View Full Version : DM Help Descriptions, building atmosphere, better roleplaying - a mediocre DM's problem

2014-11-23, 10:44 AM
Up until this moment, I've been leaning towards the kick-in-the-door style, with heavy emphasis on action and witty remarks, crossed with exploration (think Indiana Jones). With varying results, I admit.
But now I want to play something more, well, storytelling-heavy (actually, social-heavy, with much more roleplaying), along the lines of a horror or a noir detective story (Eberron-set, if anyone asks). And I have encountered a problem.

My DM workshop is severely lacking in the storytelling/roleplaying department.

What this exactly means is that I have the ability to create quite complex characters and imagine up the environments to really minute details, but my ability to, respectively, express the characters and describe the setting is severely impeded.
The most heavy offender is my describing ability.
Even if I think up a good description beforehand, when it comes up to actually saying it, I start, more or less, losing my track and having difficulties in actually expressing what I mean.

I find it difficult to believe that is caused by stage fright, seeing that as a musician I'm quite accustomed to audience (thankfully) much bigger than four friends around the table.

What are your tricks and methods of thinking up and delivering detailed descriptions to allow your players to immerse themselves in the world you're creating? All opinions will be really appreciated.

2014-11-23, 01:40 PM
One obvious solution is to write those descriptions down as aprt of your preparation. You may need to read them out completely straight, but you will likely be getting better at it as you do it more often. Eventually you should be able to get along without a written description, probably with a list of notes as a waypoint.
Or maybe you just need written descriptions. No shame in that.

2014-11-23, 02:43 PM
Write down the descriptions. Or type and print them out. And be as descriptive as possible. Novels are a great place to find descriptions you can use. You might even want to start a ''description list''. And artwork, TV shows and movies are great for inspiration. You might need a dictionary and thesaurus handy.

Unless your describing a commoner type, you should always try and flare it up a bit. It's fine to say ''Jobar the farmer has on homespun rough clothing and worn boots'' but Dak the Dark should be more ''covered from head to toe in tight, form fitting black leather armor, high black boots and a long black cloak. His eyes are dark brown and his face is full of a couple days beard growth of black hair. His left hand is empty, but his right hand has a dagger drawn in it."

The emotional narration is a great thing to add to saying just a description. Saying ''the warrior has muscles bulging under his armor'' is ok, but try ''the warrior stands pointing his sword at you. His battle-scarred armor and bulging muscles tell you this is not someone to anger.'' The little touch of telling the listener what they should think or feel are imagine works wonders.

The same goes for describing places.

2014-11-23, 03:51 PM
You could also be a bit more forgiving for yourself. You don't need to have the gravitas of Gandalf when you're describing things, it's fine to go "ummm" and "you know" every once in a while.
Also, pace yourself. Start by giving out the immediately obvious details of any given scene and elaborate as the players present you with questions or otherwise indicate interest in particular details.

2014-11-24, 04:45 PM
Thank you for your responses.
Yes, I have been writing down the key descriptions in my campaigns and I admit that it was a great help.
As for being forgiving to myself - I was. But at the same time, I'm perfectly aware of my shortcomings, hence my struggle to better myself.

And there's one more thing bothering me - when I try to go for flowery, robust descriptions, I feel somewhat stupid doing so. I literally stop in my tracks because of an irrational fear of sounding ridiculous. While knowing that it's stupid. Stage fright after all? How do I fight it?

2014-11-24, 06:17 PM
And there's one more thing bothering me - when I try to go for flowery, robust descriptions, I feel somewhat stupid doing so. I literally stop in my tracks because of an irrational fear of sounding ridiculous. While knowing that it's stupid. Stage fright after all? How do I fight it?

Just don't think about it. Don't think about being silly or ridiculous. Your acting and putting on a show...it's kinda by default silly and ridiculous.

So you just kinda do it.

And you can always practice....anytime your in public just go over the top...why not? It does not matter. Go to Subway and order a sub all flowery and robust. Sure one or two teens might think your weird...but why would you care?

2014-11-25, 08:45 AM
Also dont be affraid to use known references.
For example as the PC's see the baddies castle for the 1st time you can just say "The castle looks like the one in XXX" film. The players will immediatly have an image in thier mind.

I am running a Star Wars game at the moment and just said to the players - Your ship looks like the Millenium Falcon but a bit more battered. They all know what the ship looks like and I have a bit of leway in specifics (thats the more battered bit)

Red Fel
2014-11-25, 09:31 AM
And there's one more thing bothering me - when I try to go for flowery, robust descriptions, I feel somewhat stupid doing so. I literally stop in my tracks because of an irrational fear of sounding ridiculous. While knowing that it's stupid. Stage fright after all? How do I fight it?

My advice? Use the Adjective SystemTM. The Adjective SystemTM was designed with DMs like you in mind!

It's so simple. Step one, have an NPC or object. Step two, assign it between one and three adjectives, depending on its importance. More important things get more adjectives, y'see. Tells people how important they are.

Keep the adjectives simple, not flowery. So "deep vermillion" becomes "red," "hand-woven hemp" becomes "fabric," and so on.

Now, when your PCs encounter the object or person for the first time, gauge the situation. Is a detailed description appropriate? (E.g. is visibility impeded, do they have the time to make a detailed examination, etc.?) Also, consider the tone - is it a good time for flowery language (like when meeting a noble), or is something curt and gritty better (like when arranging a back-alley deal)? Depending on the context, take your initial list of one to three adjectives, and apply synonyms.

Let's have some illustrations.

Say we have a King. He's very plot important, so let's consider him. He's old, wrinkly, wizened-looking, with smile lines around his eyes and a deep laugh. He's also tremendously round. So let's call him "fat," "old," "jolly." The PCs meet him for the first time at a ball. You introduce him.

Trumpets blare as the Royal Presence is announced. Into the hall walks a rotund, elderly gentleman, his white beard neatly groomed.

Bam. Three adjectives replaced with regal-sounding synonyms.

Let's try it again, with more noir. The party is meeting Guido the Weasel, who will sell them information about the Calzone Syndicate. Guido is a slimy, creepy sort, with pinky jewelry, greased hair, a totally artificial grin, and no sense of personal space. Let's call him "grinning," "fake," and "slimeball."

Now, the party is meeting Guido in a dimly-lit alley, and you decided it would be raining that night. So it's dark out, punctuated by lightning. We can use that to heighten drama. The party meets Guido...

"Psst, over here." The voice is oily, and gives you the impression of a grinning shark. A figure, covered in a trenchcoat against the rain, beckons you over, pinky ring glinting in the dim light.

We don't describe him much, because it's hard to see. But we picked up on two of those details - he has an oily, slimeball voice, and he wears a pinky ring. (I dunno what it is, those things just rub me the wrong way.)

Using a system like this gives you flexibility, and at the same time encourages you to avoid going over-flowery.

2014-11-28, 04:57 AM
Once again, thanks for the replies. I tend to overthink stuff, something I sooner or later had to cope with.

Also, Red Fel, that's a great method. Consider it put in use. :smallcool:

2014-11-28, 07:35 AM
When you're describing things, people, creatures or places, makes sure to include in your description (and your writeup) some non-visual qualities. What does it sound, smell or feel like? An empty room where the air is warm, dry and dusty and you can hear the wind blowing feels completely different from an empty room where the air is cold, moist and you hear the dripping of water. They're both also much more memorable than "an empty room".

Also, make sure that at least one quality of what you're describing differs from the stereotype. Like, take the King's scheming chancellor. What's the stereotypical scheming chancellor like? I'd say most likely thin, maybe gaunt; snide; possibly has a goatee and an important and conspicuous sigil ring or amulet as a badge of office. So make your scheming chancellor significantly dfiferent. Maybe he's obese and gregarious (which might even give the party the idea to poison him at his own soiree). Maybe his most obvious physical possession is an ornate hatchet that might or might not be a state symbol, that he just loves carrying around and playing with. Maybe he has an ugly face wound from his days as a general.

2014-11-28, 07:30 PM
I write out descriptions. It's the only way I remember to give them. No shame.

And there's one more thing bothering me - when I try to go for flowery, robust descriptions, I feel somewhat stupid doing so. I literally stop in my tracks because of an irrational fear of sounding ridiculous. While knowing that it's stupid. Stage fright after all? How do I fight it?

Ultimately, running a game is just another outlet for self expression. If the thing you're expressing makes you feel stupid, maybe it's not a part of your self. I've seen a lot of players use faux middle english in D&D, but when I try it I feel like an idiot so I don't do it. You're not obliged to do flowery, robust descriptions.

2014-11-28, 08:13 PM
Less is more with descriptions. It's far more important to be really good at being selective about detail and make every word count than it is to be able to be particularly flowery and detailed. That's not to say that you shouldn't have a strong mental image, but its one of those things where the first couple dozen words you say are going to be what the players pay the most attention to, and everything you say after that risks diluting the main point.

The other thing is that when someone asks for information and receives it, they're going to be far more aware of that information than if they had to pull it out of a big info-dump. So if you can hint rather than tell, then the players will ask you to follow up on things and let you give them more information than if you just tried to tell them outright. The downside is, sometimes they won't ask, so you can't rely on this unless you know your players/characters well enough (this guy is playing a book-obsessed scholar, so if I mention that there's a big leatherbound book I can just move on, and he'll jump on that and ask about the book, etc).

The trick is to efficiently create a skeleton on which the players can build their mental images. Places where you 'get' to players are going to be the moments of surprise, where you give a detail that forces them to rebuild the scene in their mind. Timing of those details can change the impact - compare "A golden dragon lurks beneath the piles of coins and treasures in this room.' with 'Coins and treasures are piled high in this room. You see motion beneath the coins, and the form of a golden dragon emerges.'

Creating emotional moments through description is harder, because it's a matter of layering things on. You can't just give 'the scary description' or 'the heartwarming description' or 'the sad description' but instead you have to repeat on a theme and build things into word choice, subtext, or by elevating particular detail. Then, you can make use of that in places where the buildup culminates - threshold or other uncertain moments where you either confirm what you were building towards, or reverse it.

2014-12-01, 07:17 PM
Once again, thank you for your responses. I think I got all my questions answered and more on top of that. Now all that's left is to write some things up and hope my players like it. :smallamused: