GM Tips articles offer advice and ideas for gamesmasters to help hone their techniques and run their games, these lists are not exhaustive but provide some tips to point a GM in the right direction.
In this article we offer five tips to help with that most important of all GM skills: describing a scene.
1. Make liberal use of adjectives
Adjectives are words that describe a noun or object (for example: ancient, bleak and deserted), using a slightly different term to the usual can help to reinforce your description of a scene.
For example: Rather than saying
You approach the old house.
You walk towards the decrepit, abandoned mansion.
The second example has far more impact and builds more of a picture in the player’s minds, if you need some samples to get you going you can click here for a handy list of adjectives.
2. Don’t neglect the other senses
Although vision is a keep sense for most of us and features greatly in our descriptions, do not neglect the other senses, how does a place feel? What is the temperature like? Are there any sounds? Is there a taste in the air? All of these sense can help to boost your description, to use our abandoned mansion example
You walk towards the decrepit, abandoned mansion, the air feels cold and there is a coppery tang to the air.
3. Show, don’t tell
If it’s possible, rather than telling someone that a building is old or that a pathway is much used, show this using the environment; perhaps if the town is abandoned then buildings are literally falling down or plants have overgrow much of the architecture, or perhaps the cobbles of the path are worn smooth by the passage of many feet.
You walk towards the abandoned manion, it’s cold and there’s a coppery tang in the air, the windows of the building are broken and cobwebs cover the building.
4. Encourage your players to fill in some of the details
When you’re describing a scene, if possible ask the players some questions to have them fill in some of the finer details, this can take a bit of getting used to if you are accustomed to a more GM-heavy style of game, but it not only saves you some work, it also gets the players more invested in the scene. That said, if the player seems to be struggling for an idea, don’t hold up the game waiting for them, tell them not to worry about it and move on, either throwing it open to the group or making up a detail for yourself.
You walk towards the abandoned manion, it’s cold and there’s a coppery tang in the air, the windows of the building are broken and cobwebs cover the building. There is a peeling sign on the lawn, Micheal what does the sign say?
5. Have your NPCs and events reinforce the theme of the description
If NPCs are really at odds with their surroundings this can be quite jarring, for example if a bouncy young estate agent came skipping out of our abandoned mansion; if that’s the effect you want then great (perhaps the building is due for renovation and the estate agent represents progress or the gentrification of the area), however, if you want to reinforce your description then the NPCs and encounter should reflect it.
You walk towards the abandoned manion, it’s cold and there’s a coppery tang in the air, the windows of the building are broken and cobwebs cover the building. There is a peeling for sale sign on the lawn, sitting in a rocking chair on the veranda is an ancient man with a wrinkled face and a white beard running down past his knees.
Picture is part of a Doré wood engraving illustration from The Divine Comedy labeled for reuse on Google Image Search, the original image can be found here.