One of the hardest parts about being a Dungeon Master (DM) is getting your players to correctly imagine your game. With D&D being a game of imagination, the only graphics for players are those that they conjure up in their minds. Making sure all of your players understand and can accurately visualize their current situation or scene is critical for your game’s success. Without properly visualization, confusion and awkwardness can occur for players.
To the immense frustration of DMs, a player who improperly visualizes his/her situation is constantly getting basic facts about their situation incorrect. This player, who we will refer to as Susan, may understand the mechanics well enough and she may even have a great character, but she does things that, when considering the overall situation, are just accidentally illogical, impossible, or against the tone or severity of the situation. For instance, Susan may try to walk through a wall, believing there is a door or talk to a powerful King, thinking he is some lowly town official. Worse, she may not realize the danger of her situation when a Beholder, with a challenge rating nearly double her level, enters the room and she decides to charge it anyway.
Description, therefore, is important. Not just to get the basic facts of the game down for a player like Susan, but to ensure that she understands the world you are building and interacts with it in a fun and interesting way. As with good description, your players (Susan included) will feel like this world is a real place, they will connect with the story you are trying to tell, and forget that they are sitting at a table or in front of a computer screen.
Nevertheless, description is a broad and abstract topic, one that I am certain could extend into hundreds of blog posts (especially if I throw in literary analysis). Consequently, for this blog post, I hope to simply break down the types of descriptions DM use in their games into different categories. At least that way, all of us can take time to see how we describe things in our games and have concrete vocabulary for future discussions and blog posts.
Types of Description
There are many ways to break up descriptions. However, I felt it best to divide descriptions based on their purpose and utility to DMs. To this end, I have categorized six different types of description and ordered them in this article based on a model proposed by Jeremiah.
Atmospheric → Spacial → Informative → Intriguing → Motion → Sensational
This model is centered on how DMs often open and describe a new scene or situation for their players. This order is not universal, which I will briefly cover at the end of this post, but it will help to explain each type of description and how it fits in your game.
Atmospheric descriptions are details that establish a particular scene or moment in time for a player. They center around sweeping descriptions of a landscape and are focused on letting your players acclimate to their current place. These descriptions are most often used by DMs when opening a scene, or in other words, after the campaign story switches to a new location, time, mood, or event.
“As the world disappears in a flash of light and reappears in another, you teleport to a new landscape, one clouded in red plumes of smoke and littered with the carapaces of giant unknown insects. The heat is unbearable and the smell of sulfur is worse.”
“Arriving in the village square, you can hear the sounds of a fiddle, the clamoring of people dancing on cobblestone, and the laughter of small children.”
“After several hours of walking on the frigid tundra, your boots are soggy with snow and ice. You can see your breath and ice crystals forming in your hair. The wind breaks out into violent gales, blistering your skin that is left exposed to the fierce elements.”
As can be seen from the above examples, proper atmospheric description should give Susan a general overview of her place. She should understand the basic facts about her current location, such as the time of day, the terrain, the weather, or the general ambience of an area. Likewise, she should understand the potential dangers or interactions she can expect.
She should be able to tell the difference between the village square and the hellish landscape she was teleported to by her wizard friend and, assuming her character is sane, operate differently depending on the place.
Obviously, without proper atmospheric descriptions, Susan may be oblivious about her locale and want to perform unreasonable actions in light of her situation. For example, Susan will want to don her plate armor and head outside during a blizzard or she will treat the hellish carapace-covered landscape with the same gravitas as the village square.
Spatial descriptions are the details portraying the immediate space around your players. They are used to ground your players to a physical location. Whereas atmospheric descriptions explain sweeping generalities about an area, spatial descriptions explains the specifics about the space around your players by explaining the dimensions of the space, how many objects or creatures are in a space, and what your players can directly interact with inside the space.
“Your torch is the only source of light in the dungeon corridor. It is cramped and only one person at a time can pass through the passageway. Twenty-feet ahead of you, the corridor’s floor seems to have collapsed into a pit several yards wide.”
“Amidst the ruckus of the city, you find yourself in a dark alleyway that is fifteen feet wide. The alleyway has rats sifting through the dumpster and three beggars sleeping on the ground.”
The most important duty of spatial descriptions is to illustrate the interactable objects, creatures, or hazards that are around your players.
Spatial descriptions should explain distances and dimensions (preferably in feet) as well as the quantity of objects/creatures. They should also present details that affect certain mechanics in D&D, such as the amount of light, any difficult terrain, or how many people can fit in a space.
In this sense, spatial descriptions tell Susan what she can do and what can harm her in her current situation. These details help avoid the awkward situation where she might try to talk to a person that isn’t there or lockpick a desk drawer that has no locks.
Informative descriptions give additional knowledge to your players about their current space. These details aid your players to more fully visualize a space and to make it feel concrete, believable, and consistent within your larger world.
“The main window of the manor’s entrance hall has blue curtains with golden tassels. Emblazoned on each curtain is an icon of a shield and crossed halberds, the heraldry of the Williams family.”
“The first mate of the crew stands shirtless with a large, black shark-fin tattoo on his chest. His hair is tied up in a bandana and his face is covered in sweat.”
“The High Priestess of the Sky is dressed in elaborate vestments made of feathers. Her face is painted white, her hands are covered by talon-shaped gauntlets, and she smells like guano.”
Informative descriptions should allow your players to imagine the living, breathing world they inhabit. Although these details may be fantastical compared to real life, they should be expected and ordinary for people in your fantasy world. Likewise, these descriptions should meet your players’ expectations about the world. For instance, Susan might expect a large noble house to have proper silverware and fancy statuary. Whereas in a dungeon, she anticipates dark and dusty catacombs filled with skulls, pottery, and dusty relics.
These details may also provide some setting information for the players, like the heraldry of the Williams family, the preference of tattoos amongst pirates, or the unique vestments of a sky priestess. This information adds to the idea that the world is larger than just one character. These details could also be used in later scenes or locations, giving the world a greater sense of cohesion.
Intriguing descriptions are details that raise questions or point to plot hooks for players. These descriptions are odd or unusual details that players did not expect or they are details that were referenced previously to players, drawing further attention to them.
“The tavern is dark and completely empty. However the chairs and bar stools have all been placed into a circle.”
“Two corpses are found lying on the ground, one an elven man and the other a halfling woman. Their eyes have been gouged out and a symbol of a bird has been inscribed on their foreheads with blood. Both bodies reek of guano.”
Intriguing descriptions may appear similar to informative descriptions. Yet where informative descriptions merely explain additional details about a place to help players visualize it, intriguing descriptions explain details that make an object, creature, or place stand out. This can be accomplished when the detail is unexpected in some way.
For instance, Susan will be alert when the tavern she expected to be lively and cheers is actually completely empty. The strange unexplained ring of chairs will only add to her unease. Similarly, before Susan headed to a friend’s house, she anticipated asking questions about her magical item, but when she arrives and finds two dead bodies that smell similar to the aforementioned sky priestess, it is obvious to Susan there is more to this situation than it appears.
Motion descriptions are focused on explaining actions and movements within a scene. After you have described the objects and creatures in a scene, your players will want to interact with the world directly. These descriptions illustrate to your players the effects of their actions, as well as how objects or creatures move, act, or react in a scene.
“As you move up the stairs, you can feel the steps bend underneath your weight and a slight creaking sound from beneath you.”
“Yelling and shouting for help, the wizard leaps from his seat, his spell book in his hand, and runs to the opposite side of the room.”
“Raising her head to examine your sword, the little girl reaches out to try and touch your armor.”
Unlike other types of descriptions, motion descriptions focus entirely on actions, movements and the passage of time. They show something occurring in the world and show cause and effect for an action or movement. Therefore, motion descriptions focus Susan’s attention to responding to an action or movement, but not necessarily towards the descriptions itself.
Sensational descriptions are details that accentuate or emphasize a certain feeling for players. They give the situation a sense of epicness, dread, or wonder, and serve to dramatize a result or climax.
“The werewolf cuts into the villagers torso, carving a hole straight through his chest cavity and ripping out his lung. Blood sprays out like a geyser, covering the floor, the walls, and your face.”
“Chanting the holy words from the ancient tome, your entire body begins to glow and sparkle. Your feet leave the ground, your mind becomes at ease, and your voice becomes one with a chorus of heavenly melodies.”
Sensational descriptions are hyperbolic. They in some way excite your players and reinforce the atmosphere and ambience you have already established for the scene. Whether this is through enchanting details, flowering words, or the sheer brutality of your diction, the end result is that your player feels something and the scene makes some impact on them.
These descriptions are particularly useful when players may feel bored or when you want to ensure that a particular event, action, or object feels important or relevant to the players. For example, if you use sensational details when describing Susan’s critical hit that kills the enemy Orc, she will feel like she made a greater impact if you describe how she beheaded the creature. Similarly, when she solves a puzzle to activate a long-forgotten magical device, your description can make her feel like the puzzle she solved was truly epic, wondrous, or important.
As mentioned before, description is an abstract concept. It cannot be fully explained in one blog post. There is a ton of nuance when describing things to players and each category of description comes with various advantages, disadvantages, and exceptions for the different parts of D&D.
Still, as I can personally attest, there is a great value to analyzing how you use description in your game and when you choose to employ certain types of descriptions. Paying close attention to how you are describing things can help you improve your storytelling and your player’s comprehension of your game.
Better yet, if you can understand the uses of each type of description, you can analyze your situation instead of getting frustrated at your players. Because when Susan does get confused, it may not be her fault. Instead, the blame may lie with the descriptions used to detail the situation.