Four tips for writing effective D&D read-aloud text

Quill_and_PotOne of the most challenging aspects of designing a Dungeons & Dragons adventure is writing engaging read-aloud text that describes the setting for the players. Such text is the lens through which the players perceive your game world, so its utility, clarity and ability to convey information and emotion have direct impact on the quality of your players’ role-playing experience.

Fortunately, it isn’t necessary for dungeon masters (DMs) to be trained writers to produce effective read-aloud text, and avoiding a few common writing errors is often sufficient to turn dull, lifeless text into a powerful DM tool for creating memorable role-playing scenes.

Even though they are basic tenets of fiction writing, the four tips outlined below are equally useful for writing D&D adventure read-aloud text. They are:

No. 1: Show, don’t tell. This is such a common error that editors abbreviate it SDT when reviewing manuscripts. The error appears in writing exactly as its name implies: the author tells the reader something that should be described instead, either because the reader or character observing something isn’t omnicient. Consider these examples:

The wooden stairs leading up to the surface won’t support any weight because they’re rotten.

The stairs leading to the surface have clearly been exposed to the elements for a long time, and their discolored, worm-eaten treads seem to bend under their own weight.

The first example clearly tells the players something their characters may not automatically know; the second, which the Gentle Reader may note doesn’t even include the word rotten, conveys a suspicion to the players that the steps may be unsafe, but also encourages the players to find out for certain while providing more vivid detail about the setting.

No. 2. Use words that describe perception from all senses. Of all the information humans perceive about their environment, it is estimated that 90 percent of that information is collected through the sense of sight. While describing what the heroes see is obviously an important part of the read-aloud text, coloring it with information brought in through other senses can make the descriptive text seem more real to players, making it easier for them to suspend disbelief. For example:

You turn the corner and a demon is standing there. It has red skin and a beard, and it carries a strange, bladed weapon.

Just as you turn the corner, you nearly stop in mid-stride as wave of hot, dry air wafts over you, reeking of sulphur and burning flesh. Blinking your burning eyes, you see a beast born from the stuff of nightmares, its hateful eyes glowing with malice. It opens its fanged mouth and emits a hiss, sounding like a drop of water striking a heated branding iron.

Apart from falling again to the “show, don’t tell” error by giving away the fact that the creature before the heroes is a demon, the first description only conveys information obtainable through sight, and gives so little information that players might think that they are facing a sunburned Sean Connery examining a steak knife from Ikea. The second example, however, gives clues to the other-worldly nature of the beast by describing unnaturally warm air, the stench of the abyss and the sounds the demon makes. Astute players may even connect the branding iron image with forthcoming fire damage.

No. 3: Don’t be afraid to convey meaning through connotations. Essentially, a connotation is a “shade of meaning,” where the words chosen imply more than the literal action presented. There is a difference between climbing up the sides of a pit trap and scrambling up the sides of a pit trap; while both define a hero’s movement to a specific place, the use of the word scrambling implies that it’s being done  quickly or in panic. Consider these examples:

The giant walks over to the party.

The giant slowly turns his bulk towards the party and shuffles forward, his massive legs never rising more than a few inches above the ground and often leaving ruts in the earth behind him.

The first example communicates the giant’s activity clearly enough, but using the word shuffle instead of walk helps to convey the idea that the giant is so heavy that even he has a difficult time moving him. That difference is the application of connotations.

Using a thesaurus can help you find different connotations for words, in the form of synonyms. 

No. 4: Remain “invisible.” This writing error happens when an author uses a word that draws readers out of immersion in the story and draws attention to the fact that someone has written what they are reading. If a reader stops to wonder, “why did she use that word?” the writer has suddenly become “visible.” Usually, this mistake happens when the author finds a word that perfectly encapsulates an idea and uses it, assuming that all readers will know what it means. For example:

The atrabilious man isn’t pleased by Atok accidentally bumping him on the street.

The irritable man, obviously annoyed by Atok’s clumsiness, snarls, “Look ahead when you walk, oaf!” He turns away, exasperated, and hobbles off.

While there is a difference between being atrabilious and irritable – the first is a mix of being irritable and melancholy, and the second is just, well,  irritable – almost no one knows what atrabilious means (and if you don’t, there is nothing amiss; this writer didn’t know what it meant until researching this post).  When a word like atrabilious shows up in your read-aloud text, players will instantly stop listening and start wondering what you’re talking about. Using colorful or unusual words only helps if the players are familiar with them.

Although it is important to note that nobody expects a DM to produce read-aloud text worthy of a Nobel Prize, remembering these tips can improve the quality of your D&D game, and practicing them is well worth the investment.


15 comments on “Four tips for writing effective D&D read-aloud text

  1. kaeosdad says:

    This is quickly becoming one of my favorite blogs. I’m printing this one out for my dm binder.

  2. Mike Shea says:

    Excellent advice!

    I would only add that “keeping it short” is a good idea as well. It should convey what it needs to and then stop. I know I’ve overwritten more than a few read-aloud text passages and watched as the eyes of my players glazed over or they went off to get a drink.

    Keep it short.

    • Alric says:

      Welcome, Mike, and thank you for reading.

      I agree about the word count issue – my players have glazed over on more than one occasion, and at least one did fetch a beverage while I was reading, now that I think of it. Gads, how embarrassing…

  3. Fork says:

    I’ve heard DM advice about using all 5 senses before to increase an immersive effect, but you’ve managed to illuminate that idea a whole lot better.

    I’m with the others here: great post & thank you.

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  6. Lord Karick says:

    Good stuff. I’m surprised by the 90% issue though. One of my favourite RPG writers, Dave Morris, manages to create scenes through brief description of sounds and smells – I’ve found that this really increases atmosphere, almost more than visual clues.

    • Alric says:

      I got thte 90 percent firgure from my anatomy and physiology professor – I don’t have a formal citation for it, but I trust the guy’s knowledge.

      Thanks for your visit, and for your comment!

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