Dungeons & Dragons is an incredible game because it allows players to create and interact with a world of their own making.
However, the only way your players can feel as if they are emerged in the world and not just looking at it from the outside, is if you describe it to them in enough detail to keep them engaged, but not so much that you loose their attention. Talk about a tough job!
If you want to be a Dungeon Master, then you need to be a master of description. You have probably heard this before, I know I have, but what I didn’t hear much about was how.
How do you, as the DM, give detailed, engaging, and appropriately long descriptions of the world to your players? You need to focus on the following:
- Your Vocabulary
- Order of Importance
- Showing NOT Telling
- Engaging the Senses
How do you blend all of these aspect together into a description that will leave your players hungry for more? Just follow Halfling Hannah down the rabbit’s hole and I will tell you..
Words. LOTS of Words
The foundation to becoming a master of description is to become a hoarder of words. Having a small vocabulary will make it incredibly difficult for you as you try to paint word pictures for your party. You will not be able to use any of the other tips below if you don’t take this one seriously. Seriously.
Some easy ways to broaden your vocabulary could be any of the following:
- READ! Reading is the #1 way to broaden your vocabulary and help you learn how to describe. Keep a journal and write down phrases you really like from your favorite books, or favorite words you come across while reading that strike you. This also has the added benefit of giving you campaign ideas!
- Download a “Word of the Day” app and try to use the word in conversations throughout the day. This may give you some really random words, but most of them are really fun! This is a great way to gradually increase your vocabulary in the midst of your busy life. Most apps will have a notification which will pop up on your phone or watch, giving you the word of the day without any remembering on your part!
- Download a Thesaurus App. Now, when you are writing out the description of the upcoming town or landscape, substitute some of your boring words for more interesting ones. Such as changing “a big tree” for “a monstrous oak” or “a small river” for “a babbling brook.” Even these small substitutions will make a big difference in your overall presentation.
Try one or all three and see what a difference daily vocabulary will make in your descriptions! (Plus, it will make you sound smarter too! +1 to Charisma!)
Most Important Details First!
When you are trying to decide how you should describe a new area, be it a room or a city, to your players, you should always describe the most important features first. While it may be difficult to determine what is important at first, real life can help us out. Take a look at this picture and note the first 2-4 things you saw first.
If your brain is anything like mine, you will say you saw a statue with outstretched arms, a blue bay, and a sprawling city surrounded by mountains. If I was going to try to describe this scene to my players, those at the things I would focus on during my opening remarks. I wouldn’t try to describe all the buildings in detail, or get side tracked by the boats in the bay, I would start with the big stuff and get to the smaller later as it became important.
Let’s do the same exercise, but with a smaller scene. Again, jot down 2-4 things you see first.
The first things I noticed were the large stone hearth, a lively burning fire, a framed picture of a cocker spaniel and square wooden tables set for dinner. The nick-nacks on the shelves didn’t catch my attention until later, so they are not as important and shouldn’t be mentioned until one of the party asks to look around more carefully.
Note: If you do want to mention small objects, like the nick-necks in this case, because there might be something important about them, I would say, “You see a number of interesting nick-nacks lined up on wooden corner-shelves on either side of the fireplace.” That is enough to let you player know to look at them without going into details that might be boring.
Generally speaking, order of importance goes something like this:
- Living creatures: if there is something alive in the room, then mention it first. If you peeked into a room that had a bugbear in it, I am willing to bet you wouldn’t pay attention to anything else.
- Large structures/features: Pillars, stairs, doors, mountains, forests, lakes, etc. The largest object or structure in the room/area should be described first.
- Exits: Especially if you are in a dungeon, your players eyes would be drawn to possible ways out. Make sure to mention any doors, windows, or roads/paths.
- Anything Out of the Ordinary: Floating swords, fountains of blood, a giant statue of a unicorn. If there is anything at all in the room that you wouldn’t expect, you should definitely describe it in your opening remarks.
- If there isn’t anything that stands out, then you should give a basic description of furniture, crates, chests, or any other ordinary objects in the room. If players want more details, they will ask. Trust me. Keep these basic.
After your “opening remarks” as I like to call them, your players will want to explore, investigate and interact with the area. This is a great time to give “blurts.” These are greater details about specific items or part of the bigger picture you just described. Keep these short, colorful and to the point.
For example, if a player wants to investigate the crates in the corner of the room, you could say,
“You set your hand down on one of the crates and a small puff of dust spirals into the air. You brush away the thick layer of dirt from the lid and find a date stamped onto the top from 10 years ago.”
This description is short, interesting and encourages the players to do more. There is nothing worse to a player who wants to do something than to listen to you list off a bunch of details they have 0 interest in.
As an old teacher use to say, “Essays (in our case, descriptions) should be like mini skirts. Long enough to cover everything, but short enough to keep you interested!”
Show DON’T Tell
The example above also follows our next rule. Show, don’t tell. Instead of trying to describe a room, scene or item in minute detail (unless obviously required) attempt to show the players instead.
In the example above, I could have just told my players that the boxes were old, but instead I showed them by describing the dust and the date stamp.
Try to create word pictures that paint a scene of what is happening instead of just stating the obvious. Players will feel more like they are living in and engaging with the world you are describing as opposed to simply processing information. This seemly small difference is what separates engaged players from bored players.
See more examples of how to do this in different circumstances below!
“It’s very cold in the room”
“You walk into the room and immediately begin to shiver. Your breath swirls in crystalline clouds that begin to form frost in your beards and helms.”
“It’s really hot”
You wince as the torrid air of the room sweeps across your face, making you take an involuntary step back away from the blaze.
You listen to the pattering of rain drops as they fall and scatter across the metal roofs, covering the village like a gentle blanket.
“It’s sunny and warm.”
As you head out, you can’t help but stop and stretch in the warm and happy sunshine of this beautiful autumn day.
“This is a large Gnoll”
Standing head and shoulders taller than the other Gnolls, you see the muscular form of another Gnoll warrior pushing his way through the pack.
“You kill the goblin”
You bring your sword down with all the strength you have left and cleave into the base of the goblin’s neck. Your sword slashes deep into the goblin’s chest, it growls, spraying blood onto your armor, then slumps to the ground, no longer moving.
Engage the Senses (All of Them!)
Our brains are wired to think about the world around us in terms of our senses. Smells link to memories, sounds can make us feel tense or relaxed, and a beautiful sunset can make us cry.
All of these require senses and, often, multiple senses. So why do we tend to only use sight when describing? You should be engaging multiple senses as often as you can (although certainly not all at once!)
I like to throw in one or two extra senses each time I give an opening remark. For example, while I am describing the interior of an inn, I will throw in the sense of smell (by describe the smell of food cooking or stale beer) and sense of hearing (by describing clicking glasses, music, or overlapping conversations of the other patrons).
If I am describing a landscape, I will do the same thing. As I describe the important details of the forest, I could include sense of touch (by describing the weather) and sense of perception (by describing the “feeling” they get from the forest).
Here is a quick list of senses humans are capable of feeling (What, did you think there were only 5?)
- Temperature– Sense of hot or cold
- Pain– Can be physical or emotional in yourself or others.
- Light source– The ability to sense a light source in the dark.
- Direction– Knowing which way to go. Sometimes correct, sometimes not.
- Pressure– Feeling changes in atmospheric pressure or pressure applied to the skin.
- Perception– The ability to feel if you are being watched or followed
- Intuition- A gut feeling on a person or situation
- Distance– Sense of how far away something is.
- Time– The ability to sense the flow of time. Can be slowed or sped up.
- Familiarity– How familiar something somewhere or someone feels
When giving a description, try adding one or two of these senses to add depth and tangibility to your world.
Putting It All Together
The most beautiful aspect of Dungeons and Dragons (in my opinion) is the collective imagination. A group of people come together and share a world of their own making, and you, Dungeon Master, get to create the seed of that imagination.
Your descriptions of the world you players inhabit will become and image in their minds which will guide their actions. So you need to take this seriously. If your players aren’t engaged or excited, it’s likely because you aren’t giving them the foundation they need to imagine OR you are boring them to death with unnecessary details.
If you follow this process, I promise you will see a change in your players. When they can see, taste, smell and touch your world, it will become reality.
Keep working hard! We’ve got your back DM.
Until next time,
May your game have advantage, my friends.