What You See Is What You Get - Description in D&D
I was asked how I handle description in the game and I thought it would be easiest to blog about it.
There are several “modes” that PCs can be in during the game:
Travelling Mode - Wilderness
Travelling Mode - Urban
Exploration Mode - Dungeon
Encounter Mode - Fight/Parley
Travelling Mode - Wilderness
General Procedure - Describe terrain, visibility, landmarks, weather, flora and fauna, daily
Goal - give the players enough information about variables that would have game mechanical impact (visibility, flora and fauna), and to give some “flavor” to the process by revealing some of the game world to them.
When in travelling mode the PCs are moving from place to place, travel is broken down into days. Start by describing the terrain, weather, visibility, plants and animals and any notable physical features of the geography as they are travelling for each travel day. Mix of visual, audio and olfactory data is given.
E.g. Day 1 - crossing a plain to get to the mountains, start by saying the plains are grasslands, that there are sporadic clusters of forest here and there, that visibility is pretty good as the terrain is flat, the weather is clear and warm, and there are numerous small animals, small birds, hawks and eagles, rabbits, frogs, etc.
When travelling, roll for random encounters. I roll in the open. if any one of the rolls comes up then we shift into Encounter mode. Otherwise I start every travelling day describing what was mentioned above, and answering any questions the players have about the environment.
Travelling Mode - Urban
General Procedure - Describe buildings, parks, roads, people (not specific, but generally, rough amounts, mix of types) as the PCs pass through the space.
Goal - urban travel is less dangerous than wilderness travel, so the goal is to show some of the life of the city, but to also let them know aspects of the environment relevant to what they are trying to do, e.g. if they are looking for a blacksmith I would describe the businesses they pass, if they are looking for a place to hide I will describe the potential hiding spots as they pass, etc.
I run a city setting so the players spend time moving through the urban environment in travelling mode. As they set out to cross the city to a destination I will mention the kind and number of people (“the square is about half full, mostly peasants, merchants hawking their wares, and carts pulled by giant lizards filled with goods for sale”), important landmarks (“you pass the statue of the warrior Cleve the Courageous”) and the activities they see around them (“as you turn into the square you see a troupe of jugglers throwing and catching swords”).
And sometimes a little detail that had no meaning whatsoever and was introduced just for flavor can become something significant as the ref or the players suggest an important connection or implication of that element. So say I describe a statue of a warrior in the square, not intending it to mean anything, and one of the players remembers that a tarot card reading a few weeks ago that mentioned the "warrior of stone". The advantage to consistently describing the environment is that these things don't stand out through their mention or omission.
I also roll for random encounters in the city, and if one comes up, or if the PCs reach a destination where they will be having an encounter (parley, combat, etc) of some kind, we switch into Encounter mode.
Exploration Mode - Dungeons, Temples, etc.
General Procedure - Describe walls, floors, lighting, sounds, temperature on a section by section basis, e.g. to the next bend in the corridor, noting any anomalies or strange sites like statues or figures.
Goal - to give the PCs enough information to navigate the space and anticipate danger.
In Exploration mode the assumption is that the environment is dangerous, so the PCs are moving slowly and cautiously. The important thing here is not to “give up the game” by either giving no information where you normally would, or giving more information where you normally would not. So it is best to give the same basic info about each area, and then respond to questions about details. I generally do not require a roll to investigate a space unless something is deliberately hidden, but I also require the players to describe how they are investigating a space so I can decide if they find anything.
When they open a door or go into a room I describe what they can see upon opening, which means all the visible contents of the room, from vases to chairs to rugs to whatever else populates the room. If there is a visible monster I would describe it as well then switch into encounter mode.
Encounter Mode - Various
General Procedure - describe distances, positioning of opponents and fellow party members, visibility/line of sight designations, unconcealed weapons and armor, etc.
Goal - in encounter mode things can switch in an instant, and the goal is to describe what is combat relevant, so the group can decide if they want to fight, talk or run away.
In encounter mode I describe the space and the general orientation of the PCs, and the rest is generally questions asked of me by the players in the attempt to gain comparative advantage through the environment.
In the wilderness, first I roll for surprise, assuming it did not come up, I then roll to see if either party spots the other first. I would look over the PCs sheets and the other party’s abilities to see if anyone had exceptional vision or something like that, and I would consider the environment, indoors or outdoors, if neither had an advantage/disadvantage, I would roll to see which party saw the other first. Straight d6, 1-2 other party see’s first, 3-4 simultaneous sighting, 5-6 party sees the other group first.
Say I rolled a 5, the party spotted them first. I would describe the approaching group generally, e.g. you see what appears to be approximately 10-15 humanoid creatures riding on what appears to be giant, lizard like mounts.
Then the party would decide what to do in terms of hiding before they are seen (not likely in this scenario), firing missile weapons or using spells. Once the opposing group got closer I would fill out details, e.g. as one of the riders charges forward to attack you make them out clearly, the rider is in leather armor with a crossbow loaded and aimed forward”, that sort of thing.
Indoors the procedure is roughly similar with the exception that the groups are not generally as far apart indoors. But I would roll for surprise, if that didn’t happen I would roll to see who notices who first. Otherwise I would answer questions from players about the environment relevant to the scenario.
I think the salient takeaways from this approach are fivefold:
Describe consistently and cover similar aspects of the environment in your descriptions, as you can’t know what will be useful later, and so you don’t tip off players to anything.
Ensure that the descriptions give them the information they need to make tactical decisions (visibility, objects in the environment, exits, etc.)
Respond to questions in a similar fashion, e.g. don’t “over describe” or “under describe” the environment whenever they ask a question about something dangerous (something related to a trap, or a monster, etc.)
Don’t describe things differently when there is danger nearby, don’t use different voices or more or less description when there is danger nearby. Get into the habit of providing descriptive information generally, so it won’t see unusual when there is an encounter
Remember that anything can become relevant as the game moves forward and that you cannot predict what will be relevant, so even a throwaway descriptive detail could matter to what happens next. So get in the habit of providing detail in a consistent way so you don't telegraph everything, but you give them enough detail to riff on for thier actions.