D&D is a very reactive game.
As a DM, there’s only so much you can do to prepare ahead of time. You have to learn to improvise – unless you railroad, of course, and if you’re railroading, are you really playing an RPG? The one part of the game that you can prepare with some confidence is what Sly Flourish calls ‘the strong start’: the situation at the beginning of the session. Even this is partially dependant on how the previous session ended.
For players, there’s even less you can do to prepare ahead of game. You are incumbent on the DM’s exposition. It’s right there in the introduction to the Player’s Handbook: the DM sets the scene, the players respond, and the DM narrates what happens next. Players don’t get to write ‘read aloud’ text.
With one exception. Whenever you start a new campaign, your DM is probably going to ask you to introduce your character. It’s an incredibly formative moment: when else do we get a spotlight to describe what our character looks like and what makes them unique? Before this moment, your character is a blank canvas; afterward, everyone at the table will have a mental image of what they look like. How clear an image depends on how good a job you do with your description.
In my opinion, introducing your character is something you should put a bit of thought into. You can wing it, sure, but if you care about your character and you want the rest of the party to care about them, then why not prepare a few ideas ahead of time?
In this post, I hope to help you write a short description of your character: a vivid, engaging portrait that sets the tone for the rest of the campaign.
In the real world, I am a secondary school English teacher, so I’m going to draw on some of my creative writing lessons for this one.
When it comes to describing anything, less is more. It’s all about the impression. If we described everything faithfully, in exhaustive detail, it would be not only tedious but frankly overwhelming – and, ironically, much harder to imagine. You have the spotlight, but the spotlight must be shared. You are not the only person playing – have you moment, then pass it on.
Linked to this is the idea of show, don’t tell. Try to avoid blatant exposition: it’s lazy and weak. Don’t tell us Regdar is a warrior; show us with your description, using specific details to immerse us in your mental image. Regdar’s broad chest is protected by a shirt of well maintained chainmail. A pink scar cuts down one cheek. He seems to shoulder the weight of his huge sword without effort.
Three more tips:
- Think about your verbs. We often overuse adjectives and adverbs in our descriptive writing, yet verbs are much more vivid. Regdar ‘shouldering the weight of his sword’ does most of the work in my example above. I don’t really need the ‘huge’ (an adjective) or ‘without effort’ (an adverbial phrase).
- Tie your character to the world. Your DM works hard to create a setting: work with them. Pick a name that fits the world. Get your nomenclature right (it’s a shield dwarf in Faerûn, not a mountain dwarf). Use details from the lore to give your character a sense of place. Your Light domain cleric bears a sunrise of gemstones on her shield: the symbol of Lathander. Your Cyran bard wears Mourningwear and knows how to dance the tago.
- Characterization isn’t character. I’ve written about this elsewhere, but in essence, focus on what makes this character memorable and unique, not . . . their hair colour. Things seem to get particularly florid when fantasy writers describe women. It’s always ‘raven’, ‘flame-red’, or ‘gold’, and their eyes are always ‘emeralds’ or ‘deep sea blue’ et cetera. Ditch this shit. Please.
A five-sentence structure
Here is a structure that works. It takes a bit of crafting, but if you do it right, you are left with a tight, evocative description.
- One sentence of physical description – strictly ‘show, don’t tell’.
- A second sentence of physical description, perhaps with some authorial comment about how they come across.
- An action: something the character does, even if it is just a small gesture.
- A fourth sentence, again description, but somehow linked to the world of the setting.
- Dialogue: something the character says which reveals character. Important note: there’s nothing wrong with ‘says’ here.
You can mix this up a bit, obviously – there’s nothing to stop you including an action in your first sentence, for example, or dialogue on the middle – but it works pretty well ‘as is’, too.
Here’s an example that more or less follows this structure – a character of mine from a few years ago:
Nova is tall and slender, with attractive, slightly angular features. She wears a loose, white dress, a cloak, sturdy boots, and a simple crystal on a silver chain around her neck. Noticing a rather miserable-looking patron sitting alone in a dark corner, her face lights up, and she drifts over to him gracefully. She could sense it all: the weight on his shoulders, the self-doubt, the pain in his heart. ‘Need a drink?’ she says.
There’s plenty that this description doesn’t say. I don’t mention her hair or eye colour, for example, or the adventuring equipment she is carrying. There are two reasons for this: one is that I could easily provide an image for the character, or a painted mini; the other is that it’s characterization rather than character. What was most important to me about this character (a kalashtar sorcerer, by the way) was her empathy and her otherworldliness. The rest could come later.
It might not be raining here in the tavern, but Westra chooses to keep her hood up as she sits waiting in the corner. Propped up against the wall beside her are a longsword in its scabbard, a hunter’s bow, and a quiver of arrows, all bundled together next to a backpack and bedroll. She reads occasionally from a small leatherbound book – something in elvish – but for now, she seems more preoccupied with the two drunken louts harassing the barmaid at the next table. She’s not going to listen to more. ‘You don’t talk to her like that,’ she says, a hand moving to her hunting knife. ‘I don’t care if it’s raining. Go find another tavern.’
Again, no hair colour, no eye colour, and while I spend a bit more time on the equipment with Westra, it’s all there to establish character. Westra is a human ranger – nothing groundbreaking there – but she’s also a Harper and she knows the North. She’s not going to let two bullies push around a poor barmaid.
Do you have your own methods for introducing a new character? Have you tried this structure in your own games? Let me know in the comments below.
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