In roleplaying games such as Dungeons & Dragons, the game master’s descriptions often end with a question: “What do you want to do?” Sometimes we skip the question, but even unspoken, that question forms part of the game’s play loop where dungeon masters depict a situation, and then players act on it.
As a DM, you stop talking when (1) players have something to do or a decision to make and (2) the players understand enough to make a sensible decision. The barbarian needs to know about the lava-filled trench before making the choice to charge the dragon. All this may seem obvious, but it leads to some less-obvious advice.
When you set a scene, the end of your narration should highlight something that dares the heroes to act. The best narration can skip the what-do-you-want-to-do question because they leave players eager to take action. Sometimes, that invitation to action comes from the monsters in the room. More often, some curious feature simply begs a closer look.
When you set a scene, describe the things likely to spur the players to action last. This rule applies to the monsters in the room, so describe the dragon last even though the characters would likely notice it first. Once a description includes something like a dragon that demands action, players start considering their next move instead of paying attention to the ongoing description. So the barbarian pays no attention to that trench filled with lava. Minutes later, the DM has to stop play to rewind the raging charge attack and describe the room again. The battle loses momentum.
A combat scene can’t start with the monster and skip the description until after the fight. To act, players need to know about terrain, cover, hiding places, hazards, secondary objectives, and interactive objects. Fights with none of those elements often prove dull. None of that description can wait until after the battle, so lead with the glowing sigils, lava, and ballistas before describing foes.
The old habit of describing monsters first led to t-shirts that read, “I didn’t ask how big the room is. I said I cast fireball.” In D&D’s early editions, a fireball confined to a tight space could blow back and damage player characters. (See Spell Blow Back—How Part of D&D that Everyone Avoided Shaped the 5th-Edition Power Curve.)
Some DMs advise starting descriptions with the monsters because characters would surely notice the threats first. But this advice ignores the limitations of describing with words. With a glance, our characters in the room notice its key features. At the game table, we need a minute of talking to paint the same picture. DMs can bridge some of that gap by showing pictures or revealing maps or terrain, but we can never recreate all the immediacy of opening a door and spotting a dragon.
Still, describing the monsters last can feel like burying the lede. The dragon rearing back to breathe acid feels like an awkward ending for a description. “Didn’t we notice the dragon before, FFS?” For the best reveals, keep the monster out of sight long enough for the players to picture the room before the threat appears from the shadows or from some other concealment. Even more compelling descriptions can hint at an unseen threat (churning water) before the dragon erupts from the lake, showering the party with icy water. (That description scores extra points for including the sense of touch with an unexpected detail.)
Even when nothing hides the threat, at least describing the monster last lets players react immediately to it rather than forcing a delay for more description. This reinforces the urgency of the danger.
For demands for action weaker than a hostile monster, describing an invitation to action last tends to give players an obvious choice to act on. Rather than trying to recall, say, the strange idol mentioned in the middle of a description, players immediately investigate that object.
Next Tuesday: How descriptions and decision points lead to an engaging tempo. To avoid missing out, sign up to get my posts by email using the box at right.