|Live one room at a time|
There's a lot of competing schools of thought about all three of those jobs. You've got the railroading vs. sandbox debate, the Rules-as-Written vs. Rule of Cool debate, the character voice debate, the dungeon crawl vs. story game debate... If nerds are good at anything, it's dividing something they like into two competing camps and attacking those who support the other side.
|Never not relevant|
But here's the catch... a good description is a skill like anything else. And developing that skill involves a lot of personal style, but there are still fundamentals that need to be covered. Some of the room descriptions given in offial D&D products are absolutely useless, while others are so long you really wonder if you have to read it every time they backtrack through that particular room.
So, let's talk about giving a good description, and selling your players on the idea that this is a world they can interact with. We'll use a simple dungeon room as an example.
The very first thing you want to figure out when planning a room description is what will most catch the player's attention. This will probably be any enemies in the area, but it might also be a huge statue, strange altar, or bottomless crevice. Anything that really stands out can qualify. Remember that for later.
The first thing you want to point out is the size, shape, and make of the room. This can be as simple as a few words: "the large, sloping cavern", "the closet-sized brick and mortar room", etc. This sets up an expectation in the player's mind. They won't be thinking of the exact room you are, but at least you can avoid them thinking of the space as something completely different.
Next, focus on something in the room that the players won't necessarily interact with. This is to give the room some flavor or character. You can string this together with the previous sentence, making a nice descriptive summary of the area. Remember that this something doesn't have to be visual. Use the other senses to make the room feel more real!
This can also hint at the function of the room. Don't outright tell your players "you enter what must have been an infirmary". Rather, tell them "you enter a room containing a half-dozen moldy cots, and a cabinet stocked with ages-old medical supplies". It sounds kind of dumb, but even that tiny bit of "aha!" that the players get from figuring out the purpose of the room will ground them to the setting. It gets them thinking of the space as a real place.
For our example, let's go with:
You enter a medium-sized room of dwarven stone construction, with tools such as rusted pickaxes and shovels hanging from hooks on the walls. The smell of ancient dust hangs in the air.
Now, a quick note about traps. Traps are hard to pull off, especially if you want to give your players a chance to solve them (which you should). If a room contains a trap, part of the description should hint at the existence of that trap. It doesn't have to be a lot, but if you don't do this, it will feel like your trap is simply a sucker punch you put in the room to screw over your players.
So, let's put a trap in this room. Let's make it a tripwire across one of the exits. Perhaps this dwarven mine was infested with kobolds, and the players are here to clean it out. We'll need to put something in the description to indicate that this tripwire might exist. However, it can be pretty esoteric.
Speaking of exits, the next sentence of our description should go over the exits to the room and what they look like. This is very important, because we want the players to know how they can move forward from this room. But if you just say "there's a north door and an east door", you aren't really giving the group any motivation to explore either. It's just a left-path/right-path decision.
So talk about the exits. If it's a door, what is its condition? What are its distinguishing features? Does it look used recently? If it's a hallway, where does it go? What can they see down that hallway?
Back to our example.
You enter a medium-sized room of dwarven stone construction, with tools such as rusted pickaxes and shovels hanging from hooks on the walls. The smell of ancient dust hangs in the air. On the North wall, there is a rotted wooden door covered in scratch marks. To the East, an archway leads to a stone hallway that fades into dark, the floor near the arch covered in unusual scratches.
So, I wanted to hint that the Kobolds use the wooden door, and scratched up the floor to indicate to their bretheren that there is a tripwire across the archway. A player might investigate the "unusual scratches", which will lead to them connecting these Kobold markings with their traps. Later, I could use the scratches to hint at another trap, making my descriptions easier.
We only have one more thing to add: the item that will most catch the players' attention! You should save that for last in your description, for an obvious reason: it's what the players will most remember. If the players have it in the forefront of their minds, it simulates the characters noticing it first.
As a side note, the first few times you do this, your players will joke about it. "So we noticed the stone before we noticed the goblins?" However, if you keep doing it, you'll find they will pay more attention to your descriptions, since they never know if the last sentence you say will be something that is trying to kill them.
Let's finish up our example!
You enter a medium-sized room of dwarven stone construction, with tools such as rusted pickaxes and shovels hanging from hooks on the walls. The smell of ancient dust hangs in the air. On the North wall, there is a rotted wooden door covered in scratch marks. To the East, an archway leads to a stone hallway that fades into dark, the floor near the arch covered in unusual scratches. As you enter, you hear the clatter of iron as a Kobold drops one of the shovels. Slinking through the shadows, you can see four of the little pests, suddenly aware of your presence and drawing their makeshift daggers!
Notice how the decription moves from what is least interesting to the players (the room size) to what is most interesting (the combat). This is by design: each room should feel like a scene from a movie, and it should ramp up in intensity. That's true whether the room contains a monster or treasure or a strange magical item or whatever.
Now, let's say the group leaves this room and comes back. You have to describe it again. Fortunately, you don't have to repeat yourself entirely.
First, if the players gave a name to the room, use it! It's how they remember the area. Otherwise, describe it by the most interesting thing that's still in the room.
So our example room could be:
- The toolshed (if the players called it that)
- The room where you ran from those Kobolds (if the Kobolds are still in the room)
- The room with scratches on the floor connecting to the dark hallway (if the trap wasn't discovered)
- The room with the tools on the walls (if they found everything else)
However you name the room, you still need to describe the pathways out of the room. And this time, you'll have to do it from a different direction. If the players fully explored a path, you can describe it as "the door leading to that area".
Finally, if the players left any markings, changes or items (including fallen enemies) here, make note of them and if they've changed at all.
So, on their trip back through the room, you could say:
You pass back through the toolshed, where the bodies of four Kobolds are still strewn across the floor. To the South is the door that leads back to the mine entrance, and to the East is that archway surrounded by scratches, leading to a darkened hallway.
I want to make one last point about a particular type of room: the Empty Room. This can equally apply to a room that the players have already cleared out.
Empty rooms are usually put into dungeons to give the players some space to breathe, add some size to the dungeon, or just to keep the players on edge while they move from room to room. Let me expalin why those things are all bad ideas.
First, the players should have breathing room after combats and in rooms that don't have monsters in them. If you try to "build in" breathing room, I guarantee it will just feel like a slog to the players. It won't come at the right time, it will kill your momentum, and the players will get annoyed at saying "we peek through the door" twenty times and only hearing "you see nothing".
Second, how many houses do you know that have meaningless rooms in them? Do people just build rooms in buildings without a purpose? No. Even if the purpose isn't planned beforehand, they usually describe the space as "office space" or "apartment space". And I don't think ancient civilizations were much for building extra rooms they didn't need. Except maybe elves. Who knows why.
Finally, a good DM should be in control of the amount of tension at the table. If you try to add tension by making the palyers do perception checks every time they enter a room, they are just going to get bored and tell you that you are wasting time.
So, to combat al lof these problems, I usually don't put empty rooms in dungeons at all. But it is possible that an empty room can be created if the players clear it out. So even if you don't plan for empty rooms, you can still end up with them.
How do you describe an empty room? Well, I wouldn't. Instead, describe as many of them at once as you can. Then, lead the group directly to the nextpoint of action. Here's some examples.
You journey deeper into the ancient elven temple, passing through several ornate but bare rooms. Finally, you reach a door carved with trees and a moon, humming with some strange energy.
The cavernous tunnels seem to go on forever, every drip of water echoing wildly from the walls. You climb over rocks and squeeze through crevices for an hour before something catches your attention: the stinging scent of spiced food being cooked. Something is nearby.
The Kobold Chieftan slain, you gather up the spoils of your victory and make your way back to the surface along the route that took you down here. The light blinds you as you exit the mine, and you can see Pokey the donkey still tied up to the tree you left him at.
By doing this, you can take care of long stretches of time and bring your players to the next scene without breaking your momentum. You can even do this if the "next scene" is just the players camping for the night or taking a break in a tavern. Just get the boring stuff out of the way! If Chris Perkins can cover 50 years in 30 minutes in his Dice, Camera, Action game, you can handwave 600 feet of boring walking.
Tone in Descriptions
When putting together your descriptions, you should also consider the tone of the game. This doesn't have to change anything you put in a particular room, but it can change how you tell the players about it.
Here are some variations on the "heroic fantasy" description of our dwarven tool room.
Sword and Sorcery:
You enter a medium-sized room of decrepit stone, the walls hung with tools used for manual labor. The creators of this place must have perished long ago. To the North, a rotting door barely hangs on its hinges, marred with deep gashes. To the East, a dark archway leads to a stone hallway that fades into blackness, the floor near the arch covered in unusual scratches. As you enter, you see malicious shapes moving among the shadows. Kobolds, four of them, draw their makeshift daggers and growl like dogs!Mythic Fantasy:
You enter a stone chamber, the smell of ancient dust hanging in the air. Trade tools of the ancient dwarven peoples adorn the walls, marking this room a place of labor. You see an old wooden door covered in scratch marks on the Northern wall. East, a once-beautiful archway leads down a hall, invisible beyond the light of your torches, the floor near the arch covered in the same scratch marks. As you enter, small forms arise from the rubble to face you. Four Kobolds, defending their newly-stolen home, draw their weapons and prepare to attack!Dark Fantasy:
You enter another stone chamber, with tools such as rusted pickaxes and iron spikes hanging from sharp hooks on the walls. The air in this room presses in on you, feeling claustrophobic. The Northern wall holds a rotting door, barely hanging on its hinges, marred with gashes made by some unknown assailant. To the East, the same gashes cover the stone around a crumbling archway, leading to a stone allway that fades into an unsettling darkness. By the flickering, feeble light of your torches, you can see shapes moving among the debris. The whining growl of Kobolds fills the room, and you hear daggers being scraped across the stone floor. You steel yourselves for a fight.
And so on. It's incredible what changing the words of a description can do for the player's perception of a scene. Every good, evocative word you use is worth a paragraph of description as it fills in a picture in the player's mind.
The best way to cultivate a good sense of tone is to read. Find a genre that matches the tone of the game you are playing, and read books until you've internalized the language. When you come across a particularly striking passage, read it out loud. Absorb the vocabulary, so that when you are in the moment you can use it at will to set the mood.
For a good list of types of fantasy, check out the DMG, page 38. It even lists D&D products and mythologies you can use to pull inspiration from.
Out of the Dungeon
But what if you aren't in a dungeon? What if your players are exploring a town, or in a tavern, or speaking to the king?
Well, you still have to build a description. And you still need to stick to the fundamentals.
- Instead of describing the size, shape, and make of the room. describe the environment and size of the area
- Instead of picking something in the room to emphasize, pick something in the area the PCs can interact with
- You can still hint at the function of the area, just like in a room
- Instead of hinting at the existence of traps, instead point out any potentially dangerous NPCs or objects the players might notice
- Instead of describing the exits to a room, try telling the players options for what they can do next by way of area descriptions or NPC dialogue. (You see a shoe shop vs. "I'd check out Barton's Shoes, best in the business for travelers!")
- Instead of focusing on the item that will most catch the players' attention, instead give the players a plot hook to pursue
In a sense, it's nearly the same. A scene can be thought of as a room. A game can be thought of as a dungeon. The difference is, in an open scene, there's going to be more to interact with, and the likelihood of a group completely clearing out an area is much lower. That means you have to keep notes on what the players have done in an area, including who they spoke to and actions they took.
But no matter what kind of game you are running, you need to cover the basics. Describe the area. Hint at danger. Show them options for leaving the scene. And give them a nice, juicy plot action to take. I would hope that's not up for debate!
Thanks for reading!