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Whenever I'm running or playing a game, I consistently run into an issue of setting atmosphere. I've realized the best way to do this is through more effective, engaging descriptions of settings, actions, and objects that the characters see and feel.

As a player, I feel that my actions are generally "I attack the goblin," or some variation thereof, but I'm afraid that I'll stumble over my words and further confuse the other players and I'll resort to "I attack the goblin" as to not drag the game out longer.

As a DM, my issue tends to be more with setting atmosphere with settings, locations, and objects. Effectively, the flavor texts that comes with walking into some amazing location that the characters (not necessarily the players) should be suitably impressed by. My goal here is to engage the players with some degree of spectacle, and be more inquisitive in their environment and whatever lies within it.

How can I create more descriptive, concise flavor text for the games I play in?

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Related, possible duplicate: What techniques can I use to improve flavor text? –  SevenSidedDie May 3 at 21:05

7 Answers 7

Some Strategies for 'Descriptive' descriptions:

Write down the colors/textures/scents that would be seen/felt/smelt:

  1. The Crimson blood drips from the ceiling turning black as it splatters on the ground.
  2. The coarse rock cavern echoed your smallest whispers, distorting them as the sounds return to you amplified.
  3. The putrid decay assaults your nose, penetrating your taste, even making your eyes burn.

Replace 'feelings' with 'facts':

  1. The impressive majestic mountains: => The snow capped ancient and jagged mountains.
  2. The immense city: => The sprawling city's winding roads hint that you'll never explore every street.
  3. The grand view of the ocean: => White caps blow salt spray that shimmers a rainbow blinding as the sun itself.

Replace ANY instance of the word "IT", "THERE", "THEM", etc. with the actual "IT".

Write down the phrases you develop (as above) for the session so you will not forget them.

Another helpful hint is to engage the players to help make the world descriptive when the scene needs development. Be sure to record the players response so they can come back and have another drink there and find a very familiar face.

  1. "You walk into the bar": => "Whats the name of the bar?" => "The laughing dog!"
  2. "Your served by the bartender": => "Whats the bartenders name? => "Randy" => "What does he look like?" => "Fat and battle scared."
  3. "A fight breaks out": "Out of the corner of an eye you spot someone grab a bottle and smashes it over the counter and cuts the persons throat he was having a drink with! What do you do?" => "Turn the table over and pull my sword", "Grab a chair and throw it", "Hide in the booth".

Always be willing to take a 1-5 minute break and gather your thoughts, its better to be a little bit slower and more descriptive then fast and vague.

Hope that helps a bit.

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  1. Treat places like characters, and word your descriptions with that in mind. Have them act and do things, things that matter to and concern the PCs. Use verbs. When stuff gets animate(d), it becomes interesting, more meaningful, and usually also more open to engagement, be that positive (helping) or negative (an obstacle to overcome by the PCs.)

    Examples:

    "You're entering the land of cold, ice capped mountains."

    You feel being watched by the ancient, white peaks. Their immense, stony arms seem to reach for you, as if to pull you in and drown you in the icy waters of their myriad tiny lakes, to trap you with root and gnarly branch, and feed you to the nameless beasts roaming their shadowy sides.

    "The beach is sandy, with a clear blue sky above, and warm waters."

    As you walk down to the beach, a warm breeze welcomes you, a kind servant of the endless waters that murmur softly in their sleep beneath the soft blue horizon. The sand seems shifting here and there in the rising heat, as if it was contemplating hiding or revealing pictures, paths that you may or may not want to walk... or that someone you possibly know have left here.

  2. As for descriptions during combat: stay brief. Combat is fast and deadly. Otherwise it's not really combat, is it? Sure, you can (and sometimes should) vary the pace, put emphasis on more important movements by giving them a longer description. But "The goblin attacks!" is fine. Especially if you raise your voice a bit. Don't be afraid to get a bit (but just a bit) more agitated while DMing combat: instead of wordy descriptions, let your voice and body language convey the stress of the battle. Keep the description brief. [shout:] "Aaargh!" [normal:] "The goblin tries to stab you again! [imitate stabbing with a gesture]; "A gurgling splash of red. His head rolls off!"; "The orc's blade tries to claw your heart out!" You get the feeling... I hope. ;)

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Combat can be slow as it is, don't bog it down with flowery language

Your impulse to impart descriptive interest to your actions and attacks is well-placed, but you most approach it with the right mindset. When your DM is accurately describing the locals, an important and interesting NPC, or a new race of creatures you stumble upon for the first time they are world building and seeking to impart to you a sense of where your character are and who they are interacting with. The GM is basically doing long, lurid establishing shots with his words. You on the otherhand are in charge of your character and only your character. Rather than trying to showcase impressive vistas, you're trying to communicate the physicality and style of your character. You're the 2nd unit director, covering only the action and your words should be short and to the point

Tips from Screenwriting

The screenplay format is incredibly constrictive in how you use words because they need to effectively communicate scenes and camera movements as succinctly as possible. A page should equal 1 minute of film time. As a result screenwriters regularly use easily read, short syllable words that can effectively communicate as much as possible in as little space as possible. When I was first learning to write screenplays under my professor Ian Abrams he stress the importance of having a wide and simple vocabulary to draw upon and always writing in the active present tense.

An example

  • Your Example: "I attack the goblin"
  • In a Novel: "I feinted to the left, moving my sword to the right and struck at goblin with my sharp blade, bringing it down over head repeatedly"
  • In a Screenplay: "I hack and hew the goblin"

Both the novel style and the screenplay style describe similar actions and tell a much more interesting story than the example you gave in the question. The difference is that the screenplay example communicates it with 5 monosyllable words (except goblin). Focus on brevity and impact vs. pure description. Your actions are only part of the fight, only have them take up a moment so the focus can quickly cut to the next player.

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My quick and dirty rules on in-game description.

Use all five senses

Don't just "describe a picture." Not every time - but remembering to toss in sound, a smell, a taste, a feeling, adds a lot more. You want the players to feel like they are there, and "the sun is bright in the sky above a sandy beach" is less immersive than "the sun beats down on you as you slog through the sand of the endless beach."

Also, remember to include motion. Movement of waves, grass, people. etc. reminds the players at an instinctive level that the world is living and breathing and going on even without them interacting with it.

Be specific

Don't just tell them "it's raining" or "it's hot." The rain stings your skin, or there's a pleasant warmth making the smell of the foliage rise up around you.

Keep some brainstormed adjectives around and nice turns of phrase you want to use sometime. I frequently will see some weather or landscape or similar and write down a 2-sentence description to use at some later time.

Be Clear

For clarity, though, don't go crazy with the adjectives and adverbs. Concentrate on the verbs and put important things either at the end or the beginning, don't bury them in the middle (of a sentence, or worse a set of sentences). Remember that actually conveying information is the goal here, and PCs can be cross about having to ask "Wait, what do you mean it's on fire?" even though "you told them..." in the middle of some big ol' infodump. The classic mistake of reading a paragraph of boxed text about the inlay on the fireplace before you find out there's a crazed owlbear in the bedroom is unfortunately common. Lead in with the most important and notable aspects, and bring the rest out over time. A PC looking for situational advantage can always ask for more room description past "owlbear!" as needed.

This is a game - so there are some things that if not mentioned, aren't just lost color but will P.O. the PCs. So many folks don't bother reviewing stat blocks (and cast buffs and whatnot, esp, in prewritten adventures) and note that this ogre is wearing platemail and has an ioun stone whirling about his head. That's "you should have told us that 101."

It can be better to choose the one right word rather than layering on other words. Adding more adjectives to "I swing my sword" is worse than finding a more specific, vivid single word to replace "swing."

Be vivid but not lurid

It's easy to go overboard. We are playing through the Carrion Crown adventure path right now, and in an attempt to make it all "Gothicy" they go way over into purple prose on the room descriptions. "[5 sentences of description...] Whispers skitter like bats' wings through the darkness..." Those who didn't catch all the boxed text are confused about "there's not bats?" for five minutes while we and the GM roll our eyes. So describe, but get to the point quickly. You don't describe in an RPG the same way you'd describe in a novel. Readers have no choice but to wait till James Michener's happy ass gets done describing the turtle crossing the road, but your players generally would like to do something themselves.

Also, try not to info-dump. Rather than five sentences of "boxed text," give them one and then intersperse the other four into resultant descriptions of the PCs interacting with the world; this makes the additional description seem like a reward, not a startup cost.

Use metaphors

OK, with the previous point in mind, it is good to use figurative language and metaphor, it's just so easy to go overboard or to trot out all the usual cliche ones. But this is how you also use the description to set a mood, from jovial to horrific. "The darkness watches you from three identical doorways" indicates to PCs to increase their pucker factor above "There are three identical doorways; you don't see light coming from any of them."

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Are you sure about 'lead in with the most important and notable aspects'. even when no immediate action is required? I find if you say "you see a swamp; there is the sound of something moving in it" your carefully prepared description of the sounds and smells will be ignored or missed out entirely as the players ask "Wait, is it big or small? Coming towards us?" Better to have the sentence they will react to at the end of the description. –  TimLymington Apr 29 at 8:45
    
That's why I also say "put important things either at the end or the beginning"... –  mxyzplk Apr 29 at 11:57

Locations

When I am preparing descriptions for locations I usually start with a mental image of the scene where the PCs first see that location. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, once I have that scene firmly in mind it becomes a lot easier to describe.

  • "A low wind whispers through the cemetery, bringing the dry rustle of dead leaves to your ears."
  • "As you enter the room the air smells ancient and stale. A thick layer of dust lays over the floor and furniture, undisturbed for countless years."
  • "The mountains loom above you, their slops bare and their peaks glinting like a diamond in the afternoon sun."
  • "The bazaar is a riot of motion, colors, smells, and above all noise as vendors hawk their wares, customers haggle, and children run laughing and screaming down the street."

Combat

Combat is a bit trickier to describe, but I would agree with others and say that brief descriptions of the action are best. I usually base the descriptions on the type of attack and the end result.

  • Melee attack misses the AC by a fair margin: "You swing your sword, but the goblin is able to easily duck under it"
  • Melee attack just barely misses AC: "Your sword connects with the soldier's side, but is deflected by his armor"
  • Melee attack hits but does low damage: "You swing your sword and manage to cut the bear, but his hide is thicker than you expected and you barely scratch it"
  • Melee attack hits and does high damage: "Your warhammer connects with a solid crunch as the enemy fighter lets out a grunt of pain"

For ranged attacks I would do something similar, while emphasizing on where the arrows struck. Low damage might graze an arm, while high damage would penetrate a leg and a killing shot pierce the throat. Describing magic attacks takes a bit more imagination, but thankfully most of the spells come with a description you can use as a guideline.

Personally, I would encourage my players to be descriptive when describing their actions in combat, as long as they keep it reasonable. "I do a triple forward handspring into a standing backflip, then dropkick the guard" is maybe a tad bit too much for a single attack, even for a Monk. But "I stab the wizard between the shoulders while he is distracted" is a simple and flavorful way for the Rogue to describe a sneak attack.

As a final piece of advice I would say that reading in general will help you with your descriptions, and reading fantasy in particular is a good way to see how professional storytellers build atmosphere and describe combat.

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Description is one of my weaknesses too. I have no problem imagining how things look, but fail to pass that info to the players.

Here's how I dealt with it. I actually did this for all my description, not just action scenes.

Write it out in your notes. That's all.

Basically what I realized is that description is not something I improvise well. But if I have it in my notes, I have no problem supplying it. It's just a little reminder.

What I'd do for combat is write out some description for each attack option an enemy has. The more interesting an attack is, the more description. Put that in the NPC notes, right next to the attack option. Cross out a description as you mention it.

ie.

Sword. "Takes a swing", "Steps inside your reach and thrusts", "Flails wildly". Once daily power (or system equivalent). "BBEG closes his eyes and inhales deeply. When his eyes open, the whites are gone. He turns to face $paladin and let's loose with a savage series of blows."

Etc. (Okay, that last one was pretty over the top. I hope you get the idea though.)

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The rules that I write here are my guidelines when I describe things in my games, they are by no mean the definitive rules or the ultimate guidelines. I do hope that they will help you, though, so without much more ado let's dive in.

The first thing that one should consider is the different types of things to describe. Each one of them carries a different type of description, and although most of them are kinda close to each other, there are still a few "types" that stand out.

Location description

Describing locations is probably the most common type of description in games and stories. This is the type of description that literally builds the picture in the players' heads and should be addressed as such. There are a few rules that I follow when I describe locations, which I covered elsewhere (this topic also has a few more great suggestions and guidelines that one should consider…), but can be summed with these: 1) Include no more than 3 details in the area, and 2) Limit your description to 20 seconds or less.

A nice suggestion that I read once, is to give an adjective or an adverb to each and every noun or verb that you use. I t may sound as a lot, but it is much easier than it seems.

The short man went quickly to the cheap diner.

Is much better than:

The man went to the diner.

It is as simple as that.

Action descriptions

This is a little bit harder to pull rightly, too much and it drags the game and too little and there's no picture in one's head, we're back to miniature games. For me, the guidelines depend upon the length of the battles in the game. If the battles are short, I give about a sentence after each action. If, on the other hand, they are much longer I keep the descriptions to special occasions.

I heard a great GM who said once that he comes with three action descriptions for each and every battle- a critical hit by the monster, another one for when the monster is defeated and a third one for one of its special attacks. He said that players will want to describe their critical hits for themselves, and that critical fumbles draw their description from the situation, so coming with it ahead of time won't be half as good. I, for once, bring more descriptions to the table, but it surely influenced the actions that I describe with greater detail.

A few general add-ons

With that being said, there are a few other things that should be mentioned, but due to them being relevant to both types of descriptions I'll just write it here. The first one is that one should use all five senses in one's descriptions. Being so hard to pull, I usually come to my games with a list of the five senses and in each description use at least two of them. Then I mark the senses, so I know that in the next description chunk I should come with another set of 2 senses.

Another thing to consider is a trick that I learned from "Alice in Wonderland". When Carol describes the tea party, he starts to describe the things on the table and then comes with "…and all the other things one expects to find in a tea party". This was like a revelation for me, as this is one of the easiest ways to keep the description both short and full of all the details one needs.

Lastly, I generally ask my players to add things to the scene, to describe certain aspects of the world for me. It does for me two very special things. The first one is that it creates a greater emotional bond between the players to the world- they created it too, after all. More than that, though, it gives me an excuse to make longer descriptions without them noticing. I can describe more things and to a greater level of detail in my 20 second-chunk.

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