Lately I have been thinking about the memorable places I have explored while playing Dungeons & Dragons. From frozen mountain peaks to the depths of dark crypts, I have seen so many amazing places in my decade of playing this game. But at the same time, this isn’t really true. I have never seen any of these places; I’ve only heard about such fantastical realms and regions.
What I am talking about may sound a bit pedantic, but I assure you, it’s not. When you see a video or picture of a location, it’s very easy to understand what it must feel like to be there or how foreign it is from your living room table. But without any visual input, the only way a player within a D&D campaign could grasp the feeling of a scene or place is through the descriptions provided by the Dungeon Master (DM).
Consequently, Atmospheric descriptions are critical to your session of D&D. So much so, you may be utilizing them all the time without noticing. Let’s correct that with today’s topic and explore more specifically what atmospheric descriptions are, when you should use them, and why they are so important. Once you have a greater understanding of Atmospheric descriptions, you can study your own usage of them in your narration and possibly improve the way you are opening, closing, and transitioning between scenes in your game.
Before we delve deeper into this, it’s important to know that this topic is an extension to a foundational topic Understanding the Six Types of Descriptions written by Michael. Michael’s topic explores how DMs describe scenes to their players and provides a six part model of how descriptions are performed in game. While I would suggest reading the whole article, you should at least read the section of Atmospheric descriptions before reading the rest of this blog since I will assume you have a basic understanding of Michael’s model going forward.
Atmospheric descriptions are just descriptions used to set the atmosphere or mood of a scene. In general, there are six different elements that atmospheric descriptions will cover:
Light. Is the scene occuring in light, dim light, or darkness? As an extension to this, consider the light’s source, its color, and if the light is spotty or inconsistent (such as the light from torches in a dark corridor).
Weather. Does the scene have any precipitation, fog, or wind? As well, what is the temperature like?
Terrain. What is the surrounding environment like? Are there massive pillars of stone, a body of water, cliffs, trees, or other geographical features?
Civilization. What non-natural objects can be seen? Think about if there is worked stone, roads, buildings, bridges, cities, dams, or just people. Additionally, what state are these objects in? Are they new, inhabited, or ruined?
Background. What is occurring in the background of the scene? You are thinking of a three dimensional space for your players, so consider everything around where the players will appear but not necessarily things right in front of them. Likewise, consider all six senses, not just sight. Some examples are things like insects flying around, the smell of rotting produce, the feeling of mist coming from a waterfall, or the sounds of construction in progress.
Objects. This would be any object that helps build the setting or mood of the place, but may not be obviously interactable, near the players, or important for the players to investigate. Typically, these are objects (or “props”) that would fill the background and add further detail to the place you are creating such as a pile of crates along a fishing pier, desecrated remains at a cemetary, or extravagant chandeliers in a palace ballroom.
Atmospheric descriptions should be used at the beginning (and possibly the end) of a scene. This is because these descriptions define the state of the scene and are used to invoke the right feelings and preconceptions into your players’ minds, as discussed above.
A scene begins when the DM feels the need to define a new environment or mood of the story. A few examples can be found below.
- The characters enter a city for the first time.
- The characters cause a massive forest fire that causes mayhem.
- The characters are caught in a sandstorm or blizzard.
- The characters accidentally awaken an evil ghost from its slumber.
- The characters skip in time several hours or to an entirely new day.
The most important aspect to remember, is that the DM should be careful not to use atmospheric descriptions within a scene in progress, as it can very easily be thought of as an intriguing description. This is because the players may assume the scene was already set. Thus, this new narration must be important to progression. Two examples of how this might happen are shown below:
- As the players interrogate the old woman on her rocking chair, the DM realizes he forgot to describe how the objects in the house and around the woman are all dusty, old, and stale. Once the DM interjects with this, the players assume this is a clue that the women must be a phantom. They then just to the conclusion she is haunting an abandoned home. However, this isn’t the case at all. The description was meant to make the initial description of the home feel more rustic and simple.
- As the players speak with the King, the DM realizes he forgot to explain the line of sentries and guards along the sides of the throne room. Now, the players assume these guards are an intriguing description, the King is seeking to ambush and stop them. Yet the original intent was to make the King seem defensive, not aggressive.
Due to the above, it is best to avoid atmospheric descriptions until the players are waiting for the scene to begin or end. To expand on the latter, if the players leave an environment in a far different state than they found it, describing the new atmosphere creates a sense of accomplishment and resolves the events that have just played out.
Why we use atmospheric descriptions is the same reason a play on the stage makes use of backdrops: It cements the place a scene is occuring in for the audience. To fully grasp what I mean, one just needs to think of a play without backgrounds. Suddenly, the only thing you can see are the actors and the few props that the actors interact with. In such a situation, you lose the sense of location. Where is this scene occuring? Is it a bathroom, street, or work place? It’s not quite clear.
Likewise, much like a play with scenes or a book with chapters, sometimes in a D&D session you have a fluid timeline of events that all occur in one place. Other times, you jump ahead to another point in time or travel to a new place entirely in seconds. Yet, because D&D is a game of imagination, you lack the ability to close a curtain or have events occur on a new page. Therefore, atmospheric descriptions fulfill that role.
If the DM doesn’t describe and set the scene of the event, the players won’t know where they are or if that place is different from where they were last, which will cause a disconnect between the players and the DM. A few examples of this disconnect are described below.
The players don’t realize that the scene is within a large, empty auditorium. The travelling echo of their arguments bounces off the walls and columns of the building and draws attention from guards. Yet were the players better acquainted with the scene and location, they would have whispered.
The players decide it’s best to continue their journey across the wilderness when asked by the DM. However, since the DM didn’t describe the atmosphere to them, they players were unaware that the weather was turning or that the sun was setting fast.
A side-effect of this disconnect can also be seen in the above examples: if no atmospheric descriptions are used then the players will assume the most bland and uninteresting environment. If they know they are in a shop then they won’t picture a massive store or tiny hut without further details. They will assume the store is generic and almost entirely non-descript.
There are reasons you should use atmospheric descriptions within your game other than just to explain the scene’s environment or to transition between scenes. Great atmospheric description can also set the players sense of emotion for a scene. If you describe it as a dark, cold, and dreary place, then the players can roleplay their characters very differently as they react to the scene itself. Suddenly a character may become easily frightened, while another becomes focused and alert in response to the setting.
It’s not the job of the DM to describe in extreme detail every possible object that a player can interact with in a scene. To do that is just not possible, nor desired. Players will ask if certain things are around or nearby but without a scene they don’t know what to ask about or worse: they won’t ask anything at all. Yet, if you describe the scene well then the players will have lots of ideas for things that they think could reasonably be nearby.
Atmospheric descriptions are critical to a good D&D campaign but it is not something to fret over. The majority of DMs will already incorporate this type of description even if they are not completely aware of it. But like everything in life, we can not grow to become better if we do not take time to study and learn. I hope with a more solid appreciation and understanding of atmospheric descriptions you will try to improve this aspect of narration more directly.
I hope you found this topic interesting, as it is the first part of a six part series looking at the different types of description in greater detail. Keep an eye open for the next topic in this series in the near future.