Making Encounters and Descriptions More Thematic

Getting back into writing more narrative-style content for D&D adventures has led me to do a bunch of research on keeping my theme and tone consistent. Two recent resources that have been very eye-opening are Adventure Writing like a F***** Boss by Venger Satanis and Stealing Cthulhu by Graham Walmsley.

These two resources have been incredibly valuable.

One part of AWLAFB that really grabbed me was the chart Venger made called “Making Conflict More Interesting”. With categories like “The enemy is something unusual” and “The enemy has something unusual” it gives you, as a writer, a prompt to make your NPCs or villain characters different from what your players may be expecting.

While this is a great idea on its own, it occurred to me that you can use this tool to enhance characters and environments, not just to make them different, but different in a way that is consistent with the theme or tone you are working to build.

Create Prompts for Your Intended Aesthetic

What is the theme of your setting or environment? What tone are you trying to create? Is there a mood you have in mind? Using these concepts to define the aesthetic will help you to build the right kind of descriptions for monsters, villains, and environments your players encounter.

Walmsley isolated a few terms that Lovecraft uses in his writing to set a tone and create an atmosphere. I made a chart of these, plus a few more:

Beautiful, Comely Ugly, Deformed
Light Dark, Shadowed
Captivating Repellent, Loathsome
Dream-like Spectral, Nightmarish
Soft, Smooth Jagged, Compacted
Fine, Delicate Coarse, Gnarled
Sacred Unholy

Choose more of your own words that define the aesthetic of the environment you want to describe:

For the interior description of a low-rent Tavern: Stale, Smoky, Greasy and Grimy.

For a long-forgotten tomb: Desiccated, Powdery, Exhausted, Desolated.

The thesaurus is your friend!

Once you have chosen the words you feel best represent what you are working to convey, write them on a sticky-note and put them right in front of you while you are writing. When you get to a place in your narrative where you need to emphasize or re-establish the tone/theme, see where it fits in the chart below. “They” refers to the NPCs or villains in your description.

These descriptors can be used for an immediate description of what is in front of your characters, for a Callback – referencing something that happened earlier, or as Foreshadowing.

ancient tomb themeUsing the tomb as an example:

  1. They are something _____ (Desiccated, Powdery, Exhausted, Desolated)
  2. They have something ____ (Desiccated, Powdery, Exhausted, Desolated)
  3. They know something about the _____ (environment, other NPC, Villain)
  4. They say something about the _____ (environment, other NPC, Villain)
  5. They do something to interact with the _____ (Desiccated, Powdery, Exhausted, Desolated) environment
  6. The environment has a _____ (Desiccated, Powdery, Exhausted, Desolated) feature
  7. The environment is expected to be _____ (Desiccated, Powdery, Exhausted, Desolated), but is instead (the opposite)
  8. The environment’s _____ (Desiccated, Powdery, Exhausted, Desolated) nature has an unusual effect on the senses
  9. The environment transitions from “the expected” (Desiccated, Powdery, Exhausted, Desolated) to the unusual (the opposite or something else altogether) over time
  10. The environment transitions from “the expected” (Desiccated, Powdery, Exhausted, Desolated) to the unusual (the opposite or something else altogether) over space
  11. The NPC/Monster/Villain is only intermittently _____  (Desiccated, Powdery, Exhausted, Desolated), or only some PCs can perceive the nature of the NPC/Monster/Villain
  12. The environment is only intermittently _____  (Desiccated, Powdery, Exhausted, Desolated), or only some PCs can perceive the nature of the environment

Avoid getting carried away. While you want to be consistent and building upon your theme, remember to keep your thesaurus resource handy. Move from one “level” of description to another as the adventure progresses – for example from Dry to Withered to Desiccated. For example, the descriptions of the rooms may begin with a “layer of dry sand and grit on the floor“, then later “the floor and withered furnishings are covered in a film of dust, the air is so dry your nose is starting to bleed“. In the final description the room and its contents may be “nearly white with a coating of desiccated limestone powder“.

This thematic build-up can make the final encounter even more jarring, especially if, when they open that final sarcophagus, it squelches and “a moist cloud reeking of putrefaction fills the chamber! While your guts roil in disgust, a glistening claw of a hand, dripping with mucus, rises from the coffin, reaching for…”

You get the idea!

Keep in mind that you can use this technique in reverse, as well. Start the PCs in an extreme environment and move them to one more mundane. As they begin to relax in familiar surroundings, you can hit them with the next, unexpected encounter!

As always, comments are welcome. Share your thoughts! What are your favorite descriptive words for setting a theme or tone for the description of an encounter?


One thought on “Making Encounters and Descriptions More Thematic

  1. Great post, thanks for the shout-out!

    Tags are incredibly useful. I find myself using them unconsciously. There’s an idea in my head, that this encounter should be “dark” or “unpleasant” or “too good to be true”. That tag inspires me to come up with something suitable.

    I like the use of contrast, as well.

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