I have come to the conclusion that in materials I am preparing myself, I want to add more variety to narration by introducing information to the players without using second person point-of-view narration. What I am trying to avoid is trite and repetitive dialog such as:

You feel a cold breeze that causes your hair to stand on end. An uncanny feeling of dread grips you as you take in the macabre sight.

You feel very uncomfortably warm at the pit of this volcano, feeling the sweat pool in the armour that you neglected to doff.

You, you, you, you, you

Argh. I grow very weary of this word. "You" has almost lost all meaning for me. I do not have a formal writing background, but have been trying to catalog ways of capturing certain thematic or tonal elements in a scene without introducing the dreaded "y" word. It irritates me knowing that I use the word "you" as a crutch that, I feel, is strictly tonally limiting for scenes I am trying to design. I hope I am not the only one with this problem...

My approach so far has been to prepare some material that I can read off at a moment's notice so that I don't have to improvise something, being that I will almost assuredly fall back on starting the sentence (cringe) with the word "you". I find it somewhat difficult to do so, but have managed at least to introduce a somewhat neutral hypothetical third party that narrates their feelings on tone or theme without encroaching on the player's or player character's feelings or emotions, as described in this question:

Third-Person Limited Narration or Third-Person Omniscient Narration?

However, I feel like again this is sort of boxing me in again, and will only lead to me becoming formulaic in my storytelling, but I'll just be following a different formula. This time the formula being the Third-person limited or third-person omniscient formula.

My biggest concern here is the balance between player agency, and my narrative desires. I don't want to tell them that they are experiencing a feeling of dread. I want to present to them with concepts that instill dread. I will write a damned book if need be.

One of the primary reasons being that I want to cue the players when there is a scary thing or a happy thing or whatever, to role play being scared (happy etc), without giving them the [BE SCARED] title card. Simultaneously I don't want them to completely miss the cue either, or come away ignoring everything saying "my character wasn't scared!"

I feel that a lot of my problem can be solved by judiciously avoiding the "You do X" format because, honestly, if you are anywhere it takes a moment to get a read on a room. Saying that the PCs walk into a house and "have an immediate feeling of dread" is really quite baloney to me and the more sessions I do, the more I realize that my use of this format as a crutch is dampening my enjoyment of the game.

Note, I am specifically talking about scene setting here, to narrow the scope. When a PC says "I look for a chair to sit down in" I just say "You find a comfortable chair" like a normal human being. This question is specific to scene setting where tonality and theming is important, without forcing emotions down a player or PC's throat.

Therefore, my question is:

How can I eliminate "you" sentences during narration? What techniques are there, and have they improved your storytelling at your table? How so?

I am speaking specifically about D&D 5e. I want to have additional ways to narrate that are in the spirit of that game system and that allow me to challenge or reframe the scene tonally without removing player agency.

Here's some example stuff I've written for LMoP to flesh out Conyberry (WARNING: SPOILERS) and I'm looking to broaden my writing and narration horizons... please let me know how to improve this question if it's not clear what I'm trying to do.

Continuing further along the trail, past the willow vines and into the quickly darkening forest, barely visible are the flickering forms of pale blue fire. They dance around the trees as if chasing one another, living out mischievous and playful past lives. The air here feels freezing and seems to clutch desperately onto warm skin. The trees seem oblivious of the harsh chill, and the branches in direct sunlight have begun to bud. Toads stare apathetically as the trail winds deeper into the darker parts of the woods.

Slightly obscuring the view into this primitive abode are thin strands of black filament that hang like a beaded curtain. The strands are still in the air, and each exhale comes out in lush plumes of fog. An intense feeling of dread muffles every sense. After all, anyone with any sense would have avoided this place. It is a place where no living being belongs.

Plain to see is a modestly furnished living quarters. Thinly coating the room and its furnishings is a veil of dust that leaves the room looking like it hasn’t been lived in for several centuries. Strangely, a pearl necklace with gold fastenings gleam in the dim blue-green light of the abode as though meticulously polished. A deathly silence hangs in the air.

Has anyone had success in spicing up their campaign by changing the point-of-view every now and again? Got any pointers?


3 Answers 3


There are times to use "you" and times not to.

Don't Use "You" To Remove Agency

When I run my games, I avoid using "you" especially to avoid imputing feelings to the PCs. "You feel scared by the volcano" angers players and they feel like their agency is being removed. "Lord British isn't scared of a little thing like the landscape!" Don't do that.

The players want to say what they do and think (and in 5e, the rules even say that's their domain). You should use "you" only for effects that you really do intend to apply to them - if they are wearing armor in that volcano and they're going to take damage or negative status effects, then "You are sweating and starting to feel weak from the heat" is appropriate. "One might get weak from the heat" is weasel-wording and then when you slap a strength penalty on someone they'll feel like you were suckering them by not being direct and letting them make the choice.

Note that you can remove agency without using the word “you” as well - “The macabre sight causes an unnerving feel of dread” is just as bad (unless they just failed a save and are demoralized by that view or something).

Don't Use "You" For Normal Descriptions

Avoid "you" when describing environments. Take a look at professional adventure writing for their take on environment descriptions. Opening up the adventure I'm running right now, Richard Pett's Angry Waters in the Heart of the Razor adventure book, some encounters have boxed text like:

A huge pyre has been built here, a towering mass of scorched timber that blights an otherwise idyllic bay, Beyond, jungle-infested cliffs tower skyward.

You can add things like "The wet sand scrunches underfoot." "You" is not required here.

From the Pathfinder adventure Path chapter The Wormwood Mutiny, also by Pett:

A well-built timber stockade surrounds a small lodge in a jungle clearing. Vines wrap and strangle a great tree that rises next to the lodge, blocking light from above. Beside it is a bubbling spring.

Most adventures use the same style, or omit boxes text entirely and just leave it in the text for the GM to read or summarize. Repeating "You see a stockade and you see vines and you hear a brook" is repetitive and just plain bad writing, and that's what you're reacting against. Don't use "one" or some weird textbook-sounding thing like "The reader will find that..." Just describe.

Use "You" To Create Engagement

However, "you" has the power of placing someone in the story. You'll note the players certainly don't shy away from saying "I" or "we." If they ask how far away the pyre is, you can say "It stands thirty feet away," or you can say "You are standing thirty feet away." Either are fine, but the latter has a little bit more of a personal hook for the players. WE are here and WE are thirty feet away from this suspicious thing.

If you try to remove the "you" from this you create emotional distance. "The column of adventurers make its way up the jungle trail." "Some other column? Oh, you mean us?" Fine, but now I feel more disassociated from the action. Use proper names to break it up and to reinforce game world facts. "The Company of the Shield makes its way up the jungle trail" adds some worldbuilding to "Your group makes its way up the jungle trail." Or even "Tristan's helmet feather hangs limply in the humidity," where breaking the narration to point at Tristan's player and say "your helmet feather hangs limply in the humidity" seems like you're demanding action out of them.

Getting into the fictional world is hard, and "you" can make it easier. I would seldom say to a player in an action scene "Tristan hangs to the side of the onrushing wagon." I would always say "Tristan, you are hanging on the side of the onrushing wagon." That "you" causes a spark of engagement in the player's eyes. When it's someone's initiative, use "you" without fail. "What do you do?"

This is a good reason not to overuse it in environment descriptions, because then it can have punch when you do use it.

So you're right, there's not a lot of place for "you" in the context of written adventure prep, but there is plenty of place for it in narration in play.

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for listing the times when avoiding "you" enhances narration (to set tone, formal descriptions), places where "you" should be used (to create engangement, calls to action, emotional proximity), and for listing reasons for each (for "you": sets the player in the scene, incites a response, less cryptic) (avoid: formal descriptions, preserving agency and speaking on the environment's behalf). This is my accepted answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – user52772
    Commented Jun 27, 2019 at 16:54

In all honesty, I don't really have much experience as a GM, but I do have some experience as a writer. The good thing is that the English language is really quite flexible.

You can try removing the word from your descriptions

  • A cold breeze that causes a nervous chill. The macabre sight creates an unnerving feel of dread.

  • It is uncomfortably warm at the pit of this volcano, causing profuse sweating, which begins to pool in the armour that has been neglected to have been doff'd.

This does require a little rephrasing, but can achieve a similar effect. In this situation, the GM is not telling the players how they feel, the players are being told what they are experiencing. Body functions are one thing; thoughts and feelings are another. This then leaves the freedom to react how they wish to react.

This does force an expectation on to the players as to how they should feel. Again, this could simply be averted by comparing it to "any average person". This is potentially a bit "hacky", but it can divert the expectation from the players and the player characters; instead they can compare themselves to this "normal" reaction.

You can focus on the environment, rather than the players' reactions to it.

  • An unsettlingly cold breeze blows, carrying an unnatural chill. The fog billows around, eventually clearing to reveal a macabre sight.

  • The lava pit bubbles and broils, the air thick and burning. Hot zephyrs are the only respite from the clammy environment, in only as a form of moving air.

By describing the inputs that the players and player characters can react to, they can then react to the environment, and decide how they feel in these environments for themselves, without expectations being forced on them.

  • 4
    \$\begingroup\$ Your rephrasing of the "uncomfortably warm" example sounds really awkward to me. But personally I would agree with the "focus on the environment" part of the answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Commented Jun 26, 2019 at 8:58
  • 4
    \$\begingroup\$ I like parts of this answer, but have to agree that the "uncomfortably warm" one might be better phrased. Sorry, I admit this question is 2 parts gm techniques, 7 parts my fanatical personal preference. But have you used this technique judiciously before (removing the vast majority of "you" sentences)? Was there a marked improvement in your style, your enjoyment, and or your player's enjoyment? That is a big part, in my view, to any answer that I would be accepting. \$\endgroup\$
    – user52772
    Commented Jun 26, 2019 at 12:27

Turn your focus to the environment, rather than "you"

This is a combination of things I, myself, have been endeavoring to do both in and out of the GM's chair.

Part one: Replace "you" with "one"

It took me a while to get over feeling like a pretentious jerk, but I survived. When I want to refer to a general case of what one could be experiencing or doing, I simply say "one might feel burdened by the responsibilities of this station." or "One should vote in as many elections as they are able."

This allows you to still invoke feelings, without telling a player how their character feels. To paraphrase your "cold breeze" comment using this method:

One's hair might stand on end from the cold breeze drifts by. The macabre scene is enough to cause dread in anyone.

I usually use this for less environmental aspects, such as a busy market.

The hustle and bustle of the day's dealings continue on; one should be able to find nearly any mundane item, should they be willing to look.

I'll admit, it's not perfect for your listed examples, but that brings me to...

Part two: Focus on the Environment.

Forget about the players and characters for a moment. Think of the scene you want to portray as if there is no one there to experience it.

What are the sights and sounds? Is there a particular odor? Something.... else?

I strive to include at least one descriptor in every scene.
Make camp? "The air feels humid and sticky, in keeping with the season."
Walking at night? "As the party continues, the sounds of night animals can be heard in the distance. They alternate between seeming to get closer or further away"
Smoking a pipe? "The room's windows are well sealed and the pipe smoke hangs heavy in the air."

It's an ongoing struggle, but I think it has improved my oratory skills, especially as a DM.

  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ I like the "focus on the environment" idea. In most cases, I am trying to characterize the scene or environment as though it were a character without introducing the word "you". Using the word "one" or "anyone" is an interesting tool, though I fear it would become too formulaic. However, I think this answer could be improved upon by talking about how it improved upon your oratory skills. For you, is it simply the joy of havin variety, or are you more plainly able to communicate your intent for a scene? + "one". ;) \$\endgroup\$
    – user52772
    Commented Jun 26, 2019 at 13:30
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @TylerGubala I think that it has given me a better vehicle with which to describe an environment. It's easier to describe something important when you are in the mindset of describing something mundane. \$\endgroup\$
    – goodguy5
    Commented Jun 26, 2019 at 13:32
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Is saying "one" all the time better than "you"? Same repetition, with the bonus of being more unnatural to the listener. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Jun 27, 2019 at 15:47

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