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This question is inspired by an answer to another question here.

I originally tagged this with system-agnostic but was informed that some systems actually have specific rules about this so I need to tag a particular system because of that. This problem is not specific to dnd 3e and I've run into it in all RP systems I've ever used, so you do not need any experience with the 3rd edition of D&D, or even with D&D at all, in order to answer.

TL;DR

How can a person not good at improvisation on the spot provide interesting action narratives, such as...

  • Your strike lands on the kobold's arm and it winces and shouts in pain.
  • This time your blow slices across the kobold's face. It screams and staggers back to reassess you.

instead of...

  • Hit.
  • Hit again.

?


I can come up with a few reasonable lines ahead of time, or maybe even on the spot if it doesn't happen much. But you cannot just keep saying this same line over and over again, or it becomes even worse than "I attack, rolled 15."

Take this example (Player 1 is under an effect to be able to act more often, just to exaggerate the monotonous feeling for this example)...

Player N: We round the corner.

DM: You encounter 2 kobolds.

[everyone does whatever initiative-related things they need to do]

Player 1: I attack, rolled fifteen.

DM: Hit.

Player 1: Attack, 10.

DM: Miss.

Player 2: Attack, 14.

DM: Hit. First one goes down.

Player 1: Attack 13.

DM: Hit.

Player 1: Attack 16.

DM: Hit, second one gone.

... which is bland, and compare to this ...

Player N: We round the corner.

DM: You encounter 2 kobolds.

[everyone does whatever initiative-related things they need to do]

Player 1: I strike my battle pose and lash at the first kobold with my short sword. Fifteen.

DM: You slice the kobold on the arm, and it shouts in pain.

Player 1: I lash at the first kobold with my short sword. Ten.

DM: Miss.

Player 2: I smash the first kobold with my mace. Fourteen.

DM: You smash the kobold on the arm, and it shouts in pain. It falls, defeated.

Player 1: I lash at the second kobold with my short sword. Thirteen.

DM: You slice the kobold on the arm, and it shouts in pain.

Player 1: I lash at the second kobold with my short sword. Sixteen.

DM: You slice the kobold on the arm, and it shouts in pain. It falls, defeated.

That second version starts to sound better, but it quickly gets even more monotonous feeling than the first. It feels too forced and scripted. I would say that the second version breaks immersion even more than the first one does just because of the repetition in the scripted responses.

Ideally, the responses would not be the same every time. But I am not good at improvisation, so what can someone bad at making up interesting responses on short notice do to provide the game with the flair that improves it without making it feel forced, repetitive, and unnatural?

What I have tried

Being better at improv, thinking faster on my feet

I have tried this, and I usually I just cannot come up with varied good responses. If I try to "just do better on the spot," then I tend to say things very similar to what I said before, almost the same thing, or to take long enough that the continued pauses while I think become a problem.

Using the boring responses with occasional decent ones thrown in

Saying something more interesting if I can think of it, otherwise falling back on the mundane "Attack." or "It hit."

Usually this amounts to 2 or 3 interesting responses early on in the session, then maybe once or twice during the rest of it, as I don't have the variety and don't want to overdo it.

Making a list of pre-made responses for common actions and cycling through it

This takes the following form: I spend time beforehand to make a list of as many good responses as I can and write them down.

Ex:

(When I'm a player)

  • I strike my battle pose and...
  • I draw my weapon and...
  • ... lash at the ...
  • ... strike at the ...
  • ... furiously hack and slash at the ...
  • (etc..., there could be several more)

(When I'm a DM/GM)

  • You (hit/got/damaged) it right in the (pick: chest/leg/arm/head) and ...
  • ... made it angry.
  • ... caused it to wince.
  • ... it screamed in pain.
  • (etc...)

This helps a lot more, but inevitably this just staves the problem off temporarily and it still needs to be dealt with after I have gone through the list once or twice. I often combine this with the previous method of mixing in the boring responses too.

I strike my battle post and lash at the kobold.

You got its arm and made it angry.

I lash at the kobold again.

You hit and it falls unconscious.

I attack the other one.

You hit its chest and caused it to wince.

I furiously hack at the kobold with all my might.

You got it right in the head and it screamed in pain.

I hit again.

It goes down, defeated.

That looks way, way better. But! that is only a single very short example, and it nearly exhausted the list. Imagine that the battle took longer, and that there are 2 or 3 battles in a given combat-heavy session.

In a session with a lot more combat, there would be a lot of the generic "You hit it again." responses between the interesting ones, and even then every single item in the list could get used 2 or 3 times over, to the point where the repetition is noticeable and sounding robotic. And the problem of repeating the same thing every session.

I could just keep trying to grow the list, but it seems cumbersome to have an entire paper dedicated to responses to a certain common action. And I have only addressed combat so far; depending on the system, there could be many other actions to narrate.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Discussion on this question has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Oct 8 '18 at 22:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm just going to delete all my comments and look into the systems you have described (PBTA, Cortex) so as to avoid sounding ignorant and to avoid derailing my question. Thank you for your input. \$\endgroup\$ – Aaron Oct 8 '18 at 22:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ Are you asking from a GM perspective, a player perspective, or both/either? \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Oct 9 '18 at 0:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ @V2Blast Both/either. I have the same problem no matter which side of the table I'm on. I am thinking the strategy would be the same either way, but if I am wrong then feel free to take a stance one way or the other. \$\endgroup\$ – Aaron Oct 9 '18 at 15:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ I read the discussion and don't at all see how this is not system-agnostic. If the aren't telling us about existing rules in their system to solve their problem it might be a good first assumption to assume that they are not using such a system -- and as they have in the meantime clarified, they are not. This is still 99% system-agnostic, in the way that we only know it doesn't apply to some few very specific systems that have actual rules for this. Bottom line: I fail to see what this has to do with dnd-3e at all, and I feel tagging it so doesn't do this question justice. \$\endgroup\$ – fgysin reinstate Monica Oct 10 '18 at 5:52
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Get your players to help you!

For example, if they are able to kill a kobold with their attack(s), then just ask them how they kill it.

Use the environment as much as possible

Usually the environment will change between (or even during) fights, so bringing it in can help you get extra descriptive flair or ideas. Just because you are fighting with a sword doesn't mean you can't slam them into a nearby wall to stun them before running them through.

Build off of the previous actions/Involve other characters

If the mage threw a fireball and scattered a bunch of enemies, maybe that's why your rogue was able to sneak around and shove a dagger in their back. Or if you and your cleric are flanking something, maybe his last attack staggered the creature enough for you to land a solid hit.

For 3e in particular, you could try rolling the entire set of attacks first then resolving that as a one interaction. You don't need to narrate every single attack since they are usually one unit.

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You can do this without improvising, and you can also develop better improv skills over time.

GMing involves a long list of skills that can be a lot of work and a lot of pressure. Here's a quick and incomplete list of skills a DM uses, some always and some occasionally:

  • Organizing
  • Diplomacy
  • Creativity
  • Writing
  • Logic
  • Communication
  • Drawing
  • Research
  • Memory
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Imagination
  • Fairness
  • Trust-building
  • Acting
  • Improvisation
  • Conflict resolution
  • Time management

It's crucial for GMs to recognize where they are skilled and where they need to improve, or where they need assistance from other players. The GM cannot manage everything all the time.

On that note here are some steps you can take to move towards more descriptive action at your gaming table (and I say at your gaming table and not as a GM very intentionally, because it should be a group effort and not all on you).

Flair is built into D&D, let the game do the work

It's not important for every action or attack to be narrated in detail. This takes a lot of extra time and as you demonstrated in your question it can get just as tedious as simply stating your target, rolling and stating the outcome of the roll.

The game has a built in mechanism for making certain die rolls more memorable than others. The 20 and the 1. These two rolls represent an epic success or an epic failure and are the perfect entry points for bringing in more descriptive action into your game.

With a 20 or a 1 you can throw out the most ridiculous descriptions you can possibly muster. For a 20 look to Legolas or Batman for inspiration, start by literally describing something you saw one of them do in a movie. You can even openly reference them in your description. I don't know many players who would mind being compared to Batman.

For a 1 think Inspector Gadget, Minions or any You Tube/Instagram video with the words Epic Fail in the title or tags (watch some, if you can stomach them). Again, describe something you saw, make it as ridiculous as you possibly can. Imagine you are describing a cartoon. Arms flailing, feet slipping, eyes bugging out of their head.

Describing scenes you've seen in a movie or video gives you practice describing actions without having to come up with ideas on your own. You're focusing on being descriptive rather than figuring out what to describe.

Five Senses +

When at a loss for descriptive language you can always fall back on the five basic senses. Run right through the senses and describe what the players are experiencing:

  • Sight: Your sword sinks into the orc chieftain's neck
  • Sound: Squelching like an orange crushed on the ground
  • Smell: You smell the putrid exhalation of his breath
  • Feel: ... And feel his warm spit on your cheek
  • Taste: You can taste your own blood in your mouth. And it is the taste of victory.

Even a more simple description works well:

  • Sight: Your sword goes into his shoulder
  • Sound: Squishing the flesh
  • Smell: You can smell his sweat
  • Feel: And feel the bone of his shoulder grating against your sword
  • Taste: You taste your own blood in your mouth.

Make a single card with the five senses on it. When you need to describe something look at the card and work your way down the list. If you can't think of a description for one of the senses just skip it. Additionally you can keep a running list of descriptions for each sense. These are much easier to come up with than full descriptions, and this also allows you to mix them up a bit and reuse them occasionally.

You can pair this with the 1 and 20 rolls and also pair it with scenes you've seen in movies or videos, and you'll be off to a really good start.

Why the plus +? In addition to the five senses there may be other senses you want to include, such as a gut feeling the character has (6th sense), or an emotion the character is feeling, or even a small response the character makes (such as a grin). This could look something like:

  • Plus: You feel victory in the air
  • Plus: and you can't help but smirk at the orcs suffering

Some GMs do not get into character feelings and reactions, but sometimes I think it adds a nice touch to descriptions.

Collaborate

Good description does not have to be entirely on the GM. Ask your players what their specific intentions are. Players often have an idea of a specific way they want to achieve an action in the game. So rather than just hitting an orc with their sword and causing damage, they may want to slice his ear off. On a high roll give them what they ask for, and describe it. You do not have to change the mechanics of the hit, just describe it using the Five Senses +:

  • Sight: Your sword flashes in the dark cavern and you see his ear fly to the ground
  • Sound: The orc shrieks
  • Smell: and you can smell his fear.
  • Feel:
  • Taste:
  • Plus: You feel invincible
  • Plus: and are eager to surge forward

Collaboration game:

Here's a method to get your players involved in describing events of the game with you, and at the same time learning what the players are drawn to in a description.

Using all three points above: 20 and 1, Five Senses + and Collaboration I've created a fun descriptive game that gets the whole table involved in describing actions.

It's very simple. Whenever someone rolls a 1 or a 20 ask one person at the table:

What do you see happen?

They will respond: I see Icebreath's battle axe crunch the wizard's knee.

Continue around the table:

  • What do you hear?: I hear a loud crack.
  • What do you smell?: The smell of lightning grazing by my face as the spell fizzles out.
  • What do you feel?: Excited.
  • What do you taste?: Vengeance for my mother's death will be mine
  • Icebreath, what do you feel? My rage boiling over, everything is red.

The first time I tried this these are almost the exact answers the players gave. They were describing each others' actions and why shouldn't they? After all they are the ones in the world witnessing what happens. They know as well as the GM what is going on right in front of their own eyes. They loved this! And I loved it too.

If someone wants to pass, just let them pass, no big deal. If someone says something that is totally unrealistic (like, "The wizard turns into a puddle of oatmeal") tell them they must be hallucinating, they are dehydrated, or just remind them that is not a realistic consequence of getting hit with an axe. Ultimately it won't work if the players aren't wiling to be realistic within the game context.

Get feedback

Whatever methods you use, always get feedback. I find honest feedback is best received one-on-one the same day as the session was played. I get the most useful feedback when I ask people in person before we part ways after a session. Just ask straight up, "Did you enjoy the session today?" and when they give you an answer ask specifically, "What did you like about it?" or "What wasn't so great for you?"

Getting feedback will help you to improve.

Be patient, the right moment will present itself.

Every action in the game does not need to include a brilliant description. Sometimes things just happen. Wait for the right moment when an epic description is warranted and an opportunity presents itself. 20's and 1's are good indicators of such a moment. Another good opportunity for description is when an adversary is defeated, chased off or killed.

Also there are many other moments besides battle that can be memorable. Let the players talk and describe their actions, because sometimes when the GM is just quiet and doesn't say anything the best moments arise organically through player dialogue. Just wait for those moments to happen and point them out to thunderous applause or laughter or grimacing.

Build off your strengths

Recognize which GM skills you are proficient in. These are your core skills and are the foundation of your GMing. Recognize that you do an awesome job at certain things and may need improvement in others. There are a lot of skills that make a successful GM. Most of us are not proficient at all of them. Recognize where you might need help and don't be afraid to ask the players to step up. It's not a terrible thing to say, "Hey, I've been really stressing about adding description to actions in this campaign and I'd like your help." See what they come up with. You may be surprised.

Develop and collect resources

All the answers on this page are a good start. Get a binder, notebook, Trello.com account or whatever you need to start organizing resources for improving as a GM. Collect as many resources as you can and peruse them when you can.

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This is a difficult area for many GM's, and a lot struggle for the type of improvisational dialog that helps with constructing conflicts. Personally, I make a lot of use of external tools that are built for this in my GMing to keep my descriptions fresh and interesting.

A couple that I've been making use of as of late are:

Also, make it a point to give incentive for your players to use more dramatic descriptions for their combat, this can give you more inspiration for ways to counter as you feed off their imaginations. If "I swing my sword" works the same mechanically as "Flourishing my blade before my opponent, I lunge with a deft flick to attempt to penetrate his defenses", many times the players will opt for the former.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Great one. As far as D&D, that could translate to a simple, small bonus on dice rolls. Or... if "the kobold reels from the blow to its arm shield," and you are up next and are flanking the kobold, an "I swing my axe around laterally and hard aiming around the kobold's stunned shield arm" might allow you to ignore its shield armor bonus. And I'm thinking of other ideas too, some of them cooler than just a number bonus. Thanks. \$\endgroup\$ – Aaron Oct 8 '18 at 22:42

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