Everyone can describe things, which makes narration seem like a skill everyone does naturally, but we have all played with dungeon masters who fumbled the task. I’ve been that DM, although I hope not recently. After decades of running games, my narration skills have improved, even in the last few years, and I plan to keep learning and improving. This post starts a series that shares what I know.
In a Dungeons & Dragons adventure, the characters’ experience—what they see, hear, and otherwise sense—reaches the players through the DM’s descriptions of the game world. Vivid description encourages immersion, a sense of living in the fictional world. That makes strong narration a vital part of a great adventure. But books of game mastering advice rarely give the topic much attention. Perhaps the authors include a paragraph urging descriptions that include five senses, and then move to fudging dice. Narration seems to defy advice, but no source of GM advice lacks an opinion on fudging.
Nonetheless, if description falls flat, heroic adventures in wondrous locations feel dull. If narration goes wrong, players wind up confused or frustrated.
Good narration goes beyond revealing how the dungeon smells. (Pretty bad, I suppose.) What deserves description? How much time should a DM spend on description? In what order should DMs describe things? All that matters, and I have answers.
Spare but steady narration
Nobody sits for a D&D game hoping the DM as narrator will spend most of the session yakking. Recorded books talk nonstop better. Instead, players relish the times they talk and their characters act.
So as a DM, make your goal to wring the most vivid, evocative narration from the fewest words.
Overlong descriptions lead the players’ attention to drift. Rather than visualizing the eons of weathering that mark the vermilion masonry, players consider their next move. For the biggest impact, fit concise, evocative descriptions between the characters’ actions.
On the pages of a screenplay, the shape of text gives a sense of how a scene will play. Scenes with monologues feature unbroken rectangles of text. Scenes with back and forth between actors have short lines of text with whitespace between. Rather than dropping overlong boxes of DM dialog into the screenplay for Your D&D Game—the Movie, try for shorter bits with more back-and-forth. Don’t test your players’ patience as they wait to talk.
I used to take brevity too far, rushing to describe locations and skipping descriptions to reach the next turn. The habit came from a good motive: I wanted to spend less time talking so the players do more playing.
Fewer words speed play, but something like a battle with no description feels flat. Spare but steady narration keeps the game alive.
I fight an urge to hasten narration by speaking faster, and I see plenty of other DMs suffer from the same tendency to hurry. But fast talk just makes the description seem lifeless and unimportant. If you recite descriptions like the legal text at the end of a drug ad, players will pay as much attention as they do to dry mouth and palm sweat. The best DMs adjust their tempo, often slowing to give their words weight. They pause to emphasize, their tone expresses emotion, and it captures attention.
Tools for clarity
In D&D, players make choices based on description, so clarity matters as much as immersion.
To help make the players’ vision of the game world clear enough for (imaginary) life and death decisions, go beyond verbal description. If you have pictures of non-player characters, locations, and monsters, then show them. No one listens for 1000 words, but everyone looks up to see a picture. You can print pictures, load them on your phone or tablet, or load them online for a virtual game.
Think of yourself as an expert instructor with chalk in hand. To help reveal the game world to the players, I use my dry-erase grids as white boards. I write key names and critical details for players to remember. As I describe complicated scenes, I sketch maps and location features. Even if you plan to skip a grid in favor of narrative combat, the visual aid of a sketched, abstract map helps players understand. Beyond the map, a rough diagram of, say, a statue of Moloch can remind players of its gem eyes and the fire-filled bowl it it’s hands.