Guest Post: How to Describe a Room with an Encounter

Hi everyone I have another guest post for you. This one is from Stephen of Stephen’s Hobby Workshop. He has a goodly number of blog posts about subjects of interest such as sandbox campaigns, megadungeons and low fantasy gaming. He has published an article by me as well and you can find that here.


I watch a lot of YouTube vids about RPGs and tools for running them. I’ve found some pretty good ones. It’s amazing how far the tech has come in just a few years, and how people can make such professional videos at home.

Lately I’ve been watching vids on how to describe rooms and scenes to your players. Some really good info out there! I thought I’d throw my hat in the ring too, but since I’m not a youtuber, the blarg will have to do.

I’ll give an example. I’m currently writing an adventure module*, and I am putting together the descriptions and encounter keys of the various areas. Some folks call this ‘Box Text” or ‘Read-aloud’ text, with some insisting it should be in an actual box, others hate that concept and prefer a list of bullet points. Either way, this prepared text has a big influence on the way your PCs will respond to the room or encounter.

My method is a sort of hybrid of box-text and bullet-points, and I’d like to share it with you.

The number one thing to consider when keying a room is whether or not the room is inhabited. This will determine the sequence in which you describe the various details of the room, and how you frame the encounter.

A monster encounter  demands attention immediately. As soon as the PCs discover a monster they’ll need to determine the best way to deal with it, whether through violence or negotiation. Most of the rest of the room is likely irrelevant to this much more pressing issue. After the monster has been dealt with, then the PCs can take stock of their situation a little more carefully, and investigate the chamber.

Room Description Template

I use a template for creating rooms/caves/chambers, which gives you, the GM, the ability to tailor the description to your party’s situation, and the requirements of the particular encounter.

Blank Room Description Block

Room Description (your name for the room or area)

Play: an outline of the expected general sequence of events

DM Only: specific info needed on entering

Box Text/Player Description

Sight – Sound – Smell – 

DM Only: detailed info on what investigation will reveal

Traps/Challenges:

Treasures:

Creature Encounter details: including an abbreviated stat-line with Move, AC, HD, HP, # ATT, Dmg and any other relevant info (like special abilities)

Using this template, a GM can set up the description for room or area to create the maximum impact on a party. Even an empty room can have a powerful smell, which may be the very first thing the PCs notice when they open the door/enter. An inhabited chamber may have some sort of sound being made by the occupant (which gives you a chance to describe it to those PCs “Listening at Doors“), or there may be some sort of amazing visual that draws the eye when the room is entered.

Whatever the case, the most important – and attention-grabbing – feature of a room will be its occupant.

Describe the Monstrous Encounter SECOND

You should tailor your room or area description to build excitement and drama in the reveal of what-ever-it-is that was making the noise or creating the smell. Whatever it is that your PCs will notice first, just before the monster itself is revealed. Obviously, any hidden creatures will naturally be described last, whenever their trigger is activated. Otherwise there should be a description of a sight, smell or sound that comes just before you expose the PCs to the encounter.

The door creaks open as you push against its resistance with your shoulder. You didn’t hear anything a moment ago, when you put your ear to the door to listen, but now you smell the awful and familiar ammonia-tinged-with-cloves reek of a giant serpent. Pushing the door fully open, you can hear the sound of scales sliding across the rough flagstone floor. Holding up your lantern, its light is reflected in the cold, hard eyes of the enormous predator!

< roll for Surprise! >

Once your PCs have dealt with this giant serpent, then they can take a look around, estimate the dimensions of the room and take note of its furnishings.

If you describe the room and its complete inventory to your PCs first, you will take away from the excitement and mystery of dealing with the encounter first, then going back to explore the chamber and discover its contents.

Please share your thoughts on structuring encounter and room descriptions in the Comments. I’d love to hear about how others handle this aspect of module-writing.

  • (Actually, more like three modules at once, but, whaddya gonna do?)

One thought on “Guest Post: How to Describe a Room with an Encounter

  1. Pingback: A View of the Room – Stephen's Hobby Workshop

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