Descriptions in DnD are vital for engaging players and ensuring that the game is run smoothly. They are a key part of how your players will engage with the world. Being descriptive can be tough without a few key pieces of advice.
There are a few important steps to follow to ensure you are being descriptive enough for you players to understanding the world they are in without becoming boring. These are:
- Don’t talk for too long
- Engage as many senses as possible. Sight, Smell, and Touch are the common three
- State events as they unfold
- Be clear
When combined, these tips should make your descriptions more accurate, easier for players to parse, and more engaging.
The Importance Of Descriptions In DnD
Descriptions in DnD are one of the most important parts of play. These are how players get insight into the game world, from locations as large as mountain ranges to as small as dungeon rooms.
Descriptions dictate the environment to the players so that the characters can react. Without descriptions, or even with lackluster ones, players may get confused or not react as their character would.
When a description is clear but not overly detailed, players will naturally engage with it more and become invested in the scene. When descriptions are lacking, the game world feels static and unengaging, making your players much less interested in the outcome.
Tips For Making Great Descriptions
Once you are aware of how important descriptions are, it is important to make sure you are making the best ones possible. There are no hard rules for creating descriptions, but some universal tips can help quite a bit.
Remember that descriptions will come up both as planned locations, or on the fly explanation. If you feel pressured in the moment and not fully comfortable explaining, the same tips apply. Don’t worry! The goal of the game is to have fun.
Here are some tips to remember when creating descriptions:
- Engage the senses. Describe more than just one sense.
- Don’t talk for too long. Players will often toon out. A few sentences should cover almost everything.
- If there is any action occurring, be sure to explain it. Players will become frustrated if they plan around the scene being static and the rug is suddenly pulled out from under them
Keeping those few rules in mind should make every description worthwhile and engaging. As you grow more accustomed to describing locations and scenes, your own natural style will begin to shine through and you will realize what keeps your players most in the loop.
Here is an example where a description hits all of these key points:
Walking through the carnival grounds, you hear infectious laughter as children play the various games. The smell of fruit and sugar wafts through the air as the workers peddle their foods, and up ahead the big tent looms over the rest of the ensemble. A woman on stilts painted as an ogre waves as she walks by.
This way, the various senses are engaged, action is taking place, and players get a feel for the whole event. In addition, it is short enough to keep their attention.
The length of various descriptions also has a significant impact on how effective they are. Too short, and players will be left with questions that can grind gameplay to a halt. Too long and players will zone out and need to be reminded later on.
A sweet spot for description lengths is between 3 to 5 sentences. Adapt this as necessary if a scene is highly complicated or an object is very simple, just always be aware of the player’s attention spans.
When in doubt about a description length, cut it a bit shorter. It is important to leave some aspects up to the player’s imagination, letting their mind work. They can come up with fantastic ideas that you adapt into the world as well!
The Problem With Bad Descriptions
Bad descriptions are often the bane of new players and dungeon masters. They can transform an epic moment into a dull one, break immersion, and cause quite a few questions to pop up.
As a dungeon master, picture this: You’ve envisioned a perfect final boss room. In your mind’s eye you know every detail and smell, every darkened corner. As you describe it to your players, eager to take on the boss after many sessions, the scene becomes lost in translation. Your players grow confused and unsure and the dramatic tension is lost.
This is the main issue with bad descriptions. They rip players and dungeon masters out of the moment so that questions can be answered and corrections made. Now, some of that happening is inevitable. It is a game that takes place almost entirely in a collective imagination, after all. Descriptions work best when they do not remind players of that, however.
Transforming Bad Descriptions Into Great Ones
Looking at examples is the best way to tell the differences between bad descriptions and great ones. Transforming bad descriptions does not take a lot of time so long as some basic rules are remembered.
The way to salvage a bad description is the same way to make a good description. Whenever possible, indulge the senses, keep it short, and describe the action. As an example, look at this description of a classic dungeon room:
You walk into a small, stone room. There are three beds and two bandits sleeping. Dim light bounces off the walls.
This description is fine, and sets the scene. Players will understand the basics of what is happening but will not be sucked into the action. To fix this, simply add some more sensory descriptions and add some actions. Now, it looks like this:
You walk into a small, gray stone room smelling of dirt and old leather. Ahead, three beds sit tight against the wall. Two bandits snore loudly as the dim light from the torches bounces off the walls. One shifts in bed and grumbles to himself.
With this change, three senses are now included. Sight, describing the room. Smell, so that players can get a sense of the maintenance here. Sound, as the bandits snoring confirms they are asleep. It is a longer description, but still does not drone on so long as to let players lose focus. Very few questions will need to be asked of the scene, as well, letting gameplay immediately happen.
Engaging The Senses
Engaging the senses is one of the best and easiest ways to dramatically enhance DnD descriptions. The more avenues players have to connect with the gameworld, the more they will be able to imagine it in their mind.
Different players naturally will connect more with different senses. That is what makes this such a strong technique. While a few of your players may connect most with the visual descriptions, some may imagine the game much clearer in their mind once they know the soundscape.
The five basic senses are:
Each of these can be used effectively to make great descriptions. Commonly, new dungeon masters will only describe scenes in terms of sight. While that is arguably the most important, consider what is most important in a description.
If players are entering a pie eating contest or at a carnival, be sure to include the tastes of the food as well, or the smells of the carnival foods.
When characters are deep underground and using the walls for navigation, provide a description for the rough stone or slick, gooey slime that covers it.
Providing descriptions of hearing is always appreciated and can really set a mood. If the characters are engaging in a raucous street fight, the sound of urchins coming and cheering on will grip players in the scene. Conversely, sneaking into a goblin camp late at night and hearing the slight shuffle of armor can create significant tension.
Whenever you are providing a description, try to touch on three different senses. This will allow players to easily find something to connect with or focus on without getting bogged down by length. If players have questions about a scene or description once the initial explanation is done, providing the scene through another sense is a great way to get them to understand more clearly.
For example, when the players enter a quaint bakery, the description could be:
The small framed door makes you lean down as you enter into the bakery. The smell of freshly baked cookies immediately wafts to you, and you see a plump gnome humming quietly to herself as she takes another rack out of the oven. She notices you and smiles.
Here, sight, smell, and sound are all engaged. This encounter could also easily lead to touch and taste being described if the players decide to eat any food.
While parts of Dungeons and Dragons are played with maps and miniatures, your players will mostly engage in your world through you description of it. You world lives and dies with you. Descriptions are vitally important for players to understand options, engage with the story, and join in the collective imagination that is D&D.
Keep painting your world, DM! We will be right here to help you do it.
Until next time, my friends,
May your game have advantage!
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