It’s true that the more you put in the more you get out and that has to be there I think, If you aren’t really hooked on your instrument this job would be a hell on earth but if you are, it’s the best.
Internationally-renowned master guitarist Leo Kottke is credited with the above quote, and while he was referring to playing music, there’s a D&D lesson in there for both players and DM’s alike. The differences worth noting: D&D is a game, not a job, and less than total dedication isn’t going to make playing it hell on earth.
On the other hand, it can most certainly be the best, so the odds are in your favor (even if the dice sometimes are not).
The common assumption is that the bulk of the work for a D&D game lies with the DM. That’s mostly true, in large part because players generally don’t need to spend much time out-of-game doing anything. They can, of course, plot and plan, scheme and devise tactics for the future. But to a large extent, they don’t know what lies ahead in their path of adventure. (Unless you’re playing a West Marches style campaign. Dammit, should have included that with the overview of different playstyles!)
By the same token, the DM doesn’t know how the players will react to whatever comes their way. With a healthy degree of certainty, i can say that every DM from Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson all the way down to yours truly has made notes on potential actions our players will take and they invariably do something wholly unexpected.
The focus for this thought exploration though is a practice players and DMs employ at the table that enhances the game experience for everyone involved.
The art of description
D&D is a game that takes place in the imagination of the players. Unlike a video game, film, television or web series there are no graphics or visual components. Use of miniature figures, maps and props add to the experience, and there are online “virtual tabletops” with visual elements, but at a basic level, D&D is a game rooted in description. It takes place in the theatre of the mind.
The shared storytelling aspect is reminiscent of collaborative writing, with participants adding their contributions and passing it on to another who picks up where they left off. Each chunk of the story builds off the previous portion, sometimes making a logical progression, sometimes going in a completely different direction. Regardless of the content, taken together all the segments create a unique narrative.
One of the DM’s more abstract roles at the table is setting the tone for players in this experience, or leading by example. After all, the DM is the one in charge of running everything in their game world except the PCs, and it’s up to them to make that world start to come alive. To that end, one of the best practices for a DM is taking the time to vividly describe what characters see throughout their adventures, and the actions of the people and monsters they encounter.
It’s perfectly okay to tell players exploring a cave system that they’re in a tunnel ten feet wide and 30 feet long. Especially if one of the players has a penchant for making graph paper maps as they explore, this information is practical and one of the hallmarks of play.
Beyond the mechanical description however, it’s much more evocative to tell players they descend into a crudely constructed tunnel system, the earthen walls damp with trickles of brackish water that turn the ground into a muddy morass riddled with puddles of dirty water that makes their footsteps squish in the ground beneath their travel-worn boots. Rotted wooden timbers haphazardly spaced along the length of the corridor serve to reinforce the walls, with sporadically placed torches providing light but also filling the air with wisps of acrid black smoke. Every so often, a clump of the wall sloughs away and plops to the ground.
Description such as this serves another function beyond bringing the world to life in the players’ imaginations – it prompts them to engage with their surroundings. They should grow concerned that a tunnel could collapse at any moment, cutting off escape or even burying them alive. They might wonder what kind of wood the timbers are, where it came from and what creature put them there. Their plodding movement might ruin any chances at stealth, and those puddles on the ground may hold hidden dangers.
Evoking that kind of thinking in the players offers them opportunities to use their characters skills and knowledge outside of the more obvious situations that arise through the encounters the DM presents. A character with a background as a carpenter might want to examine the timbers. The party tracker could try to find out if anyone else has recently passed through by searching for a trail in the mud. Characters who can see in the dark might want to snuff out the torches, reasoning that whoever put them there would be at a disadvantage in the darkness.
In short, describing the world to the players gives them chances and inspires their imagination to interact with it, and in turn more creatively describe their PCs actions to the DM.
When it comes time for action, description is equally important to create a sense of excitement, fun and danger for players. One of the most enjoyable things for most D&D players is the combat, and by-and-large they love it when fights amount to more than die rolls, successful attacks and hitting the orc for five points of damage with a longsword.
Combat is bloody business, so don’t be afraid to describe the outcomes. A sword attack that only results in two hit points of damage could mean the fighter squaring off against the otyugh barely manages to weave under the disgusting creature’s flailing tentacles, knocking them aside with their shield just enough to strike out with their blade, that only nicks the thing’s tough exterior enough that a thin line of vile juice seeps from the small wound. Even a basic fighter who consistently makes the same sword attack mechanically speaking can still bob and weave, lunge and parry, stab or slice, shout curses and taunt their enemies. The results might be the same numbers-wise but the experience is memorable. (And who knows, the DM might even give advantage or recognize other ways to reward creative description.)
One of my players discovered a mace crafted in the shape of a snake head and he seemed so excited to finally have a chance to use it that i decided on the spot to describe how when the mace struck, the fangs of the snake bit into the cultists arms and the veins around the bite turned black with poison (it was meant to be only a decorative mace).
At the other end of the spectrum in combat is the killing blow. Taking down even the weakest combatants in a fight is exhilarating for players. A thrown dagger buries itself into the goblin’s eye, its head snapping back as the life leaves the pitiful creature’s body and it slumps to the ground, blood leaking from the wound and pooling on the ground. One of my players years ago was playing a paladin whose first kill resulted in arterial spray covering his shining armor in blood. It became a running joke that despite his best efforts at keeping clean, he undoubtedly wound up coated in ichors, gore and nasty fluids on a regular basis.
During a recent play session with my group, when the party attacked some robed cultists in the midst of worshiping their dark benefactor, they discovered they weren’t robed cultists at all, but animated robes that swirled about trying to grapple characters. When they were defeated, the smokelike energy animated them simply burst into wisps of black mist that dissipated in the air around them. That was something i threw in on the spur of the moment (i improv A LOT) – it felt like a cool idea since they’d already fought a lot of cultists.
Fans of Critical Role will certainly recognize one of DM Matt Mercer’s most famous phrases: “How do you want to do this?” When his players land the final strike against significant opponents, he let’s them describe how their PCs finish the job. This serves a twofold purpose. First, as soon as he says those words, the group erupts in cheers because they know the threat is over and they’ve won. And second, it gives the players a chance to take ownership of their characters’ actions, greatly increasing their agency in the game.
i’m sure i’m not the only DM who’s added HDYWTDT to their bag of tricks, either. In our last session, the party’s monk was thrilled when he got to finish their very narrowly won battle with the self-style Reptile God, Explictica Defilus the spirit naga, by swinging around her neck and tearing out her throat. (DM note: her insane ramblings and threats throughout the fight must have worked enough that he didn’t want to hear another word!)
Magic offers up even more opportunities for colorful description, with effects that blast, burn, freeze, poison, drain life and much more. My personal favorite is the disintegrate spell. Devastatingly effective in the damage department on a mechanical basis, from a descriptive standpoint even if the target isn’t killed outright parts of it are disintegrated! A thin beam of sickly green energy streaks forth from the wizard’s finger, striking the front giant in the shoulder. You watch the horror on the creature’s face as its entire arm and parts of its torso are simply…gone.
Vivid description is useful in any situation – not only for exploration and combat. Some playstyles allow for quite a bit of time spend hanging around the PCs hometown or major cities, and bringing these locales to life is just as important for creating the sense of a living world.
Often, even the most innocuous details will stick in players’ minds and add personality and flavor to their encounters. During the first session with my current group, when describing a bar maid i mentioned she wore a little cloth cap, which to me was a throwaway detail only to help flesh out the description of a tavern the group visited. When one of the players asked about her during a later session, i thought it was really cool that they asked about the bartender with the cloth cap.
The next time your group gets together to play some D&D, try to add some descriptive flair to the session. Describe the surroundings, how characters walk and talk, what they’re wearing and how they handle themselves in a fight. Both DMs and players contributing their creative energies together is what takes D&D from a fun game to an experience filled with memorable moments that last a lifetime.