Who or What the Heck is That? (Describing Things With Aplomb)

Senses BrainWhen writing text for our games we often have to describe something in great detail. But detail is like the hole Alice falls down to Wonderland… Sometimes it turns into a black hole and we free fall forever. So today I want to focus on a technique for getting more sensory detail into your writing without falling down the rabbit hole

We all know the main senses, right? Visual (sight). Auditory (hearing). Gustatory (taste). Olfactory (smell). And tactile (touch). But we sometimes get so wrapped up in one of them (usually visual or auditory) that we tend to forget the others like we’re wearing blinders. How do we defeat that? With a random table, of course!

Here’s a simple way to offer some description without going overboard: the Sense Table. Get out your trusty d8 any time you want to stretch your skills to describe something and consult this table…

  1. Sight
  2. Hearing
  3. Taste
  4. Smell
  5. Touch
  6. Roll twice (re-roll on 6-8)
  7. Roll three times (re-roll on 6-8)
  8. Roll again (re-roll on 6-8)

For each sense you roll, come up with some descriptive text using that particular form of perception.

Here are a few examples:

  • I’m trying to describe a clue in the dungeon and roll a 1 – sight. “At first glance, the worn statue appears to be the open maw of a dragon…”
  • An encounter is coming up and I roll a 4 – smell. “The odor is the first thing that you notice as you enter the alley, with a scent somewhere between a dead fish and a dog fart…”
  • Or perhaps the party is tasting the local cuisine for the first time and you roll a 6 (roll twice), followed by a 2 (hearing) and a 5 (touch). “The natives believe that eating the fresh entrails of a dova beast grants the consumer strength and conviction in the coming days. But from the first time you touch the slimy viscera with your naked fingers, bring a piece to your mouth, and hear the juicy squish as you take a bite – you just know it’s not going to stay down…”

The trick of course is to be descriptive without being overly so. You want to provide enough detail to let an image start to form in the mind of your readers or listeners (whether it’s just yourself, another GM, or a group of players) and fill in the rest from their own imaginations. Sometimes it can be fun to go a bit overboard (like my last example above), but usually you want to strike a balance.

How do you do that? A couple of tricks come to mind. One is to write what you think works and put it away for as long as you have time to do so before getting it out again and reading it out loud. You might want to stop at the point where you start to get a picture in your head or when you think you’ve got enough of your point across. Or another simple way is to count the adjectives or descriptive phrases. If you have three or more, whittle it down a little until it feels about right.

It’s a fine line you’ll have to feel out on your own to see what works for you. Be sure to ask for feedback from other writer friends and see what your audience thinks about a particular section if it’s still causing you problems.

Brian “Fitz” Fitzpatrick is a Software Engineer who manages (or is that mangles) Game Knight Reviews and tinkers with writing game materials via his Moebius Adventures imprint. When he’s not writing about gaming, he’s actually gaming or at least thinking about gaming in some capacity. During the non-writing, non-gaming time he’s likely trying to keep up with his wife and two daughters or wrangling code for a living!

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