About the Author
Mass Effect
Final Fantasy X
Batman:Arkham City
Borderlands Series
Weekly Column
Champions Online
World of Warcraft
DM of the Rings
Good Robot
Project Frontier

DM of the Rings CXVIII:
Descriptive Text is Sometimes Important

By Shamus
on Wednesday Jun 27, 2007
Filed under:
DM of the Rings


Welcome to Minas Tirith!
Did I forget to mention the battle?

A reader wrote in to suggest this one. I admit I’ve made this blunder myself. More than once. It really is easy to goof up and describe a cave in meticulous detail, while forgetting to mention the dragon laying in the middle of the chamber.

Part of this is due to narrator’s vanity: We know that once we mention the dragon the rest of the description is going to be ignored. We want to make sure nothing we’ve written goes to waste, so we mention the most obvious details last.

Comments (98)

1 2

  1. Lars says:

    A *very* good DM friend of mine used the principle of describing from most noticable first then with more and more details, interspersed with little pauses, until the players reacted. Gives the players a chance to react in a panic to important things or wait around to hear details if they care to (yes, some players actually care to).

    As for first posts: FOAD.


  2. Mitey Heroes says:

    Interesting, looks like they don’t have the dead guys any more? Maybe the comic is diverging from the film back to the book?

    Or, maybe, the next scene will be the GM realising he’s sent the players into instant death, and being forced to suddenly re-introduce the dead?

  3. Medium Dave says:

    Opposite situation-

    New GM-“You hear a flapping noise out in the hall, sounds like stirges”

    Player 1-“WTH? What is stirge?”

    Player 2″Did you say SOUNDS like stirges?”

    Helpless laughter for five minutes.

  4. Tola says:

    …Is it me, or do Legolas and Aragorn always have their hair either straight(ish) or wind-swept….never in-between or anything?

  5. Shamus says:

    To the person whose comment I just deleted:

    I cannot imagine a more effective way to threadjack than to bring up The War. I’m sure you’re painfully aware that that the things you espoused are not Universally Recognized Truths, and that dissenters are likely to hop in here and spar with you. I can see the point-counterpoint grinding on for a hundred posts or so. No way am I babysitting that sort of mess.

    I keep politics off this site for that very reason.

  6. brassbaboon says:


    Thanks for the link, I’d actually seen that already. I’ve even tried to prototype using a horizontally placed LCD screen as a play area (some of those 22″ models could potentially be workable…). The projectors are unweildy and expensive (the bulbs alone can be hundreds of dollars to replace) so they really only work well when you have a permanent setup, which isn’t realistic for my group, and the LCD monitors are directionally visible, meaning that when you lay one down, from one side you might see a very nice map, but from another side you only see dark gray images with no color.

    And that doesn’t even address the automatic identification of traps, hidden doors, monsters, etc…. So it’s a start, but there’s a long way to go for what I’m dreaming of… Which is probably not practical and there wouldn’t be enough people wanting one to make it marketable anyway… sigh.

    Shamus, I am amazed that people can interrupt the critical and pressing importance of DM of the Rings with such frivolous nonsense as current events. I mean, let’s get real and focus on priorities here! ;)

    One reason I like to play low-level campaigns with relative newcomers is that they don’t have the Monster Manual, Fiend Folio and a dozen special release monsters memorized. I find it a lot more fun when the player is as surprised by a new creature as their character is. Since I enjoy that so much, it is pretty rare that you encounter actual Monster Manual monsters, outside of goblins, kobolds and other things that make sense to be more or less common knowledge. I frequently take the attributes of a level-appropriate creature, describe it completely differently, but play it more or less as the Monster Manual says. It’s interesting how much it will throw off the seasoned player to have them fight a blue-skinned, bug-eyed, dragonfly-winged critter that is really just a standard mephit in disguise.

  7. Mik says:

    I’d have thought it was possible to do something with an interactive whiteboard, and may even have seen it done on the web somewhere. But I think anything that technical needs to be in a devoted room until intelligent paper finally hits the market.

  8. Stacey says:

    This is just getting good. I can’t wait for the rest to come. I hope my friend Rachel is continueing to visit this site, away from youtube.com!

  9. Alasdair says:

    70.: “I find it a lot more fun when the player is as surprised by a new creature as their character is… I frequently take the attributes of a level-appropriate creature, describe it completely differently, but play it more or less as the Monster Manual says.”

    That’s a much better tactic than the one my old DM used: he simply refused to play with anyone who owned a copy of the Monster Manual (or DM’s Guide)!

    It worked for a while – the other players and I did as he asked, and didn’t buy the books. But then we discovered the whole SRD is online anyway…

  10. Forge says:

    Whiteboard/projector people:

    While it’s not level, any good LCD/plasma TV of size should have computer-ready inputs. Not having the map horizontal can be a minor problem when you realize it’s now 60″ diagonally.

  11. Samir says:

    my favorite..

    you see a 100 by 100 room, a dragon is in the center of the room… 10 ft from you.

    Some players got it immediately.. some did not.

  12. Matthew says:

    Re the brief discussion on Whiteboard/Projector – I reckon you should just wait a few more years – Microsoft (through acquisition) are getting into a new interface paradygm – “Surface Computing”.

    Check out http://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/industry/4217348.html for a demo of it.


  13. JC says:

    Long time reader, first time poster!

    Love the work and look forward to reading it every time!
    I *still* laugh about the ‘and this is my…uuhhh…quiver full of tiny walking sticks’ whenever I’m hanging out with my DM buddy

    noticed someone mention the darkness of Gemstone. I was on board with them during the transition into GSIV…I hope they like the code they never paid me for….anyways, just wanted to give a shout out to a fellow Elanthian.

    peace and love,

  14. Han says:

    I’m glad you liked it!

  15. Shimoda says:

    Heh. The following is one of my favorite lines from any game.
    “As you top the rise, you see a small house…”
    “Great! Let’s loot it!”
    “…wielded by…”
    “Nevermind, we run.

  16. BillionSix says:

    It reminds me of a paragraph from Douglas Adams’ novel, “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency,” where one of the characters discovers a horse in a bathroom. The paragraph did exactly what happened here. It described the bathroom in exacting detail, including the old but servicable fittings, and the quality of the floor tiles and stuff. Then at the end, it said, “There was also a large horse in the room, taking up most of it.”

  17. Alan Kellogg says:

    “Resembling nothing more than a badly done Italian wedding cake.” Henry Beard and Douglas C. Kenney, Bored of the Rings

  18. Seve says:

    I have some not so funny experiences from our first gm who described room really accurately as our characters were peeking from door to make sure we don’t run to ambush. When we entered the room to go check the door leading out of that said room and to check for anything valuable gm tells that we can’t quite do that as there are 15 orcs surrounding us… Talk about teleporting enemies of doom. We all died.

  19. Seve says:

    And no we didn’t even get spot check on them…

  20. Cynder says:

    Gee, I’ve never known men to like shopping so much XD

  21. Joe says:

    I understand that the point of this strip was the GM’s mistake, but I just have to say: Though I love roleplaying and game-mastering, it irks me to know end when players choose not to listen to description and then make a big deal out of how: “if I’d know such and such, I would have done X differently”. Bugs!

  22. Morambar says:

    Um. What was the dragon laying in the dungeon…? A trap…? A plot…? An egg…? And was he lying in the dungeon while he did it, or standing erect…?

  23. Black Eagle says:

    There is an even “better” thing, that can happen to you, if you dont read the description for yourself until reading it aloud:

    You read the description to your players, starting with “The door leads you to the living room…” describe the whole room, including light, furniture, people, doors, windows etc. and end with the words: ” … The door is locked.”

    Happened to me once. Wont happen again.

  24. Stapler says:

    Reminds me of early (level-wise) in our campain.

    DM: “And over here there are beds…”
    Friend: “I loot the beds!”
    DM: “So, while you are looting the beds, the orcs that are standing in the room take notice of you and strike…”

    Okay, so not a spectacularly terrible predicament, but it taught us, “First lesson in entering a room, let the DM finish.”

  25. A bad DM says:

    This happens to me all the time. ALL the time.

  26. Robin says:

    One alternative is to let the only person who listens to you get the major advantage it brings. I once played a thief who had opened a chest. The DM said, “You find 10,000 gold pieces, 50 platinum pieces, two potions and a scroll.” I said, “Hey guys, we just found 10,000 gold pieces, 40 platinum pieces, two potions and a scroll.” Since nobody else listens to the DM when the thief is opening a chest, no other PC ever knew I had just pocketed ten platinum pieces.

    Alternatively, you should stop the interruptions long before the important room.

    The correct answer to somebody who interrupts your description to say “We loot the room!” is to respond with “You don’t do anything until I tell you to roll initiative.” Do this even when there’s no monster, to determine who can pick up the loot first. I like to roll for initiative for every room with monster, treasure or trap, a few other rooms, when there’s a general spot check, and whenever they interrupt me.

    If they always roll initiative, then they stop interrupting you with proposed actions, and better yet, you can have them rolling initiative for a battle before they know there’s a battle coming.

    Ideally, if they are surprised, then the first they hear of the orcs will be “Suddenly, an orc hits Fineous for 7 points of damage, and you all see 20 orcs coming out of the darkness.” Surprise means surprise.

  27. Pat says:

    Actually, if you think about the way humans filter information. You should only talk about the most important things.

    So if the party has fighters in it mention the dragon and not the gold. If it has thieves in it mention the gold and not the dragon :-)

    But think about it: you walk into a party. Do you notice everything about the room and the music? Or do you notice the hot chick (guy)dressed as a cute elf? :-)

    90% of the time — hot chick and hours later you will not remember anything else.

    Of course, part of the reason will be that you will not notice the hot chick’s football-player boyfriend with the jealous temperament and an excellent right hook. :-)

    And that’s my point, we do get fixated on one thing and ignore other details. This is how magicians work.

    So use this to your advantage:

    The “obvious” pit is not obvious if a dragon is breathing on the adventurers.

    The “obvious” skeletons hidden in the shadows are not obvious to the adventurers who are just seeing the pile of gold coins on the altar.

    The poor illusion of gold coins on the altar is not obvious if the adventurers have been asking about treasure — they are seeing what they want to see.

  28. Michael says:

    Heh. One time I ran a module, and read the description. I stopped after it said “GM Note:”, but that of course told me players that there was something special about that last item.

  29. WJS says:

    How about giving only a most basic description of the room until after the party has killed the orcs and, y’know, actually have time to look around without getting whacked on the head? As has been pointed out, if there’s a bloody great lizard towering over them, the adventurers are unlikely to notice much about the room unless they kill it first, at which point they should get a more detailed description.

1 2

Leave a Reply

Comments are moderated and may not be posted immediately. Required fields are marked *


Thanks for joining the discussion. Be nice, don't post angry, and enjoy yourself. This is supposed to be fun.

You can enclose spoilers in <strike> tags like so:
<strike>Darth Vader is Luke's father!</strike>

You can make things italics like this:
Can you imagine having Darth Vader as your <i>father</i>?

You can make things bold like this:
I'm <b>very</b> glad Darth Vader isn't my father.

You can make links like this:
I'm reading about <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darth_Vader">Darth Vader</a> on Wikipedia!

You can quote someone like this:
Darth Vader said <blockquote>Luke, I am your father.</blockquote>