6 Ways To Enhance Your Descriptions
From Mike Bourke
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #204
- Overall Colour
- Highlight Colour
- The Quality Of Light
- The Principle Shape
- The Texture
- The Mood
- Final Thoughts
- Maps Supplemental #12 Updated
- Guest Articles Request For 2004
- Use Real World Cultures For Political Campaigns
- Shadows – A Free RPG That’s Good For Kids
- Player Reward – The Grace Card
- Word Blank Table Templates
There’s an easy trap for referees to fall into when describing scenes and encounters: that of describing what the player characters see or perceive with their senses. This is an important component of the characters’ interaction with their environment but it can actually demand so much of your players that they lose the connection with what you are describing, and hence, lose their ability to visualise their environment.
I got to thinking that there had to be a better way…and here it is, inspired by the commentaries of the Lord Of The Rings movies and from techniques used in writing fiction. Instead of describing every last detail of the setting or character that has been encountered, try these techniques instead:
Psychologically, the colour of something has a profound effect. Start by choosing between warm and cool, light and dark, or bright and grey. Then choose the overall colour that fits the encounter.
- Earth tones suggest simplicity, innocence, and peace.
- Whites and pale colours are emblematic of purity and nobility.
- Dark colours are mysterious, suspicious, brooding, and sinister.
- Bright Colours–purples, reds, golds, and blues–all suggest moods and tones, but of a more extreme nature.
An example of this line, used in isolation:
“You see a forest of cool green through which an emerald river runs. The leaves are varying shades of green, from a pale mint-green to the depths of lincoln green. As the sun rises over the forest, it seems for a moment as though the foliage is reflected in the sky, which momentarily assumes a greenish tinge.”
This scene description generates feelings of calm, of quiet, of peace and tranquility. There is also a late winter/early spring “feeling” suggested by the mint-green.
This can be complementary or contrasting, but should always be chosen with the overall colour in mind. Focus the highlight colour on the most important visual element of a scene described using the Overall Colour technique. The effect that this has depends on the choice of complementary or contrasting highlight colour.
- A complementary colour choice will suggest either that the most important visual element “belongs” in that setting, if both highlight and overall are natural colours, or is the cause of the situation, where they are unusual.
- Contrasting elements, on the other hand, stand out. Complementary colours are those that are immediately adjacent to, or at 60 degrees from, a given colour on a colour wheel, which is an old artist’s device for structuring colours. Contrasting colours are the rest. And of course, Dark contrasts with Light! Black is considered complementary to just about everything except yellow, red, orange, and yellow-green, while White is complementary to those and contrasts with almost everything else, unless the other colours are mixed with White. (i.e. a light blue is complementary to white because it is blue mixed with white; but a navy blue contrasts with white because it’s a dark colour.)
Let’s consider different possible highlight elements to fit the example above and the appropriate highlight colour to depict them.
- A tower that belongs here should be a complementary colour–we can choose silvery grey (goes with the mint-green) or black (goes with the lincoln green). The black suggests disuse in this case, while the silvery grey maintains the mood of the forest setting so strongly that it might be a natural part of the setting–and projects the emotional qualities of the forest onto the occupants.
- A mountain peak jutting from the centre of the forest should be described in browns and reds for a dramatic contrast without unnatural overtones, or as covered in white snow for something that feels like it belongs here. Describing the mountain as “Black and looming” gives a more sinister contrast, with no need to go into great details.
- A lake of deep blue, or better yet, indigo, suggests mystery more than danger.
- A single tree or point of light could be described as red, or yellow, or even white, and it will stand out as something exceptional, and will be the immediate centre of interest.
The Quality Of Light
Harsh light, soft light, pale light, spectral light, haunting light, radiant light… Choose an evocative adjective. Then insert the source of the light. For a variation that works especially well in dangerous, mysterious, or sinister situations, describe the quality of the shadows.
A thesaurus can be very helpful, but can also be restrictive; some of the more evocative possibilities come from adjectives that aren’t normally associated with light, or with shadows. “Tall Shadows” suggests something very different to “Long Shadows” or “Deep Shadows”; while “Deep Light” is sure to get your players mulling things over in their minds, being both descriptive and contrary to normal usage. This line can be used in conjunction with #1 alone, in combination with both #1 and #2, or even as a standalone description.
Adding, “Angry lights move through the trees” to the examples already provided, immediately takes a tranquil setting and adds immediate dynamism and drama. (And if asked, “What do you mean, ‘Angry Lights?’,” you can either talk about how brightly they pierce the foliage, or how they whip back and forth, or fall back on “that’s just the impression you get”.)
The Principle Shape
Find a shape that is specific to the most important item within the scene and relate everything within the scene to that shape. An excellent example from the Lord Of The Rings is the elves, where everything is sinuous, smooth, and tree- like. Their swords are curved, as are their daggers; and both have long handles for balance, bringing in another elvish trait.Another are the Rohan sequences, people and setting, where a horse motif is central to everything–drapes, buttons, statues, helms, swords.
Just a few of the possible shapes are:
- Organic: suggests all sorts of natural shapes without getting specific. The one thing they all have in common is that they are all curved.
- Natural: this is a less evocative variation on “Organic” even though it’s what “Organic” is trying to suggest.
- Treelike: a more specific natural shape, suggestive of twisting branches and strong trunks. When applied to buildings it suggests that they are top-heavy. When applied to anything else (other than trees of course), they can suggest something profoundly strange. A “Tree- shaped mountain” gets immediate attention.
- Sharp: This is suggestive of the ego of the constructor, and also suggests danger.
- Horned: This shape often suggests evil.
- Twisted: This shape can suggest deformity or evil.
- Gnarled: This is gives a more natural implication to “twisted”.
- Rippled: This is a very dynamic shape, immediately drawing attention not to the shape itself but to the focus of the ripples. When applied to something solid, it carries implications of great violence.
- Jagged: This suggests that things are broken or damaged.
- Blockish: Suggestive of stability and simplicity.
- Pyramidal: This is suggestive of permanence and great age, when squat; and is another word for “Sharp” when strongly pointed.
- Spire: This is similar to “Sharp” but with a more natural and comforting context.
- Round: This is generally suggestive of something artificial. There is very little that is “perfectly round” in nature, and when most people hear “round”, that’s what they think of.
- Softened: This suggests that something has melted partially, but is more intact than “Jagged”.
- Amorphous: This literally means “without fixed shape” and immediately suggests ongoing change of a fairly dramatic nature.
- Bubble-like: This is a more awkward way of saying “round”, in fact a “round bubble” gives the idea far more clearly than this shape can.
Give a texture to the scene or person. These textures will normally be associated with a process or natural object, and the qualities of that process or object will transfer to the scene or individual described.
Example textures include:
This line can be used in isolation, for example “The innkeeper’s features are craggy and jutting, projecting out under his unkempt brown hair,” or “The ship’s surface is pockmarked with small indentations, suggestive of the scars of battle”. Compare the latter with “The ship is battle scarred” which says exactly the same thing!
Give the mood of the scene–not the mood of the characters, but the mood that the situation contains, and against which the players can choose to react. Sad, Melancholy, Wistful, Cheery, Optimistic, Mournful, Angry…people have a lot of different moods and emotional states, and all of them can be used to provide an emotional context for a scene or a setting.
“The broken and crumbling ruins offer a mournful reminder of what was”, for example; or the same location, with a different mood: “The broken and crumbling ruins jut into the sky, seemingly resentful of the ravages they have endured”; or with a third: “The ruins are broken and crumbling, but nevertheless maintain a quiet dignity in defeat”; or alternatively: “The ruins may be broken but still exude the optimism of those who built them.” The words are virtually the same, other than that of the mood, but the mental images are quite different.
Describing a scene in these terms gives little details, but it gives enough information for the players to fill in those details in their own minds. At the same time, it gives a context in which other details can be brought out–or not, depending on circumstances. When you meet someone, or encounter something, you never see everything or every detail that’s there. You get a compound impression of many different elements while focusing on one or two specific, important details.
Better yet, using this technique you can write the descriptions down just by listing the key elements.
To give an example of how it works for a scene, consider the differences in the following example:
“There is a grove of twisted trees surrounding a stone structure of large granite blocks. The structure is a tall spire with lots of spikes sticking out irregularly around it.
On the western side there is a doorway with a heavy stone door inset slightly with a jagged surface. Over the roof is a twisted motif that looks foreboding. It’s cold and wet and smells of decay. Insects scuttle over its surface, disturbed by some nameless dread. You hear no birds or wildlife.
Several feet in front of the door is a statue of a youthful warrior in chain mail and leather. His open-faced helm has the same symbol that you saw on top of the doorway. He carries a large, round shield, and has a drawn long sword with several nicks along the edges. His beard is about 6 inches long and knotted into two pigtails. He is carrying a bulky backpack and the shape of cooking gear can be perceived inside of it.
He also has a number of daggers in sheaths placed here and there around his body. In front of the statue are the remains of a long-dead campfire, beside which a few rags linger. To one side of the rags is a blue-green gem about 1/4 inch in length in a spindle shape.”
By the time you finish the description of what the figure is wearing, you have started to forget that it’s a statue, and by the time you’ve mentioned the gem, the fact that the trees are twisted and knotted has completely vanished. As a result, the characters are reacting to the details, not to the totality of the scene.
Reworking this example using the techniques described by this article ignores the details and instead gives the impressions *of* that totality:
“Trees writhe in knots, and leaves of a dark green surround the clearing. A twisted tower of heavy grey blocks bears a vine-like motif. Deep black shadows conceal the details of a grey statue of a young warrior bearing the same symbol. Thorns seem to protrude from the tower, adding to its plant- like shape. Insects scuttle, disturbed by some nameless dread. A long-dead campfire, a blue-green gem, and some knotted rags beside the statue add to the feeling of decay.”
It’s the same scene, but with all the unwanted details stripped away, and everything else acting to reinforce the overall impression of the location. The first description places so much emphasis on the statue that it will become the focus of attention of all the players, with the mood of the encounter being lost in the detail.
The second version avoids giving any element unwarranted prominence, leaving the totality of the description to feed and fire the imaginations. As a result, each of them is likely to latch onto a different element of the scene, reacting to that element and to the context in which it has been placed.
For the record:
- The overall colour is a dark green
- The highlight colour is grey
- The quality of the light is dark and moody and is focused on the statue
- The principle shape is a twisted vine
- The texture is thorny and closed-in
- The mood is shadowy and suspenseful
The setting so described can also be contrasted with some significant sensory reference to imply even more intense connotations. The modified scene description, with a soft spotlight effect on the statue, takes on a whole new meaning if the statue is of an orc holding aloft the head of an elf, clearly modeled on the statue of the Elvish King that is in the capital of the elvish nation. Suddenly, the scene is one glorifying some horrendous act of the past or spurring someone on to a terrible future deed.
Furthermore, changing a single element can transform the entire scene–if a beam of sunlight were to “penetrate the leafy canopy and bathe the statue in a soft light”, you would immediately convey an image of some heroic deed or legendary figure, imbuing a nobility to the scene depicted. The tone changes from dangerous to respectful.
Here’s another example, this time using a more modern-day setting:
“Hotel Room 1801 is a small one, measuring 25m x 20m, and is located in the corner of the 17th floor as you count them from the street. Lots of buildings have no 13th floor, skipping straight from the 12th to the 14th in numbering, in part because the builders can be superstitious, and in part because residents–businesses, hotel guests, etc.–might be superstitious.
Inside is a standard queen-sized bed 12m from the entrance, a small bedside table, a floor-to-ceiling closet barely big enough for someone to get into, and the corpse of a 24-year- old woman, which has been slashed repeatedly with a sharp blade.
The walls are a pale lemon wallpaper with a small red and blue flower motif. On the bedside table there is a vase of dark blue glass embossed with the hotel’s logo, containing a single white lily. The blood spattered on the walls shows the attack to have been one of great ferocity.
The victim was wearing an extremely tight lavender leather dress, a lavender silk top, and a purple fur coat. Red fishnet stockings and red leather high-heel shoes complete the ensemble. There is a red mark around the left wrist where a watch was brutally ripped from her arm, and there is no sign of a purse.
The room was registered in the name of Missy Dolores, the victim paid in cash–small denominations–for overnight accommodation. As you examine the room, a police photographer begins taking pictures of the scene.
The victim was discovered by the cleaning woman when she came in to change the sheets; she fainted and is being cared for in the room next door.”
This is a fairly clinical description of a crime scene, a hooker who has been killed violently. The referee knows that the murder weapon is concealed inside the vase, and the single white lily is the serial killer’s calling card. He also knows that the killer attacked the wrong victim because of the “no 13th floor” numbering scheme in the hotel–the intended target was one floor below this one.
What’s wrong with this description? By the time they’ve finished picturing the wallpaper, the hotel room layout, and the victim, digesting the info about the hotel room registration and the absence of purse and watch, and the violence of the attack has been lost, half the players at least will have forgotten the vase and its signature flower- -the description does too good a job of making them seem to belong here.
Finally, it gives the players information they could and should find out for themselves by asking and investigating. So let’s dismember the scene and recast it using the principles discussed here.
We can start by cutting out anything that doesn’t need to be given in this description. The absence of a 13th floor can be noticed and commented upon en route, and explained then. After the investigators have finished looking over the crime scene is the right time to tell them about the cleaning woman who discovered the body, which needs a little bit of reworking, because if she fainted, she obviously woke up and called the police, or someone discovered her and called in the police. The story of the discovery as given therefore has a couple of large holes in it.
With those elements moved, we’re down to the description of the crime scene itself.
- The overall colour should be dark, so let’s have the only source of light be a lamp that’s been knocked off the table, casting the room into shadow.
- The highlight colour should be red, to emphasise the violence of the scene–it may be in the past tense, but that only makes it more important to convey because the characters can’t actually see the scene unfolding.
- The quality of the light is a difficult one, so we’ll come back to it.
- The principle shape is “liquid”–we need “splashes” or “sprays” for the blood.
- The texture is shattered or broken–both the body and the lamp need this. They mean almost the same thing, so we can use them both, as necessary.
- The mood, we have already decided, is to be violent.
- Okay, that leaves the quality of the light as an element still to be decided. We could use one of the obvious standards for this sort of scene, such as “dingy”, “macabre” or “surreal”, but after a bit of thought about situations in which a darkened room might be encountered, I’ve chosen “romantic” as a tone which will both contrast with the setting and will help get the players into character.
With the ingredients determined, we’re ready to rewrite the scene:
“A small hotel room, dimly lit, occupied by a reasonably attractive woman dressed in tight red leather might be a romantic setting under other circumstances. But the woman in *this* hotel room is quite dead, and romance is the last thing that comes to mind as you examine the scene. A broken lamp casts a pool of light on the darkly-carpeted floor, only hinting at the crazed splashes and sprays of red that now feature on the walls and furniture. A single white lily in a vase on the bedside table is the only piece of furniture to have remained upright and intact.”
What this description has done, more than anything else, is strip out everything the players don’t need to actually *know* about the location, leaving only the 4 main elements of the scene: the body, the furniture, the lily, and the act of violence that created the scene.
It has drawn attention to the flower as somewhat out-of- place and has left the characters with three things to ask questions about, permitting them to participate in the scene instead of being handed so many answers on a platter that they lose track of the important ones. In a nutshell, it describes the forest, not the trees.
This is not an easy technique to master. It requires a bit more effort up-front by the referee, and occasionally there can be problems when what the referee has pictured in his mind doesn’t match what the players perceive. There can sometimes be protests when a character is certain that he would have noticed a small detail that later becomes significant; the solution to that particular problem is to always bear in mind the abilities of the characters.
If a character would have noticed something that you have omitted from the scene description, then whenever that detail becomes relevant–either to the discussion or to a different scene or person–simply announce, “Something that [character name] noticed earlier now becomes relevant,” and go on to supply the pertinent details.You can also use these ‘additional details’ to fill dead moments in the action, when a character is sitting quietly and reflecting on events, or waiting on stakeout, or whatever.
You can even use this to throw characters off the scent and onto a red herring if they are playing above their characters’ abilities–though this last trick should be used sparingly, or they will come to recognise the signs.One setting in which the technique is particularly difficult to employ, and even more powerful for that very reason, is a science-fiction setting. Scenes in these settings often swarm with details, necessary simply to bridge the gap between the technologies that the players understand and that of the world of their characters.
The key to using the method in such circumstances is to select one or two particular elements of the scene and use them as icons of the technology or the aliens behind it. It won’t take too many encounters with the “Oxymorons of Sinonimous Major” before the characters recognise that there is a similarity of style between onion-shaped starships, onion-shaped rifles, and a species with bulbous, pointed, heads (i.e. onion-shaped!).
In the same way that most of us can look at a piece of architecture or a painting and recognise it as being classical (Greek or Roman empires) or originating from the wild west, you can slowly build up an iconography to quickly key the characters into a setting without spending long periods of time in description.The same principles can be used to describe characters encountered in any setting, by means of their clothing. In that context, the mood will refer to the mood reflected in the body language of the person encountered.
The Riders of Rohan in the Lord Of The Rings trilogy, and all their works, are united thematically by the use of the horse motif, which is directly relevant because the horse is central to the character of that society.
Encountering a few sets of armour and weapons bearing such a motif is enough to give vital clues to the nature of the people who created and used them, which is exactly how archeologists recover lost civilizations. An internal consistency strong enough to withstand the archeological test can’t help but add to the believability of your campaign.
- An interactive introduction to colour:
- Colours & Mood
A more extensive site is:
- The psychological effects of colours:
- A massive site about colour – check out the list of relevant articles on the left-hand side:
In particular, see
Basic Color Theory
which explains the colour wheel and gives the basics on the effects of complementary and contrasting colours.
- Colours and what they represent: In general:
(note: this site is extra-useful because it also shows the symbolism of colour in cultures other than modern western society!)
- In Heraldry:
Symbolisms of Heraldry
- Shapes & their symbolism – there isn’t as much on this subject, but here are some starters:
Form, Shape and Space
See also “iconography”:
A Brief Word From Johnn
Maps Supplemental #12 Updated
I added a few new links and a new Paper Figs section to Supplemental #12: Online Sources of Free Maps. Get the supplemental for free by sending a blank email to:
Guest Articles Request For 2004
If you like to think and write about roleplaying and GMing, then consider the list of guest article ideas below. A guest article only need be 5-10 tips in length, as long as the advice is useful and task oriented versus theoretical.
In addition to fame and glory, guest authors receive a complimentary copy of the RoleplayingTips GM Encyclopedia as a thank you, plus the thanks and respect of 14,000 game masters. Plus, you can leave the editing to me!
An article idea list, based on reader requests:
- How to craft encounters to engage bard PCs
- How to describe a good combat, round after round
- Tips on running urban fantasy or urban horror games
- How do you create player and character paranoia?
- Tips on spotting weaknesses in your plots
- How to devise plots without over-scripting
- A researched article on travel times. How far can you really walk in a day? In a month? How far could you ride? How about a troll? Ships? Dragons?
- Fantasy forensics
- Breaking out of mid-campaign ruts
- Adding flavour to magic items
In addition, I’ve simplified the submission guidelines and pasted in several additional reader topic requests to get you inspired. Send a blank email to:
The RoleplayingTips GM Encyclopedia
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NPC ESSENTIALS IN PRINT – ON SALE
We’re down to the last few copies of NPC Essentials and they’re on sale now at my online store while quantities last. The publisher probably won’t be doing another print run, though the eBook version will always be available. The price has been marked down from $15 to $11.95.
For reviews, product info, free preview download, and to purchase, visit this link:
Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
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Use Real World Cultures For Political Campaigns
From Kenneth Gauck
There are several advantages to using real world cultures as models for your campaign. One is that players are able to start off on a stronger footing with regard to the social structure and general beliefs of the society. If everyone knows that the Humrada are based off of Vikings, players can mine Viking history, culture, and literature for strategies and character ideas on their own. If the Humrada is entirely spun from the whole cloth of the game master’s mind, the players will always be dependent on the GM for ideas and information.
When PCs operate in the culture they were born into, a known culture is superior, since Bjorn the White will have a fair amount of cultural knowledge from the very first day of the campaign. When PCs travel to far off lands, it’s best if the culture is invented so that it remains mysterious rather than just another society based on French Chivalry.
There remains a middle ground as well. When you base a society on two or three familiar cultures, you can mix up the player expectations. The Maark Confederation may look Hanseatic but their culture is more ancient Greek and renaissance Italian. The more unexpected the culture is the longer its rules remain mysterious. The more invented the culture is the more the players rely on GM information.
Also, draw on fictional cultures if they will provide a guide of conduct for you or your players. The advantage lies in their familiarity, so when that quality is desired–most often because it is the PCs’ home culture–employ a familiar culture or one that can be researched independently. Likewise, avoid the immediately familiar culture when using peoples who are supposed to be foreign and different.
Shadows – A Free RPG That’s Good For Kids
From Craig Curtis
Shadows is an extremely simple rpg designed for kids with only two mechanics (die roll and tokens for re-rolling).
Here is the link to it:
It is designed for kids but is also playable by adults. The character creation process involves drawing a picture of yourself and then drawing a picture of your _Shadow_. Your shadow always wants to get you into trouble. So, when you are attempting something, the GM may call for a shadow roll. When this happens, you tell the GM what you would like to happen. You also tell the GM what your shadow wants to happen. You roll and the higher die wins. If it is a tie the good die wins.
Player Reward – The Grace Card
From Dwayne al’ Trawick
I was going through some of the old GM Articles on your site and I noticed a few hints on non-XP rewards for the game. They reminded me of my own reward and I thought I’d share it. I call it a Grace Card. On one side is the logo for my campaign (Gates of Doom) and on the other it says:
YOUR GODS FAVOR YOU MORTAL! THEIR GRACE MAY SHINE ON YOU IN ONE OF FOUR WAYS:
- Turn in 1 card to get a free re-roll on any failed roll.
- Turn in 2 cards to get a free re-roll on any critically failed roll.
- Turn in 5 cards to make any non-combat roll into a critical success.
- Turn in 10 cards to make any combat roll into a critical success.
I like it because it’s something tactile. Something I can put in my players’ hands. I designed it as something of a competition. When someone is going above and beyond the rest, milking an RP scene, paying attention when the rest are not, or something like that, they get a card.
Word Blank Table Templates
From Steve Comrie
I’ve been a long time player of D&D, and a long time reader of your newsletter, but I just recently started DMing for the first time.
One of the problems I ran into was the first time the thief in my group wanted to go pick pocketing. I had no tables ready and no easy ideas on how to hand out rewards. Also, I’m not always in front of a computer when I take notes, read books, or prepare for sessions. And I hate writing important notes *somewhere* in a notebook, or ripping out a page, scribbling something and then losing it later.
What I needed were some nice looking, functional Table Templates that I can print out and write in so they look *polished* and thus are more likely to not get lost.
Long story short, I opened up Word and created a couple template tables both for random d20, d10,d6 rolls, and also some generic 2 column, 3 column, 4 column tables. Hopefully, they’ll make the creation of random tables or charts a little easier for DMs. And who doesn’t love having more charts than they know what to do with around?
Keep up the great work with the newsletter.[Comment from Johnn: Here’s the download link. Just open up the files in MS Word, print, and enjoy having some offline table templates to fill out while planning or while at the game table: Blank Table Templates Word ]