Telling Stories and Describing Scenes

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As a DM my biggest issues in my games is describing a scene with atmosphere and feeling. I'm pretty good at creating stories, or so say my players, and I describe the scenes accurately but without much framing and feeling.

As an example, instead of saying "the pungent smell of mildew eminates from the wet dungeon walls" I'd probably say something like "You're in a dungeon, there are two doors to the north and east. The walls are covered with moss and mildew indicating they've been unsued for a while."
The images for my campaign are vivid in my own mind, I'd like to try and get them out in the descriptions.

Any ideas or tips ya'll can give me for helping bring my scenes to life?
"A DM only rolls dice because of the sound they make" Gary Gygax 1938-2008
Being a good storyteller involves bringing your players into the scene and letting their imaginations run wild.  One way to do this is to describe a scene not just by how it looks, but by what kind of emotions it generates.  This approach might help you better articulate your ideas since a good choice of descriptions can often help set the mood of the dungeon and foreshadow future events.

For example, are the dungeon walls stained with blood (cultists)?  Have they been effaced by time and covered with thick layers of dust (ruins)?  Does the stench of the mildew assault your nose and cause you to gag (rot)?

I also find that reading a lot of fantasy novels helps spur my creativity and gives you exposure to how professionals might describe a scene.  Here's a dungeon description generator to help get you started.

www.wizards.com/dnd/drdg/index.htm

As with anything, it takes practice.  You should experiment liberally.  Keep what works and toss out what doesn't.
As a DM my biggest issues in my games is describing a scene with atmosphere and feeling. I'm pretty good at creating stories, or so say my players, and I describe the scenes accurately but without much framing and feeling.

As an example, instead of saying "the pungent smell of mildew eminates from the wet dungeon walls" I'd probably say something like "You're in a dungeon, there are two doors to the north and east. The walls are covered with moss and mildew indicating they've been unsued for a while."
The images for my campaign are vivid in my own mind, I'd like to try and get them out in the descriptions.

Any ideas or tips ya'll can give me for helping bring my scenes to life?

What you've outlined is fine:-
"You're in a dungeon, there are two doors to the north and east. The walls are covered with moss and mildew indicating they've been unsued for a while."
However I'd add some atmosphere with "the of dripping water barely covers up a scuttling sound" and I'd aim the last statement at the player with the highest perception to add a bit of atmosphere.

The scuttling will stop when the player says "can I make a perception check to listen?", you roll the dice, ask the players score for Perception but inform the player "the sound appears to have stopped."

You could back this up with a very brief beetle encounter or just put it down to a large 12 inch beetle that avoids the PC's.

Just challenging the PC's with a little more interaction with the environment, not too often just every now and then.

I used "boxed text" in my current game because I think that's one of the hallmarks of "old school" games and this is the theme of my campaign. I think it's important to consider the style of your game before you think about how you're going to tell the story. Otherwise, you're just using the same method from game to game to game when you could be changing it up to help evoke the style of the particular campaign you're playing.

If I'm running a pulp action game, the style of storytelling is quick and to the point with emphasis on what's going on right now and what needs to be done about it - details come later. If it's a gothic horror game, the style will be more muted and brooding with strict attention to detail and tone as I describe things.

From a preparedness standpoint, I've noticed that a lot of designers are moving toward a "bullet point" method of detail. Three main bullet points with the most important information and then you can improvise around that as needed. I would probably add to that anything that "shocks" the senses, which is to say, they see something compelling, smell something particularly foul, or hear something deeply disturbing (dependent on the theme of course). Avoid telling them how they feel about things - let them tell you that.

What is the style, tone, and theme of your game? Sometimes simply thinking about and defining these elements clearly will tell you everything you need to know about the things you should be focused on in your storytelling. I can't tell you how many promising games I've been in where a DM could have really capitalized on a particular theme, but ended up telling the story the same way he or she would tell the story in a completely different campaign. That's a shame.
What I do is continue describing it. We're used to the "boxed text" model that gives the details up front and then not much else, but you can and should describe it in bits and pieces throughout the encounter as the PCs interact with the environment. That's what authors do.

If I have to ask the GM for it, then I don't want it.

Pre-made adventures (like LFR) will often have boxed text that provides such evocative descriptions. If you're making your own adventures, you could pre-write that boxed text yourself (or maybe even steal some from published adventures).
I usually let my players' imagination interpret the information how they want it. I stay away from very dry information (Exits north and south for example), but at the same time I keep descriptive details minimal. I usually keep room descriptions between two or three sentences long. For the most part my players like the characters more than the architecture.
Ant Farm
I used "boxed text" in my current game because I think that's one of the hallmarks of "old school" games and this is the theme of my campaign. I think it's important to consider the style of your game before you think about how you're going to tell the story. Otherwise, you're just using the same method from game to game to game when you could be changing it up to help evoke the style of the particular campaign you're playing.

If I'm running a pulp action game, the style of storytelling is quick and to the point with emphasis on what's going on right now and what needs to be done about it - details come later. If it's a gothic horror game, the style will be more muted and brooding with strict attention to detail and tone as I describe things.

From a preparedness standpoint, I've noticed that a lot of designers are moving toward a "bullet point" method of detail. Three main bullet points with the most important information and then you can improvise around that as needed. I would probably add to that anything that "shocks" the senses, which is to say, they see something compelling, smell something particularly foul, or hear something deeply disturbing (dependent on the theme of course). Avoid telling them how they feel about things - let them tell you that.

What is the style, tone, and theme of your game? Sometimes simply thinking about and defining these elements clearly will tell you everything you need to know about the things you should be focused on in your storytelling. I can't tell you how many promising games I've been in where a DM could have really capitalized on a particular theme, but ended up telling the story the same way he or she would tell the story in a completely different campaign. That's a shame.



This is outstanding advice.

On a personal note, I never liked boxed text descriptions with tons of adjectives. I like nouns. I love rooms that have ten things in it with 0-1 adjectives a piece, rather than 3 things with 4 adjectives a piece. If its a ruined temple, lets hear about runic carvings with religious significance, destroyed seating areas, tapestries obviously ripped apart by claws, etc. I'm a big fan of just putting a lot of stuff in my environments, because players will inevitably pick up on something, and you can further describe whatever they choose from there.
I usually let my players' imagination interpret the information how they want it. I stay away from very dry information (Exits north and south for example), but at the same time I keep descriptive details minimal.

That reminds me of a trick that other games make use of. If your players ask you if a particular detail is present, that you didn't mention, try to say "Why, of course!"

If I have to ask the GM for it, then I don't want it.

In a sense, you answered your question in your post.

"the pungent smell of mildew eminates from the wet dungeon walls"


vs.
"You're in a dungeon, there are two doors to the north and east. The walls are covered with moss and mildew indicating they've been unsued for a while."


The difference in the 2 examples is how you engage the senses. Good descriptive writing does this. Smell, feel, sound and even taste sometimes (the dank air leaves a bitter taste in the back of your mouth) in addition to what is seen can really bring things to life.

I'd also like to point out that there is nothing wrong with your second description. Remember the main thing is how engaged your players are. If you think spicing up descriptions will help, great. If they are currently fully engaged, you're doing it right already.


Fantastic advice all, this has really helped out my games. Thanks a ton!
"A DM only rolls dice because of the sound they make" Gary Gygax 1938-2008
When I'm DM'ing it depends on the context and atmoshpere of what I'm trying to get across.  If they just walked into a general store they are going to get boxed text ("The store is laid out in a simple way with pots, pans and other every day items on the walls and fresh produce and goods in the center") If they are in the bowels of a creapy dungeon I add much more descriptive text (" As you slowly walk through the fog you can hear the faint sound of skittering creatures on the damp floor. The stale air leaves a acidic taste in the back of your throat and the stench of rot is choking.") I would then add in the boxed text of what they can see.

IMAGE(http://www.nodiatis.com/pub/23.jpg)

I have not tried this idea yet, but I think it will help add flavor to an encounter.  Before the game, i think of what i will say and what fluff i will add.  But when the game starts, I have a tendency to go straight to the facts and leave the fluff.  I think I do this because my notes include facts but not the fluff.  So combat this, I plan to list the five  senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch) plus an emotional component, feeling.  This next to each I will list one or adjectives about the atmosphere the room/encounter.

For your room:  "You're in a dungeon, there are two doors to the north and east. The walls are covered with moss and mildew indicating they've been unsued for a while."

Sight:  moss/mildew -worked stone or rough hewn stone
Sound:  dripping of water, sound of a light breeze moving through the dungeon
Smell:  old decay and mold
Taste:
Touch:  air feels wet
Feeling:  isolation away from civilization.

This could change your description to:

You are in a corridor made from roughly hewn stone with a door to the north and east.  The cool wet air surrounds you as blows gently past filling your nostrils with odor of mildew and decay impressing upon you a sense of disuse.

This says basically the same thing but the feel is much different.   

Maybe at first you have to write out the 6 six descriptors and the full description afterwards.  I will start this way then work towards my goal of using six desciptors to make room desciption on the fly.
All good advice. I would add not to tell the players how they feel. That's putting words in their mouth and stopping from them making up their own minds how they feel.

I think there's a subtle but important difference between "you feel anxious" and "the room has an atmosphere of anxiety". In the latter example, the player could decide their character is going to be courageous and shrug of the feeling, which is their choice.