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Evocative Scenes on the Fly

Dipping a ladle into our suggestion pot, I see that NinjaBait had a question [1] about setting details:

I’ve been a DM/GM for several years now. I’ve never had any complaints about my stories or settings, but I’ve never felt very comfortable with describing what I’m seeing in my head. “The pungent stench of mildew emanates from the wet dungeons walls as stagnant water sloshes around your feet” becomes “you’re in a sewer and standing in about a foot of water”. How can I improve my ability to frame scenes without spending time writing out each one before hand?

If your players are enjoying the game, you’re probably hitting the right notes. That said, we all like to grow and improve (even to Medium size without a pesky enlarge person), so let’s discuss a few handy techniques.

Purple Prose

Ah, the dreaded “box text”. When you’re running an adventure, the writer often crafts an evocative image–if your players have the patience to wait. The balance here is tricky; players usually wait just long enough to get a good image in their mind, but they’re mine usually act instead of waiting to hear how thick the tomes on the shelves are.

While this isn’t the solution you’re looking for (pre-writing is something that comes from modules more than home campaigns), you can still suss out your players’ tolerance for description by imitating different writers’ styles. It often depends on the moment–I know that I’ll listen to wallpaper being described to set a spooky scene, but if there are opponents and weapons, I react to the obvious threat. In danger, more than a sentence or two of description seems out of place–my character’s worried about the quarrels zipping his way, not the teak panels behind the orcs.

If you want to read a fun debate about box text, Walt’s article and comments [2] feature interesting takes. Heather at Errant Dreams had a good article about making use of detail [3] that might help you narrow in on appropriate levels of description.


If you have the right image in hand, a picture IS worth a thousand words. John had a great article [4] about sharing the book’s artwork to get everyone on the same page. Similarly, in my wife’s campaign, she found 6-8 images from the web for key elements (monsters, ravines, etc.) in the upcoming night’s adventure. She’d save them as a slide show, advance to the proper slide, and turn the screen to face us. It was very cool to see the chasm–you could see the river glinting below; creepy pictures of half-rotted corpses shambling through the swamp set the scene very effectively. They weren’t generic zombies after we had an image to fix in our minds.


John also has a good article about using–and improvising props [5]. As a GM, I tend to be less prop intensive, but I know that I’m very impressed as a player when a GM pulls out a scale model of the ship, or the sewers we’re trekking through.

Sound files can make excellent props. You can play the sound of a waterfall, drawing everyone more completely into a scene, instead of just describing the rush of water. Some sound effects for gaming were produced by World of Twilights [6], who volunteered the prizes for Gnome Stew’s first contest [7] a few years ago.

Mental Images

Your instinct, to visualize the scene then describe it, is excellent. If you never thought about how a room looks, you’ll never see the details and describe them in a way that makes them come to life. (I don’t know how many adventures I went through with tapestries, when I’d only ever seen them in a textbook. Once I saw some real life tapestries, I had a much better sense of their feel and impressive presence. That’s hard to capture with a 3″ high picture.)

Troy’s article about getting in touch with your wild side [8] reminds you to get out and explore in real life. It’s much easier to describe the creepy slickness of the cavern wall when you recently visited a cave, or the susurration of grasses as the breeze gusts across the plains, when you’ve got a great mental image to call up.


For my prep, notes and reminders are where I concentrate my efforts. Matthew has a great location template [9] that reminds you to include key elements when you prep a new location. Note that “ambiance” is the second element that he lists; a few key words or phrases (the whoo of an owl, the erratic splatter of rain as the wind gusts from west to south and back) can help you convert your mental image into a vivid description come game time.

Similarly, locations in FATE games have aspects–key elements–that can be brought into effect by both sides. Boiling a location down to three or four aspects is enough for a solid feel, without tying your hands to box text. For my 1930s game, I had the following aspects for Campeche in the Yucatan: Bustling, thriving market; Oppressively warm; Jungle crowds close. Having those aspects on a 3×5 card before me guided me in setting flexible scenes across the city, while ensuring that the city had a coherent feel. If they had stayed in town longer, districts and neighborhoods would have received similar treatments, but because the game was an Indiana Jones style globetrotting game, broad strokes illustrating the differences between locations worked best.

3×5 cards are a great solution. You can either make them general–something you refer to each time you describe something, or specific but random–a list of specific prompts and ideas that you build a deck of and draw when a new situation develops.

Example of “general solution 3×5 card” (probably pinned inside your GM’s screen):

-Weather effects
-Smell and Ambient Sound
-Representative action

Conversely, a deck of specific prompts might include the following cards:

-Gnaws on hardtack while others talk
-Reeks of something dead
-Cape sweeps up and tugs at his neck in the stiff breeze

A general card prompts you to describe specific things–whatever you don’t regularly remember to describe in the heat of the moment–like smells. Specific cards give you random prompts, forcing you to improvise, but providing you a prompt so you’re not starting with a blank page. Why does the nobleman reek like something dead? How will the stiff breeze affect the torches everyone’s depending on to navigate the moonless night?

Building a deck of specific images, scents, and sounds lets you take advantage of inspiration between sessions. It can balloon quickly–jotted notes can be transferred and added to the deck. Similarly, if you have two or three things that you’re working on, and you want them to show up until you make a good habit of working them in, you can create two or three color coded decks (smell, action, etc.) and draw a card from each, working them into the scene whenever possible.

How do you craft evocative scenes?

What tricks are in your arsenal to create vivid scenes? Do you write descriptions beforehand, crafting perfect sentences with the time between sessions? Do a few keywords prompt an entire image for you? Or do you have a template of your own that you use to create consistent scenes, drawing on all the senses? Please share your tips and tricks in comments.

10 Comments (Open | Close)

10 Comments To "Evocative Scenes on the Fly"

#1 Comment By Tsenn On October 26, 2011 @ 5:31 am

Give the scene a tension rating, from 1 to 4. Give yourself that many sentences to lay things out. Opening a door to an orc den might be 1 or 2. Ascending the steps to the Senate on Coruscant might run to 3 or 4, giving you plenty of time for rich description without over-doing it. This forces you to structure your spiel and provides a subtle hint to your players. If you judge your ratings correctly, you can avoid selling impressive locations short, or waffling when it should be time for initiative and hit rolls. Start writing your own boxed text and stick to it. If there’s an Aspect, call it out. And don’t forget the dragon in the room!

#2 Comment By Tomcollective On October 26, 2011 @ 7:45 am

I’m a writer with a theater degree, so this comes a bit more easily than other things. (Ironically I get real shy about getting into character with my NPCs. Go figure.)

The trick, to me at least, is that there is no trick. Just describe what’s there. The details are what set the mood, not the delivery. You just need to focus on the details, NOT the dramatics. Using the sewer example, all you need to say is that the walls are damp, the water is stagnant and smells, plus whatever else you want to add. The players mind will supply the theatrics. Just pass along the info they’ll use to set the scene. Ambiance is about details, not delivery. Its surprising how much you can freak out the players just by stating things matter of factly.

#3 Comment By dborne On October 26, 2011 @ 8:37 am

If there’s an encounter, just let them know what they need for the fight: size and shape of the room, obstacles, etc. Then once the fight is done, break out the box text. It fits how the adventurers would see the room, quick tactical review for the fight, then when it’s over, check out the wallpaper.

#4 Comment By Rafe On October 26, 2011 @ 8:40 am

My advice is to use prompts, which is a tweak of the Reminders system Scott talks about in the article. Simply choose three of the five senses and ascribe a very short description to them. (Sight will be one those chosen 99% of the time, but list it last since you don’t want to dilute your creative thinking with something that might be a given.)

– Touch: frigid stone
– Sound: faint echo of water
– Sight: austere and dim

Refer to these as you go and use them as guides to make a more fulsome description of a scene.

For people-heavy scenes and not environment-focused scenes, use “appearance” and “perceived disposition.” (or whatever works for you as a descriptive prompt.)

#5 Comment By Scott Martin On October 26, 2011 @ 11:34 am

Great comments so far. [10] – Assigning a tension rating is interesting. I assume that you’d create in on the fly, corresponding to the point in the adventure, not inherent to the location, right? So it’s not the steps up to the senate that makes the scene tense, it’s the foreshadowing from previous scenes that merits the detailed description at this point. Right?

[11] – Details are key. You’re right, describe the smell of mold and most players will worry about footing and balance checks automatically.

[12] – Your method makes the most sense, but leaving description out at the top of the scene often has two effects. Either they get impatient when you start going on about the wallpaper when it’s clear that it doesn’t affect anything now, or you get caught up in the monsters/looting corpses, and the room never gets described. (I’m guilty of that, at least!)

[13] – A quick prompt to mention at least three senses (and sight last), will do wonders to ensure a better on the fly description.

#6 Comment By BryanB On October 26, 2011 @ 12:30 pm

I like relying on cards with bullet points tied to the senses. One sense that seems to be often forgotten in those bullet points is smell. I’ve often seen GMs describe what is seen or heard. The sense of smell can be a powerful tool for enhancing a scene. It should be used more often. I certainly need to use it more often.

#7 Comment By Razjah On October 26, 2011 @ 1:18 pm

[10] – I really like using this as a guideline for how much to write. Easy to follow and simple.

#8 Comment By Riklurt On October 26, 2011 @ 3:20 pm

@Tsenn – Those were some very good directions. One often forgets that some scenes don’t call for description at all while others really need it. The tension system you describe is a neat idea, I’ll definitely try it myself.

Most of the methods I use myself have already been mentioned, either in the comments or in the original article. I’d like to add, however, that even if you don’t plan to use a prop picture, it often helps to browse through some pictures of what you want to describe. Maybe you’ll find a prop picture that fits perfectly if you’re lucky, and if not, you often get to notice details that you might want to incorporate into the scene. Perhaps you’ll see a picture of a waterfall that creates a rainbow, and think “Ooh, that fits the scene I had in mind”, and your description is better off for it.

#9 Comment By Tsenn On October 27, 2011 @ 8:06 am

Thanks for the feedback! Something I should have specified: the rating has a lower number for greater tension. Hence why a potential combat encounter has a lower number, but a lead into a slower paced political scene has more. That Senate building has a lot of steps – plenty of time to absorb the details – but the orcs are right there. Ratings can be planned ahead or assigned/ adjusted on the fly as you see fit.

#10 Comment By Techieninja On October 27, 2011 @ 12:09 pm

I’m not that skilled at crafting evocative scenes, but one thing I like to do is when the system requires a map, such as D&D or Pathfinder, I use the map and figurines to “act” out the scene. The scene is usually before or after a battle. Though most of my characters enjoy the battle more than any other part of an adventure.
But now that I think about it, so do I lol