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Description, Description, Description

posted Monday, December 10th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Dungeon Mastering Advice

Despite strong competition from online games, traditional RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons remain popular. What’s the reason? A big factor, in my opinion, is imagination, and that’s something that can only be spurred by a DM with a solid ability to make good description. Good DM response, moreso than any factor, is what keeps D&D a solid and engaging experience.

The concept of a dungeon master or game master is special to traditional roleplaying games. While online games have GMs of a sort, we see them largely relegated to online security guards as games move from human arbiters toward computer control. The reasons for this are largely practical: a game master can only control so many players at once, and the cost of adding new material becomes prohibitive as games become more complex. Adding a single NPC or monster to World of Warcraft may require several experienced staff working for hours or days at a cost thousands of dollars, but a talented D&D GM can create entire adventures in the same time frame, sometimes even on-the-fly.

The reason for this is that unlike a modern videogame, the Dungeon Master’s primary medium is description, not visual display. Your words are your paintbrushes, and your players’ minds are your canvas. Conjuring your imagined scenes is much more of an art form than many people realise. A good description can be far superior to even the most elaborate of computer graphics available today. Remember that the art of storytelling is as old at least as nine thousand years, while visual storytelling has only been in development for perhaps 130 years, and computer graphics less than forty.

The number one guideline for any DM, therefore, is to read. There are hundreds of writers who can tell a better story than you, so learn from them. See how they use language to invoke the imagination, conjure up emotion, and weave a narrative. An often-quoted rule of fiction writers is show, don’t tell. “You see a ten foot tall red dragon” might be descriptive, but it practically reads like a police report. It’s mundane, and that’s not what you’re usually going for in an adventure RPG.

Good, evocative description is the Dungeon Master’s number one tool. What he describes is almost less important than how he describes it. Your players should never encounter “a big forest” unless you deliberately want it to sound mundane and unimportant. Don’t just tell your players, when evoking powerful imagery in their imagination would be better. Consider what they should see, hear, feel and even smell. Plan important scenes in advance, or at least do some thinking. Get this right, and you’re good to go.

Comments

  1. Omnius

    December 10th, 2007

    Very good thoughts and well written.

  2. megascorcher

    December 10th, 2007

    This is exactly what drew me towards D&D, and the reason I still long to play it. Currently I play World of Warcraft on a roleplaying realm, but with all the giant demon-posessed vampire sons of Kael’thas Sunstrider you get tired of it easily. I believe every good roleplayer should be a good storyteller. Descriptions are the key to that.

  3. Sandrinnad

    January 24th, 2008

    Very, very good point.

    And something that’s so easy to forget.

    It’s amazing how just even a few descriptive words here & there make such a difference to the mood of the game, and even of the players at times.

  4. ddggames.com

    April 3rd, 2008

    Entirely depends on your audience.

    My long running group (nearly 20 years) wants very little in the way of flowery descriptors… They just want the meat. They take their joy in difficult, creative encounters and complex problems to solve.

    Conversely, my Friday night family group loves setting… They could care less what their new sword looks like, but they DEFINITELY want to know how the inn is furnished and what the bar maid is wearing (get your minds out of the gutter). When they find a treasure map, they want to know how old the paper is and whether the hand writing points to a specific race of the author. Very detail oriented in some ways, not at all in others.

    So my point is simply that your GM style should cater to the players. A broad brushed “descriptive is better” advisement makes for a pretty soundbyte, but it doesn’t address the reality of the difficulties faced by a Game Master.

  5. KasraKhan

    July 19th, 2008

    My group is particularly undescriptive when it comes to combat. I say Kobald, they know what I’m talking about. I say fireball, they can probably describe it with me. Story line above anything else drives my campaigns, and that alone needs flowery detail.

    Besides, no online game lets you work with your DM to create your own spells, your own unique magic items, new uses for old skills, and even new exotic weapons. Flavor, setting, and snowballing events is what makes real DnD better than any online experience.

  6. Capt_Poco

    August 21st, 2008

    “they DEFINITELY want to know how the inn is furnished and what the bar maid is wearing”

    Ung. These kinds of questions are *tiresome*. I’m not going to make up a dress for every barmaid and footman that the story requires, so these descriptions inevitably get improvised. Unfortunately, while magical items are pretty easy to make up, what can you say about a table? I mean, its wood. Maybe there’s a few glasses on it, maybe some of them are chipped. That’s as imaginative and evocative as I could get, and I spent a good 2 minutes wondering.

    I think I like Kasra’s group better, but, yeah, it all depends on the group you’re with.

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