I’m going to focus in on the process I use for monster descriptions this week. This isn’t about monster design but the description of the monster when the player characters first see it. Design of the monster is important but this article is focusing on the initial description only.
If you are following my Dragon’s Bend game reports, you may have noticed that I describe monsters in a particular way. Broadly, I describe the monsters in my reports the same way I describe them to my players. My game reports are optimized for brevity so you aren’t getting the exact words but the general method is similar.
Why are your descriptions important?
The fewer number of visual aids you use for your game, the more important your monster descriptions become. If you use miniatures or images to show the players what their characters see, then you don’t have to put as much thought into this. You plonk the figure down on the table and say, “You see this,” and that’s all there is to it.
If you don’t have a miniature, an image, or can’t find something that quite captures the feel you are looking for, then you need to describe the monster.
It is worth repeating that the primary interface for players of classic adventure games is the game master’s description of the encounter. It is the conversation that the players are having with the referee that creates the shared mental construct we hold in our minds as we play. If the description of the monster is inadequate, then the players may misapprehend the situation. This may lead to confusion, poor tactical decisions, failure to capture a clue or bit of exposition that is important for the achievement of the player’s objectives and the emotional effect the referee is trying to achieve.
What’s the monster for?
As mentioned above, design is important when thinking about description. You are designing the encounter to achieve a particular thing. A lot of referees don’t think about it that hard and their purpose may be, “Something fun for the characters to kill.” That’s fine. You may want to go deeper or keep it simple. It is helpful to at least be mindful about what the monster is doing there and what it’s up to.
If you are a new referee, you may want to think about how you want to describe each monster and jot down some bullet points as you prep. Unless you are going to tell the players, “You see 3 goblins,” and move on to describing what the goblins are doing; the play experience for your players will be vastly improved by putting some thought into the specific words you choose for your description.
An experienced referee will be able to improvise more readily and won’t have to put much time in but a new referee should consider making more of an effort during prep. Here are some questions you can ask as you are thinking about how to describe the monsters and what they are doing.
What is the emotional effect you want the monster to have on the players?
Do I want the players to be perplexed? Curious? Disgusted? Angry? Confident? Cautious? Does it matter how the players feel in this instance?
What other elements are involved?
Tactical? Narrative? Puzzle? Trick? Trap?
What else is this monster tied to in the adventure/campaign?
Are they minions of another monster/NPC? Do they have identifying uniforms? Tattoos? A hair do?
Accentuate and Exaggerate
When you know what purpose the monster is serving in the encounter, you can then narrow down exactly what you want to say when the characters encounter the monster.
Accentuate. Based on what I decided from the first part of the process (What’s this monster for?) I’ll pick three to five characteristics that I want to accentuate.
The players in the Dragon’s Bend campaign just fought a gibbering mouther. I didn’t tell them it’s name. I just described it. I wanted it to be mysterious, gross and scary. When they saw it I described a large mound of slimy flesh, a large bulbous eye, and several mouths full of teeth that were randomly distributed across the blob of flesh.
I choose 3 to 5 elements because the human brain is only able to hold a limited number of ideas at a time. I want the players to focus on what I want them to focus on. If I give them 10 details, they are going to decide what is important and focus on that. It may not be what I think is important. If I give them a constrained number of details which I deem important for the experience of the encounter, then that’s all they have.
Then I exaggerate. Describe the monster as bigger, grosser, hairier, smellyer, than it actually is. Blow it up. Make it big.
Think about what people do when they want to look a certain way. We draw attention to accentuate our most attractive features and exaggerate them. The garment industry devoted to this. Pushing things up, making things stand out, squeezing things into pleasing shapes.
Do this with your monsters. Accentuate their “best” features and exaggerate them.
Don’t tell players what their character thinks, feels, or believes.
A very important element of describing anything in an encounter is to avoid telling the players what their characters feel when giving a description. Box text in published adventures are terrible about this. Nothing turns me off more than a designer telling me what the characters are supposed to feel when they see something.
I won’t say “never” but it should be exceedingly rare that the referee tells the player what their character thinks, feels, or believes.
Players decide if the characters are scared. They are playing the characters. As referee, it’s your role to create scary situations. It is up to the player to decide if the situation is actually scary.
If your game has a mechanism for fear then it is acceptable for the GM to say, “You are scared.” It would be better to describe what the character does as a result of being scared. They shake, they run, they stammer, they stand paralyzed, they piss themselves. The fear spell or innate ability of certain monsters is an example.
You can tell them what their character knows.
One of the best pieces of game mastering advice I was ever taught was something I picked up from playing with Frank Mentzer at a convention.
The game master should assume that the player characters know how to live in their world.
I know how to drive a car, pump gas, where to get my tires replaced, and how to run a vacuum to get the potato chip crumbs out of the carpet. Your characters know how to use flint and steel, because anyone who lives in a setting without matches and lighters wouldn’t survive long without that skill.
Because killing monsters is part of their business they know lore about monsters. How much lore is going to depend on the character, the setting, the classes of character, whether or not you use a skill system and so forth.
The characters will also know of legendary monsters. Old timers tell stories in the tavern. Troubadours and poets tell stories of great warriors and their glory. Wizards read tomes with drawings and descriptions. Clerics and Paladins will be trained by their order about the most terrible demons and devils.
Telling a player what their character knows is appropriate. If goblins are a common monster in your setting it is a good to just say “goblin.” “You see 10 goblins torturing a man in a tunic who is tied to a pillar,” is an acceptable description. In fact, I’d probably give more detail about their prisoner than the goblins.
Telling your players that they see a short, green, humanoid, with scraggly hair, scavenged armor and a rusty spear every time they see a goblin is going to get irritating if goblins are a frequent encounter. The character knows what a goblin is, just tell the players it’s a goblin.
The first (and probably only) time the characters encounter a legendary monster I’ll give a description. Then I will tell them that their characters recognize the monster from the lore that the character knows, what the monster is, what it is called, it’s purported abilities, it’s supposed weaknesses.
Telling them what they know can bleed over into think, feel, or believes. There is grey area. Be aware. What people know to be true is often what they believe to be true. It is a subtle and important difference.
This is one of the few times I feel it is appropriate for the game master to lie to players. I recommend caution with this technique. It should be used sparingly. I avoid telling players something that will certainly get them killed. I will sometimes tell players something that is false about a monster because that is what their character has been told by a mentor or is considered common knowledge.
Once the encounter is under way…
Once you’ve given the initial description of the monster, then shut up, listen and look.
The players will talk to each other, speculate, plan and scheme. They may jump right into the encounter and start asking you questions which you will answer of course. Often they’ll look at one another. Their body language, facial expressions, posture, and what they do with their hands or eyes will tell you a lot about whether your description achieved the effect you were trying to get.
As the encounter progresses, try again to accentuate and exaggerate the specific features you think are important. You might substitute synonyms. If the players don’t seem to be catching your intent, try a different approach. Once you’ve done this for a while, it will start to become intuitive.
Prep Summed Up
When you are preparing for your session and you want a particular monster encounter to have a significant impact on the players; here is the process you can use to craft a memorable description for the monster.
- Be clear about what the monster is for.
- Determine what the 3-5 most important elements to achieve the monster’s purpose.
- Write down bullet points so you don’t forget.
- Accentuate the main characteristics.
- Exaggerate the main characteristics.
Try it out and see how it works for you!