End Your Descriptions With Something That Inspires Players To Act

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.

11 thoughts on “End Your Descriptions With Something That Inspires Players To Act

  1. Joe

    Good advice! Do you have any advice for pulling this off in Roll20 or other VTTs, when the players open the door and see the big dragon in the room immediately?

    If there any subtle details either not on the map at all, or just not as obvious, there is still a pace-slowing pause as they see the big bad and then wait for my description. Having the big bad hidden at first is an awesome trick, but not practical for every type of situation / bad guy. 🙂

    More generally, I’ve been finding it difficult to balance the fun of detailed maps and visuals playing on Roll20, especially dynamic lighting, and it breaking part of the basic “DM describes, then players act” loop, especially with players moving their own tokens between encounters. My players are good about trying to be respectful, but having to call out “everyone stop moving for a sec” is still awkward. 😛

    Thanks for all your posts!

  2. John Vaquero

    Great advice. After reading this, I just reworked my plans for playing out a scene for an upcoming session, in order to move the most mood-shaping and battle-relevant description ahead of the incoming monster description. In this case, there were a few descriptive items that still made sense to delay until after the fracas has died down; while important, they were not details that would impact battle plans.

    Interesting question from Joe regarding Roll20 (and other VTTs). I too had really struggled at first with the visual impact of Roll20. Players would move into an area, and both they and I would immediately jump into battle mode. They got a good sense of the lay of the land (or at least they thought they did, given what they could see displayed), and sometimes I would even completely forget to try to squeeze in the colorful description of the space. It is very easy to fall into “video-game” mode where you treat the visuals painted on the screen as the scene itself, even though a little birds-eye view of a map provides a far less immersive and evocative experience than a good description would give.

    Dynamic lighting is one of those things that felt super fun and cool when I first encountered it in Roll20 a couple years ago. But in the last 3 months, I’ve moved off of Roll20 to use Shard Tabletop instead, and Shard lacks the dynamic lighting feature. Instead, as DM I have to manually unfog regions as necessary–and at first this might feel like a step backward, but I’ve come to really like this better. It is actually really quick and easy to do, and it gives me more control of the narrative and the player’s experience, in the moment of what gets revealed. Players can move their own tokens, but when someone moves off in a previously unexplored direction, I have time to give my descriptive as I am exposing/unfogging that area.

    Of course, I didn’t choose Shard BECAUSE of it’s lack of dynamic lighting (it also happens to be a so-much-more-awesome VTT built by DMs for DMs, and tuned very specifically for D&D 5e), but now that I’ve gotten familiar with living without that, I really actually like it a lot better. And it eliminates all the time and effort of drawing the dynamic lighting barriers on maps ahead of time. If anyone wants Roll20 Plus subscription, I have almost a year left on my my most recent annual subscription that has just been going to waste for a few months! 🙂

    1. simontmn

      Yes, I’m not a fan of Dynamic Lighting. But NB you can use it alongside Fog of War to maintain control of what the players see.

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  4. Madstone

    What do you recommend if a battle starts in one room and then spills over into another area? Do you pause the current battle to describe the new features like above again revealing the key points last?

    1. Hans

      I’d give the players the choice! In our game anything that takes a roll counts as an action so if you want to study the room potentially catching important details then roll investigation and take your action. Just want to run in and fight the goblin? No problem but you might miss the lever on the wall!

  5. Hans

    My group has been playing on Roll20 for a while now and here are some tricks I use to keep suspense when entering rooms: I don’t use dynamic lighting and instead use fog of war, this lets me reveal things as I want, if someone peeks through a door I use the polygon reveal tool to show a slice of the room beyond. If a player enters a room outside of initiative I’ll describe it more fully, if we are in initiative I give the player the choice to use their turn to study the room (possibly rolling investigation if there are hidden things to notice) or just take a cursory glance and use their turn some other way, finally and I love adding details to my maps that give hints as to what might be in the next room. A red glow, a blood stain, a broken table, even a sound you describe can be powerful atmosphere builders and signals to your players. In our recent assault on Skyreach Castle the players worked out there was probably a red dragon in a certain room but they never saw it so when the captain called out loudly to someone named ‘Char’ they all started freaking out!

  6. simontmn

    Not mentioning the monster until the end is so counter-immersive that I always avoid it. I’d say if there is an immediate threat, keep the description extremely brief – something like “a great caven – a red dragon rises from its glittering hoard”. In general I prefer brief initial descriptions, and be prepared to give follow up detail if the PCs look around/player asks GM.


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