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Every DM Needs a Thesaurus

by Jae

If you run a DnD campaign, descriptions can get stale really fast. How many times in one combat do you say some combination of you stab the enemy with your sword? If you’re doing a lot of descriptions over and over you’re going to have to learn to switch up your vocabulary and add some more descriptive narration to your games. In short, you need a thesaurus. But you also need to internalize how to mix up your descriptions during your game.

Repetitive Descriptions are No Fun

Your players will stop listening if you use the same descriptions for an action repeatedly. If combat is just your players and the enemies trading blows back and forth until one group dies, you likely need to fix your combat, but you also need to ensure that you are at least giving decent descriptions to keep your players engaged. The problem here is that often you might not have any other ways ready to describe something.

Dungeon Masters aren’t expected to be expert writers or linguists to play the game, but it definitely helps. Without a strong grasp on alternative phrasings you’ll run into situations where common actions have dull descriptions and your players will eventually lose engagement with the scene.

Don’t let weak vocabulary destroy your game! It’s not too hard for you to improve this and get unique descriptions that will help you bolster your player’s engagement!

Learning Fantasy Synonyms

 How many words can you think of to cut something? A few? A dozen? More!?

Common actions like these come up in Dungeons and Dragons a lot, but in your day to day life you don’t need that many words to describe something being cut. Even if you could name a handful of synonyms for any common action, do you know the subtle differences between them and what they mean? What’s the difference between a slice and laceration? Slice is general, laceration applies to skin specifically. 

If you’re doing a lot of combat descriptions you’ll want to get to know these types of synonyms to buff up your description.

Luckily, you can get a good amount of information pulled up to help you mix up your word choices with a very small amount of work. Let’s start by outlining the types of words you’ll commonly need to add variety to in order to preserve some unique descriptions.

Physical Combat Words and Synonyms

The first major hurdle for you to mount is normal combat. These are the actions your players will take the most over the course of the game. This is easily the first area you’ll need to improve in your descriptions if you want to keep things fresh.

To get a better grasp on alternative ways to discuss actions in combat you’ll want to first look at your types of damage. Each damage type should get its own set of descriptive words. The three main types of physical damage are:

  • Bludgeoning – blunt force attacks
  • Slashing – bladed weapon or claw attacks
  • Piercing – stabbing attacks or damage from teeth or arrows

For each group you’ll have a variety of ways you can describe each attack. Bludging damage could be described as a smashing, bashing, or mashing force. You could bruise, bludgeon, or beat an opponent. They could be walloped, pummeled, or clobbered.

The same goes for slashing and piercing. Despite the words all meaning roughly the same things, you may use them in different contexts. Being walloped could refer to someone who has been badly beaten by any means, but a pummeling typically comes from fists. A clobbering is usually also from fists, but when used in a past tense it refers to a severity instead of a method, simply meaning to be beaten badly.

If you have a dozen or more words to pull from you should be able to make combat feel more descriptive and engaging without doing anything differently other than working on your vocabulary choice. As a way to actualize this all you need to do is make a cheat sheet with some word banks for each type of damage.

If you want to go the extra mile you can easily break these synonyms into groups based on the source of the damage. Bludgeoning damage from weapons and fists might use different words, just as thrown or shot projectiles could benefit from their own private vocabulary collection.

Magical Words and Synonyms

Next, you’re going to need to collect your words about magic. The nice thing about magic is that the Player’s Handbook has some pre-built descriptions that just need a little work to clean them up for your game. The downside is you actually need to know what your player’s spells do. You may have to look up spells frequently, but you should learn what your players can cast and try to commit their most common spell effects to memory.

Once you know what you’ll be describing you’ll want to get back to the thesaurus. As opposed to the physical damage we described before, magical effects are more about the environment. You’ll spend more of this time describing sight, sound, smell, and in terrible cases, even taste.

Often you’ll be discussing colors, motion, and results of a spell in the sight category. For the sound a spell makes you can often pull from the type of attack. Lightning crashes, acid sizzles, fire roars. Simple things like this can go a long way if you know how to use them ahead of time. 

If your player is casting a particularly showy spell you need to put a bit more emphasis on the casting as well. You can start with verbs that describe their motion. Do they gesture, reach, or wave? You can then add on descriptors for the vocal components. Do they evoke, whisper, or chant? If you want to be extra dramatic you can describe how a spell comes forth with words like erupts, spawns, or unleashes.

You can make some simple word banks and get a huge amount of use from a relatively small collection of words just like you would with physical attacks.

Let’s Talk About the Weather

While talking about the weather in real life is typically a sign of boredom and a lack of common ground between individuals, it actually matters quite a bit in DnD. You’ll often need to describe environments in a variety of ways, especially if the conditions become more or less favorable for the party traveling them.

While the simple table method works great for weather just like it did for combat, you’ll be describing your surroundings in much more precise terms. Mild weather or inclement weather can change the course of an adventure. A sudden storm might drive your players into that plot relevant cave.

While environmental descriptions in general are not as repetitive as combat ones, their use is almost more important to the overall storyline and the tone of the adventure.

Outside of the conditions of the weather at any given moment you should also be ready to describe the environment itself. Is this a lush forest with verdant greenery, or is it a sparse forest with secluded pines yielding to light brown beds of fallen needles? These kinds of descriptions matter and you should have a good bank of words for each major environment you plan to have your players encounter.

We typically prepare a minimum of three environments per session in our games and have descriptors set for weather ranging from great to awful and hot to cold. Lastly, while not strictly necessary, you are likely to need a collection of terms to describe the wind, any water features, or clouds on a regular basis as well.

NPC and Character Features

Have you ever needed to imagine an NPC on the fly? Of course you have, you’re a dungeon master! To avoid having each of your NPCs look like Bob Everyman, you’re going to need to add some variety to how you describe your characters.

The nice thing is that with all the races available in DnD you can easily get a mix of descriptions based around the generic appearances for each type of race. For this to work you have to have a good grasp on the basic differences between each race and be aware that Tieflings can look pretty much however you want.

We can keep our groups simple in regards to physical characteristics. The quick differentiators are height, age, hair color/style, skin tone, build, and hygiene. We also recommend you don’t give players descriptions of beautiful or ugly, because you should not assume what your player characters are attracted or not attracted to. There is also probably no such thing is objective beauty that spans all cultures, so bear that in mind because there are a lot of cultures and races mixed together in DnD.

Beyond your basic descriptors you’ll want to ensure you can casually toss personality descriptors into the mix. We often use the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator chart and map one or two word personality traits over each square. This allows us to easily grab a personality from the list at random and talk about the NPC’s personality while also knowing what they are likely to do. You don’t need nearly as many synonyms here, but you should have a couple words for each type you want to use in your game.

Finally, you will want to create a bank of unique features to use with each character. Your players will forget most of the initial description and hone in on a feature of the NPC you’ve created. If you make an NPC with an eye patch, they’re Eye Patch Guy for the rest of your game. So make sure to give them at least one stand out feature or your party will forget the person ever existed in just a few sessions.

Build Some Cheat Sheets for Descriptions

Sometimes a DM screen has far too little room. When it comes to description and the cheat sheets we recommend, you likely won’t have the space to include them there. The good thing is that you’ll only need these cheat sheets for a little while. You’re going to have a few pages with tables for combat, environments, and characters, but this will only be at first.

The really nice thing is that as you use these cheat sheets you’ll learn to use them without reference. The first few pulls from a table might be stilted. You might pause a bit too long when considering how to describe an attack or how to best sum up an NPC, but that’s part of practice. Each time after that you’ll internalize more and more, and eventually you won’t even need the cheat sheet at all. As with anything, the more you do it the faster you’ll learn it.

Our recommendations for cheat sheets are:

  1. Break up your sheets by use: combat, environment, and NPCs
  2. Break up your tables by functional groups: damage types, weather, appearance, etc.
  3. Keep your tables organized alphabetically
  4. Divide things into their smallest possible segments if you have too many words. For example, if you have too many combat verbs in slashing damage, divide further by individual weapon type.
  5. Keep your sheets neat and uniform. Typed is better than written in most cases.

That’s really all there is to it. These sheets will really easily help you build better, less repetitive descriptions in no time!

Don’t Let Your Players Sleep on Your Descriptions

With the techniques we’ve described here you can easily develop your DM tool kit for better descriptions and less repetitive narratives. So long as you’re building up your vocabulary banks for the core sections around combat, environment, and NPCs you’ll find yourself captivating your players’ attention in no time. It can be a bit of work to grind out the best synonyms for your game, but the work is worth it.

Happy DMing!

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