When You Describe Outcomes, Flatter Your Game’s Heroes and Monsters

Dungeons & Dragons games live in our imagination, so we can only share the action through our description. Critical hits, high-stakes saves, and successful checks against long odds all encourage dungeon masters and players to describe the game’s action in ways that flaunt the characters’ power and talent. Everyone loves a crit; even narrating one is fun.

As a DM, I look for characters’ heroic moments. In a movie, a heroic moment might come when Wonder Woman rushes a foe through a window, crashing out in a shower of glass and debris. In a game, heroic moments come when a hero grapples Acererak and heaves him into a pool of lava, or when a hero stops fleeing an onrushing boulder and turns to drive the sword Shatterspike into it. Whenever you spot a heroic moment, put game time into slow motion and lavish description on the heroics. Make it awesome. Many players enjoy describing their characters’ heroic moments. Invite them to.

In D&D and in fiction, a heroes prove their mettle by facing villains who seem at least as capable of winning the day. So look for villainous moments—baddass occasions when your monsters get to flaunt their menace. Think of the Darth Vader demolishing rebels in pursuit of the stolen Death Star plans. D&D monsters typically arrive outmatched by heroes, so make the most of every badass turn. Legendary resistances invite badass moments by letting villains shrug off a hero’s best shot and laugh at the character’s weakness.

Surely none of this advice surprises you. Here’s the unexpected tip: When someone fumbles, instead of describing the failure in a way the makes the hero or monster seem inept or comical, describe the stumble so the fault comes from tough opposition or an imposible situation. DMs feel tempted to narrate bad rolls for laughs. We can narrate a 1 with a description of how someone’s hat tilted to cover their eyes and gain an easy laugh that feels fun in the moment. But too many descriptions like that turn characters into clowns and their opponents into jokes. Instead, use a 1 to describe a foe’s superhuman speed or the swirling hot ash clogging the air and stinging the heroes’ eyes. When you describe outcomes, even the fumbles, flatter your heroes and monsters.

Postscript: Before anyone runs to the comment section, I know that D&D lacks fumbles, but you know what I mean. Don’t be pedantic.

7 thoughts on “When You Describe Outcomes, Flatter Your Game’s Heroes and Monsters

  1. prabe

    This sounds an awful lot like the instructions for the GM in Dungeon World to “be a fan of the characters.” In my experience, this leads to the GM telling me my character is awesome, repeatedly, while my character persistently fails to achieve much because an important dice roll is less likely to make things better than it is to either make things worse or introduce something that will make things worse. I think Dungeon World unintentionally generates a lot of cognitive dissonance this way. My point is: be careful about telling the players a given entity is awesome at something, then having the dice refuse to cooperate.

    Reply
    1. Ancient Sage

      I agree! Very good comment. Doing too much of this can become condescending and infantilizing.

      Reply
      1. ThrorII

        I think these types of narrations can become overkill if used profusely, but sparing them for moments of awesomeness can make for great games.

        Narrating the killing blow of an enemy, a mighty jump across a chasm, or a mighty spell adds color and excitement to the table.

        Reply
  2. Frederick Coen

    Here and there, I will “impressively narrate” a poor result, despite the poor result. Generally when the hero tries something awesome and the dice don’t cooperate – they didn’t fail because they suck, they failed because the villain was equally awesome, or just anticipated the move. If the PC was just doing “I attack”, then let the hijinks ensue.

    Reply
  3. Brian Rogers

    I started doing this a while back and it’s a huge help. You just have to start seeing the dice as who won the exchange, and that misses are indications of the adversary countering your skill with their skill, not that you lack skill. A poor roll is you delivering an attack that the opponent batters aside in a surprising burst of speed. Or when they roll a poorly it’s them unleashing a blistering array of attacks that can’t get through the defensive web of your swordplay. Or whatever aspects of the combatants fighting styles you want to highlight.

    Short form: just because D&D doesn’t pick up dice for defense doesn’t mean defensive actions don’t deserve as much color as offensive ones.

    Reply
  4. Abelhawk

    I’ve always hated when someone rolls a 1 on a Perception check and just says “I just look off into the distance and start drooling” or whatever. No. You didn’t turn into an idiot, you just got unlucky.

    Reply
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