok, as it adds some level of color to the game:
- Fuzzy details
- Unrelated but interesting trivia
- Unintentional hooks
However, in most cases, it’s best to be clear and concise. Inform the players what they need to know, what would be important for them and their PCs to know, and what would be interesting to know. Then stop talking!
This doesn’t mean you can’t add colour or be evocative. A little efficiency with your descriptions though, can help pacing, keep players focused and attentive, and result in fewer miscommunications and missed bits of info.
Next session, make it your goal to deliver your descriptions using the best words in the perfect quantity.
Senses Versus Meaning
When providing description, you need to perform a tricky balancing act. You want to inform the players about what their characters are sensing and experiencing. You want to let them know what the PCs’ senses are telling them.However, you don’t want to do their characters’ thinking for the players. You need to balance your descriptions so that they provide just enough sensory information and interpretation for the players to get interested and act without giving too much away or taking gameplay away from the group.
For example, you’ve probably heard the story about several blind wise men each describing an elephant based on the body part they’re experiencing. The dude checking out the trunk says the creature is a snake. The dude checking out a leg says it’s a tree. The dude checking out the tusks takes a critical hit and dies from internal injuries.Imagine if the story went like this: “Each of you wise men must investigate this animal and tell me if it’s an elephant.” Whoops, that’s letting the cat out of the bag.The same is true with your descriptions.
You need to provide your group with details on what the PCs are experiencing, and you need to provide enough interpretation so that the players get a rough idea of what’s going on, but you can’t describe too much and give away the punch line.
Good: “Broghan, you pick up the weapon. Amazingly, its leather-wrapped hilt thrums softly in your hands and your vision blurs for a moment before returning to normal.”
Poor: “Bill, your PC has just found a +3 sword of fire.”
Good: “The group of strange half-men serpentine creatures forms a circle and joins hands. They begin singing a beautiful song and start circling the large snake statue. One creature, dressed in colourful furs and much gold jewelry, starts his own seperate chant. Suddenly, the statue blinks!”
Poor: “The yuan-ti start a magic dance. A high priest casts a spell and the stone golem activates.”
To help provide good descriptions, keep in mind what the PCs have experienced, what they know, and what they can figure out having been living in their world for x amount of time. Be complete in describing the major things their senses pick up, and interpret things for them to the extent that their knowledge and experience would dictate.
Don’t feel pressure to draw obvious conclusions for the PCs. If you are accurate and fairly complete with your sense descriptions, then you can let the players figure things out for themselves.
For things which are strange and new to the PCs, things that could be confusing to the players without some basic explanation, or things that would be clear to the PCs but aren’t clear to the players because of description limitations, then feel free to interpret and provide meaning in regards to what the PCs are experiencing.
When doing this, use words that do not provide definitive, guaranteed, or absolute interpretation. Leave room for doubt, thought, and exploration. Rather than saying “This is a harmless creature,” try, “You feel this creature is probably harmless.” Rather than “It’s a magical sword,” try, “In your experience, the strange effects most likely mean the weapon has some magic.”
- You feel
- In your experience
- Most likely
- It could be
- It might be
- You think it’s a…
As a rule of thumb, provide suggestions of interpretation instead of definitive conclusions. Unless you want the game to move along swiftly to the next encounter, provide hints and clues about what the PCs’ senses signify rather than telling them outright.
Perhaps this is obvious advice, but try not to ramble during your descriptions.
The Cost Of Rambling
- As the focus of your description wanders, so too will the attention of your players.
- When rambling, you have a greater chance of unintentionally coughing up a secret or tasty morsel of information before its time.
- The more you say, the more you will have to remember what you’ve said. For consistency, immersion, and decision- making, you need to track what the PCs and players know. The more information you reveal, the more you need to track. And if you’re revealing information that doesn’t need to be divulged, such as during a long ramble, then you’re just making things harder on yourself.
- Listening is a key part of gaming. To listen well is a sign of respect, and it’s one of the best ways to learn things. However, if you force your players to listen for too long, or to too much during a session, then you’re doing them a disservice and reducing their enjoyment of the game.
- You reduce the mystery and wonder. Have you ever listened to yourself ramble? It ain’t pretty, is it? Often during a ramble, you try to explain how things work or describe why things are the way they are. This is frequently a big atmosphere and immersion killer. You’re lifting the curtain and revealing the magician’s secrets.
Sometimes a cause-and-effect description is necessary and welcome, but often the players don’t need to know the GM’s thought processes, or the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of a situation. In addition, the ‘why’ and ‘how’ are often areas for the characters to apply their skills and for the players to wonder and think about–revealing this during a ramble takes the mystery, wonder, and fun out of a situation.
Note: as players have different capacities and abilities for listening, remembering, absorbing, and focusing, you’ll need to explore the boundaries of your group to find what the upper limits of description lengths should be. There is no magic time limit or word count that best serves every player in the world, so experiment and pay attention as you GM your group.
Recognizing The Ramble
The first step is to recognize in-game when you’re rambling or when you’re about to ramble. Be conscious of what you’re saying at all times. Gauge whether what you’re saying is on topic and has a point. Here’s a couple of tips for noticing a ramble:
- Feeling uncomfortable? Often, your body and back-brain knows you’re rambling before you consciously do. If you’re squirming, feeling stomach tension or butterflies, clenching your jaw, or waving your hands around too much, then that’s a sign something’s not right.
- Grasping for words? If you are focused and stick to the topic of the description, words often come swiftly and easily to mind. However, if you venture into unknown parts, wander off-topic, and start to ramble, you might find it difficult to find things to talk-about.
- Facing blank stares and glazed eyes? Descriptions should be a point of interest and excitement for the players! They’re about to learn something new. They’re being told something of value, something they don’t know yet, something they hope will be entertaining. However, during long rambles, many players will shut down, lose interest, and glaze over. If your group is listless, try to wind-up your description quickly.
Avoiding The Ramble
- Be prepared. Read-aloud boxed text might seem like a bad idea to some of you, but it sure does cut down on the rambling. Consider preparing boxed text or point form notes about what you’ll need to describe during the game.
I like box text because I can read it word-for-word or I can choose to paraphrase it. I often find that I get mentally fatigued during the last hour of game sessions, and boxed text is nice to fall back on. Also, for things that warrant a complex description, box text ensures I hit all major points.
- Make a list of important points. If you don’t have the time or inclination to use box text, that’s fine. You can prevent rambles by creating a bullet list of major points to cover in your description. This helps ensure you don’t leave out important information, and it lets you know when you can stop talking.
- Keep a watch handy. If you’re a chronic rambler, try keeping a watch behind your screen and timing yourself.
- For long descriptions, such a set pieces, city and other large area descriptions, and scene descriptions, a couple of minutes is a good benchmark.
- For medium descriptions, such as for rooms full of stuff, NPC groups, and inventories at places like stores and libraries, a minute is a good benchmark.
- For short descriptions, such as combat effects, NPC introductions, and magic item discoveries, 10 seconds is a good benchmark.
Every GM speaks at a different pace. And every group expects a slightly different level of detail. Experiment with your boundary times, and then use a watch or timer to harness your ramblings.
- Put your players first. Sometimes, the words flow well, the ideas come without effort, and your delivery is impeccable. This is a great feeling! You also feel like you could ramble on for a long time. During these times, when you ramble because you’re in ‘the zone’, try to think of your players and what they’re currently experiencing.
Maybe your description really is compelling and the group is enjoying your fine powers of rhetoric. If so, then please do continue. However, fidgeting players, bored players, and players who’ve stopped paying attention are signs you should think of their predicament and end your description– regardless of whether you’re in the zone or not.
In other words, when you’re on a roll you might tend to speak longer but not really say much more, and your players are suffering because of it. Think of them and stop the madness.
Ending A Ramble
If you’re in mid-ramble or you’re starting to ramble and you smartly recognize this–what do you do now? It can be tough to break out of a ramble. You might have so much to say that you can’t find a good point to stop. You might have too little to say, and you never feel you’ve reached an adequate point to stop. You might even not know what you’re saying, and have no idea on how to stop.
Try these techniques to parachute out a ramble:
- Ask a question. Pause in the mid-description and ask the group or a specific player a question. This gives you a mental and physical breather and will allow you to collect your thoughts. Questions are natural stopping points in a monologue and it will seem less jarring to pause in your description to ask a question than it would if you simply stopped talking.
- Answer a question. Does one of your players have a question? Excellent, you’re saved! Stop your rambling and let them speak.
- Acknowledge your ramble. Sometimes, it’s easiest to just say, “Ok, now I’m rambling. What do you guys do next?” This is an out-of-character admission though that might not be appropriate as it can break the mood or the immersion.Sometimes it’s an easy way out of a ramble however, and other times the cost of stopping a ramble this way outweighs the potential cost of continuing your speech (i.e. you’re about to reveal a secret or you spot player heads bobbing).
- Make a summary statement. If you are having trouble finding a good way to stop talking during a description but you can’t find a conclusive point to cease, causing you to continue to ramble on, try issuing a summary statement.”So, to recap, the room is full of bizarre hunting trophies, there’s a curtain blocking an exit at the far end, and you feel like you’re being watched. What do you do now?”
- 5 Be mysterious. This is a great way to replace what mystery and wonder you’ve killed with a ramble. Stop talking in mid- sentence and issue a mysterious ending statement that puts the game back in the players’ hands. For example:”…Well, at least that’s what you think is happening. Perhaps you should find out for yourselves.””…Of course, senses can be deceiving. Maybe an investigation is in order?””…As you’re soaking all this in, you suddenly have a sense of deja vu.”
- Introduce some action. Start a combat, have an NPC act or react, start an earthquake, or initiate some kind of action or event on some level to return interactivity to the game and to stop your ramble.
- Ask your players to stop you. If you are predisposed to ramble, prime your players beforehand and enlist their help. Explain to them that you tend to ramble, and as soon as they hear enough during the game they are welcome to interrupt you with a question or character action.
- Go real-time. Alternatively, you might adopt a real-time rule where your descriptions take up the same amount of time in-game as they do at the game table. If you ramble on for 20 seconds, then 20 seconds of game time take place. It’s important with this GMing style to allow the players to interrupt you at any time–and to communicate this fact before the game starts.
This style should encourage your group to stop all rambles with questions and character actions before too much in-game time passes. To be fair, make sure you become good at describing the most important aspects first so players can be as well informed as possible before they interrupt. “Hey, you didn’t mention the dragon sitting there! My PC would have noticed that right away!”
End Descriptions Like A Newscaster
Players need a cue that your description is over and they can start interacting again. If you don’t provide a good cue then this can result in wasted time while the players wonder if you’re done, awkward silent periods, and overall groupconfusion.Newscasters use specific tone of voice and meter to indicate they’re done. This is a very effective technique and makes listening to them much easier.
The audience knows for sure they’re done talking and are about to move on to a new news story, or a commercial break, or they’re handing the reigns over to another newscaster or correspondent.When a newscaster is done a story or a section of a story, you know for sure, and this is an informative, comforting, and important thing that they do.It’s important to note that, while they might have notes or parts semi-prepared, they often don’t know exactly what they’ll be saying. The ones who read from a teleprompter also don’t know for sure what words will be coming up next.
This means their ending technique is applied to words on- the-fly, much like you and I GM! This also means we can learn and use this skill to similar effect–to let our players know when we’re done a description and are handing things back to them and to conclude our descriptions with confidence.Watch a newscast and listen for yourself. Listen to their exaggerated speech and adopt this technique to your own speaking style to help conclude your descriptions well.< This is Johnn Four, ending this tip, from Edmonton Alberta.
Use PC Based Descriptions
The best descriptions are tuned specifically to each audience member. Unless a situation is straightforward, in which case you can provide a single, shared description to all, you should consider giving custom descriptions to each PC.Each character will perceive things through the lens of their experience and knowledge. It’s improbable that two PCs would sense and interpret something in the exact same way.
Therefore, seek to describe things to each player as their PC would experience them in their own, unique way.For each PC, consider: * Background or back story. How will previous events and circumstances colour how the character currently perceives things?
- Race. How would the PC’s physiology affect what they sense? How would the PC’s culture colour their perceptions?
- Class and skills. How would the PC’s knowledge and abilities mould what they experience?
- Personality. Are there any traits that would slant a PC’s perceptions and interpretations?
- Equipment. Is the PC using any equipment that would enhance or hinder their senses? Does the equipment provide any additional analysis or interpretation?
This is a lot to factor in during descriptions. However, it becomes easy and familiar as your campaign progresses. You eventually build up a mental profile for each PC and base their descriptions on that.
Initially, start out with the character elements that would have the biggest impact on their senses, interpretation, viewpoint, and slant on things experienced.
For example, in D&D, race and class would be good places to start. Once you feel comfortable catering your descriptions to those, try adding in PC histories and personalities.
This technique is heavily based on GM style and group preferences, but I find it a lot of fun to do and players generally respond well to it. It’s much like a puzzle or thinking game, and it lets you transform standard or frequently used descriptions (i.e. common creatures, standard locations) into fun, new personal creations.
For example, the PCs meet a band of goblins. This is their 10th goblin encounter since the beginning of the campaign. You might feel tempted to just say, “You spot a group of 10 goblins down the road. They see you and charge.” However, if you try to slant things to each PC, you might come up with this:
Broghan, your warrior instincts draw your gaze farther down the road where you spot a group of goblins. They appear poorly armed and armoured, but this doesn’t dissuade them from launching a disorganized charge at you and your companions.
Kelthor, you spot Broghan stiffen and follow his gaze down the road. Several heathen goblins are running towards you, spears raised, intent on murder. A quick scan reveals no shaman within their ranks.
Ardiun, foes are charging you! The sharp points of their weapons look like they could easily pierce your thin robes. You estimate that you can get one spell off before they’re upon you. They’re running fast, but clustered together as they hurtle towards you.
Bartle, a group of goblins appears to be charging you. The stupid creatures don’t realize they’re soon about to be dog meat. You scan around you and spot a couple of great hiding spots.
Descriptions are an important game element. Up to 80% of what you say as GM can involve description, so seek to improve this skill. Listen to what you say at the game table and aim to be clear, concise, and evocative. Make it your goal to say the exact amount you need with the best combination of words possible.
A Brief Word From Johnn
I hope you’re having a great holiday season. Hopefully you’ve been a good person this year so that Santa leaves you some RPG books under the tree instead of coal. If he does leave coal, whip out your Swiss army knife and make a coal golem mini!
Next Issue: The Week of January 9th
Just a quick heads-up that the ezine is taking a two week holiday and that the next issue will be mailed out the week of January 9th.
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Readers’ Tips Of The Week
Museum Of Museums
The following is a great resource for all kinds of gaming needs, a museum of online museums. It’s a link collection of all kinds of online galleries and archives, from MoMA to the Museum of Norwegian Manhole Covers. It’s a great repository of information and images on all kinds of subjects. Modern RPGs could benefit from it in particular, I think.
From Scott Ryan
Love the e-zine. I have become a better GM because of the tips you have put out. I do have one of my own. It concerns miniatures. D&D 3.x more than any other RPG I have played is aided by the use of miniatures for combat. It can get expensive when you conduct larger player groups though. We have anywhere from 4 to 9 PCs a week, and the situations they face often pit them against humanoid foes.
I have had need for up to 30 counters in one encounter. Instead of spending $150 on minis I came up with a unique solution.
I used MS Publisher to create a page of 1 inch squares. In the squares, I placed the name of each PC in the party. In the rest I placed a number and a small picture of the type of foe, such as a skeleton, pirate flag, shield for troops, orc, or maybe just a design. I use flags of the various nations for soldiers.
After printing, I cut the squares out then trim a little off each corner. Then I twist open a beer and drink it. I take one of the trimmed squares and put it inside the lid of the beer cap. This gives me a counter that won’t get knocked over and that was fun to make. I collect caps at parties and from friends (otherwise I’d not get a lot made ;-).
I also print out some red and yellow squares that I use to indicate health of the combatants. These I place under the cap on the matt. Red for fallen (dead) combatants and yellow for wounded. This helps the players assess the battle more quickly and keeps the play flowing.
World Building Tips
I’m in two D&D campaigns that have lasted almost two years. In both campaigns, the PCs have yet to leave areas about a hundred square miles in size. Unless your campaign features world-spanning portals or PCs with the ability to fly great distances, you’re not going to need maps for much more than this area. The whole of Arthurian myth takes place in a small subset of Europe. The journeys of Tolkien’s Fellowship take place in a section Middle Earth that’s roughly a quarter the size of the United States.
I recommend the following steps for world-building:
Ask yourself: Do I find world-building fun?
The whole point of gaming is to have fun. If the prospect of designing a world doesn’t sound like fun to you, don’t bother.
Ask yourself: Why do I want to build a world?
I never used to buy campaign settings; I always considered them a crutch, something uncreative people use. Then, of course, I grew up, got a job, got married, and bought a house. Consequently, my time is now very precious; free time for gaming is a luxury. When I come to the gaming table, all of the elaborate history and geography I’ve created for my campaign world isn’t really going to matter if I didn’t have time to actually prepare something for the PCs to do.
I have now re-aligned my thinking on this, because I know that, when all is said and done, the adventure matters a lot more than the world in which it is set, and that’s where I need to be spending my time.D&D, in particular, is built with enough assumptions about how the campaign world works that, from a player’s-eye view, Faerun looks pretty much like Tellene, which looks pretty much like Scarn, which looks pretty much like Arcanis, which looks pretty much like my homebrew.
Ergo, I am now more than happy to take advantage of all of the wonderful campaign settings available today. Designers do all of the gazetteering and cartography for me, and I get to focus on Sir Killgore’s quest for his father’s sword, and Shara Silentfingers’ plot against the local thieves guild.So, when I do contemplate building a world from scratch, I look for ways to make it unlike the settings I mentioned above. I look for reasons why the effort is worth my time.
Is there an idea or certain themes I want to use that I can’t get in a published setting? Are there dramatic departures from the core rules that I want to utilize that make a published setting unfeasible?
Ask yourself: What kind of world is it?
Remember that by “world”, we’re not talking about a “planet.” We’re talking about a “world” in the sense of “that which comprises what is experienced by the players.” So, the “world” is essentially the places where you plan to set adventures.Thus, ask yourself in what kind of setting you want to place your adventures.A green world of temperate forests and rocky mountains, with lots of overland travel? A world dotted with small islands in which boats will play a major role? A bustling metropolis filled with crime and intrigue?
A harsh desert or tundra where mere survival is as much of a challenge as any monster? Some combination of the above?And what about culture? A swashbuckling Renaissance-like era of rapiers, flintlocks, and diplomacy? A hardscrabble Dark Age of chain, sword, and tyranny? A chivalrous kingdom of virtue and peril? An exotic land of mystics, honorable warriors, and strict castes? Some combination of the above?As for climatology…don’t sweat it. You live on Earth, you have an idea how weather and the seasons coincide.
If it makes sense for there to be snow, let it snow (or rain, or be blazingly hot, or windy, or whatever). There are plenty of tools in various rule books and web sites that can aid you in generating appropriate weather for your campaign.
Get a sense of the big picture
Decide on the major themes, events, faiths, or even geographic features (floating islands, zones of dead magic, etc.) that are the whole impetus for creating the setting and *sketch them out*.Don’t worry about creating an exacting map or fleshing out all of the details. Even a basic flowchart that indicates roughly what lay where is enough; as long as you know where you want everything to be, you’re good.
Leave room for your campaign world to develop. You never know when you (or one of your players) are going to come up with an exciting new idea you want to drop into the setting, or when you might find an element of a published product that you want to cannibalize for your world. Unless you’re preparing your world for publication, you don’t need all of the details yet. You don’t want a static, finished world. You want a world that’s as alive as the people playing in it.
Zoom in on where the PCs are now
This is the point at which you can get dirty with details. Look at where you want the campaign to begin. Who lives there? What type of government exists? Terrain? Any specific landmarks? What gods do they worship? Who are their neighbors? What interesting places are there for the PCs to explore? What secrets are waiting to be discovered?If you’ve been jonesing to start drawing some maps, now is the time to do it. However, limit yourself. Focus on the areas in which you know the early phases of the campaign will likely occur.
Odds are that this will be a single kingdom and its surrounding environs, or possibly even a single island or portion of a continent.For the time being, let the edges of your map be bounded by “Here be dragons.” Give yourself room to continue the creative process throughout the campaign. Who knows? Maybe it will make sense to change what sort of land lies to the north depending on what your players do, or what best suits the adventures you want to create.
Unless you’re playing in a world where the PCs have GPS systems and detailed aerial maps, they’re not going to notice. If anything, they’ll appreciate that the campaign considers them important and meaningful elements, rather than just tenants.So, that’s my shorthand world-building advice. In my experience, I’ve found that the macro never seems to matter nearly as much as the micro. The PCs aren’t looking down on your world from above, assessing the map and taking into consideration a thousand years of history.
They’re standing down in the thick of things, maybe able to see a few miles towards the horizon while traveling overland, or maybe able to see only a few feet when visiting a bustling metropolis, and wondering where the heck the nearest tavern is. Your time is better spent fleshing out the innkeeper than it is writing seventy pages of notes on elvish history.