Better descriptions

Captivate Your Players With Better Descriptions: 10 Tips

1. Show, Don't Tell
I feel that this could be the most important tip on improving your descriptions during games. Unfortunately, it can be a tough sucker to master and I have a long way to go still. However, here are some things I've learned so far:
       * By "telling" I mean describing a situation and drawing your own conclusions for the players. "Showing" means providing clues and evidence and letting the players draw their own conclusions.
For example:
         1. Tell: "An overly confident warrior approaches you and haughtily demands that you accompany him to meet his employer." 
2. Show: "A tall man bristling in weapons and armour swaggers through the crowd towards you, careless of who he bumps and whose drinks he upsets [GM lightly dips a couple of fingers in her glass and flicks water at the nearest players]. He pushes between your seats, sets his foaming mug down on the ancient map that you have just carefully spread over the table and glares at each one of you for a few moments in silent challenge. Then he says [GM pinches the bridge of her nose to create a nasal voice and uses an imperious tone] 'You will immediately stop whatever you are doing [GM looks around disdainfully] and follow me. There will be no argument lest I show you the sting of a true warrior's blade.'" 
It's always easy to do this while sitting at my desk, writing, and having time to think about the best words and actions. Doing this during a session is another matter.
However, the point remains that the second description above would be more compelling to your players than the first, so make it your goal to constantly try and improve your descriptions by showing rather than telling. The effort alone will pay you dividends over time.
  • “Showing” is simply providing clues and evidence to support your point. Your job is to think of what those clues are and put them in the context of the scene or encounter for the PCs.

    In the example above, the context was a tavern. For clues and evidence, I tried to think of things that related to taverns: customers, spilled drinks, tables, crowded tap rooms, and I tried to think about clues that related to over-confident behaviour: doesn’t think about others, challenging, not afraid of a fight. Then I tried to put the tavern clues and personality clues together into a description.

    This might sound like a complicated process, but during games I’ve found that I get better and faster at it the more I try. I call it the “clue game” in my notes and it seems to be just like one of those party games like Outburst, Pictionary, or Charades.

  • Sometimes I’ll pretend I’m a lawyer. When I watch a TV show or movie with a good courtroom scene in it I always pay close attention to the lawyers and their lines of questioning.

    A lawyer’s job is to create a crystal clear perception that the accused is guilty for the judge and jury without actually coming out and saying “he’s guilty”. He has to show, not tell. And he does that by asking questions and making statements in such a way that the audience knows the point he’s making without actually hearing those exact words.

    So, it becomes a game for me at a session, and I’ll pretend I’m a lawyer who can’t say the warrior who just approached is over-confident and a jerk. I have to describe it and let the players draw their own conclusions.

    Next time you watch a court scene in a movie or TV show, listen closely and try to use the same techniques at the game table.

  • As you’re speaking, listen to yourself and think about what you’re saying. If you find you’re drawing conclusions for the players or their characters then stop your current thread and start coming up with clues and evidence instead.
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2. Visualize Before Speaking
You can describe things better and with much more flavour if you have a clear mental picture of it. For example, think about your first car, your old bedroom, or Darth Vader.
Often, the problem is that you're describing things on the fly, making it up as you go, and you're not working from a clear mental picture. This means you can't concentrate well on coming up with the perfect description, adjectives, clues, and so on. Instead, you're too busy creating the thing that you're trying to describe!
It can help a lot, especially for the important encounters and scenes, to pause briefly (i.e. 10 to 60 seconds) and mentally create a picture of things, fleshing them out as much as possible given the short timeframe, before launching into a description.
Here's a couple of tips on doing this:
    * Close your eyes to reduce distraction.
  • Leave the game table, if necessary, to reduce distraction and get rid of the “pressure” you feel from players waiting to find out what’s going to happen next.
  • Pretend you’re flying through the scene and picture/create what you see as you move around. That’s often easier than trying to visualize things from a fixed mental viewpoint.
  • If flying doesn’t work, try a 3/4 view like a video game, or a sky view. That can at least help with gauging distances and deciding quickly on the basic contents of the area.
  • Focus on the most important element of the scene. If you describe nothing else well but the big villain, alien space ship, treacherous bridge, or wondrous item, then the description for the encounter is still a success. And, the players will get more enjoyment from a compelling description of what’s most important to them rather than from peripheral details.
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3. Use Your Map As A GM Aid
Before next session, make photocopies or scans/printouts of your map(s) and identify the areas that you think will be the most important in the upcoming game. Place a post-it note beside each area and dream up as many clues and descriptive elements as you can.
Spend only a minute or two on each area so that you have time to work on them all. Then use your maps and notes to aid you during sessions.
If you liked the "Show, Don't Tell" tip above, then consider writing just the clues down and letting your brain dynamically make the connections during play.
Finally, by thinking about each map area or feature for a few moments a day or so before the game, you will find it much easier to present descriptions for those places and things when the time comes, even if you wrote very little down. The brain is pretty remarkable for getting stuff done in the "background" after you've set things in motion with a few moments of focused thought.
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4. Describe Things Differently To Each Player
For each scene, NPC, item or what have you, provide a separate description to each player based on their character's perceptions, knowledge and current activity.
For example, let's say the PCs are ambushed by bandits. Here are some sample descriptions:
    * Halfling mage: "Suddenly the forest erupts as a dozen humans wielding fearsome swords and deadly crossbows attack! The site of the ambush was clever for it hid the brigands well, however you also spot several potential places where you could safely cast spells from." 
  • Human warrior: “Bandits surprise you by rapidly emerging from cunning hiding places. They are well armed though poorly armoured. Their strategy seems to be an attempt to surround the party and perhaps call for your surrender as they are quickly moving into position and not firing their loaded crossbows as of yet.”
  • Human priest: “A dozen or more thieves suddenly burst forth from the forest, weapons drawn and ready. They look like they mean business. You also notice that one of them bears a holy symbol of some kind, possibly to Mercata the god of Truth, but you only get a glance before the battle begins.”
  • Elven rogue: “Suddenly you are being attacked by a large number of men bearing swords and bows. Mentally, you note their clever hiding places and well-chosen ambush location. No doubt they’ve used this place before so there may be traps and other dangers around. The thick forest cover works both ways though, and you spot several shadowy places you could hide.”
Players love descriptions like these because they feel they're getting personal, individual treatment. And although descriptions like the ones above might seem overly detailed or too revealing for a first reaction, your players will appreciate the options and suggestions you present them.
While individual descriptions might seem like they'd slow things down, they actually can speed play up because each PC has more information to make faster decisions with.
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5. Save The Best For Last
Put the most important fact, element or information at the end of your descriptions. This has a number of benefits:
    * Builds suspense and tension.
  • Improves play. As mentioned in a previous Readers’ Tip, the last thing a person hears is often what they remember the best. Hiding information that would move the story along or help the PCs in the middle of descriptions can slow play down or frustrate players.
  • Gives you time to think. You can stall a bit by going into trivial details first, while you mentally prepare the most important info.
  • Let’s you control pacing better. If your players are bored, you can quickly gloss over the details and get to the main point. If you want to slow things down, or wait a bit until some players are ready, then flesh out the minor details some more first.
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6. Have Players Close Their Eyes
Just as it helps you to have a clear vision of what's happening, it will greatly aid the players if they can mentally picture things well too. Not only will this help them make better and faster decisions, but it can encourage them to roleplay (because there will be more details to interact with) and enjoy the whole scene more.
One trick for helping players visualize is to have them close their eyes while you provide your detailed description. That helps them focus in on what you're saying and reduces distractions.
One time, while GMing the D&D module Temple of Elemental Evil, I was describing the swamp the PCs were in and was leading up to a surprise giant frog attack. I took a full minute to get the players settled down and quiet, resting comfortably in their chairs and with their eyes closed, before starting my description. To this day those players can still vividly picture that scene and ensuing combat, more than any other part of that campaign. The encounter itself ran very well because of the extra focus too.
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7. Describe In Layers, Like An Onion
Think of an encounter or scene as an onion, with many layers of perception and description. When the PCs first enter the scene, start with the top layer, and then peel down to deeper layers as the scene goes on.
Here's an example structure you could follow:
    * First glance: immediate threats, things of obvious importance, general assessment of area/situation. This is also the period when the fight or flight reaction begins.
  • Casual look-around: things of personal interest to the PC are noticed, items of interest to the player are described, more detailed version of the first glance description is provided.
  • Intuition: anything that’s inconspicuously out-of-sorts is perceived, subtle things of interest are spotted. This layer can actually be put anywhere in the sequence and be used multiple times.
  • Close inspection: skills and specific knowledge are put to use to analyze fine details. Appraisal of materials, quality, condition, minute differences, etc. are measured.
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8. Use The Six Senses
This is the classic tip and reminder of using sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, and intuition in your descriptions.
Also, in the spirit of tip #1, "Show, Don't Tell", try to actually present (or assail ;) the players with those sounds, smells, etc. It's much more effective opening a small bottle of lavender oil and waft it around in the air than it is to simply say that "the smell of lavender fills the room".
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9. Describe Things Through NPCs & Local Descriptions
People in communities will develop their own names, labels, and explanations for things. Use this to your advantage by describing things through local NPCs rather than GM-to- player.
For example, as the PCs enter a village, instead of delivering a 3rd person narrative of what the village looks like and who's in it, have a villager walk up to the party and volunteer to be their tour guide. Then have the NPC describe the village to the characters through his eyes.
And, when using NPCs to describe things, come up with a few local nuances to make things more interesting. For example, instead of pointing out a haunted graveyard as such, an NPC might describe it as the home of Antehp and his Children, with Antehp being an old necromancer of legend, and his Children being the skeletons, zombies, and ghouls that infest the place. This would make for a better adventure hook as the players will wonder who the heck Antehp and his kids are.
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10. Use Your Own Experiences And Travels
This is also a past Readers' Tip. Take a journal with you wherever you go, and when you spot something interesting, such as an unusual or striking person, beautiful garden, mountain view, etc. immediately write down your thoughts, description, and perceptions. Then use these notes at the appropriate time during games.
1. The Rule Of 3, 5 & 7
I find it helpful, especially when GMing on-the-fly, to keep the 3-5-7 rule in mind for describing first-impressions:
    * For simple or unimportant descriptions, just give the three most relevant details.
  • For significant descriptions, give the five most important details.
  • For very important descriptions, provide seven details, or more.
Use this as a rule of thumb to help when you're not sure how much description to provide in any given situation.
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2. Give An Odd Number Of Details
My high school English teacher once said that comfortable descriptions have an odd number of details (i.e. 3, 5, 7). He said studies showed that lists, examples, and descriptions with even numbers of details are more uncomfortable than their odd-numbered counterparts.
I've never been able to verify this or find those studies, but, after much experimentation, I have made his comments a rule of thumb. Test it out for yourself and see what you think.
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3. Paraphrase Boxed Text
Module writers have good intentions when writing the boxed text for encounters. However, it's quite difficult to read them out loud to your group in your normal GMing voice. And that often distracts your players or ruins the mood you've been trying to build up.
You're better off paraphrasing boxed text, putting it in your own words and lending your own style of dramatic flare as you go.
Are you poor at paraphrasing? Try these tips:
    * Look for the main idea(s) in each sentence. That's what you want to focus on and describe.
  • Quickly read one sentence at a time and then translate. You’ll start off slow but get faster at this skill with practice.
  • Switch only the adjectives and adverbs with your own words, keeping the main points intact. This means you’ll have less work to do while translating and it is a good learning exercise.
  • Use your hands and arms while you talk. They will help you when you get stuck for words. For example, when describing the shape of a strange container, you can talk about how big and what colour it is while outlining the shape in the air. Your players will understand and you can quickly move on to the rest of the description.
  • Don’t look at the text while talking. You’ll be tempted to read word-for-word again. Instead, look at each player as you speak. Any time you spot player confusion, pause in your paraphrasing and go into more detail until everyone’s clear on what their PCs are seeing or experiencing.
  • Take some boxed text and write out the main points on paper in point form. This exercise will help you separate what’s important from the fluff. Do this until you can catch the important stuff just by visually skimming. (But keep your notes for use during play since you’ve gone to the trouble of making them.)
  • It never hurts to practice. Find a safe place where you can talk to yourself out loud, like public transit for example, and try paraphrasing. :)
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4. Vary Your Speech
A dull, monotone voice can kill. Well, not really, but it can be very painful to the listeners (your players). So, vary your speech to add interest, drama, and a special spark to your descriptions:
    * Monotone. Avoid monotony like the plague, but occasionally do use it on purpose for special effect.
  • Sentence length. Vary how long your sentences are, from fast and choppy, to long and slow with lots of side tracks and details.
  • Speed. Change how fast you talk. Faster speech raises tension while slower speech can increase drama. o Talk quickly during combats o Speak more slowly near the end of..sentences…that…. reveal…..something…......dramatic o Avoid sacrificing clarity for speed or you’ll constantly need to repeat yourself
  • Volume. Change how loud you speak. Also use contrast. For example, at the end of the slow, dramatic sentence in the Speed example above you could say each word more quietly than the previous and then suddenly shout out the last word. That’ll get the group’s blood pumping.
  • Tone. Change the tone of your voice while you speak: disinterested, intense, sad, depressed, excited, joyous.
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5. Use Pauses And Silence
Silence, at the right time, can be vary dramatic:
    * Before giving the final, important detail pause for 2-5 seconds.
  • Pause to ensure you have everybody’s attention before starting a description. Depending on your GMing style, players will often take this as a cue that something important is coming up and tension will rise in a good way.
  • Pause between details to give players time to digest what you’ve just said.
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6. Add Details On-The-Fly
Rick K. writes:
This is a response to the issue on descriptions. Don't be afraid to use ad-hoc effects. What I mean by this is off- the-cuff DM decisions to back up your descriptions. It makes the impact more intense. For example, if a PC critically hits an ogre, then move that ogre's miniature back a square (if you use miniatures), or explain that the ogre was knocked back, and factor that in to PC and monster movements.
Use visual aids to enhance your descriptions. I had a wizard, who was missing his lower right eyelid, gathering the PCs. The whole time I pulled my right eyelid down and glared at everybody. The notable difference in roleplaying was worth the 15 minutes of dry eye afterwards.
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7. Miscellaneous Tips
Chicken316 writes: Johnn, I have some great description tips for ya. Here goes:
   1. First, gauge how much description is right for your players. As a player, I could sit through a whole page of description for important places, people, items. The gamers I GM would die of boredom half way through the first paragraph.
2. If you're going to work with props for description purposes, gauge how your players will deal with it. I created several pages of printed material, maps, and scribings in other languages to get them going with the adventure and nobody picked it up for a half an hour. My players showed such disinterest I promised that I would never waste my time on such a prop again.
3. Check out National Geographic Magazine. Some of the descriptions for places there are incredible and with pictures that are phenomenal. Study them, tear them apart and discover the writers' styles and how they group the information. Steal their techniques.
4. If you like to use battle-mats and painted pewter figures and what not, that's great. I love props that I can set down on the table, but they can be a double edged sword if not used properly. I have two things to say about that:
      1. Don't leave props as your only source of description. Don't just draw a square, put a door down and expect them to be happy. Describe stuff.
2. Use that stuff to its fullest. Use all the colors in that bag of wet-erase markers, use green for filthy pools or sewer water, trace red for blood stains or make red squares for carpet, draw the design for the carpet. If you use barrels and they're stacked up and a lower one gets smashed, roll the rest down, tip over tables, set chairs upside down, use that junk for all its worth.
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8. Use Description To Beef Up Cannon Fodder
Alex J. writes:
One of the hardest tricks a GM faces is making the mundane in an epic adventure epic to those who face it. How often have you had players nervously working their way through an unholy crypt and then the battle ensues as the PCs are attacked by vicious... bloodthirsty... horrible... skeletons!?
"Skeletons?" say the PCs? "Weak!"
So how do you make them interesting opponents? Description, of course!
Make these opponents come alive. In the very first adventure I designed, I had the PCs travel to a fortress town that had stopped sending tribute to their lord, and to whom all previous emissaries had failed to return. Along the way the adventurers were ambushed several times by short ugly creatures with green skin and curled upturned lips and snouts. One carried an old nicked sword and wore rotted leather armor, but the rest were carrying heavy tree boughs. They didn't wear armor, and their clothing was mostly tattered filthy animal skins, ripped in places, showing their distended stomachs. One of them had a lot of loose skin as if she'd recently lost a great deal of weight.
"Weight," you say. "She lost weight?"
Most fantasy players will have recognized the creatures as goblins, and have noted that they are extremely poorly equipped, even for such beings. They'll also have noted that they appear to be starving. Such descriptions make your world's inhabitants come alive and gives them depth that can't be communicated any other way.
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9. Describe Unrelated Campaign Details
From Orion283:
I've found that it sometimes helps to describe things that might not even relate to the campaign. Your players shouldn't see the invisible wall at the edge of the campaign world, metaphorically speaking. Describing things in a way that makes it appear that there's more to the world than just the things the players see and do helps the world seem more complete.
For example, at the start of one game of D&D 3E (classic tavern start, of course), the players saw a small stage in one corner of the room with a few instruments and dozing musicians sitting there (the bard in the group even got to be one of the dozers). The players hadn't done anything that would warrant a party the night before, nor did they even find out why there was a party, but the post-party atmosphere of the tavern seemed to portray the idea that the world didn't (always) revolve around the players.
Other possible examples of things to describe:
    * Current events: newspaper headlines/tavern posters/video billboard ads.
  • Random goings on in town: a fender bender, somebody bartering, street performers.
  • Weather: rain, mud, snow, etc. (bizarre alien weather patterns are fun).
  • Foreshadowing: describe something that seems inconsequential now, but will be important later, i.e. some bit of conversation with a clue to a puzzle yet to be seen.
  • Flora & fauna: an encounter with an exotic space-borne life-form can be fun to describe and fun to roleplay; instead of a dangerous fight scene, the player must use his lightning reflexes to carefully steer his high-performance sports car and avoid hitting a bunny that has wandered onto the road!
Scenes like these can be fun to describe, and they can also make fun roleplaying opportunities. They're also a fun break from the usual descriptions of undead nasties or weapon-laden battlecruisers. Have I mentioned fun?
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10. Use The Web To Find Pics To Help Your Descriptions
Ralph S. wrote in with this tip:
If you don't have first-hand experience to help you describe something, get on the web and find some pictures. You'll be amazed at what cool-looking buildings and people you can find to fire up your imagination.
Recently I had the idea for a major temple built completely from wood. I remembered that Norway has a number of wooden churches from the middle ages and did a quick web search: This is just one of the images I found: http://www.jhendor.de/images/stabkirche.jpg
You don't need to show it to the players. Simply look at it closely, then close your eyes and describe it in your own words. Reality is so much stranger than fiction.
Or, take a look at a historical society: http://www.angelcynn.org.uk/inline_graphics/warfare/war07.jpg
Or a good museum: http://www.rom.on.ca/gold/graphics/sec3image.jpg
These are wonderful pictures to help you visualize your setting.
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11. Use Postcards To Help With Descriptions
Jens wrote in with this great tip:
One thing that can help both players and GMs visualize landscapes, encounter locales, buildings, and so on, is postcards. The real world is full of fascinating locations and there are people (professional photographers even :) that take pictures of these and sell the images quite cheaply...
If you know a couple of other GMs and have their addresses you can even send them a copy of the better ones and, with a little luck, you'll soon have a decent collection shared between you.
    * You don't even have to write an entire adventure module on the back of each card :) a few words like; "Thought you'd like this", or "Imagine a band of Lowland Orx holding this bridge, cutting off the valley from supplies..." does the trick nicely.
  • Even better, provide some of the real world history behind the motif: “Three centuries ago this tower was the home and base of a gang of counterfeiters…”
[Johnn: what about online postcards? Anyone know of any sites with good online postcards for use in RPGs? Send me the URL(s): johnn@roleplayingtips.com and I'll publish a list in a future issue.]
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Tips Request: “Handling Large Groups”

My group is medium sized with 6 players, including one playing by web cam. However, last month I faced the prospect of adding another player and suddenly I felt my group was huge. Things didn’t work out as planned however, so my group is still at 6, but I’d like to hear your thoughts on handling large groups:

  • Do you change your GMing style? How and why?
  • How can you reduce player boredom between turns?
  • How do you plan differently for large sessions? Do you bother planning for each PC?
  • Do the types of stories and adventures you tell change to accommodate larger groups?
  • Do you have any tips or advice for handling large groups?

Send your tips and thoughts to:

johnn@roleplayingtips.com

Thanks! :)

Better descriptions

Anima-Steampunk ssorlliw