Twelve Tips for Great Description on the Fly

In a game of D&D, description is probably the most powerful tool we have at our disposal at the table. It’s like a special effects team with an infinite budget.

In fact, we can go further: good description is fundamental to what makes D&D so fun. It’s what elevates it from a board game (or war game) to a game of shared storytelling.  

Description, however, is hard. Or at least, it’s a craft. And like any craft, it gets easier with practice. I don’t claim to be a maestro at it, but I’ve seen enough examples of it done well (and badly) to offer a few tips for getting better at it.

A note on boxed text  

As a starting point, let me provoke the rage of the internet by killing off one of D&D’s most sacred cows:

Boxed text is bad for you.

It took me close to 20 years to realize this.

Back in the day of 3rd edition, when I was still a poor teenager who didn’t know better, I would spend hours crafting the boxed text (ie, prewritten descriptions) for my adventures. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it – there’s a reason I became an English teacher – but boy oh boy was it time-consuming. I think I was still doing it when I came back to D&D in 2016.

Being a DM involves prep. That’s inescapable. But there’s good prep and bad prep. I like to think of it almost like a graph: ‘effort’ on one axis and ‘impact’ on the other. As far as possible, we should be striving for low-effort, high-impact prep, and I’m not sure writing boxed text has enough of an impact to justify the impact.

This is one of the problems with boxed text. The other is that it switches the mode of the game. Let me explain.

D&D is improvisational. It has to be. No matter how much you prep, at some point you are going to go off the rails. ‘No plot survives contact with the players’ and all that. There are a few things more frustrating as a player than a DM who tries to force you through their prewritten narrative. Go write a novel.

Boxed text takes the game out of ‘improv mode’ and into ‘writing mode’. Unless you have a truly brilliant DM who can improvise Tolkienesque description on the fly, it even sounds different. There’s a lurch in the rhythm of the game as we switch from ‘making stuff up’ to ‘reading stuff out’. It’s palpable. A bump in the road. And we lose some of that magical spontaneity as a result.

The more you try to prewrite your descriptions, the less confident you will be at improvising. Boxed text is like stabilizer wheels on a bike: it’s a comforter at first, but as a result you take longer to learn how to do it properly.

In sum: let go of prewritten descriptions. If you’re not confident enough to fly by the seat of your pants, try writing down a handful of ‘aspects’, or a bank of fantastic vocabulary that might not otherwise spring to mind in the middle of a session.  

  

Tips for great descriptions

This is where I put on my English teacher hat. What have we got?

1. First off, loosen up. It’s one thing to care about your description, another to obsess over it. It’s improv, not Shakespeare. A serviceable description delivered in the moment is better than painfully ponderous and pedantic waffle. We are own worst enemies sometimes, and self-criticism can be fatal for our creativity.

2. That said, take your time. Watch some of the great DMs like Matt Mercer and Brennan Lee Mulligan: they don’t rush those descriptions. A good bit of general advice for public speaking is, ‘if you think you’re speaking a bit too slowly, you’re probably speaking at about the right pace.’ I’d say the same is true for many DMs. Besides, a careful, considered description can often add to the gravity or tension of a situation.

3. Practise, practise, practise (and yes, we Brits really do spell the verb form that way.) Try watching an action sequence in a film or TV show and narrating it as if it were a scene in your game. Maybe even try recording yourself or writing it down and seeing how you could improve it.

4. Enter your mind’s eye. It sounds cheesy, but try to put yourself in the scene and experience it for a moment.Close your eyes for a second if you have to. Listen to the ambient music, or think of a scene from a film that’s similar. If you can’t visualize it, how can your players?

5. Say less and leave gaps. Think about how many synonyms we have for ‘wordy’: garrulous, diffuse, circumlocutory, verbose . . . Not one of them is positive. Terse, specific description is great. And if there are gaps, that can be a good thing. It gives your players a chance to ask questions and develop the world even more. It’s a feature, not a bug.

6. Learn to love verbs. This was a transformative bit of advice for me, and I wish I could remember where I first encountered it. Verbs – ‘doing words’ – are great because they give your writing energy and specificity. They also tend to be the last words we think of when we’re improving our description. How many times have you heard someone say they ‘move’ forward and ‘swing’ their sword? What if they ‘surged’ ahead and ‘carved’ through the orc with their blade? Better, no?   

7. Conversely, beware the three As: adjectives, adverbs, and abstract nouns. Adjectives are fine, but a good verb is often better. And adverbs? They tend to be inefficient or lazy. Amble, meander, mope, skulk, and sidle all essentially mean ‘move slowly’, but their connotations are totally different. Abstract nouns are probably the worst of the three because they are so, well, abstract. ‘Joy’, ‘rage’, ‘anxiousness’, and ‘sadness’ are all rather diffuse. What do they mean exactly? Different things to different people. Verbs are just that bit more specific and vivid; they anchor your description in something physical and precise. (If you fancy a challenge, try writing a description of a room using a single adjective. It’s hard at first, but it can lead to some really interesting descriptions the more you try it.)    

8. A common tip is to think about the senses. It’s a good one.Most of our description tends to be visual, but what about sound, touch, even smell? Touch can also cover temperature, pressure, perhaps even pain; taste and smell might include a scent in the air, not just food and drink. If you can, go beyond what your characters can see and think about at least one other sense, ideally two. You might even think about senses that go beyond the traditional five, like balance, hunger, heart rate, even time. (If you’ve even been in a road traffic accident, you might have felt a moment of ‘slow motion’ before impact – it’s a thing.)   

9. Be specific, especially with nouns. For me this is always a hallmark of careful, thoughtful description. You could say ‘an axe’, but is it a hatchet, a tomahawk, or a bardiche? Is it a knife, a kukri, or a stiletto? Specificity isn’t only for equipment of course. You might describe the chitin of a giant scorpion, the talon of a giant eagle, the ichor weeping from a wounded demon.      

10. On occasion, try figurative language: a simile or a metaphor. Perhaps a blade ‘sings’ through the air, or the dragon roars ‘like a volcano’. Figurative language is at its best when it’s apt and original: a shared reference that helps the listener connect with the scene. When similes and metaphors become overused, they become clichés, and these rarely make for good description.   

11. A controversial one: ask the group! The first few times I tried this, my players were a bit nonplussed. ‘Isn’t that your job?’ I think one of them said. I’m now a big fan of this trick. This is a world we create together: bounce ideas off each other and you’ll be amazed what you come up with as a group.

12. Finally, description isn’t everything! Artwork, music, funny voices, even a great mini can all play their part in set the scene. Be kind to yourself. Improv can be very tiring, and not every description matters that much, frankly. Players are more forgiving than you’d think.

What tips did I miss? Help us out in the comments below.

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