In any Role Playing game, certain mechanical aspects typically take care of weather or not an action is successful. Rolling a dice to determine if you “hit” your opponent, and then again too see how much damage you inflict is a very common thing. Making a dice roll to determine if your character spots a hidden object, or if he can sneak up on an enemy are also common rolled for elements. This being said, just simply saying, “Ok yes you hit and you did eleven hit points of damage, or yep, you successfully sneak up on the Orc guard“, are pretty shallow and quiet frankly boring ways to describe the outcomes of those actions. I briefly touched on this subject in another post, but in this article I want to go into more depth about how and why you should learn to become proficient at describing your characters actions, both in and out of combat.
Ever wonder why sometimes in a movie or television adaptation of a book, the characters seem to speak way more than they did in the novel? the reason for this is primarily due to a difference in the type of media. In a book, an author can describe what a character is thinking, on screen, the characters actions must be visual or spoken. Otherwise the audience would not be aware of the inward thoughts of a particular character. it is much the same in a Role Playing Game. You have to describe your characters thoughts and actions if they are to be perceived by others at the table, or in some cases (such as it is on my show Howreroll) the audience.
I consider it a skill for both player and DM to be able to describe actions during a game, and one that can be improved and developed over time. I am going to break this down into two sections. First I will discuss describing actions in combat and in physical situations, and then I will talk about describing more subtle actions.
In Combat, the first thing to remember is that despite things being done in an orderly turn based fashion in most games, real combat is far from orderly. In Dungeons and Dragons a combat round is six seconds. So what occurs in a round is what a particular character does during that six second exposure of time. In reality everything is happening at once, with fractions of a second separating the individual movements between the combatants. In combat you should put effort in to describing the entire action of your character or NPC, and offer the ability for others to play off of those descriptions. Instead of simply saying “I attack the ogre with my sword” be more descriptive. “I charge forward with my weapon raised, and swing my sword at the Ogres left leg. As I do so I let out a loud war cry, to distract the Ogres attention away from the cleric!” This is a far more entertaining and visual description of the action, and allows the DM to play of off that description. He may say something like “Hearing your War Cry the Ogre spins around to face you and prepares to meet your assault, his focus is now on you and not the cleric”. Then you would roll to hit, and if successful you would roll for damage. Based on the amount of damage done the DM can now describe the outcome. As a DM do not just say “you hit for eight hit points of damage“. Instead it should be something more along the lines of “Your sword finds its mark, and opens up a deep gash in the Ogres left thigh, blood begins to flow from the wound as the Ogre winces in pain“. If it was a particularly high amount of damage (in relation to the Ogres hit points) the DM can go on further and say something like “The Ogre staggers backwards a few steps and glances down at the blood pouring down his leg, you notice a look of panic begin to form on his brutish face“. In a situation like this I may also imply some kind of disadvantage to the Ogre for his next action which help to reward the player for their descriptive efforts. Some DM’s like to allow the player to describe the outcome and damage of the hit itself, I tend to lean away from that for reasons I describe in this post here, although I am sometimes happy for them to describe their killing blow. This being said I do want them to be descriptive in the attempt. In short, you describe to me what you character is attempting to do, and after the dice are rolled, I will describe to you the outcome.
It can be helpful to wrote down a list of descriptive combat words. Slash, chop, hack, cleave, thrust, lunge, swing wildly etc are good flavor adding words to a description. Also think about visualizing the attack itself, and describe it as you see it in your minds eye. Being mindful of the type of weapon you use will also help determine the description. A mace will often find its attack description including words like bash, smash or crack instead of lunge, thrust or stab. Try to describe the body location your character is trying to hit. In some cases you may be attempting to make a “called shot” in others it may just be what body part you are swinging for. The DM can then work with that when he describes the outcome of the blow, based on how much actual damage is done. If a player says something like “I sidestep and swing my axe overhead, trying to bring it down and bury it in the goblins skull“, I can look at the damage and then describe the outcome. If the damage is very low, I may say “Your axe blow hurtles down towards the Goblins skull. At the last second, he leans back and instead of cleaving his head in two, your axe blade puts a cut in his cheek and continues down to open up a small wound in his chest“. On the other hand if the damage was high, I may say “The blow strikes the Goblins skull cutting a deep gash in his head, the blade glances down from his round head and digs deep into his shoulder, as he cries out in agony!” Finally if the blow was a killing blow, I may tell the player “your blow kills the goblin, describe how it happens“, or say something “your axe reigns down on the Goblin, its heavy blade hits the dead center of his skull, and his head spits open as easily as if you were splitting a log. The weight of the axe continues to drive the blade deep into the goblins chest, as a shower of blood covers you and the floor! As you remove your axe, the Goblins corpse falls lifeless to the ground.” Of course you do not have to be as graphic as I was in the above examples, but you get the idea. Another point it to try to string your attacks together if you have multiple attacks. Instead of saying “I attack the Troll three times with my sword“, it would be far better to say “I lunge forward, and thrust my sword at the trolls belly, then real back and slash at his right side, and finally make a mighty overhead swing aiming to smash his collar bone!” A monk for example has a great deal open to him from a descriptive stand point. “I throw a left jab at the Orcs face, and follow it up with a strong right cross aimed at his jaw. I then spin around and try to land a back kick to the Orcs exposed stomach“! As I mentioned above, its a good idea to write down some key phrases and words that apply like, Jab, cross, uppercut, left and right hook, front kick, round kick, side kick, back kick, knee strike, elbow strike spinning kick etc etc. In the spur of the moment it will help you put your descriptions together, especially if you visualize it.
Bringing descriptive use of terrain or geographical features into play is also something I encourage. A good DM should take care to create a a living battlefield for each encounter, be it a tavern or a cavern. Allowing for the possibility of improvised weapons or elevation changes. Also providing obstacles or cover. These can not only help bring a battle to life and make it more fun and interesting, but allow for more description. “I leap up on the table, and attempt to kick the brute in the face!” “When I see the Hobgoblin raise up his crossbow, I take of running and dive behind the large pile of rocks to the left to get behind cover“. These are examples of how terrain can be useful in bringing the combat to life and providing assets for description. In general your goal in Combat is to use description to bring the encounter to life, allowing everyone concerned to imagine what is happening and as such adding to the gaming experience.
Now lets take a look at being descriptive with things other than combat. You can describe your characters actions to help imply, emotional state, intent, reaction, interaction etc. For example instead of just saying “I walk into the bar and find a seat“, you could elaborate a little and say something like “I walk into the tavern, I sniff the air to see if there is a chance of a good hot meal and then glance around looking for an open table or a seat at the bar“. Now at this point, (and before I go any further) I want to mention a style of play called Narrative play. This is where players are encouraged to go into GREAT detail about everything they do. In this form of play the above example would have been more like the following. “I cautiously swing open the old and heavy wooden tavern door, as I do so I inhale the welcome smells of roasted chicken, pipe weed and strong ale. I allow my eyes to wander around the tavern tap room, as I take stock of all the patrons that are currently enjoying the delights that the tavern has to offer. Spying an empty table, I cautiously move towards it, taking great care not to bump into any of the existing patrons. I pull out a chair and slump down into it wearily. My arms rest heavy on the table as I spend a few moments to relish the much needed rest. my mind wanders to recall the hardships of the three day journey I have just endured“. Some people enjoy this type of play, I personally like description, but prefer it be limited to some degree so that it does not overly slow down game play. If you do not want your character to speak, you can also use a description to provide his emotional state or response. An example of this would be “I frown and glare at the nobleman disapprovingly, but I bite my tongue and say nothing“. Alternatively you could say something like “You see me lean against the wall and frown and glare at the Nobleman“! These are both ways to let the rest of the people involved in the game know that while your character has not spoken, he is clearly not happy. There are many instances where being a little descriptive can add to the flavor and immersion of the game. here are a few more non specific examples. “I crouch low and quietly try to sneak over to the window. I carefully try to peep inside, while keeping as much of myself hidden as possible“. “I climb up on my horse as quickly as possible, and with a swift kick I spur my horse onward to chase the bandits“. “I snatch the coins from the counter with a scowl, and thrust them into my belt pouch, a silver piece hits the floor, but I don’t bother to pick it up and instead I storm out the store”! Just adding a few key words into the description of an action can really help bring the scene to life, and just as importantly it can allow a player to participate even when his character has nothing to say, or does not want to speak.
Casting a spell is another good moment when description can add something to the game. “I cast feather fall” could be replaced with something way more fun and descriptive like “I circle my arms once and emulate the flapping of a birds wings as I say Avarian Tarda Cadere, and you see small spectral feathers surround me as I fall from the cliff and my decent slows down considerably allowing me to land safe and unharmed on the ground“. The fun that can be had with spell description is never ending, and I enjoy listening to the variety of ways different players may describe the casting of the same spell.
Being descriptive IS work, and for some it can take time before it becomes second nature. The work is definitely worth while though, and you can write down words to help you as I suggested earlier. Adding description to your game play is something both players and DM’s should take the time to work on. It may not happen over night, but over time it will elevate your game sessions.
Good Luck and happy Gaming!
“Gorebad takes a deep breath and sits back in his chair. He really wishes he was a better writer, but he feels like he managed to make his point. He stretches his arms above his head and stretches his lower back, as it has become somewhat stiff from his poor posture while typing. He then hits the save and Publish button as another blog post is made public”.