One Useless Thing
How the seemingly mundane can create evocative description
By MARK WILSON
Good descriptions are hard. I don’t have a catch-all way to make them interesting to players. Eventually it’s just flavor text and – I’ll be honest – my mind mostly glosses over the “read aloud” text in adventures, certainly when I’m listening as a player and also usually when I’m DMing. I can safely say I’m not alone in this.
The Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG) offers a bit of advice on this, and I think it’s useful enough to extrapolate into a general rule. When talking about overland travel, they include an example of adding one sentence that includes an interesting detail instead of simply montaging through it by saying “you arrive at your destination.” The description they offer as an alternative is: “A light rain dampens the rolling plains as you travel north. Around midday, you break for lunch under a lonely tree. There, the rogue finds a small rock that looks like a grinning face, but otherwise you encounter nothing out of the ordinary.”
Ok, so that’s not a revolutionary line that’s going to change the course of your campaign. But yes, as they suggest, it’s better than “you get there.” And who knows, maybe your rogue ends up with a pet rock as a result.
“And who knows, maybe your rogue ends up with a pet rock as a result.”
General Rule From Specific Example
So why do I think this is important? Because there’s a lot of hand-waving “you get there” in D&D. And there’s a lot of tired descriptions. And a lot of empty rooms in dungeons. Take the above example and multiply it by, say, 50 over the course of a campaign and you’ll have a much more realized game world. Not because of any major plot points, but because it has a lot of small details that make it feel “lived in.”
So it could be a rock that looks like a grinning face. Or a single window frame that creaks eerily in the wind. Or the strange pink moss that only seems to inhabit a particular stretch of land. But each of those is probably better than what would have been otherwise.
So it may seem like a small thing, and it absolutely is! But many small things add up to meaningful things, and I think it’s worth revisiting the small stuff if you’re having trouble describing scenes in evocative ways.