so you think you can DM: description

It's kinda like that one show...but with less dancing

Welcome to a new segment that we plan on rolling out on occasion.  SytycDM is a resource for the aspiring, improving, or constantly self-bettering Dungeon Master.  While the skills that are listed are not limited to Dungeons and Dragons, most will fall within that context.  So, without further ado, grab your grid paper and DM screen and follow me over the jump.

The devil is in the details

When one describes Dungeons and Dragons to someone who is not familiar with it, there is often a likening to creating a collective story.  In this metaphor, the Dungeon Master (DM) is the author and the Player Characters (PCs) are the main characters. While the players ultimately decide what happens, it is up to the DM to provide the setting, the plot, the people and enemies whom the PCs will encounter, and everything else that goes into a good “story”.  Like any other story, it is important that your players feel totally immersed in the world that you create.  There are several ways to do this, but one of the most fundamental is through description.

The way you describe something can make a tremendous impact on the game and the overall positive experience of your players.  In its most basic usage, description will inform your players of their surroundings and bring out the most important (at least to the DM) details.  When it’s used well, it will also give the players a deeper connection to the story/setting/etc., which will make the game more fun for them, and make the DM’s role that much more fulfilling.  There is a flip-side to this, however.  Too much description can bog down the game, and boring your players to death isn’t the ideal outcome (remember your least favorite parts of The Hobbit?).  So how does one use description properly?  Let’s get into it.

You open the door.  You see a set of stairs leading to a lower level.


Huxley leans the entirety of his Halfling frame into the old, rusted door, which gives a defiant squeal as it begins to swing outward.  A warm breeze moves from the open door, carrying with it the thick stench of decay.  A crude stone staircase descends into the darkness below.

While that might be a rather crude example, it should prove my point.  With good description, a DM can not only depict what the PCs are seeing, but convey deeper meanings (in this case, a sense of foreboding).  Also notice that description was not limited to just what the players saw, but also what they felt and smelled.  Don’t forget that immersion increases when players can connect with the story on more levels than simply what they see.  It is also important to mention that it is not the DM’s job to tell a character how they feel, that is up to the player and the character they have created.  For example, a DM shouldn’t tell a player that their character is scared (unless they are under some actual fear effect) or sad or any other emotion.  A good player will act according to the character they created.

Like I mentioned earlier, there is such a thing as too much.  It’s great to be descriptive, but do it too much, and nothing stands out anymore.

You finally return to your room at the inn, tired and filthy.  You kick off your recently blood-covered boots and fall into the plush armchair.  You’ll sleep well tonight.


You open the heavy wooden door that leads to your room at the inn, The Scurvy Clipper.  The room is lit by the single ever-burning torch that you left on the dresser earlier.  The light sets your shadow dancing on the ceiling above as you move to retrieve it.  You carefully light the lantern hanging in the center of the room and move to the mirror.  You see that you’re covered in bone and blood thanks to the zombies that you recently encountered.  You clean yourself off and make your way to the large, ornate chair in the corner.  It seems to be boar hide, and nice quality at that.  After being seated for only a moment, you quickly determine that sleep will be rapidly forthcoming.

Another drastic example, but you get the point.  While the second paragraph is not bad, it is unnecessarily wordy given the context.  Perhaps if this were leading up to some epic encounter it would be warranted, but likely all that will follow will be an uninterrupted night’s sleep.  Context is important when deciding how descriptive to be.  Will the descriptions be helpful to the party?  For example, pointing out that the tree on the riverbank is gnarled and rotting might lead the party to try and knock it down for a make-shift bridge, where not mentioning it at all might cause your players to not even notice the option.

Sometimes, simple details are all that’s necessary to leave a lasting impression.  This is often the case with non-player characters (NPCs) and cities or environments.  While it can be easy to simply describe someone as tall, short, fat, bearded, or by what they’re wearing, these descriptions usually lack the flavor of a truly memorable character.  Find other attributes that you can describe.  Maybe the NPC has a lisp or is constantly pulling on his ear.  It’s these seemingly mundane details that the PCs will remember, not just what color robe the wizard is wearing.  Cities and villages can tend to blend together if there are not enough details to flesh them out.  Maybe all of the buildings in one city have steep, green tile roofs, while another city has round, cylindrical buildings and circular windows.  Besides simply changing the architecture, give the inhabitants some unique flavor as well.  Maybe they all share a certain dialect or disposition.  Perhaps all of the residents wear bright colored clothing or carry their supplies on their head.  Don’t be afraid to use some imagination.  You are only limited by your own creativity.

While the subject of description for the DM is vast, and there are still aspects that I haven’t explored, hopefully there have been some tidbits here that will help the aspiring DM.  If you take anything away from this, let it be that the role of the DM is that of the author.  It is their job to set the stage so that the action can be carried out by the PCs.  The better you set the stage, the more immersive, and more enjoyable the experience is for everyone. I’ll leave you with some inspiring words from Wizards of the Coast: Play more.

2 responses to “so you think you can DM: description

  1. i think you just need to throw a ton of monsters at us to kill us over and over again.

    good article though. you’re completely right.

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