Behind the Screens – Descriptive Language

A GM has many roles at the table. Today, Behind the Screens, we’re going to focus on that of the Storyteller. A GM sets scenes and creates atmosphere. She dresses the stage and populates it with a cast for the players to interact with. Through her do the players realize the world. So when I say that descriptive language is an important tool for a GM to master, I mean it.

The most common example of descriptive language one will find in published materials is in the italicized flavor text. This text typically precedes each encounter area or is sometimes used to draw attention to a particular plot development, similar to how cut scenes work in videogames. There’s a lot of advice written by others much more experienced than I regarding the art of writing italicized text. I’ll share what has been the most helpful to me.

Focus on the Senses

What goes through your mind when you enter a room for the first time? Think about it the next time you go someplace new. For me it’s the smell. I usually pick up on the scents in the air almost immediately, and that’s what my mind registers, even if I don’t immediately have words for it. Next is usually light levels, if they differ significantly from the area I just left. After that it’s the details of what’s in the room. Table? How many chairs? Anything interesting on the walls? Lastly, what sounds are there to hear? What noises can I identify and which ones can’t I place?

Keep it Short

There’s an adage in journalism that goes, “Don’t bury the lead”.  It means not to lose your the primary story in secondary details. When using italicized text to describe a scene, don’t get too caught up in extraneous details. If there’s an important feature about the room, mention it in the first or second sentence. This is especially true for descriptions of a room that contain a puzzle of some sort. Even simple puzzles can cause an undue amount of player grief when essential details are convoluted. A good rule thumb for italicized text is to keep it at about fifty words. Anything more than that and you run the risk of losing your audience.

Read it Aloud

Sometimes you don’t know how something will sound until you actually hear it for yourself. You want your flavor text to capture your players’ attention and draw them into a scene. So it’s important for you to get a feel for how your description rolls off the tongue. If your words sound stilted and forced when you read them to yourself, chances are you players won’t be jazzed either. This is doubly important if you happen to be writing text for someone else to read. When I was writing the draft of PFS Scenario #6-20, Returned to Sky, I read each bit of read-aloud text to my cats using my best performance voice. Mostly they were nonplussed. But the important part was that I heard what it sounded like and the exercise helped me realize which lines needed to be rewritten. I also learned that my familiars have no appreciation for the spoken word. The philistines…

Be Prepared to Improvise

If you’re a Homebrew-Only type GM, you’re already doing this. But if you’re planning on running published modules, be aware that there are lots of adventure areas that don’t have read-aloud text supplied. This could happen for a number of reasons ranging from a simple oversight to a noble sacrifice on the holy altar of the most sacred Word Count. Your players might even be curious and decide to investigate something entirely off-rails.

Whatever the case might be it behooves the wise GM to have something prepared for this eventuality. To this I can only say that the best thing to do is to practice your descriptive language prior to needing to improvise. Immerse yourself in fiction and take note of how other authors set scenes or describe situations. The next time you go someplace different, whether it’s out to eat or to visit a friend’s home, think about how you would describe that place to an audience. Try and imagine what that audience’s mental image of that place would be based solely on your description.


So there’s some basic advice on descriptive language. If there’s interest, I was thinking of starting a workshop thread on the forums to hash out techniques for practice using descriptive language. Let me know what you think.

Anthony Li

Anthony Li has been pretending to be someone or something else for about as long as he can remember, which some people might consider a problem. He cut his teeth on 2nd Edition AD&D when he was 14 years old and his only regret is that he didn’t start rolling dice sooner. Due to an unhealthy addiction to Magic: the Gathering he missed the entire cultural phenomenon that was the 3.X era of D&D. After a brief stint with 4E, he was dragged kicking and screaming into the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game where he has since acclimated, adapted, and thrived. Most of his roleplaying experience has been behind in the GM screen where he has trained his dice to confirm crits on command. He always roots for the bad guys.

1 Comment

  1. Ryan

    Cats don’t appreciate good flavour text.