Blah Blah, Can I Attack Yet?

Deciding how descriptive you are in describing what happens during combat is one of the greatest factors that define your style as a DM, even moreso than how much you plan. It’s going to strongly influence your players in how they play, and it’s going to affect what they remember about your sessions. “A picture is worth a thousand words.” You’re not just trying to create a single picture in the minds of the players, but an entire scene that’s in motion. Going into detail on every little item in a room will enrich the game world for your players, but can also bog down a gaming session if you’re not careful. In order to examine the different ways to approach this, we’re going to examine a very basic encounter. The players are working their way through a dungeon. They open the door and you consult your notes…it’s a 5 square by 5 square room with three goblins and a bugbear inside. The players roll initiative, but the bad guys are a bit quicker on the draw. The three goblins fire their crossbows in turn, two of them missing but the third hitting. The bugbear charges and hits with his greatsword.

You can describe the encounter exactly like that, but this invites a minimalism to your game. The lack of any descriptions beyond mechanical details will cause your players to take a similar approach to describing their character’s actions, thus leading to the feel of a tactical board game rather than a role playing game. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Remember, Dungeons and Dragons evolved from wargaming, moving from large armies to small units. If this is the playstyle you want, there’s absolutely no problem. The slippery slope in this approach, though, is that your players may carry over this minimalist description into their non-combat actions as well, reducing a social encounter to the statement, “I roll my Diplomacy.” Also, you’re attempting to create a world in your player’s imaginations and the less you describe, the more blanks they have to fill in themselves. And there’s no guarantee that their answers will match yours, leading to confusion.

So you decide to add more description. “The door creaks as it opens on its rusty hinges. The room stretches in front of you for twenty-five feet, as wide across as it is long. The floor is made of stone tiles, tinted green with the mold growing from the cracks in the rock. The walls are hewn from the stone of the cave, sanded smooth except for a few scores in the stone from weapons…and from claws. A scent reminiscent of wet dog that has been wallowing in sewage rolls over you. In front of you are four figures cloaked in the shadows. Three of them are short, maybe three feet tall. They’re armored in leather. The razor-sharp tips of their bolts gleam in your torchlight as the strings groan against their tension. The larger figure is a full foot taller than you and covered in matted fur. Its breath is heavy as it grips a massive chipped sword, a growl in the back of its throat.”

Very evocative. Set the mood precisely. Your players know exactly what’s going on. Buuuuuut… As much as I hate to comment on my own writing, that was crap. But this is a role playing game, not an attempt at a Pulitzer. Your players won’t care if your prose is tinged slightly purple as it’s honestly to be expected. You have to be able to sell it (but that’s a different post…) And imagine reading that block of text for every single room and encounter. Keep in mind, the average one-session adventure for a party of 5 is meant to be five combat encounters long. Reading something that long for every single encounter is going to add a lot of time to the game, and has a good chance of overloading your players. The more details you put in, the more questions you answer but the more you bring up as well.

The goal is to find a balance and to give them just enough information to set the mood and put the images you want in their minds, but not so much that you fall into the category of bad fanfiction.

The easiest way to do this is to describe the first room in more detail (the descriptions of the floors and walls above), then only describe the rooms if something is different. If you don’t mention the floors, walls, and ceilings after the first time, your players will assume that each other room looks the same as the previous one. If this is the first time the characters have ever encountered a goblin or bugbear, then it’s justified to go into detail describing what they look like. This is doubly important if you use a creature that’s more obscure or something you’ve created yourself. But you’ll just end up with a bunch of eye-rolling if you go into that much detail on every single goblin, orc, and kobald the characters encounter.

With a little artistic talent, the right audiovisual set-up, and a lot of time on your hands; you can go the multimedia route. “A picture’s worth a thousand words” after all, and sometimes holding up a picture or pulling it up on a computer screen will save your voice. Why spent a lot of time describing the evil sorcerer when you have a drawing you made? Describing the scaffolding the archers are sitting on of course would be daunting if you have a lot of details you want to get across, but a quick Google Image search can save you that effort. However, this creates expectations in your players for these sorts of hand-outs and little bonuses. They can be a massive time-sink if you’re not careful, and several hours searching for the perfect image of a demonic temple are several hours that could be spent coming up with plot twists and adventure ideas. If you try to create something yourself, expect to spend even more time on a single encounter or NPC and put yourself on the block for artistic criticism to an audience who may or may not be the target audience for your particular art style.

Like everything else, it’s a balancing act. The more you play, the more you know exactly what information you need to feed your group. It’s not strictly experience, as each group is different and requires differing levels of description in order to get the information they need across. It won’t take long to figure out if you pay attention to what questions your players ask and at what point they start rolling their eyes.

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Published in: on December 10, 2010 at 6:00 AM  Leave a Comment  
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