During a Dungeons & Dragons game, vivid description encourages immersion, a sense of living in the fictional world. Still, long descriptions can make players feel impatient as they wait for their chance to act. This leads to two goals for dungeon masters narrating adventures.
- Wring the most vivid, evocative narration from the fewest words.
- Try for shorter descriptions that lead to more back-and-forth dialog with players.
My last post explained those goals; this post starts advice to help reach them.
Find vivid and evocative details.
In your descriptions, work to include two or three of the five senses of sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste. Descriptions will almost always include sight, and virtually never include taste. That leaves sounds and smells as vital second impressions. In a dungeon, sound can prove particularly evocative. Do characters hear the distant roar of an underground waterfall, echoing voices in some unrecognizable language, the thrum of machinery, or just a slow patter of dripping? Touch comes in with heat, cold, and the wet squelching of water in boots as you plod through mud.
Describing senses beyond sight brings a second benefit: Those details often seem fresh enough to be interesting, but also common enough to feel familiar to players. When you imagine a swamp, details like the water squelching between your toes rarely comes to mind, but everyone knows how that feels. That makes a powerful description. The best descriptions capture a bit of the funny-because-it’s-true vibe of observational comedy. If your descriptions simply include the obvious, they never spark imagination.
Details grounded in ordinary experience can make descriptions of fantastic locations vivid and relatable. To describe an iron fortress over a lake of molten metal on the Abyss, mention the flurries of soot swirling in the air and the acid smell of ash. Such a description takes the imagination further than the obvious: “It feels hot. Really, super hot.” (🗹 touch.)
The sort of familiar-but-unexpected details that make the best descriptions work because the rarely come readily to mind. That quality makes them difficult to improvise. To prepare for a strong descriptions, think of two evocative details before the game and jot them down. Don’t bother scripting box text; you only need ideas to elaborate at the table.
Just two evocative details typically proves enough. When people see a list of two items, we spot patterns and let our imaginations expand the list. Many jokes use our tendency to create humor. The gag sets a pattern with two instances, and then makes a surprising turn with a third addition. Descriptions that include just two evocative details can rely on the listener’s imagination to paint more of the scene.
Aim for precise description.
The more specific the words and details you use for your description, the more vivid the picture the words create. Words like goblet, carpenter, and rhino create stronger mental images than cup, worker, and animal.
Focus your descriptions on single, representative things, and then widen to groups. Describe the milky eyes, needle teeth, and filthy yellow nails of the first ghoul to climb the side of the boat before mentioning that five more follow.
Favor impressions over big numbers and measurements. An army where the campfires stretch to the horizon like a starry sky makes a bigger impact than a force of 10,000. A spider the size of an elephant paints a more vivid image than one described as eight feet tall.
Stop your descriptions when players know enough to act or make a choice.
In roleplaying games such as D&D, the DM’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 DMs depict a situation, and then players act on it.
As a DM, you stop describing 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.
Next Tuesday: Less-obvious advice. How descriptions and decision points lead to crackling dialog in Your D&D Game—The Movie.