Game masters are the eyeballs, earholes, fingers, noses, and tongues for the players. If a GM doesn’t describe something, it doesn’t exist. If they don’t say that something is in the room, it’s not in the room. If a GM forgets, omits, or just plain leaves out an “unimportant” detail, it can change the entire scope of how the players react with their characters.
There are many facets to a quality description of a setting. Some are tied together. Many are independent. They’re all important to keep in mind when developing a description that will tell the players the basics of what’s going on around them.
Explicit and Implicit Details
Explicit and implicit details are broad categories that cover most everything that follows in this article. However, there are some important distinctions here that need to be addressed.
If you explicitly state something in a description, it is there and is the way you’ve described it.
If you leave out a detail that can follow an explicitly stated fact, then it can be implied. This is dangerous because your perception of things can (and probably will) differ from the players’ perspectives.
Explicitly stating that a wide, stone channel is filled with lava very much implies that the lava is hot, probably deadly, and should be avoided.
Explicitly stating that a wide, stone channel is filled with a lumpy, flowing, red, glowing liquid implies too many different things for the players to get a clear picture. It could be magically-infused blood. It could be congealed strawberry jello with lights under it. It could be lava. It could be so many different things that the adjective-filled, explicit description really does no good. When going explicit, be precise in your descriptors to avoid confusion.
Focus and Perspective
Every description you provide should be from the perspective of the characters at the point they are standing in the setting. The focus of each room will vary, depending on what is important in the room. More later in the article to assist you with focus, so let’s talk about perspective.
“A shoe comes toward you.”
Okay. That’s a functional statement of focusing in on a moving shoe. However, it lacks perspective. Let’s try that again.
“A shoe descends toward you as if you crush you like the bug-sized creature you are.”
“A shoe flies across the room in a high arc toward you.”
“A shoe zips down the hallway in a straight line at you.”
“A shoe shoots out of a gap in the floor below you. It’s heading straight at your vitals.”
Those last four descriptions give some more perspective and attention to what’s really going on. Each one will elicit a different reaction from the PCs.
There are the classic “five senses” that you should rely on to describe things to your characters. (NOTE: There are many more than just five senses, but I’m just covering the basics here.) These senses are:
Even more classic advice is that each scene/setting should evoke all five senses. Every. Single. Time. I personally disagree with that sentiment. Incorporating all five senses in the opening paragraph of a setting description is onerous, boring, repetitive, and just plain not engaging. My advice is to pick the top three that are important to describing a setting and run with those. Make all three of then evocative, important, compelling, and visceral. Trust me. Very few (if any) readers are going to give you grief because you didn’t describe the taste of the evergreen trees rising overhead.
When describing the location of things, move from nearest to the players to the items farthest away. This can sometimes be difficult if there are multiple entrances to an area or if the area is open ground to be entered from any direction. This is where you need to move away from being a Dungeon Reader (someone that reads boxed text as if it were religious text) and be a Dungeon Master (someone who can adjust to things on the fly. Maps are supremely helpful in this circumstance to display where the altar, pillars, lava channel, and alcoves are at.
Instead explicitly using feet/meters/yards to space things out, you can leverage phrases like “next to,” “across the room from you,” “on the other side of,” “under,” “hanging from,” and so on. You’re painting a picture, not describing an architectural diagram. Having said this, I do recommend giving the exterior confines of the setting in a hard measurement. In other words, if the room is sixty feet long and forty feet wide with pillars down the middle every ten feet, say it just like that.
Static and Active Elements
Along the lines of my above advice of describing near to far elements, I would recommend this piece of advice trumps the above. Always describe the static elements first. This will be walls, doors, pillars, non-activated altars, windows, furniture, etc.. These are things that will not normally jump out and cause a negative effect to the PCs. They’ll let these descriptions go by without interruption.
Then you can circle back to the near-to-far descriptions of the active elements. This will be things like monsters, NPCs, the evil priest behind the altar, the screaming victim on the altar, the chanting cultists surrounding the altar, the swirling portal behind the altar, and the demon half-revealed in the portal.
The reason I save the active elements for the end is that the players will immediately declare attacks on the priest, spells on the portal, and fireballs at the cultists. You don’t want to encourage the players to interrupt your descriptions. You’ve put them together for a reason, so don’t create something in the players’ minds that they need to interrupt until the end of the descriptions.
Invocation of Feelings
Very old (70s and 80s) D&D adventures will impose a “sense of feeling” upon the PCs. This can be fear, dread, greed, happiness, lust, hatred, or just about any other emotional reaction. These are false statements most of time. I had a character who was immune to fear. No less than three times in a single session I had to remind the GM that I don’t “feel fear” from his well-intended descriptions. It threw off the game. It reduced the emotional impact for me and the other players. In short, it fell flat.
Never declare emotional reactions or feelings in a setting. Describe them such that the players will react according to their characters’ aspects. This is much harder in practice than in theory, but if you work at it enough, you’ll get there. If you find yourself slipping into second person (typically, the word ‘you’ being used) in an emotional description, then stop, reassess what you’re trying to actually evoke, and rewrite that section.
Along the same lines as forcing emotional reactions is forcing action on the characters through your descriptions. Here are some phrases to avoid:
“You open the door and …”
“You see the mountain of gold and rush forward to collect your just rewards and …”
“You run away from the indescribable horror sitting in the pit and ….”
“You race into the burning building to save the children and ….”
See how these all start with “you” and end up in a forced action imposed on the characters? What if the PC is afraid if fire and can’t run into the burning building? What if they have a “destroy fire” spell that will be better than rushing into the building? What if they’re overly cautious and don’t want to rush toward the mountain of gold?
Forcing the players’ hands via your descriptions takes away their agency and freedoms. This is one the worst sins that you, as a GM, can make at the table. Just don’t do it.
What other elements of description do you keep in your back pocket for amping up what the PCs experience at the table? I’m sure I’ve left something off my list here, but there are only so many words that go into a reasonable-length blog post.
“If a GM doesn’t describe something, it doesn’t exist. ”
Do people actually play like this?
Absolutely, people play like this. This is the default. If the GM doesn’t state there is a door in the north wall of a room, then the door can’t exist (barring a hidden/secret door). The GM is the eyes, ears, nose, and finger-touchy bits for the players. If the GM doesn’t include something in the description, then it’s not there for the players to interact with.
“Even more classic advice is that each scene/setting should evoke all five senses. /…/ My advice is to pick the top three that are important to describing a setting and run with those. ”
I remember playing a blind character, and the game master only game sight descriptions. My take is to always describe everything else but sight, but use sight as part of the description. “You smell how some logs have started to rot.”
Some tools I tend to use: describe through a subject, ask questions to the players, leave out descriptions for the players to fill in, describe a new thing in each sentence (hello “break routines” in Impro), describe through a theme, repeat words from a theme…
As a player and a GM I’m sensitive to simple descriptions that can wind up misleading others because they embed assumptions. For example, a memorable confusion occurred years ago at the gaming table when the GM described, “You’re at the edge of a clearing in the middle of the forest. In the middle of the clearing is a log house. Smoke rises from a stone chimney.”
Moments later the PCs were attacked by two ogres in the woods. They inferred, correctly, that the ogres lived in the house and were patrolling the area. They figured it was a fight they could handle. But then when the GM described 30 more ogres running out of the house to join the fight in the second round of combat the players called a foul.
“How can 30 ogres fit in a log cabin?”
“I didn’t say it was a cabin, I said it was a house.”
“Okay, but you didn’t say it was a huge house, like big enough for an entire tribe of ogres!”
The players made a near fatal decision, to engage the first pair of ogres they met, because they didn’t believe there could be 30 more ready to join the fight. There was an assumptions clash about what “house” meant. Clearly the GM should have given a clearer description: something like, “At the center of the clearing is a crudely made wooden house. It is large, at least 100′ across, with a slanted roof rising 30′ high at the center. Smoke wafts from a single, large chimney in the middle.” Then the players would’ve had an accurate understanding of the potential consequences of their next actions.
I completely agree that the GM left out vital information that the players needed to make an informed decision about the situation. The size of the cabin/house should have been CLEARLY stated since there were 30 more ogres packed inside.
I type this immediately after returning from a remote cabin in the mountains for a writing-based weekend. I don’t think TWO ogres could have fit in the cabin, let along THIRTY!
Excellent example of how a description went sideways at a vital moment. Thanks for sharing that.