When writing out your encounter descriptions it is important to consider what to INCLUDE, what to leave out, and in which order to present the information.
Room Description Template
I use a template for creating rooms/caves/chambers, which gives you, the GM, the ability to tailor what is included in the description to your party’s situation, and the requirements of the particular encounter.
Blank Room Description Block
Room Description (your name for the room or area)
Play: an outline of the expected general sequence of events
DM Only: specific info needed on entering
Box Text/Player Description
DM Only: detailed info on what investigation will reveal
Creature Encounter details: including an abbreviated stat-line with Move, AC, HD, HP, # ATT, Dmg and any other relevant info (like special abilities)
Using this template, a GM can set up the description for room or area to create the maximum impact on a party. Even an empty room can have a powerful smell, which may be the very first thing the PCs notice when they open the door/enter. An inhabited chamber may have some sort of sound being made by the occupant (which gives you a chance to describe it to those PCs “Listening at Doors“), or there may be some sort of amazing visual that draws the eye when the room is entered.
Whatever the case, the most important – and attention-grabbing – feature of a room will be its occupant.
Describe the Monstrous Encounter SECOND
You should tailor your room or area description to build excitement and drama in the reveal of what-ever-it-is that was making the noise or creating the smell. Whatever it is that your PCs will notice first, just before the monster itself is revealed. Obviously, any hidden creatures will naturally be described last, whenever their trigger is activated. Otherwise there should be a description of a sight, smell or sound that comes just before you expose the PCs to the encounter.
The door creaks open as you push against its resistance with your shoulder. You didn’t hear anything a moment ago, when you put your ear to the door to listen, but now you smell the awful and familiar ammonia-tinged-with-cloves reek of a giant serpent. Pushing the door fully open, you can hear the sound of scales sliding across the rough flagstone floor. Holding up your lantern, its light is reflected in the cold, hard eyes of the enormous predator!
< roll for Surprise! >
Generally the information is presented in this way, more or less in order (sight, smell, sound) but I do like to switch it up and keep the PCs guessing. I never want to broadcast a monstrous surprise, for example, by only putting smell first when there is a monster in the room.
Keywords for Foreshadowing
Dungeons and underground spaces in the World of Weirth are often connected to, and corrupted by, the infernal semi-sentient entity known as the Belowdark. This feature of dungeons and caverns is based on the concept of the Mythic Underworld being antagonistic to the presence of invaders, such as the adventurers.
To this end I like to build atmosphere and provide foreshadowing by using certain repetitive phrases and keywords to indicate the presence of certain “fixtures” of the underground environment. Some examples:
- The smell of ammonia indicates the presence of a dangerous slime or ooze. Some are simply green-colored mucus, others could be Deathslime, Green Slime, or an Ochre Jelly.
- The smell of body odor & the iron reek of blood together presage a Belowdark manifestation such as a Flesh Wall or Darkswell.
- In areas where there are piles of loose rubble there are almost always swarms of Grave Rats, horrific ten-legged creatures that are the carrion-eaters of the underground ecology. I will often indicate or confirm their presence by describing scritching, scrabbling sounds in the rubble, with an earthy, musky aroma.
- Every underground area that is corrupted by the Belowdark is literally crawling with centipedes of all sizes, from 3″ long to 3 feet! The bigger they are, the more poisonous their bite.
Including these kinds of descriptions is a part of my world building process. Maintaining consistency across locations and times promotes the concept of the setting and creates a specific atmosphere