On Reader Mail, Assimilating The Textbox Description

'J' writes in, asking:

"The problem is dungeon descriptions. I feel that I provide the necessary information, while leaving room open for exploration. I always choose my words carefully and provide, what I think, are clues without leading the player.
     "As a Dungeon Master, I could care less if they discover the loose flagstone behind the throne. It's the 'looking up' and other non-sequitur responses that is the problem. Not once did I give any indication or subtle clue that there is anything on the ceiling.
    "This is happening in every room. What can I do?"

Jay gave a description of what he says when the players enter the room. It is transcribed below.
"There are stairs that lead down into the darkness and using your infravision you see a 30x30 foot square chamber and in the center there is a table and in the back there is a throne with a skeletal warrior, sitting on the throne. He's covered in cobwebs, he's wearing ancient ornamental chainmail. There are four scrolls laid out on the table as well."
Being a Dungeon Master is not only a skill, but an art. It is unlike other games where you must simply learn how to play.

One of those skills is putting yourself in the positions of a player.

People have a difficult time following and then acting upon narrative instructions. When things are presented as text blocks (old school modules, I'm looking at you!) players are left with general impressions. They can't act on these general impressions, so they do things that have worked in the past for safety ("I look up!") or they ask questions about information they have already been given.

This is why I only broadly describe the room. I would present the above room to the players as:
"You see a large room, containing a table with something on it, in front of a throne with someone sitting on it."
All the players need to know is what is in the room that's unusual to manipulate. If I gave more information, they wouldn't remember it. Once they are asking about information, they will be doing so in a way that they can assimilate the information.

Everything starts off broad and blurry and then gets more precise as it gets investigated. I work off the classic example giving in the 1st edition Dungeon Master's Guide.


  1. "Not once did I give any indication or subtle clue that there is anything on the ceiling."

    I'd disagree. You've told your players the skeletal warrior was covered in cobwebs. I, too, would immediately check the ceiling for spiders lurking overhead.

  2. This is a great tip; I think it would be great for my players, whose eyes tend to glaze over at any description longer than two sentences.

    1. Oh, and I enjoyed this sufficiently that I tweeted it with the #OSRblogroll tag. If you're on Twitter and looking for a good source of OSR blog posts, you might check out that hashtag.



  3. Thank you,

    That one post really helped my get a better idea of how to implement old school DMing.

  4. Also,

    How do people write in? Just questions in comments or is there an e-mail address I am missing. I have a question about THAC:0

    1. My email address is listed on the right side of my blog. I can be reached at 'Campbell AT oook DOT cz' with questions.

  5. Damn, I hadn't thought about it this way. As a player I can totally identify with asking questions about info I've just been given.

    I'll need to try this.

  6. Great post.

    Seems like TSR set up an expectation that a module must "read well" so that it seems professional and purchasers get their value, but what reads well does not necessarily convey that same information well when read aloud.

  7. Good advice.

    I try to structure my descriptions like a Twine game. They give you a short phrase like "Table and chairs set for dinner", say, and you can click on each word to get a better description. Click on the table to learn that it was made by some king, ask about the king to learn who he is, etc etc. Trying for research instead of a text block.


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