Painting a Picture With Words

Painting a Picture With Words

In today’s resource rich environment, Game Masters do not lack for choice when it comes to visually presenting a scene for their players to take in.  Companies such as Hero Forge allow for the creation of miniatures that match exactly what the players envision their characters as, while the popularity of 3D printing and manufactured terrain pieces can really bring a scene to life.  Is it really enough though?  Sometimes having a table full of goodies may look amazing, and get all those shocked reactions from players that Game Masters love, but could more be done to really immerse players in the world their characters are inhabiting in?  The answer is: Yes!

Using your senses

Just as we have many senses that we use in everyday life, these can be used to add immersion to a location or event in nearly any tabletop role playing game.  While what the players see is most likely the most important aspect of the story being told, it can be enhanced by what can be smelt, felt, or even heard.  Here are some examples that can be used to help bring that little extra something to scene descriptions to really tie in all those cool toys sitting on the table.


What smells?

Smells are probably the easiest to incorporate into a description, as smells are believed to be tied closest to memory over any of our other real-world senses.  The smell of a campfire can invoke a feeling of peace and relaxation, or stress and danger if it is somewhere it shouldn't be.  They can be used as clear indicators of safety, or subverted to trick players into a false sense of security.  Describing the warm aroma's of fresh bread may quickly put your players at ease, not realizing that those delicious smells are masking dark experiments in the basement beneath the humble bakery.  Maybe a clutch perception roll picks up a faint odor of  Here are some examples you can start with to spice up your smelly descriptions!    

Savory or fresh; Orchards, feasts, or festivals.  It could also be used to describe the smell of a home, or a safe place, triggering real world emotions tied to personal experiences such as baked bread.

Pungent and rancid; Sewers, factories, or anyplace that has an overwhelming odor.  This can be taken a step further to describe exactly what the overwhelming odor is, such as rotting material or chemicals.

Sickly and putrid; A place with an odor they may induce nausea, or discomfort.  

Earthy and damp; Caverns, Catacombs, or places with freshly tilled soil.

Stale or musty; Ruins, crypts, or any place where fresh air does not circulate. 

Resources like this article from ( describing different aromas can be very helpful in tying different smells to various mental responses.  


No touchy!

Next to sight, touch can be the easiest to describe.  Words like hot and cold, rough or smooth, sharp or dull are easy enough to work into any good description, but that does not mean a good description cannot be turned into a great one by digging deeper into each of these words.  Instead of using the word rough, try explaining what makes the texture rough.  Is it bumpy or pitted like worn steel?  Maybe the mountain path is rocky or craggy, or creatures’ fur is coarse and wiry, like steel wool.  Instead of the jungle just being hot, maybe it is blistering or balmy.  Honestly, a simple online thesaurus can be a real life saver when trying to describe the feel of an object or effect, and luckily most people can relate these feelings to real-world experiences.  


Did you hear that?

Describing the sounds that can be heard in a scene can often be forgotten, as the ambient background sounds of everyday life are often overlooked.  The sounds of traffic, birds chirping, or just the crunching of shoes on a gravel path are often so constant and mundane, they can often be completely ignored.   A world without sound, however, would be quite dull indeed!  A scene can be greatly enhanced by adding the description of the sounds characters may hear in their environment.  Instead of telling the players that the ground is covered in broken glass, tell them "As you shift your feet, you can hear shards of the broken window being ground into the stone, and the soft tinkling of stain glass fragments being gently shifted."  Sound is a great way to enhance other descriptions as well.  Not only is the room cold, as the broken window allows the chilly night air in, there is also a slight howling as the wind blows through the broken pieces of the frame.  A certain mystery has been added to the scene by just throwing in a few extra descriptions about what can be heard.


Get that out of your mouth!

Using taste in descriptions can be really fun, and get some great reactions from players.  While obviously the sense of taste is most often used when describing food, it is playing a game of imagination!  Who knows what someone is going to stick in their mouths!  Not only that, but most people have had an experience where there has been a smell or something in the air so thick or strong that it can actually be tasted.  Often this can lead to a visceral reaction.  Instead of telling players they are stuck in a sandstorm, explain that they can taste the gritty sand working it’s way through their masks and grinding between their teeth, drying out their mouths.  That sounds much more unpleasant!  


Fall Back On Experience

While some of this may sound overwhelming and other parts mundane, it is utilizing small descriptions into a story that can really draw a clear picture in the minds of those playing, and if you ever find yourself in doubt, the best course of action is to fall back on personal experiences.  Even if you don't have a description perfectly rehearsed, or players manage to throw a curve ball, all a Game Master needs to do is take a moment and try to remember some of the sensations they may have experienced in a similar situation, or try to imagine everything they would be feeling if they were there.  By putting those feelings to words players will be immersed into a scene, and in turn, will hopefully encourage better roleplaying!  With a little practice, anyone could be spouting out vivid and mesmerizing descriptions in no time!