If you’ve ever run a game of Dungeons & Dragons, or are the Dungeon Master, I know for a fact that you’ve said this sentence:
As you arrive to the [LOCATION], you notice [INTERESTING FACT] and [IMPORTANT INFORMATION]. What do you do?
The game is constantly about going to new places, meeting new people, and probably hitting them with something sharp. In fact, that’s literally the three pillars of the game, Exploration, Social, Combat. Well, the rule books cover combat in depth, and socializing is something that happens naturally, as this is a social game, but the exploration part gets overlooked by the rules, and it’s hard to really nail down what exploration is. So today, I’m going to give you the three steps I use to establish a new location when the party arrives.
I’m also going to use three example locations to give you actionable ideas. A tavern, a baron’s house, and the Boss Fight Ceremonial Chamber.
The way we, as human(oid)s perceive the world around us is through our senses. Sight, Sounds, Smells, Touch, and Taste. These are our input methods, and these are (largely) the ways that your Player Characters (PCs) also get their information. So let’s start there, when describing a new location.
First, Sight. This is where you put the obvious stuff you would use in describing the location. What is the room like, how big is it, what are the major structures or features? In 5e, I use light more as a tonal setting, as opposed to “how well can you see,” because between the amount of races that have Darkvision, or the amount of cantrips that can create a small light source, any dark cave is no longer worth mentioning, in my opinion. An exception is of course if it is magically dark, or painfully bright.
Something else I skip in describing most rooms, are the dimensions of the room. This is important in combat, because of range and area of effect spells, but people don’t think in 20 feet by 35 feet. I cannot imagine that space, and you probably can’t either unless you work in construction. So use natural, action focused language instead, such as “a few steps across,” “farther than you can throw,” “small enough that you can hear the whispers from across the room.” Obviously, once combat begins, you can then give out these numbers, as they are needed for tactics. However, if you give them the numbers too early, or even worse show them a map, players tend to switch their thought process from roleplaying to tactics. Combat in 5e feels like a minigame, and you don’t want that switch too soon.
Lastly, think about if the players are meant to be exploring right now, or just being present. If players are exploring a new area, describe obvious things in non-obvious ways. Perhaps there’s a large forge, with tools lying around, and the walls have been blackened with ash over time, and the players realize this *used* to be a blacksmiths workshop. But if they are walking through a common village, you can just say that the blacksmith is working away on the left.
Next, we have Sound. This is fairly straightforward, what things do they hear, either close by, or further away?
Third, we have Touch. I’m not talking about the PCs running around, *feeling* every wall and table. Instead, what is the temperature of the location, is it humid, how stable does the ground beneath your feet feel?
Fourth, there is the Smell. This is something that really helps bring the world to life, as it’s something you don’t actively think about, but is always constant. Think of a single smell that might be noticeable.
Lastly, we are actually going to skip Taste, because you aren’t tasting the room. Instead, we are going to talk about your Sixth Sense. Is there a tense vibe of the people in the room? Or, even better, is there a supernatural aspect of the room, that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up?
Now, there are five senses we’ve listed, and I’ve found it best to include three of these. In fact, if you are ever making a list, three is the most natural number that humans gravitate toward. It really is the magic number.
As you walk into the Frozen Tankard Inn & Tavern, the bright glow of the three fireplaces spills from the door, a sharp contrast from the cold darkness outside. You can smell roasted meat as it passes by on the platter of a server that walks by, and she seems to shout something about finding a table, but it’s hard to hear over the loud conversations of the other patrons. The room is incredibly crowded, tables from wall to wall, and more people than there are chairs, so you have to squeeeeeze your way through the crowd, in order to find a table that can fit your entire party.
As you enter the Baron’s home, you find Lady Lucia sitting peacefully on a large chair in a sitting room, with couches and chairs enough for you all. She carefully swirls her glass of wine, and you can hear the soft crackle of her fireplace, as the smell of pine fills the room. It would be a very relaxing room, if she hadn’t been staring daggers into you from the first step you took as you entered her home.
You turn the corner, and you find Kalarel’s Ceremonial Chamber. His abyssal chanting echoes off the stone walls and surrounds you, the fire from the skull shaped torches reflect off the pool of blood that has gathered in the center of the room. The hair on your arms are all standing on end, and your skin suddenly feels incredibly sensitive, where you are aware of every point in which the itchy fabric of your clothing, or the hard unyielding metal of your armor, rubs against you.
Now that your party has a clear idea of the situation, begin to describe what is different about this place. Due to common cultural touchstones, all of your players can fill in the gaps when it comes to most of your locations. They imagine stones to be gray, wood to be brown, and grass to be green. They imagine friendly faces in friendly places, and surfaces to be fairly uniform.
As you find your seat at the Frozen Tankard, you suddenly notice that the bartender is an orc, serving beverages, which suddenly look small in his huge, green hands.
Lady Lucia doesn’t say anything as you sit down, and in the awkward silence you notice all of the animal heads, displayed on her walls as hunting trophies. The largest of which, a manticore head, is bearing down on you with a viscous look in it’s eye.
The stones in the Ceremonial Chamber have been cracked with age, as they’ve surely been here for hundreds of years. However, the cracks have been repaired, not with any kind of mortar, but with gold lining, which seems to honor their age, with a new refined beauty you didn’t expect in a chamber that is being used to worship Orcus, the Demon Lord of Undeath.
Lastly, talk about the energy in the room. Energy comes in one of two flavors, either Kinetic or Potential.
Kinetic energy is what’s actually happening. What things are moving, what is happening? This was probably brought up when you first described the room, as Kinetic energy is what draws our eyes, and usually makes noise.
However, sometimes nothing is happening when you enter, or something else is about to happen, and your PCs notice it. Potential Energy is how the situation could change through effort by the players. People are scowling at each other from across the room, the wall is incredibly weak, looks like it could collapse at any moment.
I do this last, because these are things you can interact with and investigate, which is what the PCs really want to know about the most. Everything else you’ve described up to this point gives them context, and now you want to end with something that deserves their action. After all, we end every description with “What do you want to do.”
There is an option, where a Potential Energy can only be noticed by a Perception Check. Some things will be obvious, but some things don’t have to be.
Some people suggest mentioning mundane objects, as well as the things you *should* focus on, and that works if there is no danger in the room. If there is danger, then the people in the room wouldn’t notice the messy countertops, because they are focusing on the bandits.
After you order your beverages from the barkeep, and you begin to adjust to all of the laughing and music, you see someone knocks into someone else, and spills their drink on a third. Suddenly some of the laughing dies out, and an argument begins to build. Many of the other patrons haven’t yet noticed, but you can tell, someone is about to throw a punch. What do you do?
Lady Lucia continues to sit quietly, staring at you. Each second feels like a minute, and soon you aren’t sure if you’ve been waiting for her to speak, or if she said something and you simply didn’t hear her, and she’s waiting patiently for your response. What do you do?
As you prepare yourself for your ultimate fight against Kalarel the Vile, Scion of Orcus, you notice that on the Western wall, there is a large black circle of ooze, almost like a portal made of tar, that begins to bubble. Kalarel’s chants begin to get louder and louder. What do you do?
There is an alternative order to Senses, Contrast, and Energy, and that is if when the party walks into a location, there is immediately combat. Notice, even as they walk into the Big Boss Ceremonial Chamber, there is still a moment to describe a setting. But if someone/thing is on the other side of the door, with weapons/spells ready, waiting for the door to open, then you shouldn’t describe the room this way.
Instead, they open the door, and initiative is rolled, and at the bottom of every round, describe a new thing about the room, in order of what is most prominent and helpful at the moment.
After the combat is over, then finish your descriptions. However, once kinetic energy ends, potential energy should start to grow once again. Eventually, something else is going to happen. Do they have seconds before reinforcements arrive, is there some other threat of danger, or is there a pile of things to dig through?