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How to improve your descriptions?

JochenL

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I have experimented with varying details and kinds of description:
  • From (a) only the most obvious info (waiting for players to ask for more) to (b) very detailed info
  • From (c) sense by sense to (d) most dominant first to (e) (in my opinion) most important last
And I am not satisfied:

(a) Players: "You are hiding info!", or "You did not say that!"
(b) Players: "Boring!"
(c) Me: feels too constructed/mechanical, keeping that in mind: Yes, doing always: No
(d) I cannot finish as the players want to act on that dominant thing immediately
(e) Players: "How can you mention the most important fact last?"

How do you describe scenes?
How do you strike a balance?
Do you have any recipes?
 

pgcannonjr

Member
I have experimented with varying details and kinds of description:
  • From (a) only the most obvious info (waiting for players to ask for more)
I will give the most obvious info and prompt the players for questions.
"You enter a room from the open hallway behind you. There's a stone door to the north and a wooden door to the east. A large bookcase is stuffed with volume after volume of books until the sides look like they may burst. There is a large table in the middle of the room with a single chair. On the table are an open book and a burnt-out candle. The only light in the room is from your torches. [Pause] What would you like to know about?" Some of my players know me well enough to begin without the question being asked. The only time I don't mention something is when it's hidden or I didn't think of it. "What can I smell?" I DON'T KNOW! I DIDN'T THINK OF THAT! "The room smells like musty, old books." (Seems logical enough.)
 

Frost Birch

Member
Adventure Builder
Adventure Master
I try not to make it a formula or recipe. Players are quick to catch on. Mix it up so in one instance you may give a full description with the important parts in the middle; the next time the important part may be at the end.

I also don't give all five senses every time. For example, if you are going through damp caves you don't have to say this cave smells damp if the one just before is the same. Just say when things are different.

I also, playing on a VVT, tend to whisper lots to different players. Some characters may attune to different senses so I alter the description with a bit more detail in whispers to specific characters.
 

BenS

Member
Adventure Builder
Adventure Master
I usually try not to go inside-out but outside-in. For me, this means, I first try to imagine the broader context of things (the background) which then gradually leads me down an association chain that gets increasingly more detailed the closer we get to the actual scenes (the foreground).

Neil Gaiman once described a writer as a painter. A painting will always need a foreground and a background. The foreground needs to be detailed, but the background just needs to pretend to be there, so the players get the feeling that there would be something there, if they went and check it out. So if you spend a little bit of time on first painting a rough background, it becomes way easier to paint the foreground, too.

In a recent campaign (loosely based on the pretty good BBC series "Taboo") I decided on a generally rather dark and dirty tone, which automatically created a plethora of details in my head I could use to generate more authentic descriptions.

The main theme was: Brutal, dirty revenge, so of the top of my head, a beautiful summer-day wouldn't fit as a background for my my narrative, so it had to be dark, cold and rainy
  • Therefor, the perfect time of the year had to be late fall. This already creates lots of details
  • It's often cold, wet, cloudy and dark
  • There is mud everywhere, carriages get stuck more often
  • There are more beggars on the streets and in the city, as it's getting colder
So now that we have the outside, we can go further inside to visit the foreground of the "painting", e.g. the room of an npc:
As we're talking about a cold and depressing mood in the back, it'll be very likely cold and depressing inside his room, too:
  • a cold hearth (warm would be way to comfortable)
  • water dripping into a pot in the corner (it's constantly raining outside)
  • dirty windows (let's make it even darker)
  • mold on the walls (of course there is no proper insulation)
  • the mold of course smells bad
  • a constant draft (remember the bad insulation?)
  • lot's of empty wine bottles (a guy living in this room does have to compensate for a lot)
  • dry or stale food
  • Old insignia and rusted medals from better times (a guy with a proper job wouldn't be living there)
  • His dirty, smelly clothes
  • His mud-crusted boots
  • And as a final touch we'll go very deep inside, now we're in the npcs head: pictures of his family that is definitely not living there anymore (doesn't have to be plot relevant, but that's really depressing)

Once you're at this point, you've already painted a picture of the outside and inside that is strong enough to allow the PCs to interpolate the gaps between the descriptions. They'll already have a strong conception of what kind of guy lives there, even before they meet him in person.
Of course he'll look tired, have bloodshot eyes, smell of liquore and won't be properly shaved, of course he'll be sad and tired, as he misses his family.

Finally, something really nasty and amazing you can do every now and then is to mess with players heads by creating this kind of picture and expectation and then ripping it away from under them in an instant, creating this beautiful dissonance that leads to great inspiration and role-playing.
What if the guy comes home and is actually very well healthy, groomed, polite and nice-looking?
 
Last edited:

JochenL

CL Byte Sprite
Staff member
Wizard of Adventure
Beta-Tester
Faster Combatant
Adventure Builder
Gamer Lifestyle
Adventure Master
enough to allow the PCs to interpolate the gaps between the descriptions
That's exactly what I want to achieve. I like this outside-in method, it's obvious once realized, and pretty easy to implement.
 

Ronaldo Lima

Member
Adventure Builder
Adventure Master
I usually try not to go inside-out but outside-in. For me, this means, I first try to imagine the broader context of things (the background) which then gradually leads me down an association chain that gets increasingly more detailed the closer we get to the actual scenes (the foreground).

Neil Gaiman once described a writer as a painter. A painting will always need a foreground and a background. The foreground needs to be detailed, but the background just needs to pretend to be there, so the players get the feeling that there would be something there, if they went and check it out. So if you spend a little bit of time on first painting a rough background, it becomes way easier to paint the foreground, too.

In a recent campaign (loosely based on the pretty good BBC series "Taboo") I decided on a generally rather dark and dirty tone, which automatically created a plethora of details in my head I could use to generate more authentic descriptions.

The main theme was: Brutal, dirty revenge, so of the top of my head, a beautiful summer-day wouldn't fit as a background for my my narrative, so it had to be dark, cold and rainy
  • Therefor, the perfect time of the year had to be late fall. This already creates lots of details
  • It's often cold, wet, cloudy and dark
  • There is mud everywhere, carriages get stuck more often
  • There are more beggars on the streets and in the city, as it's getting colder
So now that we have the outside, we can go further inside to visit the foreground of the "painting", e.g. the room of an npc:
As we're talking about a cold and depressing mood in the back, it'll be very likely cold and depressing inside his room, too:
  • a cold hearth (warm would be way to comfortable)
  • water dripping into a pot in the corner (it's constantly raining outside)
  • dirty windows (let's make it even darker)
  • mold on the walls (of course there is no proper insulation)
  • the mold of course smells bad
  • a constant draft (remember the bad insulation?)
  • lot's of empty wine bottles (a guy living in this room does have to compensate for a lot)
  • dry or stale food
  • Old insignia and rusted medals from better times (a guy with a proper job wouldn't be living there)
  • His dirty, smelly clothes
  • His mud-crusted boots
  • And as a final touch we'll go very deep inside, now we're in the npcs head: pictures of his family that is definitely not living there anymore (doesn't have to be plot relevant, but that's really depressing)

Once you're at this point, you've already painted a picture of the outside and inside that is strong enough to allow the PCs to interpolate the gaps between the descriptions. They'll already have a strong conception of what kind of guy lives there, even before they meet him in person.
Of course he'll look tired, have bloodshot eyes, smell of liquore and won't be properly shaved, of course he'll be sad and tired, as he misses his family.

Finally, something really nasty and amazing you can do every now and then is to mess with players heads by creating this kind of picture and expectation and then ripping it away from under them in an instant, creating this beautiful dissonance that leads to great inspiration and role-playing.
What if the guy comes home and is actually very well healthy, groomed, polite and nice-looking?
Super good advice/example! Thanks! I really loved it @BenS
 

Gedece

Active member
Adventure Builder
Adventure Master
Another thing, and that is very important, if they jump into the action before hearing all the description, their characters charged in without noticing things, let him face non mortal but grave consequences. If he charged without noticing monsters because you hadn't arrived to that point, he gets surprised and ambushed.
 

Sky River Titan

Member
Adventure Builder
Adventure Master
I like the idea of using improved descriptions to set the mood and tone. Perfect solution to having to memorize a description. Just decide details based on what you want them to feel about the scene.
 
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