The Alexandrian

This tip has been updated and revised. The new version can be found here.

A couple rules of thumb I use for crafting evocative descriptions as a GM:

THREE OF FIVE: Think about your five senses. Try to include three of them in each description. Sight is a gimme and a Taste will rarely apply, so that means picking a couple out of Hearing, Smell, and Touch. Remember that you don’t actually have to touch something in order to intuit what it might feel like if you did.

TWO COOL DETAILS: Try to include two irrelevant-but-cool details. These are details that aren’t necessary for the encounter/room to function, but are still cool. It’s the broken cuckoo clock in the corner; the slightly noxious odor with no identifiable source; the graffiti scrawled on the wall; the bio-luminescent fungus; etc.

THREE-BY-THREE: Delta’s 1-2-(3)-Infinity talks about psychological research demonstrating that repeating something three times takes up the same space in our brains as repeating something infinitely. Thus, once you’ve hit the third item in a sequence, any additional items in that sequence are redundant.

Extrapolating from this, for minor scenes you can describe three things each with a single detail. At that point, you’ve filled up the “infinity queue” in your players’ brains and their imaginations will impulsively fill in the finer details of the scene you’ve evoked. For “epic” descriptions, use the full three-by-three: Describe three different elements with three details each.

Like most rules of thumb, of course, none of these should be treated like straitjackets.

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7 Responses to “Random GM Tips: The Art of Description”

  1. DmL says:

    Touch also includes temperature, air pressure, wind, etc.

  2. Mark says:

    Also, you could include feelings as ‘touch’. This includes spine shivering, or skin crawling.

  3. Edita Gorsh says:

    The broken cuckoo clock in the corner sound like a very cool detail

  4. Testing out a New Dungeon Format | ars phantasia says:

    […] posts on how to use the 5 senses in descriptions check out Justin Alexander’s tips on The Art of Description and Matt’s post on 5 Senses Room Descriptions).  That said, I want to be sure to avoid the […]

  5. Tad Davis says:

    Hi Justin,

    I wrote a post at my blog which mentioned this article and for some reason a segment of that article ended up being quoted in the above comment. Just to be clear, I did not post it there – I detest spam. I’m not quite sure to delete it though and if you don’t want it there feel free to remove it.


  6. Justin Alexander says:

    Thanks for the concern, Tad, but everything is A-OK. It popped up due to an automatic trackback response in WordPress. I could turn it off on my end if I wanted to, but I actually like this kind of cross-referencing in the blogosphere.

    For example, it made me aware of your article and that made me aware of Courtney Campbell’s article and I thought both of those were fantastic and full of a lot of useful ideas. They build on some of my own thoughts regarding bullet points.

  7. Des Descriptions Évocatrices – quefaitesvous says:

    […] est une version mise à jour et complété d’un article originalement paru en […]

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