Write More Engaging Room Descriptions


Description Sorcery from a Wordsmithing Warlock

Crafting concise and evocative descriptions provides a huge boon for our storytelling prowess. Descriptions serve as the bridge between our imagination, character perceptions, and player choices.

A well-made description:

  • Enlivens an encounter
  • Catches phone-depleted player attention
  • Reveals world lore
  • Advances the action

Jeremy Brown is a repeat offender, er, contributor, to the Roleplaying Tips Newsletter. 🙂

During a convo we started up in December about descriptions, he dropped some tip bombs about how to build great written descriptions.

With his permission, I’m sharing a part of the chat we had. Then, later this week, I’ll share his best room description tips that he’s written up for us.

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Jeremy: Speaking of Chat GPT, I tried fooling with it a little, but I personally didn’t find it all that inspiring. The descriptions it spat back out at me weren’t that original or inspiring.

I think honestly that you can get the same amount of good descriptive detail by making a few lists of sentences related to terrain, mood, lighting, etc.

A friend of mine used this method to write room descriptions on a MUD for years and it was surprisingly effective. It’s a good substitute for clear coherent thought when you’re tired or uninspired. It allows you to do small changes that make a sentence read differently:

The path is lined by trees that meet overhead, causing shadows to lie across the way ahead.

Dense yew trees line the path, lending a funereal gloom to the way ahead.
A line of dark yews have been planted at either hand from the path, providing dense cover, and shading the path in a depressing dimness that cloaks the way ahead.

Lines of twisted yews grow here, crowding the path, and causing a growing darkness beneath their dense foliage.

You see what it’s doing here. A little time writing down impressions one gets from looking at movies, Google Earth, reading, etc., can give inspiration. And a good thesaurus can supply the alternative words. Cleaning it up to be less English majory helps too, otherwise you end up with monstrosities like the following:

The trace is enclosed by ranks of bosky yew boles that cause an umbral cloak to drape the forward way.

It’s a useful tool, something one can do in a short time, and can be taken as notes on a phone, in a pocket notebook, or whatever.

Ok, enough rambling and taking up your time. Be safe, and I’m glad to have helped you. If you want to talk about it more, you know where to find me.

Johnn: Nice. I use PowerThesaurus.com a lot for adjectives.

I like the way those example descriptions offered mechanical impact. I generally use a 4-part description approach, inspired in part by Hitchcock.

  1. Context. Where are we?
  2. Environment. What should the characters know about the terrain and this areas features?
  3. Dangers. What clear threats and hazards should players be worried about?
  4. Discoveries. What might entice the players and their characters to face the Dangers?

However, I realize now from your examples that I don’t delve into adjectives and mechanics when teaching that framework to others. I’ll be sure to incorporate that moving forward. Thanks!

Jeremy: That’s one trick. Another is to try and evoke all the senses or as many as you can. To go back to my yews.

As you walk along the path, the yews close in shading the trail until the way ahead is cloaked in shadow. The strong evergreen smell is overwhelming, and the needle-clad ground muffles your steps.

The air is clammy, and the inadvertent shiver this causes gives you pause. The unpleasant associations of yews, graveyards, funereal gloom, and the quiet are telling.

That goes a long way toward setting tone.

Another trick is to try and use active voice as much as possible. The yews close in is better than the path is lined by yews.

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Thus ends Part I of Engaging Room Descriptions. As we GMs are the eyes and ears (and fingers, tongues, and noses) for the characters, it’s critical we deliver fantastic yet effective descriptions.

This topic came up in last week’s Wizard of Adventure Monthly Q&A Call.

We discussed:

  • Story vs Railroading vs Plots vs Details in Play
  • How do you avoid running “meaningless games”?
  • How do you create rumor tables? How do you update them to ensure they are still relevant? How do you put rumors in the party’s hands?
  • How do you integrate encounters you’ve planned?
  • What’s the best travel module or adventure centered around travel that you played or read about?
  • How can I make my villain’s lieutenants interesting enough to prevent players from directly going for the villain?

Wizards, you can watch or listen to the call here.

Roleplaying Tips GM, if you are not yet a Wizard of Adventure, you can become one to catch this recording and all the previous “podcasts” we’ve had.

Select your Wizard of Adventure tier here and start listening to over two years of GM tips and ideas today.

Secrets of Splendid Room Descriptions

Sweet adjectives can make all the difference for your boxed and improvised text.

In the first part above, Jeremy and I chatted about how a few tweaks can dramatically elevate your depictions. We covered some tips, a 4-step approach, and a few yew examples.

Let’s carry on the conversation….

Jeremy: In all honesty, I’ve never found a silver bullet to descriptive text writing except to really just do it, keep doing it, and after you’re sick of it, keep doing it. It’s like any other muscle; writing gets better with practice, time, and good examples to follow.

Another good trick is redundancy. Keep telling them what they need to know repeatedly. I wonder if RPT GMs wouldn’t benefit from a couple of short English writing lessons. It sounds basic and annoying if you hate school, but speak in active voice, use good adjectives, and use adjectives sparingly.

It’s all simple things, but a lot of what makes players’ minds wander is having their phone in their hand, and boring long descriptions with too many unimportant details.

If there are goblins in the room, I want to know that first, then how the room is laid out.

A lot of module descriptions, however, will give you two paragraphs of room description and then a “by the way, there’s a dozen goblins here with crossbows aimed at the doorway.” By that time, half your party has tuned out, and the other half goes: “Goblins? You didn’t say anything about goblins. How many are there? What sort of cover do they have? Can you just read that description again?”

Johnn: Agreed. If players tune out, the description is too long.

Jeremy: Yeah, that’s one I struggle with sometimes. The urge to lore dump, the urge to pack in a little more cool detail. I have to cull descriptions a lot.

Johnn: Hitchcock was fantastic at setting the context of a scene, usually starting with the Big Picture.

He’d put a camera on a crane, for example, to show a shot of a neighborhood or building. Then he’d zoom into the actual scene or transition to the characters.

This established the main context for the audience fast: Where is this taking place? Is it winter or summer? Is it peaceful or chaotic?

The original Star Wars did this a lot. Now it’s done in shows all the time.

You are right — this could just be part of the environment. But to me, it’s an initial bit of fast orientation before the details start pouring out.

Environment to me is boundaries, air, light, floor, ceiling, temperature, etc. The “micro” details.

Would you be interested in writing out your approach to descriptions for the newsletter sometime? It’s hard to teach “use adjectives” and “give enough but not too much.” Any tips would surely help RPT GMs.

Jeremy: Ok, that makes more sense. To me that is all one thing, but looking at it from a camera angle/big to little to right here context makes sense.
I generally use verbal cues to do some of the same things functionally. I know a couple of Hitchcock’s films well: Psycho and the Birds. And I’ve read the Cornell Woolrich story that Rear Window is based on.

I also know the value of a tracking shot to set up context from cultural studies and film classes I had in school, so I am hip or as hip as a blind guy with little to no vision can be, lol.

As to the descriptive article, on it boss. I actually pulled out my teaching materials from back when I taught college English to see if I could do just that.

So I’ll pull my usual 8 million words together, let you hack them until I cry over the bleeding holes in my lovely whole, and it’ll probably be usable.

I’ll try and be as concise as I can, but I do want to use examples, so that will probably pad out the length. I know you generally are going for shorter articles nowadays.

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Some great tips from Jeremy there that I wanted to share with you before diving into his article tomorrow that he’s kindly whipped up for us, poor, adjective-deficient GMs.

How to Write More Engaging Room Descriptions

Continuing on with our four-part series, today we get the first half of Jeremy’s tips about writing better room descriptions. Let’s delve in!

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We’ve all had the experience of entering a dungeon room only to suffer through three paragraphs of description, lore, history about why the lore is important, a few more details of how the room looks or is laid out, and then oh, by the way, there’s a dozen goblins here with crossbows pointed at you.

Huh? What! There’s goblins? Never mind the goblins, what was that bit about the Aristinian Empire? I’m still writing notes. Did you say the chairs were Ragnar VII chairs? Those are valuable. Aren’t they? Or was that Ragnar VIII chairs? Goblins? Did he say goblins?

Step 1. Choose the Right Audience

Ok, first truth, unpleasant as it is to the budding artist in every GM. Descriptions are for the players, not for us. Our target audience are those mouth breathers across the screen currently playing with their phones under the edge of the table thinking we don’t know what that flashing light means.

The GM is the movie projector. The job of the GM is to tell the players what they see, hear, smell, touch, taste when they enter the dungeon room, wilderness encounter, city street, or what have you. It’s a necessary first step to realize your target audience is not you.

Step 2. Hook First

The next step is to realize you need to hook the players’ attention. The first piece of information they receive should be the most immediately important.

If there’s enemies, those should be visible. If there’s a lava pool right in front of the door, that should be palpable, so on and so forth. Don’t wait for a big reveal. Once you have given the most pertinent piece of information, next proceed to the rest of the description.

Step 3. Add Adjectives

Make it concrete. Use solid single adjectives to describe things. Fiery lava is good. Sulfur-spewing lava might even be better. However, don’t combine it into the fiery sulfur-spewing lava pool. One adjective per customer.

Step 4. Make Descriptions Player-Focused

Ensure your room details contribute to interaction between players and the environment. And try to create opportunities for complications or issues that might lead to other discoveries.

For example, include details that invite player investigation. If the players find a 10 foot square empty dungeon cell, don’t describe it as an empty 10 foot dungeon cell.

Describe it this way:

The room is dank, and bare, except for a moldy pile of straw in one corner, and a brownish yellow patch of mold on one wall.

Players might be afraid that the mold is a hazard or monster and decide to carefully approach it. Some players might also choose to examine the straw in case there are clues there.

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Thanks Jeremy! I especially liked what you said about using descriptions as a GM tool to encourage player interaction.

Hook’em right away with the most important detail so we earn players’ attention. Then add quick, short, and interesting details that get players leaning forward and taking action.

Excellent.

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Step 5. Answer a Few Questions

This step is good to take at any point in the process, and must be considered at the latest now:

  • Who’s in the room?
  • Why are those people there?
  • Whom are they serving?
  • Why are they serving that person?
  • When did they arrive?
  • What actions have they taken within the room?
  • Where does this room lead?
  • Where did these occupants come from?
  • How do the occupants interact with the room’s contents?
  • Why should the players care about any of the above, if at all?

Yep, you see it, the dreaded five W’s and an H approach to composition.

However, besides those questions, not all of which matter to the players, you as game master should be able to answer these for yourself. This promotes better design and allows you to plan for future events.

For example, if players loot a rare Aristinian thurible and sell it, the authorities might believe that the players are part of a local stolen art ring.

Step 6. Add Concrete Adjectives

Use concrete adjectives that appeal to all five senses. Example:

GM Notes: The room is occupied by a patrol of goblins. The creak of their leathers and the clank of their crossbows are clearly discernible beyond the door if the party stops and listens. (DC 15.)

The goblins are here at the command of their chief, Borog, and ultimately they serve the priest Yangan-Doh. The players have no way of knowing this unless they interrogate prisoners. (DC 15 Intimidate, DC 20 Gather Information.)

The chamber you’ve entered is thick with the unmistakable stench of goblin sweat mingled with the sour tang of dirty leathers. Wispy incense, from three silver thuribles of exotic workmanship that hang from the ceiling, clings to your skin.

In one dimly lit corner of the room, the remnants of a once-sacred shrine lie in ruin. Whatever idol or holy symbol it once proudly displayed has long been removed, leaving behind only the shattered vestiges of its former sanctity.

Yet, amidst the destruction, a curious detail catches your eye: a rosewood box. Its lid is broken open, and inside glints a trio of bronze stars with different colored gems at each point. You recognize these as holy symbols of a cult of astrologers, now extinct, that once were persecuted in the Aristinian Empire.

Adorning the north wall, you also see a series of spidery runes, their lines finely etched with precision. The runes are faint, as if scratched into the stone by a careful hand, hidden away for those with the eyes to find them.

Finally, this room is far from abandoned. You are confronted by a patrol of goblins, clad in dirty leather armor, and armed with crossbows. The leader grunts something guttural and the creatures raise their weapons.

Step 7. Be Concise

The description above, while strong with adjectives, has a few flaws. Let’s tighten it up a bit and reorder the details:

You enter the chamber. You first notice about a dozen goblins who quickly raise loaded crossbows.

Then, a smashed wooden shrine in the corner draws your gaze. Amidst the dusty debris, gems catch the light and sparkle back at you.

Three silver thuribles ooze smoky incense that clings to your skin and barely masks the reek of sour leather and goblin sweat.

With watering eyes, you also spy a series of spidery scratches on the north wall that could be runes. However, your attention is too focused on the crossbows swinging into place to be sure.

Below this, in a GM section, I’d have all the nice information about what the goblins know, where stuff comes from, why this is important, and what happens to the party if they ignore it.

Notice that I tried to:

  • Keep adjectives simple and condensed
  • Avoid passive constructions for the most part
  • Lead with the danger
  • End with the bit about crossbows to remind the PCs, oh yeah, there’s monsters here

All of the above takes time, but as you practice creating more effective descriptions, it becomes second nature to do these small things. This makes your game much more enchanting. And action-packed descriptions brimming with compelling details reward player attention and pokes them to investigate, discover, and interact with your world.

Finally, engaged players make your GMing job easier. Providing background information for all those details the encounter unfolds makes you look awesome.

The Aristinian Empire, rather than being a piece of mostly useless lore, becomes a living entity that left silver ornate thuribles, weird cults, and strange cultural relics coveted by art thieves in the current game.

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Great tips, thanks Jeremy!

RPT GM, a couple of additional resources to help you craft enticing room descriptions:

Cheers,
Johnn
roleplayingtips.com
https://discord.gg/6MxTRAqQ76
Have more fun at every game!

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