Describing surroundings and the people in a scene is part of how I immerse myself and my players in a game. Adding a little color and sprinkling in some details helps to make it more real, and more fun for me. I start losing my grip on the setting and story when I receive no descriptions from a Storyteller, and to feel disconnected from the game, no more involved or invested than if I was looking at a video game screen or board game. But every table is different, and every session can be different, too. There have also been games where the Storyteller is describing something that I have zero interest in and they lose me. Or maybe it’s even a detail that is important to me, but the Storyteller describes it in too much detail while I’m just itching to get the narrative moving again.
Getting the hang of what to describe, when to describe it, and how much to describe the game details takes some time and work. So let’s talk about how to figure that out, and then some basic tools for detailing the people and places of your game.
What’s worth describing?
That depends mostly upon the gaming table. A group that loves social scenes will want to hear about different things than one that is focused on combat and struggle. The Storyteller needs to know their players, and the best way to learn their preferences is to ask. So why not start at the table talk? When you’re asking about the kind of game your players want, if they’re interested in romantic arcs, what their boundaries are, you can also ask what they’re interested in hearing described.
But some things are pretty much always a good idea to include. They’re basic and immersive details, and generally won’t take up too much game time. So what parts are generally important to describe?
- Names & naming conventions
- Attacks & finishing blows
It’s not an exhaustive list, but you get the idea. Let the players just tell you what parts of the game they’re interested in, and then you can tailor descriptions to give them exactly what they want, which tends to make for happy players. A group more interested in scene-setting will want to hear about food, clothes and music. But a table more focused in battle would be bored to tears.
You might get a range of responses to your questions about details. In the group that I’ve been playing in for the last twenty years, I’ve got people all over the map, so I try to give everyone a little bit of everything. But especially because I have a range of interests around the table, I don’t want someone to ask me about what some NPC is wearing, or what kind of music a bard is playing and have nothing but a blank stare for them. So I do a little prep.
If you’ve got specialized knowledge in your group, make use of it. I have had culinary school graduates, IT consultants, and archeology majors at my table. If you have a big underground adventure planned and one of your players is a geologist, ask them some questions! Talk about how caverns form and how they should be shaped, what kinds of rock you’d find in a gold mine versus a diamond mine, and how deep fossils are found. They can help you make spelunking sound plausible and awesome.
It’s fair to warn your specialist players, though — this is a role-playing game and it’s fiction. Collect some information to make things sound good, but let them know that you might take some liberties. I mean, there might be certain kinds of rock in a gold mine and a diamond mine, but what kind of rock is mithril ore or khyber crystals found in? I try to avoid a knowledgeable player having to correct me during a session, so letting them know that deviations from their education are intentional can keep that sort of thing to a minimum.
Also, it’s worth noting that it’s important not to get overly hung up on real-world facts. RPGs are fictional, after all, even if they’re set on Earth in the present day. I was in a game in which the Storyteller was an IT professional, and he introduced a ton of real-world networking security to the game. It was either boring to all the people who weren’t network engineers, frustrating because real-world computer security is a lot of sitting at a keyboard, or both. I would have much preferred spicing it up with more sci-fi tech that required us to break into secure bases and fight our way to a data core or something.
We don’t want reality — we’re playing a game of pretend, after all — we just want a little verisimilitude. It’s an important word that literally means having the appearance of being true or real. We want the game to feel plausible, realistic. A temple full of swinging axe blades and ridiculous traps can feel a little hokey, sure, but the anti-tomb robber measures used in real life just aren’t as exciting. If you’ve got an archeology major at your table, ask them how tombs were protected, but then use that information to make the fun stuff feel more solid.
Once you know what to describe, how do you describe it?
Thankfully, we live in the age of the internet. We have all of Wikipedia to call upon and more. Doing just a little research ahead of time can help you avoid ever having to answer a question with that blank, open-mouthed stare. I can usually produce a few dishes or learn about a musical instrument in fifteen minutes or less.
For food, pick a historical period, a cultural touchstone and then let your search engine rip. You can look for peasant dishes and fancy versions, too. If you know that the NPC prince will be serving an in-game feast, then come up with a few dishes for it, or at least the centerpiece. If you have foodies at the table, come up with the favorite dish of the region or a short menu for the taverns.
Clothing can work the same way. Historical period plus region and search. Most people who play RPGs know various bits of armor — I learned what greaves were before puberty — so knowing what medieval clothing is called isn’t a stretch.
For music, not only can you search for the names of instruments and types of music, but we can actually find musical tracks to play during the session! Much easier to just play some music to set the mood than to describe it. Though if there’s any neat instruments or particular musical styling, it’s nice to give them a mention.
And there are two more things that deserve a moment’s prep that aren’t necessarily descriptions that players will think to clamor for: names and the weather.
NPCs need names. If they’re all named Bob, then the role-playing game starts feeling like a video game, with four different avatars repeated throughout the game with their limited dialogue. Or worse, like there aren’t any other people, and the world is empty except for the PCs and the villains. But coming up with names is hard. I suck at it, so I prepare.
Come up with a simple naming convention. Are names in the game like American names? Do family names come before given names, or the other way around? Or do people always add a clan name? Does the planet the characters visit have a nordic feel where NPCs should have nordic-style names? In RPGs, we often default to the Johnny Coolname style — Johnny Silverhand, Johnny Mnemonic, John Constantine; basically half of Keanu Reeves’ roles. Or the good old noun-verb names — Skywalker, Ironbeard, Summerstar, Graymare. They’re a trope in both fantasy and sci-fi.
But tropes usually feel like tropes. Especially when names everywhere are the same. If the fur-clad, yodeling, mammoth steak-loving people of the north (clothes, music, food) all use noun-verb names, and the loin-clothed, flute-playing, seafood lovers of the islands also all have noun-verb names, then the game setting begins to feel like one big mushy place. Go to a country in Europe and then one in Asia and you will hear very different names! Even Spain and France, who share a border, have distinctly different names. Instead of just using tropes, take a cue from a real world with real languages and give each place its own character.
Trust me, it’s actually easier than a phone book full of Johnny Coolnames. There are name generators galore, and while many, many of them just spit out noun-verbs, there are some that mash up a specific set of phonemes to give their names a certain sound. And if those aren’t working, then hop onto your search engine and find yourself a list of baby names! As a bonus, a lot of baby name lists also have the meaning of the names there, so the ones you grab when naming an NPC can be chosen to suit them. I’ve even searched names from historical periods.
You don’t have to name every single NPC, but keeping a name generator or list of baby names open in a browser tab can save you from getting caught flat-footed, defaulting to something tropey, or introducing the PCs to yet another Bob.
Which brings us to the weather. Like game towns without people in them, constant and perfectly bland weather makes role-playing feel like a video game or board game. Hell, even video games have been adding weather for years, because it’s more immersive when night comes on after the day, or it rains and snows sometimes. In RPGs, we already cycle through night and day in abstract, fast-forwarding to evening when the PCs are done with the day. You can fast-forward the weather, too. Snow or rain — or a rainbow — might only last fifteen or thirty minutes in a game, so go ahead and abstract it for your game.
Pick some weather and start off the session with it. From there, you can either keep track of the days and change the weather every three months or so, just change when it’s dramatically appropriate, or make yourself a little table somewhere in your game notes for weather. If you’re playing in a space-faring sci-fi game in which the characters visit a variety of different planets, you can change the weather each time they land in a new place.
Just having some weather makes the game a little more real, and it can also lead to some fun complications. If it’s snowing, then tracking a foe becomes easier and the PCs hiding their own tracks becomes a problem to solve. If it’s raining, then that may make the footing more slippery during a rooftop battle, or add penalties to the crisis trying to hotwire the hover-truck.
A little prep goes a long way
If your game session is taking the PCs to a new place, then you can do a little prep super easily. Fifteen minutes each to search for some food, some clothes, and some music, pick a baby name list in case you have to pull any NPCs out of your backside, then you’re ready to go for the night with just an hour’s work. If the characters want to order food, then you’re good to go. If there’s music in the cantina, you’re ready to describe it. When your player characters meet an NPC, you know how to dress and what to call them. And hey, now it’s raining outside.
If your players have specific interests, then you can go wild on whichever part of game they like best. But no matter your table, a little research means that when they ask a question, you’ve got at least most of an answer for them. It makes you look smart, helps immersion, and keeps the game flowing.